Flying in and out of Iraq still a risky proposition, says transport official
July 29, 2004
ARLINGTON, Va. — Insurgents are continuing to fire on U.S. military aircraft entering and leaving Iraq on almost a daily basis, though only two military and one commercial aircraft have been hit since President Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003, according to the Defense Department’s top transport official.
“As we fly around, we are repeatedly shot at, with manpads [man-portable air defense systems], small arms, and triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery],” Air Force Gen. John Handy, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, told reporters at a Wednesday breakfast in Washington.
Based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., TRANSCOM manages all of the U.S. military’s sea and air transportation assets, as well as overseeing commercial airlines and shipping companies that deliver military personnel and goods under contract with the U.S. government.
Handy said he receives reports whenever there is a suspected attack against a TRANSCOM aircraft, and “there’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t have [such a report] waiting for me on my desk,” Handy said.
In fact, “It’s rare that I don’t have one,” he said. “The threat is out there … the threat is a significant thing.”
Almost all of the attacks — “probably right now, 90 to 95 percent” — are coming out of Iraq, with “very, very little [coming] out of Afghanistan,” Handy said.
Three U.S. cargo planes have been hit in Iraq to date, all of them on take-off from Baghdad International Airport. No one was seriously injured or killed in the incidents, and all three planes managed to land safely.
The first attack was Nov. 22, when a commercial cargo aircraft owned by DHL was hit by what was later determined to be a shoulder-fired SA-14 surface-to-air missile.
The incident prompted DHL to temporarily suspend flights into Iraq, but the company resumed Dec. 3.
The next incident occurred Dec. 10, when an Air Force C-17 with a crew of three and 13 passengers was hit. U.S. defense officials said at the time that based on witness reports, a surface-to-air missile was again responsible for the damage.
On Jan. 8, another missile hit a C-5 cargo plane, this one carrying 11 crewmembers and 52 U.S. military personnel.
The No. 4 engine on the C-5 exploded, but the pilots were able to land the aircraft.
It took TRANSCOM repair crews about 33 days to repair the C-17 and return it to the active fleet, and about 55 days to repair the more severely damaged C-5, Handy said.
TRANSCOM officials “have dealt with the threat” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Handy said, by instituting a variety of classified security measures.
“Every [transport] mission that goes in gets advice about what they might need and what tactics to use,” Handy said.
When it comes to unsuccessful attacks, news reports from Iraq mentioning firings on transports surface occasionally, but most of the incidents occur with little or no public acknowledgment.
For the pilots and crews of the transports that are shot at, however, “every one [of such incidents] is important,” Handy said.
“If you’re in that one airplane that [gets fired on], believe me, it’s significant.”