December 11, 2004 (by Staff Sgt. Ryan Hansen) - During the 1991 Gulf War, Salam Shalaam flew MiG-23s with the Iraqi air force. Then, he was ordered to fly his aircraft to Iran, where it would be safe from the U.S. Air Force's far-reaching hand. He never made it.
Iraqi air force Maj. Salam Shalaam discusses the cockpit layout of an F-16 Fighting Falcon with Maj. Jose Pinedo, of the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base. [Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Hansen]
En route, he was intercepted by two F-16 Fighting Falcons. The experienced pilot tried in vain to lose the two jets. Moving and maneuvering as best he could, and he thought he lost one of the pursuers. Just as he began to work on losing the second aircraft, it became very clear to him he had not lost either jet.
"They had tricked me," he said. "I saw only one, but the other one came around, and they had me. One of the pilots told me, 'Eject or you will be dead.'"
He said he took the smart route and ejected safely.
That was the first time he saw an F-16 up close and personal.
On Dec. 7, as a member of the new Iraqi air force, Maj. Shalaam got another look at a Fighting Falcon; however, this time it was not in pursuit of him, but safely tucked inside a shelter here.
"This is a like a dream come true for me," said Major Shalaam who works as a liaison between the Iraqi Multi-National Force and the Americans here. "It's always been a dream for me to go out and see the F-16s and meet American pilots."
In his 18-year career, he said he has logged 845 hours of flying and longs for the day he can fly again. "Right now all the Iraqi air force has is helicopters," Major Shalaam said. "Our main goal is reconstruction, but I will fly again someday, most definitely."
Major Shalaam started his visit with the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, where he was shown day-to-day flying operations.
With the rumbling sound of jets taking off in the background and the smell of jet fuel in the air, he met with pilots and reminisced about his flying days.
"I was very impressed by the interest he took," said Maj. Jose Pinedo, the assistant director of operations with the 421st EFS. "I never thought I'd be giving a tour ... on Iraqi soil to an Iraqi pilot who was shot down by a U.S. plane."
"Even though it's been four years since I've flown, today brought back many great memories," Major Shalaam said. "I can't wait to fly again."
Major Shalaam seemed right at home as he sat in the cockpit of an F-16, the American pilots said. Although they were from different countries with entirely different backgrounds, the pilots appeared to have a camaraderie about them that all could sense.
"Military pilots of different nationalities share bonds that transcend political boundaries," Major Pinedo said. "Their love of flying, sense of duty and adventure provide some of the common ground that brings them together."
"That is just the nature of pilots," Major Shalaam said. "We have a respect for each other."
After his second encounter with an F-16, Major Shalaam once again walked away. This time he was smiling and thanked everyone not only for the tour, but for freeing his country.
"On behalf of the free Iraqi people, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart," Major Shalaam said. "Thank you for coming over here, risking your own blood and freeing us."
In January, Major Shalaam will be promoted to lieutenant colonel. He said he looks forward to Iraqis and Americans continuing to work together toward peace.
"Thank you so much for bringing peace to my country," Major Shalaam said. "I look forward to working with you in the future."