Jehangir “Jay” Irani served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, flying missions throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently pursuing a career in journalism. He recalls the flight when he transported his most famous passenger.
Last week, I read about Kurds laying claim to Iraq’s land and oil. Kurds in northern Iraq have taken steps toward further regional autonomy by finalizing their own constitution in the Kurdish parliament. The Iraqi government is not pleased about ever-bolder Kurdish claims to oil and gas revenues. Many American and Iraqi officials fear that Kurdistan is increasingly close to statehood, which could doom the Iraq’s federal arrangement.
Reading up on these recent developments reminded me of a my most memorable encounter with Kurdistan, which happened on September 5, 2007. Two days after I flew Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to a meeting with then-President George W. Bush, the Kurds reached an oil revenue-sharing deal with the Iraqi government. I know I’m not directly responsible for writing a page in history, but if you read the fine print, it’ll mention the pilot.
I was 20,000 feet above the Iraqi desert, flying an Air Force C-130 cargo plane en route to As Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish governorate in northeastern Iraq near the border with Iran. No one in the crew had ever been there, so we opened up our airfield directory to check the airfield’s pertinent data.
The book lists airfields alphabetically, but finding As Sulaymaniyah wasn’t easy. It wasn’t under “s.” Nor was it under “Al,” “An” or “Ad.” Finally, after spelling it phonetically, “Alpha Sierra Sierra…,” did our navigator confirm it existed. But “Suly” didn’t just exist, it thrived. I saw none of the usual sights of war-torn Iraq. And I noticed a mix of Kurdish and Iraqi flags flying in this desert outpost just 160 miles north of Baghdad.
Where rising black smoke signals your arrival into Baghdad, Suly greets you with her rolling hills and valleys. Where dust and dirt line the floors of most Iraqi military facilities, Suly’s passenger terminal was so clean; let’s just say I wouldn’t be afraid to pick up where I left off after dropping my chow hall turkey sandwich.
Then there’s the small matter of why I was there. My crew and I weren’t even scheduled to fly to Suly. But after landing in Baghdad, a high-priority task necessitated unloading our plane and flying to Suly with a short, bald Major as our only passenger – an unknown man who I labeled “the One.” After touching down in Suly, my plane was surrounded by a civilian team of former South African special forces. I was told by “the One” that Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, and a Kurd, was en route. This once placid airfield soon started buzzing, as doctors, political aides, and members of the Peshmerga, the famed Kurdish militia, found their way on to my plane.
On a culturally sensitive note, “the One” informed me that the Iraqi president shouldn’t be addressed as “Mr. Talabani.” I was to call the 73-year-old leader “Ma Jalal,” meaning “Uncle Jalal” in Kurdish. Though I’d never met the man, his charisma was apparent. Talabani wore a spotless silk suit that was impeccably pressed. His hair was coiffed slightly to the right, and his all-white mustache sat smartly on his upper lip. He was the gentleman that everybody would approach for a handshake and then walk away glowing.
I greeted Ma Jalal at my plane’s entrance and cranked the engines soon after he buckled up. We were now headed to Al Asad Airbase, a fairly large airfield controlled by the Marines, situated in the barren expanses of western Anbar province. It was here that the biggest surprise awaited us. In the distance stood Air Force One. President Bush had made yet another surprise trip to Iraq, and I was tasked with transporting the Iraqi president to meet him.
– Jehangir Irani