Not too much has gone right in Iraq lately, but a small Dubai-based company has played an important part in what little has. Skylink Arabia has been quietly making a difference in the reconstruction of the war-torn country by running vital flights into and within Iraq, carrying essential hardware and skilled labor.
The firm, which was founded by Mike Douglas, a former British Army soldier and ex-South African special forces officer, has been active in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion by the U.S.-led coalition. Members of his team were the first civilian contractors to cross the border from Kuwait after the ground war began.
Skylink’s first key task was to get the country’s airports operational again and open to civil traffic. This was no mean feat since Iraq’s government employees were scattered and air traffic controllers are only now being trained.
The company has since used its own and chartered aircraft to provide vital transportation for missions such as moving ballot boxes and officials for Iraq’s two post-Saddam Hussein elections and airlifting the country’s new currency.
Skylink has its own secure warehouse at Baghdad International Airport, which is where it bases its six-aircraft fleet of Ukrainian-built Antonov An-12s, -24s and -26s. It also charters aircraft such as Boeing 737s from Dubai and Kuwait, as well as a variety of helicopters and occasional heavylifters such as the giant An-124 (recently used to carry power station equipment to Maastricht in the Netherlands for repair).
Keeping the Jet-A Flowing
Another key operation has been maintaining deliveries of jet fuel throughout the volatile country–an extremely hazardous task given that civilian contractors have all too often been attacked and murdered by insurgents as they go about their work in Iraq. Douglas and his team have developed covert methods for disguising their delivery operations.
Recently, jet-A production in Iraq, a major producer of crude oil, almost ground to a halt when a compressor from a refinery was destroyed (likely as a result of sabotage). Iraqi officials were at a loss to know what to do, and flag carrier Iraqi Airways flirted with complete grounding. Skylink took the initiative and had the compressor flown out of Iraq for repair, allowing production to resume quickly.
Skylink’s aircraft operate among seven main cities in Iraq, including Baghdad, Basrah and Erbil. The first two locations are still extremely dangerous, while the northern city of Erbil–located in the Kurd region–is more settled.
The company has fitted all of its aircraft with transponders that allow its Baghdad team to track each of them at three-second intervals on a plasma screen. The team can then react quickly to the frequent and sudden closures of airspace that can mean re-routing aircraft even as they are about to enter Iraq.
Last year, Skylink operated about 6,000 flights in Iraq and is now carrying some 18,000 people each month. Iraqi Airways also operates domestic services and international connections to Dubai and the Jordanian capital Amman. Austrian Airlines is currently the only foreign carrier to provide scheduled service, with a three-times weekly Airbus A319 operation between Vienna and Ebril.
Skylink supports Iraqi Airways with fuel supplies and has installed new baggage X-ray machines at Baghdad. The country’s main gateway now has about 80 or 90 movements a day. There has not been a serious attack on a civil aircraft since the
missile attack on a DHL A300 freighter in November 2003.
Insurance is one of the biggest cost factors in operating flights into Iraq, as are labor costs for those civil pilots brave enough to fly into the war zone. Many of the crews that Skylink uses are Russian, and Douglas was full of praise for their skill and determination. He also had high praise for the Russian aircraft. “The Russian aircraft are generally better suited to these missions [because they] are more durable,” he told AIN. “You couldn’t do what we do with Western aircraft because they would be too hard to maintain in these conditions.” Temperatures in Iraq can soar to 131 degrees F, and engine-clogging sandstorms are common.
Another recent success story was a major crop-spraying operation by Skylink using ancient Antonov An-2 radial-engine biplanes chartered from Moldova and Bulgaria. Almost 350 acres of date palms had to be sprayed at just the right time of the early morning to ensure that the parasitical bugs were destroyed.
According to Iraqi officials, it proved to be the most successful crop-spraying in the country in more than a decade, bolstering this important crop (second only to oil in terms of export income for the country and a vital source of income for impoverished rural Iraqis).
Douglas sees Skylink being active in reconstruction and humanitarian work in Iraq for a long time to come, regardless of the future U.S. and British presence in the country. The company is also active in similar operations in Afghanistan and intends to extend its reach into other countries in the region.