Foreign pilots no strangers to area’s skies

July 15, 2009

Neal Wagner -


From Uganda to Peru, pilots from nearly 50 countries during the past several decades have streaked across the skies of the Golden Triangle as part of American and foreign-funded aviation training programs. 


Through the Aviation Leadership Program and a few other aviation training courses, instructors at Columbus Air Force Base regularly train dozens of military pilots from across the globe, according to Sonic Johnson, head of the CAFB Office of Public Affairs. 


"We train a lot of international pilots through a few different programs," Johnson explained. "The Aviation Leadership Program is a scholarship program for international pilots that is funded by the Department of Defense. 


"There are also other countries, like Portugal, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, that send pilots over here for training. That type of training is funded by those countries," Johnson added. "And then we have other programs that help international pilots top off other training they''ve previously received." 


Currently, the base is hosting about 40 pilots from Bulgaria, Columbia, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Peru, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. 


One international pilot in the training program was involved in a July 9 crash near Mantee in northeast Webster County when a T-6 Texan II he was piloting went down in a yard a few feet from Mantee Road. 


CAFB officials have not released the pilot''s identity or nationality, per request from the embassy of the pilot''s home country, Johnson said.  


Although the pilot was forced to eject from the plane, he suffered no serious injuries and was treated and released from Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle a few hours after the crash. 


The pilot involved in the crash was not from Iraq or Afghanistan, Johnson previously said.  


Though risk is involved in every flight, the international pilot training program is mutually beneficial to the United States and foreign countries, Johnson explained. 


"The international pilots are training with the world''s best air force," Johnson said. "And it helps us develop relationships with other military members on a grassroots level."  


While training at the base, most pilots involved in the Aviation Leadership Program are provided lodging at CAFB, Johnson said. And while most foreign-funded pilot trainees live on the base, some opt to secure residences in Columbus and the Golden Triangle, he added.  


Although the international trainees travel to Columbus from across the world, the pilot courses are taught only in English. Before entering the courses, trainees must demonstrate a level of English proficiency, Johnson explained. 


"They are given extensive language training before they enter the course," Johnson said. "They have to pass a test demonstrating a certain level of English-speaking ability before they enter training." 


Because the training courses can last several months or longer, international pilots sometimes assimilate somewhat into the Southern culture, Johnson explained. 


"I can remember a pilot from Yemen who said to me one time ''your country truly deserves its freedom,''" Johnson explained. "He said ''you Americans are great people.'' 


"And those are things they said about the people they encountered right here in Lowndes County, Miss.," Johnson added. "Those are things they picked up right here, and will take back to their countries when they return."