02:23 - Source: CNN
Iraqi F-16s take to the skies against ISIS

Story highlights

Major "Face" Hama is one of the Iraqi Air Force pilots tasked with fighting ISIS

Trained in the U.S., he now flies F-16 sorties over his native Iraq, attacking militants' compounds

The Iraqi Air Force is still heavily reliant on support from coalition forces

Balad Air Base, Iraq CNN —  

With his immaculate flight suit and perfect American accent, Major “Face” Hama looks every inch the U.S. “Top Gun” pilot. But this is Iraq, not California.

Hama spent five years learning to fly U.S.-built F-16 fighter jets in Arizona, before returning home to take on ISIS.

READ: ISIS claims it shot down jet and captured pilot

The first batch of F-16s – Iraq has ordered 36 of the planes in all – arrived in Iraq last summer, and Hama flew the first Iraqi raids using them in September.

“I was excited and happy,” he remembers. “Because I was going to go kill an enemy who is not just an enemy of Iraq, it is an enemy of the entire world right now.”

His targets during those first sorties? Car bombs, a weapons cache and ISIS safe houses.

“I wasn’t nervous … I was confident that I could do it because of the training that I got.”

U.S. training

Hamdi Alkhshali/CNN

“I went up with a smile and came back with a smile, seeing my results were really really good,” he says proudly. “100% hits, not a single miss because of the great training we got in the States.”

Hama says that despite the top-notch training he received in the U.S., flying real missions over his homeland can be difficult.

“It’s tough sometimes with the urban terrain, because a lot of the houses look alike, so we have to nitpick and find the specific spots that distinguish that target from the other houses around it.

“It’s my call, if I don’t feel comfortable with the target, if it doesn’t look right, I am not dropping a bomb. If there are civilians around that target, I am not dropping that bomb.”

General Anwar Amin, commander of the Iraq Air Force, says that despite the work done by Major Hama and his colleagues, his men and equipment aren’t yet ready to go it alone.

“Now our capability is not enough for fighting Daesh,” he admits. “We need the support from the coalition.”

Coalition support

Hamdi Alkhshali/CNN

“I am sure by next year, the middle of next year, we [will] need the support from the coalition forces maybe only from ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] or some logistics.

“For the fighters, the F-16s, our capability will increase. For the airstrikes, we [will] depend on our own capability from the middle of the next year.”

Never in the nation’s history has Iraq had this kind of air power at its disposal. These planes – and the pilots who fly them – are crucial to the country’s fight against ISIS.

They are also central to Iraq’s future, and to its attempts to reposition itself as a military superpower in the region.

It will take time, but thanks to the F-16s, the country is now closer to re-establishing control of its skies.

READ: Leaked ISIS documents reveal recruits’ blood types, obedience levels