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The incident involving the Phantom jet is a murky affair. According to one of the Air Force reserve officers involved, Maj. Michael Chinn, it began in early 1985, when Soghanalian approached him with a proposal: In exchange for flying an American-made F-4 during a patriotic parade, how would he like the opportunity to pilot a Soviet MIG jet fighter? For any American combat pilot, trained as Chinn had been to battle Soviet aircraft, the proposition was irresistible. There were, however, two problems. The MIG, the Phantom, and the site for the patriotic parade were in Iraq, a country in the midst of a fierce war and one with which the United States had only recently re-established diplomatic relations. Also there was the matter of Chinn's professional relationship with Soghanalian.
At that time Chinn was employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. His job was to inspect the flight operations of Pan Aviation, Soghanalian's air cargo company at Miami International Airport. During a series of interviews at his home in southwest Dade, Chinn described how he solved the problems.
The potential of any job conflict was resolved after he talked with his FAA superiors. Though Soghanalian is deeply involved in Pan Aviation's operations, the company is technically owned by his son. If the son had made the offer to go to Iraq, Chinn would have a conflict. But because the offer came from Soghanalian, FAA officials decided there would be no problem, especially in light of the fact that Chinn was not being offered any financial compensation. He received permission from his superiors to use vacation time to make the trip, planned to last eleven days.
As for the travel itself, Chinn sought advice regarding its legality. An Air Force intelligence officer assisted him in reviewing the applicable regulations, and they determined there would be no problem in going to Iraq. Further assurances were forthcoming, assurances Chinn says led him to believe his actions were sanctioned by top officials of the U.S. government.
Prior to leaving for Baghdad, Chinn recalls, he was present when Soghanalian talked by telephone to State Department official Robert Oakley about the trip. Chinn kept a contemporaneous diary, reviewed as part of this investigation, in which he wrote: "Iraq desk at State Dept. - Mr. Bob Oakley knows of my trip. In office when Sarkis talks with him & mentions trip." Oakley, who at one time was head of the State Department's Office for Combating Terrorism, is now U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. He has refused to comment regarding the phone call from Soghanalian, but intelligence sources say he was a staunch proponent of the pro-Iraq tilt in policy being debated at that time within the Reagan Administration.
With those assurances, Chinn and a Miami-area Air Force reserve jet mechanic (who has since died) flew to Baghdad on February 5, 1985. Transportation aboard a commercial airliner was paid for by Soghanalian. Once there, Chinn says, the simple plan - fly the Phantom, fly the MIG - turned complicated and mysterious: no offers were made regarding his chance to fly a Soviet jet fighter (a staple of the Iraqi air force), there didn't seem to be any patriotic parade scheduled, and Iraqi military officials lacked the proper gear to start the Phantom.
The American plane had ended up in Saddam Hussein's arsenal by a circuitous route. More than a decade ago the U.S. had sold the Phantom to the late Shah of Iran. After the overthrow of the Shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini's forces had deployed it in the war against Iraq. A disaffected Iranian pilot deserted and flew it to Baghdad, but the Iraqis did not have pilots trained to fly Phantoms. So they turned to Sarkis Soghanalian. Soghanalian then turned to Michael Chinn.
The criminal indictment brought against Soghanalian by the federal government alleges that Chinn's mission was to make the Phantom operational, teach Iraqi pilots how to fly it, and obtain needed spare parts for its maintenance, presumably so it could be put to use in the war. Chinn, however, vehemently disputes this. Beyond flying the jet as part of a patriotic parade Saddam was supposedly staging, he says he wasn't sure exactly what he was expected to do, and besides, eleven days wouldn't have been nearly enough time to properly instruct any Iraqi pilots. In addition, he himself only got to see the Phantom four times. But in the years since the episode, he has developed a theory.
Essentially, Chinn believes he was sent to Baghdad, with his government's blessings, to gather technical information and report back to U.S. officials. Pro-Iraqi Reagan Administration officials, Chinn speculates, were interested in learning as much as possible about Iran's continuing ability to wage war against Saddam Hussein. When the Iranian pilot delivered a warplane into Iraqi hands, U.S. officials naturally would want someone to inspect it and evaluate its condition. The assumption, according to Chinn, was that Iran's lack of American-made spare parts for its aging fleet of Phantoms should mean the jet was in poor shape.
Just the opposite was true, however. Chinn says the Phantom had very recently been reconditioned and that it was, in fact, the best-looking Phantom he'd ever seen. But how could the Iranians have had access to the parts and the technicians to refurbish the jet? Chinn says he was told later by Soghanalian that Israeli mechanics had performed the work at a military installation in Syria.