Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The C-17

“Better than Lufthansa,” I said to my friend as we got settled into our seats on a US Air Force C-17 cargo plane. “How is this better than Lufthansa?“ she asked. I stretched my legs out until my body was almost horizontal. “Look at this leg room, you don't get that on Lufthansa,” I said.

We had started on our latest adventure this morning in Germany by picking up a rental car in Heidelberg and driving to Ramstein Air Base. We intended to”catch a hop” on a plane chartered by the US Air Force that takes military people and their families to Baltimore, Maryland. However, before it was time for the roll call for the flight to Baltimore, an announcement was made that passengers desiring transportation to Bangor, Maine, should gather at the processing counter. Why not go to Bangor instead of Baltimore – after all, we ultimately wanted to go to the Boston area (to Cape Cod to be precise) and Bangor is about half as far from Boston as Baltimore is.

We were fortunate that not too many people want to go to Bangor and got on the flight. First misgivings arose when a fellow passenger was heard to say that it was very hard, if not nearly impossible, to get out of Bangor. Well, I thought, they must have rental cars. We've passed through the town of Bangor before, but were never at the former Air Force base which now is Bangor International Airport. But then I remembered from my Air Force days comrades disparagingly talking about being stationed at the Air Force base at Bangor and it being “... out in the boonies,” or “... in the middle of nowhere.” Oh well, we were committed!

So, now we are settled in the trusty C-17. There are canvas seats along each side of the aircraft providing seating for a total of about 50 passengers. The seats called “troop seats” don't have a back to them, the outside wall of the airplane is the backrest. Consequently, the seat backs don't recline, but then again, you don't bother anybody behind you as you do on a regular airliner when you recline your seat while the person behind you is enjoying his or her airline meal. Anyway, there is a small foam rubber pad to keep your shoulders from hitting the cold metal of the aircraft body. Oxygen masks, floatation devices and a curious plastic bag with an oxygen bottle attached to it are provided. As it turns out, the plastic bag you put over your head in case the cabin fills with smoke and the oxygen in the bottle keeps you from suffocating in the plastic bag. The load master (or is it load mistress, because she is a female Technical Sergeant) lovingly presented and explained to the small children on board that the bundle she was presenting to them was their very own life raft in case we had to land in the water. They think of everything, don't they?

At this moment, as luck would have it, just as we are about to push back and taxi out to the runway a huge rain shower, the likes of which even I have rarely seen, has broken over us and we are told by the nice load master that we would have to wait out the rain and lighting – which could take as long as three hours. She further advises us that we can unbuckle and freely move about the cabin, underlining the fact that we may have to wait for quite a while before taking off. Some hardy souls have begun to spread blankets on the metal floor and have laid down to sleep. I prefer to just sit here, look at the pallets of cargo strapped to the floor in the middle of the cabin which separate the passengers on this side wall from those on the other side wall.

Some time after writing the above lines the rain let up, but lightning lingered in the area, delaying our take off by about two hours. The flight was very smooth, but seven and a half hours long. Because the C-17 is noisy, the crew passed out foam rubber ear plugs that cut the swishing sound the air made as it passed along the fuselage and the thundering of the engines to a murmur, allowing me to enjoy the whistling and chirping of my tinnitus the whole way.

Well, what do you want besides lots of leg room, the ability to move about the cabin as much as you want – mostly to get warm – all for $4.25 per person. That fee was charged for the box lunch consisting of two small breaded cutlets (cold, but there was a microwave oven near the cockpit), a bottle of water, a Dr. Pepper, two small bags of chips, several candy bars and some plastic cutlery – what else could you ask for? My thanks to the US Air Force.