Photograph: The C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. It might be loaded with Abrams tanks, 105 paratroopers, or 107,900 pounds of bottled water.
Military air travel within a theatre of combat is similar in several ways to civilian air travel undertaken anywhere else. To begin your journey, you report to an airport terminal replete with uncomfortable seats. You encounter restrictive baggage regulations. You are given flight numbers and departure times that have scant relevance to the eventual aircraft that, perhaps sometime in the future, will lift off the ground with you as passenger.
Military air transportation also offers two additional variables not typically encountered by civilians: You rarely know in advance on what type of aircraft you will be flying, nor do you know with what you will be traveling. I offer my recent flight from Afghanistan to Qatar as evidence. I reported to Bagram Air Field 30 miles north of my base in Kabul at 08:00 for my pre-flight brief to learn that my scheduled 09:00 departure had been delayed until 22:00. That night, I waited with a group of thirty other military personnel, headed with me on a four-day R&R pass to Qatar, until 23:30 to fill the jump seats on C-17 Globemaster III airplane already loaded with several 7000-pound spools of sheet metal, a single giant propeller twelve-feet in diameter, and the body of a Polish soldier killed the previous day in southern Afghanistan -- his remains now in a casket draped with the Polish flag, secured to the deck of the C-17, and on their way back to his family and his native land.
Photograph: Inner bay of the C-17. Notice the flag-draped casket of the Polish soldier in front of what surely must be one of the world's largest propellers.
The casket sat at the front of the C-17’s huge bay, between the passengers in the jump seats, and was the first thing I saw as I boarded the aircraft. The other passengers and I knew we would be traveling with the remains of the Polish soldier, as a gate attendant informed us before boarding that the casket would be on the flight along with a Polish escort. I give the US Air Force courtesy points for early notification that the accompanying cargo on this C-17 would include something different from the spare engine parts and tires which typically keep you company when aboard that aircraft. The attendant also asked us to please show respect t to the casket during the flight, a request I don’t think we required but certainly not inappropriate. You couldn’t forget about the dead soldier during the flight due to the casket’s position in the plane and the fact that you had to pass it to enter and exit the aircraft, and to get to the bathroom while aloft for five hours.
I had seen the casket before the flight. Bagram is the main airfield in Afghanistan, where many of the military killed in combat are loaded onto planes for flights back to their homes. When the bodies arrive at Bagram from elsewhere in Afghanistan, they proceed in open vehicles through a Fallen Comrade Ceremony, where ALL military personnel on base line the streets and salute the trucks carrying the caskets holding the dead. Even if a body arrives in the middle of the night, announcements over the loudspeakers rouse the sleeping military masses at the airfield and everyone puts on a uniform and lines the street. Bagram has a long runway, at least 1 ½ miles in length, and the base itself runs alongside this strip. During a Fallen Comrade Ceremony, the procession passes by 1-2 miles of military solemnly saluting from both sides of the street. I stood for the ceremony as I was waiting for my own flight, but was surprised to see a Polish honor guard and then a casket covered with a Polish flag drive by as I assumed the dead would be American. The announcement for this particular ceremony did not mention the nationality of the deceased, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as everyone participates for any coalition KIA; even though the overwhelming majority of military stationed at Bagram are Americans.
A little more information about the C-17 aircraft may help illuminate why it’s not really unexpected that, during travel to an R&R break away from a combat zone, military personnel might find themselves seated next to the remains of a KIA. The C-17 is a transport aircraft and its primary purpose is to carry cargo, not people. It’s huge, and can fly a 70-ton Abrams M1 tank in its belly. In fact, it can fly with up to 170,900 lbs of equipment. Along the long frame of the immense cargo bay run several dozen fold-down seats for passengers, who are usually passengers of opportunity, meaning that they get those seats and fly only if the cargo load and weight does not prohibit them from overloading the plane.
You also realize very quickly once inside the C-17 that the aircraft is not designed for human comfort. It does have a bathroom, but the jump seats seem designed to compress a passenger’s sciatic nerve. There are no windows in the plane, so you deduce the plane’s movement and speed by the sound and feel of the wheels rumbling and groaning under tremendous weight below you, and the sudden cut in speed felt thirty minutes or so before the plane lands. A crew of two airmen, typically, does announce overhead when the plane is about to depart for the runway, and sometimes they give you the projected duration of the flight; but otherwise you hear only a constant rush of empty air that, if you close your eyes, would lead you to swear you were housed inside an enormous vacuum cleaner.
A nice feature of the C-17 is the ability to leave your jump seat once at cruising altitude to stretch out on the metal floor of the plane. You can spot veteran C-17 passengers as they have blankets and pillows ready for the opportunity. Of course, that opportunity is often limited, as it was on my most recent flight, when several lengths of chain securing the 7000-pound spools of sheet metal ran from the middle of the plane to the base of my feet; and I almost tripped over them and fell into the giant propeller mid-way through the flight when the plane was dark, it was 02:00 on my personal diurnal clock, and I was half-asleep and trying to get to the bathroom.