Sunday, July 20, 2008

Military Air Travel Part II: Tactical landings and other joys of the journey

As a military aircraft approaches an airstrip in a combat zone, the pilot takes the plane through maneuvers collectively categorized as a “tactical landing.” The purpose of the intermittent acceleration and deceleration, sudden banking and very quick descent onto the runway is to minimize an enemy’s ability to lock onto the plane’s path and speed should the foe be planning anti-aircraft fire near the airport where the planes are low and vulnerable. The experience equates to landing in Denver from over the mountains in the west with a pilot who forgets he is no longer a stunt flier but instead is carrying a DC-10 full of paying passengers.

I recently withstood a tactical landing at Bagram Air Field in a C-130 packed with 70 other passengers, including an Air Force band whose extra pallet of musical equipment delayed our departure from Qatar while the bandmaster debated with the plane’s loadmaster over the ability to squeeze the horns and drums and amplifiers into plane’s cargo hold. While those two talked, we passengers stood in Qatari desert sun on a tarmac where the temperature was easily 135 degrees. (Instead of moving us back into the air-conditioned terminal to wait out the fate of the flutes and saxophones, the flight crew brought water to us as we huddled for shade under the wings of the aircraft. I poured my bottle over my head, and counted as the water evaporated from my skin, (sparse) hair and uniform in 3-4 minutes.)

The C-130 is designed to carry passengers, but it is not designed to carry passengers comfortably. The hull of the plane features four columns of heavy web seating, with paired columns facing each other. The space between the seating columns is so narrow that you have to alternately load passengers into the paired columns, and you end up with your legs intertwined with the passenger across from you. Also, the seating, like that of most military aircraft, seems designed to restrict blood circulation to the lower limbs. The air conditioning in the C-130 in Qatar didn’t begin operation until the plane had gained a considerable altitude, which left me wishing I had another bottle of water with which to douse myself -- until plane cooled so much that my perspiration-soaked uniform began to feel like a restrictive cool compress.

The C-130 features dismal airspeed (it is a propeller aircraft) and the flight path from Qatar to Afghanistan must skirt south significantly to avoid Iranian airspace. I’m tempted to write the Red Cross/Red Crescent to detail the discomfort military personnel experience on this route in hope that the relief organization might coax from Iran an humanitarian gesture permitting personnel transport planes to enter its airspace, and thus cutting significant time from the 5 ½ hour flight I endured.

The C-130 has a toilet located in the rear of the plane next to pallets of cargo, but it is a very simple commode with only a curtain for privacy. I’m not sure the best way to access the toilet if you are seated in the middle of a column of seating physically enmeshed with your fellow passengers, and I didn’t see anyone make for the toilet on this flight. Should you reach the C-130’s commode, you need not worry about anyone hearing you go about your business as the noise level in the passenger bay is significant enough to warrant ear protection.

After such a pleasant flight, a tactical landing serves to bring your travel to a memorable conclusion. The C-130 features several windows, portals really, situated five feet about the heads of seated passengers on both sides of the aircraft. During my recent landing at Bagram, our pilot several times banked the plane a complete 90 degrees, so that I could see the wing opposite me perpendicular to the (rapidly approaching) ground. The plane rocks and rolls enough that you cling to webbing (i.e. your seat) to keep upright. Once on the ground, the air conditioning usually cuts out well before you are able to depart the plane, thus coupling heat with any lingering nausea from the landing.

Of course, to burden yourself with the comforts of the C-130 is rewarding in that, de facto, you have actually boarded a military aircraft and are (hopefully) heading to your desired destination. For my recent flight out of Bagram en route to Qatar I left my base at 05:00 to make an 08:00 boarding brief at the airport, only to learn that my scheduled 09:00 flight had been delayed until 22:00. I felt fortunate that my flight, while later than expected, was at least leaving the same day. The final leg of my return journey to Kabul was originally scheduled to be a short flight from Bagram, but when I reported to the terminal at 04:00 I noticed that my flight remained on the departure board, but had been diverted to another city in Afghanistan. The diversion resulted in me staying at Bagram for two days waiting for an armored personnel carrier to drive me the thirty miles to Kabul. My transient billeting at Bagram was a lower bunk in a hanger that also housed temporarily an Army infantry battalion.

Military airports in combat zones always feature at least one large structure where passengers are often deceptively shunted to suffer under the illusion that they are about to board their aircraft. The military component of the Qatar airport has such a structure that I saw several times during transit to and from that desert Kingdom. It is a white building, roughly twenty feet wide and sixty feet long, with a dirty concrete foundation and a semi-permanent skin of a polymer material suitable for graffiti which restless passengers have filled from the floor to seven feet above with drawings of pin-up girls in skimpy Navy outfits, professional edicts (“Be polite, be professional, but be prepared to kill everyone you meet”), homophobic macho declarations (“I’m on a gunship, you’re a homo”), and descriptive stickers (“Kandahar rocks. There are many.”)

I “staged” in this building for six hours waiting for a flight from Qatar to Afghanistan. Several times I heard announcements that updated information on our flight would be passed in twenty minutes, only to hear sixty minutes later that no update was currently available. Once the ground crew marched us to the tarmac where we stood for thirty minutes staring at a large expanse of concrete devoid of airplanes before returning to the shelter to once again peruse the graffiti. Twice the ground crew dismissed us to the nearby flight kitchen that provides bag meals for travelers. Crew members typically expect passengers to wait together for hours enduring considerable discomfort in order that everyone on the flight manifest be ready to spring and seize the supposed three minute window allotted for boarding a plane after several hours of unexplained and ill-informed delay, so the fact that the crew released us from the staging area TWICE to gaggle over to the flight kitchen for sustenance assured me that no plane ready to transport us was anywhere near Qatari airspace.

The concrete floor of the building held what looked to be the collective filter catch of several hundred local vacuum cleaners, but I was lucky enough to find a piece of cardboard half my height and I slept on that for two hours before I heard, at 02:00, that my flight was cancelled (allegedly due to two successive mechanical failures) and that all passengers should return to the terminal for assignments to transient housing on the adjacent American base. After a bit of early morning travail with a terminal staff who seemed surprised that any passengers remained at the airport, and absolutely shocked that those same delayed passengers would request a bunk rather than bed down on the unimproved terminal floor, the other passengers and I boarded a bus and shortly found ourselves deposited at Quonset hut with a small staff who administered the temporary housing for the base … and who gave us the words you never want to hear at 03:00: “Everyone sign in here and then gather next door for your brief.”

All I wanted at that early hour (or so I thought at the time) was a bed of any type, as I was looking for a few hours of sleep before I returned to the airport at 08:30 (which was only 5 ½ hours away). I didn’t want the standard lodging brief, but instead a building number and a bunk assignment. I would take sheets and a pillow only if readily available. So, initially, I wasn’t too welcoming to the pleasant young woman who, after only a few minutes, entered the briefing room and asked, “Who here needs an alcohol ration card?”

Fatigue and dismay dissipated from the room as nearly all of us jumped from our chairs and bum-rushed that understandably stunned woman. Realize that in Afghanistan I am not allowed alcohol. During the R&R break I had just enjoyed, I was allotted three drinks daily. None of us expected an extended three-drink binge from the flight delay. We learned that the base bar closed at 04:00, forty-five minutes away, so we went from the briefing room (I’m not sure if I even stayed for the brief, or if I simply got my ration card and ran) to the linen office next door, then to our bunkhouse where we threw our bags and sheets before we scurried 200 years to the bar.

A friendly airman was tending the bar, and she informed us that we could buy only two drinks initially, but after a few minutes we could return for our third and final drink. Moreover, even though the bar closed at 04:00, we were welcome to take our accumulated cocktails and beer bottles outside to enjoy the sultry desert night at the seats and tables set under a huge, white, permanent awning that resembled an expansive, double-spired circus tent without side flaps and that is called, quite appropriately, The Bra.

Those drinks were refreshing. The early morning was beautiful. I drank and talked with friends as the desert sun rose and the base personnel starting to wake up and ambulate around us, unaware of how happy we were at that moment underneath The Bra.

1 comment:

sandra said...

Ron, the bra experience actually sounds so amazing! To watch the sunrise and all that came with it, what a memory. Would love to see what you're seeing over there.