Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Italia - A Galaxy & Metroliner Away

No Doubt You've Heard the expression, “that and twenty five cents will get you a cup of coffee”? Well, one of the few benefits of having been shot at while in the military (or for that matter, for never having been shot at all, while in the military) and otherwise surviving to retirement, is the ability for Maria Elena and me to take military space-available flights. From the savings realized, you might even possibly be able to buy yourself a small coffee plantation and all the coffee you want!

The First and Until Now the last time we tried this was in 1973 following my return from flying in Vietnam. So on the occasion of this, our 41st wedding anniversary, we tried it again hoping to eventually reach ‘Bella Italia’. Since I was now retired, however, our priority for seats had changed, unfortunately in the negative direction. We could now count on being in the lowest category, which wasn’t saying much, especially it being June with crowds of active duty personnel and dependents cramming the military departure terminals. At least for a few days, it was worth a try at sitting around terminals, since the cost savings was so attractive. If all went right, our total cost would be $4.25 each for a sack lunch! You can see I was sparing no expense on this anniversary celebration! Not many wives would be willing to put up with this but Maria Elena is a first-class trooper and willing to give things a sporting try. I recall how once, although she doesn’t like heights, she’d hesitated to climb the sacred Mayan Kukulcan pyramid in the ancient city of Chichen-Itza, Mexico. She drew up the courage from somewhere, however, and climbed it anyway saying, “I came this far, I’ll probably never come back here again, so I’m going to do it”. Later, at the top of this archaeological wonder, she climbed down those same steep stone stairs backwards in order not to look down! How’s that for a game gal?

Everything Depended on Timing and Outright Luck with some planning thrown in for good measure. Seems life is like that too. We began our adventure on a Monday in June, by driving from our home to Dover AFB in Delaware. Arriving late that evening, we were informed of a flight leaving just after midnight for Rota, Spain. Things were seemingly falling into place quickly. The secret is to take any flight headed in your desired direction. After all, Europe is Europe and once there you can always find alternate transportation like a train or Ryan Air flight. Unfortunately, by 1 am this flight had not materialized. I checked only to find out that due to a maintenance problem, it had slipped to 4:25 am. Not for long though. About an hour later it had again been postponed until 2 pm that afternoon! Are you beginning to get the idea? We are not dealing with a scheduled airlines like Delta or Alitalia here. Surprisingly, the 2 pm flight was moved up to an earlier show time of 7:30 am! Fortunately, I just happened to call from the motel we had retreated to in the early morning hours to learn this news. Out of 73 available seats on a C-5 Galaxy transport, only 11 of us got word in time to return to the terminal, process and get aboard. That had to be a mélange of timing and luck and very little planning on my part!

We Were Airborne by 11am. We were feeling very good about it especially since the four massive turbofan engines had started just fine, and once airborne, the landing gear and flaps had cooperated and successfully retracted. Sweet – time to sit back and enjoy. Italy here we come and just in time for the World Cup playoffs. Unfortunately, ‘feet wet’ and thirty minutes out over the Atlantic, the Fates intervened. We had an engine problem. The apparent fix had not taken and we were returning to Dover. Following the announcement, you could feel the mood of all on-board slump like the unwinding needle of the altimeter as our Galaxy limped home. Back in 1973, we had flown on a C-5, possibly the very one we were on. We were younger then and in turn, so was the fleet of Galaxies. Together we’d somehow gotten old.

Back Inside the Terminal, we now had to re-compete anew for seats with our fellow travelers who had since returned to the terminal or recently just arrived. I have a theory. I believe that when you are tired, wrinkled, unwashed and disheveled enough, the heavenly powers that be become compassionate on your soul and decree “let them go, it’s been long enough”. Something on the order of a stint in airport terminal Purgatory is mandatory! Thankfully, there was a flight leaving shortly for Germany. Many opted to wait for this flight instead, which took much of the pressure off a second flight leaving for Spain. A few hours later, for a second time that same day, we were once again airborne over the Atlantic, this time with all systems go. Our C-5 slid into a dimming easterly night sky with Maria Elena and myself ensconced within the tail of the beast, seated facing backward.

A C-5 Galaxy is a Monstrous Aircraft designed to provide strategic airlift over intercontinental distances. In fact, it is the largest aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory and one of the largest military aircraft in the world. Lockheed delivered the first operational Galaxy to Charleston Air Force Base, SC, in June 1970 - forty years ago to the month that we were now aboard in Dover. To give you an idea of its size, its main landing gear has 28 wheels and its cargo bay is actually a foot longer than the distance the Wright Brothers flew in their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Every time I see one, just airborne on its departure climb-out, I marvel that something that large can fly. At this point on its departure, nose high and slow in its assent, with the distinctive whining strain of its engines buzzing like a cicada on a hot summer’s day, all I can do is watch in amazement as two thousand years of human ingenuity mesh to make the impossible happen. It’s as if a three-story house was creeping into the sky.

Our Flight was Smooth and Uneventful. With so few on-board, we were able to commandeer an entire row of seats, allowing us to lie down and get some much needed sleep. Just before sunrise we landed at Rota, a Spanish Air Force base located near Cadiz (the city Columbus sailed from on his second and fourth voyages) and the mouth of the Mediterranean.

The Official Word for Our Status was ‘transient’ but when you are ‘car-less’ walking along the side of the road rolling your luggage along behind you in the early morning light without a place to stay, I call it homeless. The Navy Lodge was unfortunately full but they were kind enough to allow us to store our bags until something freed-up, hopefully later in the day. In the meantime, we returned to the terminal for breakfast and to await sunrise. We also checked on upcoming flights. In two days, another C-5 was scheduled to depart Rota for Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily. Getting a room now became even more important. On our return to the Lodge, to essentially camp-out in the lobby, we detoured first to the base gymnasium long enough for showers. There was an annual physical fitness test going on - a mile and a half run in so many minutes. I decided not to participate! The navy personnel there were more than helpful. They graciously providing us with towels and even locks for the locker room. Maria Elena was especially appreciative for a chance to freshen-up. A few hours later we were in our room and fast asleep.

Around 6 pm, while taking some photos of the area, another retiree, knowing of our desire to get to Italy, told me he’d just learned of a flight leaving shortly for Sigonella. It seemed things were changing faster than the Euro-to-dollar exchange rate! After a call to confirm that the flight was indeed on, we scrambled to get back to the terminal. Sure enough, there was a small Navy C-26 scheduled to land within the hour.

There is a Saying in the Military, “Hurry up and wait”. Well, we had already hurried up and now it was time to wait. Time passed and by its scheduled landing time the aircraft hadn’t materialized. When I inquired, the terminal personnel had no idea where the aircraft had gone since its departure from Sicily. They checked with Air Traffic Control and they had no idea where it was either. Was there a Bermuda Triangle operating somewhere in the Mediterranean? With nothing better to do, we continued to sit in the terminal. We agreed to give it until 9 pm. There’s another saying, this one purely related to standby military travel – “never leave the terminal”. So we sat and continued to wait at least until the whereabouts of this phantom aircraft could be determined. While we waited, a Colonel in his flight suit passed by on his way to crew operations upstairs. I introduced myself as a former Air Force pilot, explained our desire to get to Sicily and the mystery, at least to me, surrounding the whereabouts of an overdue inbound flight. He promised to check on it and tell the crew, if and when they arrived, that we’d appreciate a lift. At this point we not only didn’t know where the plane was but also had no idea whether they would accept passengers.

Low and Behold, about three hours later it arrived. The mystery of its whereabouts was resolved. It had dropped in on an island along the way. It seemed to be a pretty freewheeling operation. I began to wonder where we might wind-up later that night - Mallorca wouldn’t be bad but Sicily would be better. Good to his word, one of the crewmembers came to us in the terminal, got us processed and onboard within minutes. We were in hurry-up mode once again since they were in a hurry to gas-up and get home. At exactly 10 pm we rumbled and yawed down the runway and rotated into a clear night sky. At this point in the Mediterranean, Spain is off the left wing and, close-by, Africa is to the right. Being aboard a Navy aircraft, however, I guess I should use port and starboard.

The C-26 Metroliner provides light passenger and cargo airlift support for the Navy. First made in 1998 by Fairchild Aircraft, the Metroliner features twin turboprop engines, a crew of two (with no door to the crew cabin that I could see) and a range of approximately 2000 nautical miles. It was pretty small, even smaller than the aircraft used for shuttle flights by Delta Express or United Airlines. There was no way I could stand in it. I had to frog-walk while crouched over to my seat. I am too big for many things and this aircraft was just another example. Being this small, passengers are limited to 30 pounds of luggage. Before we departed the States, we’d planned for this situation and packed accordingly. Luckily we have a washing machine at our place in Calitri, Italy so we could downsize on clothing. Along with sleep, here was another example of a trade-off we had to make for the sake of space-available flexibility. We were still concerned about it even then. In fact, since we had plenty of time as we waited for the ghost flight to materialize, we weighed our bags and made final adjustments into and out of our hand-carried luggage to insure each weighed exactly 30 pounds. Oh, the games we plan.

By this Time you might ask yourself why we hadn’t settled for that flight to Germany back in Dover and then take a train to Naples. Our goal was to get to either Naples or Sicily, with Naples being optimum for getting home to Calitri. We’d therefore opted for Rota as our initial destination over the flight to Spangdahlem, Germany simply to get into the U.S. Navy airlift system since the Navy routinely conducts a circuit of its Mediterranean bases.

It Would be a Four-hour Flight. We flew close to the African coast as we headed east. Two hours into the flight there was nothing outside our porthole-sized windows – not a glimmer of light or even the glint of the moon off the sea, which we knew was somewhere in the distance, far, far below us. Down the narrow aisle, the red night-vision lights from the pilot’s instrument panel glowed ahead of us. I wondered what they did to keep awake after a long crew-day – did they resort to ribald jokes over interphone as we had years ago? In the tail of the passenger cabin where we sat, we withstood cycles of being too hot and too cold. In keeping with the cycling temperature, Mare bundled and unbundled herself in a scrawl while I alternatively draped and undraped a jacket over myself. Not exactly sure, I suspect we dozed off and on. Our seats fortunately faced each other so there was legroom. Mare’s legs lay parallel to mine. A little after 1am, I could just make out the lights of some distant islands. Marettimo and Levanzo? Had we already run the slot between Sardinia and Tunisia and crossed the ancient wakes of Scipio Africanus’ triremes enroute to Carthage? A few minutes later our location was confirmed for there was Trapani, Sicily apparently with every light in the city turned on! For a moment I sensed this may have been on the order of how Lindbergh may have felt as he coasted the Atlantic and first spotted the outlying islands off of Europe decades earlier.

We Touched Down at Sigonella at Exactly 2am. Outside a hanger where we parked, I watched as the pilot, a Lieutenant Colonel, walked to his car by the side of the hanger and drove off. He’d had a long day. We boarded a small van and were driven the short distance to the terminal. Surprisingly, there were two uniformed Navy personnel practically standing at attention when we exited the van. Somehow and for some reason we were being given VIP treatment. Again, I suspected the pilot had radioed ahead and arranged this. I’d never be able to repay the courtesy. Two in the morning and again without a place to stay it couldn’t have come at a better time. Quarters had already been arranged for us. A female Petty Officer brought us to our room, turned on the TV, ceiling fan, air conditioner and even provided us with a much needed 2-liter bottle of cold water … hospitality and service on the par with a four-star hotel concierge! We flopped into bed, without ceremony, minutes later.

So There You Have It … a C-5 Galaxy and C-26 Metroliner later, we were once again in Bella Italia. As unkempt and tired as we were, we’d made it. We hadn’t arrived in Calitri yet but even on the base at Sigonella, we could tell we were in Italy. Something, about just about everything, was different. A month of Arcadian lifestyle in a land of ochre walls and terra-cotta roofs awaited us. All I’d need to really convince myself that I’d arrived was the taste of the sun in my mouth but that glass of wine would have to wait for tomorrow and Part II of this story.

The Rogue Tourist,