The passenger area of the C-5 was bogged down by the smell of urine and body odor that made my eyes water as I questioned the cleanliness, and possibly the plumbing, of the lavatories. That stench, mixed with the odor of gasoline and the press of the crowd, was suffocating. The noise was deafening and pressure filled my head from the ceaseless roar of the engines even after inserting the little foam earplugs. After driving for six hours from Pennsylvania to the Dover, DE Air Force base and waiting seven hours to board that plane to begin our eight-hour flight to Germany, all I wanted was some sleep. That didn’t happen. I couldn’t get my seat to recline. Neither could my husband, which is good because if I have to suffer then so should he.
Space-Available travel is a privilege. Basically, the military powers-that-be have opened the seating of cargo and supply planes destined for international bases to eligible military personnel and their families at little to no cost. Military aircraft are constantly in the air whether in peacetime or conflict. At all hours of the day and night supplies, weapons, gear, and soldiers must get to destinations all over the world. The catch is that you as a passenger have little control over which flight, if any, you will get.
According to my plan, we would have arrived at the base in Delaware with less than an hour to boarding, if we were approved for seats — which we were. Unfortunately the Air Force had a different plan — one that resulted in the flight boarding seven hours later than everyone anticipated. As a result I felt nothing but hate for the Dover Air Base in Delaware. The snack bar around the corner of the terminal sold over-processed fish-product sandwiches. The thick smell of grease from the fishy snack bar permeated every pore, as florescent lights cast unnatural shadows across faces. A random baseball game played on every monitor. Never having been a fan of baseball, I attempted to fade out the announcers’ voices as they made jokes that were not funny. Soldiers, in desert uniforms, traditional uniforms, and civilian clothing milled around the four televisions intently involved in this distraction. As time ticked away, I became increasingly convinced that this trip to Germany was a terrible idea, free or not. If it started out this disappointing, I was certain it could only continue as so. By 1:00am, I desperately just wanted to go home.
My husband, being infinitely more good natured and patient than I, didn’t seem bothered at all. He even liked the snack bar. He looked as exhausted as I felt, but he managed to smile at the small children sleeping near us. I just worried that they would cry on the airplane–should we ever board one. I didn’t think there would even be children on this trip. As I looked at the people wearied as myself, they were mostly senior citizens and a few young families. Retired military personnel and their families have low priority on Space-A travel. Active Duty soldiers, such as my husband, fall behind Emergency Medical Leave and Environmental Morale Leave soldiers. There aren’t too many of either of those leaving from Dover, so we were guaranteed a seat.
Initially, I was skeptical about Space-A travel, as I am not inherently an adventurous person, but the lure of Germany for free won out. My civilian friends suggested that perhaps this trip was insane, particularly because there are no flight reservations-even on the return trip. And destinations can be changed mid-flight. And housing reservations on base can not be made more than 24-hours in advance. I will agree that all of this screams disaster, but I condescendingly assured my friends that this was going to be a great adventure. Perhaps I played this out a little too cool because in reality I really was freaking out.
We flew in to Rhein Mein air force base at 9:00 PM, but could not reserve any housing. Visitor housing was full, and taking a wrong turn we ended up at a building for soldiers on orders waiting to deploy. My husband spoke to the three soldiers at the counter as I hung back fighting off frustrated tears of exhaustion. The soldiers working the front desk of the housing building showed compassion for our (my) pitiful state, and allowed us to stay despite not having the required military orders, but this was only for one night and we had to leave by 6:30am, so as not to alert supervisors of the soldiers’ forbidden generosity. The next morning, feeling revived and hopeful, my husband called Rammstein Air Base and made reservations for the next three nights. Rammstein was an hour and a half away, but there was a shuttle service between the two bases. Unfortunately for us the shuttle schedule was incorrect, and we didn’t figure that out until about six hours after the last shuttle to Rammstein from Rhein Mein. A soldier at Rhein Mein, sympathetic to my new batch of tears, offered us the sofa in his apartment. A very generous offer, but we knew we had our own bed waiting for us at Rammstein. After debating the situation, we took a taxi to the Frankfort International airport, and rented a car. Unfortunately, the car was a standard transmission. In our American egotism, we forgot that this was the norm in European countries. My husband had some experience with a standard vehicle, but I panicked at the idea of practicing on the Autobahn. After renting our second vehicle of the night, we drove from Frankfort to Rammstein in the dark with the directions all in German. We made it to the housing office at Rammstein with three minutes to spare before closing time.
The return flight from Rammstein Air Base to the Dover Air Base was a cargo plane. Red jump seats ran along the walls of the plane surrounding the nearly empty cargo area, with only some bags, boxes, and luggage in its place. There was a ton of room on this plane. My husband kept checking to see if I was going to freak out about flying home in this for nine hours, but I just kept laughing. Truly it was funny, and inevitable. I had said to my husband shortly before I knew what plane we were travelling in that I hoped the seats reclined. My husband grimaced and stated “I hope there are seats.” There were, almost bench seats, and with only twenty people on board, it was quite comfortable to lie down. This plane smelled much better, too. Initially there was a strong disinfectant air-freshener quality to the air, then gasoline, and eventually the familiar musty scent of all things military-just as all the belongings in my husband’s army room at home-that smell does not go away no matter how many times clothing and gear are cleaned. There was a current of air blowing through the bay area of the plane. It was intermittently cold, cool, hot, and comfortable. Again the noise was nearly unbearable. Is it a lack of insulation? Even with earplugs it was overwhelming. I am convinced that the rush of air and engine could be used as a torture device, as I am certain the deafening whirls of sound would drive the sanest person mad. As bad as it is, I get used to it. The flight home is uneventful.
Space-A travel is an adventure worth trying. We will do it again. Italy is nice in the spring…and who knows, maybe we will get an actual commercial passenger plane this time.