A novice's flight on a military transport.
|The orange webbing dug into my pants pinching my thighs. Someone passed me earplugs to dull the engine roar. Another group came in and sat opposite, their knees interlocking with ours. I looked up to a face three feet from mine and grimaced. It was returned. I leaned back into the webbing and my head fell through. A delicate balance would be necessary to keep me from breaking my neck.
I looked out the open back bay of the C-130; the Delaware heat and humidity hazy outside. More airmen were coming; we were off to North Carolina for an operational exercise, whatever that was. As a Captain in Contracting, I was not privy to operational anything. Rennovating housing, stocking the hospital, buying airplane parts was my usual job. The base commander decided "support" staff should participate in this. And do what?
That morning, I put on olive drab fatigues for the first time in 3 years, walked out the door in black boots and thought "who are they kidding?" Reporting to the assigned hanger, I found myself surrounded by enlisted personnel familiar with airplanes and exercises. This was all to the good as they were friendly and attempted to explain what would happen. A Major walked in, introduced himself, and said the enlisted personnel were assigned to me; I was an officer. I found the most senior sergeant and told him I expected him to take care of this situation and tell me what he was doing. To his credit, he smiled, didn't smirk, and said "Yes ma'am."
We loaded on the C-130 and, of course, I was at the top of the line. Officers first on, last off. It was late morning in July. The heat was just getting a good start and it took over an hour to board everyone. By then, it was at least 85 degrees inside and they hadn't closed the bay yet. One of my shoulder-mates was reading. I balanced my head on the webbing and stared at a rib of the plane.
The light dimmed as the bay lifted into place. It wasn't dark and it wasn't light, but my neighbor put down her book. Encased in an airplane with no windows gave new meaning to "tin can." There must have been air from somewhere, but I couldn't tell. Whatever it was, it was not enough. The air thickened, the smell of diesel mixing with the smell of sweat. We taxied to the end of the runway and stopped.
Oh God, I thought, please, please get this thing off the ground so we can get back on the ground and out of here. What could be the delay? Were the pilots chatting with the controllers about the Officer's Club last night? Could we maybe talk about the party later?
The engines revved; we moved; we moved faster. We were taking off. The cabin tilted; we were climbing. I looked across to my knee-mates as we swayed to one side in our webbing. They were staring at me. Anyplace else, it would have been rude. The only other thing to do was shut your eyes, which I did.
Ten minutes later, the first person, somewhere, threw up. I didn't hear it, I didn't see it, I smelled it. It mixed with the sweat like lavender and dog poop, the diesel all but oblierated. I wiggled in my webbing which made the people on either side wiggle. They both looked at me. I struggled to stay still. Breathe, just breathe. The Air Force isn't suppose to kill their own. I looked up to one knee-mate who nudged my knee. She pointed to the airman next to her whose cheeks were filled, with, I was soon to find out, vomit. She bent forward with every effort not to spray us all and did a pretty good job. It was all over her boots, but her neighbors and myself only caught a few flecks.
Once again, the smell. I looked at my right thigh. Piece of tomato? Possibly a bit of egg? I swallowed back my bagel. Down, stay down. The minutes dragged by. I spent them thinking of roses. Which ones would smell best? The Peace roses, yes, they were extra fragrant. The plane dipped. One of those stomach-in-the-throat things.
"Wraaaack" Somewhere in the back, a third barf. I closed my eyes. My mouth tasted like I was sucking on a nickel. Roses. What colors did Peace roses come in? The engines changed their sound. The plane tilted down.
Just a bit longer, I told myself. The air pressure changed and I dared to yawn to pop my ears in earnest hope nothing would come out but air. The plane leveled; we were landing. We taxied; we stopped. All eyes turned to the back. Seconds dripped by. The engines still ran. We stared at the back door. I looked for the sergeant, who got on last. Was I suppose to do something? Did I have to order someone to open the back door? Panic rose. How could I even get somewhere to tell them? Eyes turned to look at me.
This wasn't the time to shrug my shoulders; I knew that much. I stood with all the determination I could muster. Knees moved from side to side to allow me to walk to the front of the plane where, I hoped I could find the pilot, the crew, anybody. As I pounded on a dividing door, the back bay opened.
The North Carolina sun shone in carrying 95 degrees and 99% humidity. Smelled fresh as a rose to me. The sergeant stood. "Everybody off." No command was ever more unneeded. As the last airman staggered out the plane, I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, tucked my straggling hair under my hat and marched myself down the bay door. Never again.
"Who's in charge of this operation, Sergeant?"
"That would be Colonel Jenkins, right over there," he pointed. I turned to walk away, then glanced back. The Sergeant gave me a nod and a smile.
Operations was about to meet Support