Traveling with the U.S. Air Force was quite the crapshoot I must say. The instances of breakdowns were depressingly high. The C-130 Hercules four-engine propeller-driven medium transport was a very dependable aircraft; to fly with those usually meant a parachute jump into our destination. The C-141 Star Lifter four-engine jet-propelled cargo transport was less dependable, tending to be more obstreperous regarding maintenance requirements and breakdowns.
The venerable C-5A Galaxy heavy transport aircraft was plain persnickety and at times the substance of nightmares to fly with. With so many thousands of aircraft subsystems on board, there was a high propensity for something to go sideways. There was a rule of thumb that suggested it was a fairly safe bet that if you could get through the first hour of flight after takeoff you would arrive at your destination. But the first hour of the flight was typically when something got pear-shaped causing the aircraft to turn back around.
The mood of flying with the Air Force was the same as flying with the airlines in the States in that there was much frustration and anguish when flights were delayed, canceled, and breakdowns left us stranded. I have spent a lot of time meandering at Dover Air Force Base where the C-5 fleet is amassed. Leaving Ft. Bragg NC only to careen off to Dover AFB seemed to be an ever-widening trend with the aircraft:
“The pilot must have forgotten his wallet.”
“The co-pilot left his coffee pot turned on back at his apartment.”
“One of the flight crew forgot to let his dog back in the house before he left.”
Dover was the black hole that kept sucking us back as we tried to fly off of the continental U.S. Overseas it seemed to be Frankfurt, Germany where the C-5s gravitated to and homesteaded. It seemed painfully obvious after a while that the flight crews must have had vested personal interests in Frankfurt:
“Come on, Geo… all these muthr-phuqrz got German girlfriends in Frankfurt!” my bro the Reverend Chill-D hissed.
“Yeah, well I do suppose they would be German girlfriends… in Frankfurt Germany.”
The underlying, overarching indictment was that the flight crews of some of our Air Force flights seem to at times gladly sacrifice our travel itineraries for their personal agendas, using the aircraft’s health as an excuse to travel to and remain at certain areas of interest. That is a serious accusation, though one that even I was attempted to take stock in.
One of the many times we were stranded at Dover AFB was well into the evening, so we had to think of something creative for overnight sleeping accommodations. The solution was to secure the base’s gymnasium. We were also able to get several dozen cots through the Installation Duty Office.
We spread out on the basketball court. We started begrudgingly assembling our cots all the while muttering amongst ourselves about how much worse we have had it and how much worse this night could have been. The duty officer made a courtesy visit to the gymnasium to check on us; he seemed genuinely concerned:
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you men better accommodations at such short notice. Is there anything else maybe I could get you?”
After a brief silence: “How about a couple of basketballs?”
The Squadron Commander cringed noticeably at the request; he knew what was coming.
Moments later the duty officer came back in the court bouncing a basketball in either hand: “Is two enough — it’s all I could find.”
“Ha-ha-ha… two is fine, Sir — thanks!”
The basketballers kicked us non-believers and all our cots to the side line up against the walls. We read, milled, busted chops, and chatted while the Lakers and Celtics locked horns in mortifying mortal combat. They were a spirited bunch who took the conduct of the game very seriously and very very aggressively. It was combat basketball and only the brave need sign on. During one alert cycle, the boss put basketball off-limits because he had too many men out of action from combat basketball-induced injuries.
The boss had an agonizing look on his face as he read a paperback and tried not to watch the men play combat ball. He just knew there were going to be twisted knees and ankles, eye gouges, lacerations, and bruises. How many men would he lose today?
The game looked less like basketball and more like the 1800s Irish gangs of New York were contesting central avenue. There was fouling, tripping, hockey-style body checking, MMA arm and leg strikes… at one point a set of nunchakus came out. That man was pounced on immediately and pummeled with fists and elbows. Bats and crowbars also came out as a flaming Molotov cocktail sailed through the air.
The boss laying in his cot rolled over on his side away from the big game; the look on his face indicated that he had just seen the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
“Sergeant Major… please — I beg of you to put an end to this madness!”
“FIFTEEN MINUTES TO LIGHTS OUT, LADIES! “The good Sergeant Major called out in warning.
All basketball-associated activity, the distant relation to any vestige of actual basketball notwithstanding, came to an abrupt halt. Because you see: you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with the Smadge.
“Who won?” I asked the Reverend Chill-D just then coming off the court panting.
“Hell, I don’t know — we never keep score.”
“You need to put some ice on that eye right away, Chill.”
They didn’t keep score. That seemed legit to me somehow. It was because basketball, the way they “played” it, wasn’t a game at all — it was physical training to them. I nodded my mental head in approval to myself.
“Wacha writin’ there, Geo?”
“Reverend, I’m drawing up a cartoon on getting stranded by C-5s, the incredible non-flying Spruce Goose of an airframe. We might as well hang our wet laundry from it because it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. I’m hoping a cartoon will lift morale some.
“Heh-heh… can’t wait to see this one!”
As it were, we got out on our C-5 the next day right on schedule. Just after liftoff, everyone held their breath for the next hour. When that hour was up and we felt no banking in the aircraft, a cheer went up. I was put in mind of when we lifted off quietly from the Mogadishu airport in 1993. When the golden hour was up there was no cheer; just silence. When we landed at Pope Air Force Base all the men stood, turned to each other, and quietly shook hands.
By Almighty God and with honor,