Hurry Up and Wait: Our 1st Space-A Trip with the U.S. Air Force.

October 12, 2019

 In the cockpit of a Lockheed C-17


Space available (SA) travel is a benefit offered to retired military members, people such as myself, and their spouses. My wife and I can travel worldwide with the U.S. Air Force, for free, with certain caveats & restrictions, and with a slew of what ifs, if onlies, buts, in lieu ofs, not-so-fasts, and various other military mission-dictated considerations.


SA Travelers doing what they do best: Waiting


In this post, I'll describe our first ever SA trip with the U.S. Air Force, a two-week adventure that taught us a whole lot, gave us access and privileges we'd not have had otherwise, (see picture above in the cockpit), and in general showed us a new world of travel possibilities.


Here's a short list of acronyms to help explain things: SA=Space Available; AMC=Air Mobility Command; C-17=The Air Force's newest long-range cargo transport; C-5, an older cargo aircraft being replaced for most missions by the C-17; USO=United Service Organization, the volunteer group vital to U.S. military morale; 'Hop' = any flight, anywhere; SD=Seniority Day=Rank among fellow SA travelers. (higher is better); pax=passengers; mark present=placing ones name on the sheet for a posted flight; roll call=seat distribution/assignment time, CONUS=Continental US.


 Our 'Merit Badge' awarded by the Dover AMC terminal staff


I begin with this citation, because our 1st Space Available travel attempt was a study in endurance, kind of a cross between hurry up and wait and groundhog day. Our original intent was to head across the Atlantic to Europe. We did not get to Europe. But we did get two 'hops,' one from McGuire AFB to Dover, and another from Dover AFB to Charleston SC. First a description of how the SA system functions, and then a running record of our attempt to capture seats on an airplane. 


We signed up at 13 Air Force bases that offer potential hops


With the Space Available system there are no guaranteed seats, no certainties, no consideration given as to military rank, branch of service, age, or years of service. Also, there's no such thing as a schedule, or picking and choosing a destination. We were advised to always 'take the first one smokin', the first airplane going anywhere, whether in the direction you'd like or not. Get in, sit down, buckle up, and hold on.


SA is offered only to retired military members and their spouses, and various other 'categories' of military people, such as family of deployed personnel, those on emergency leave, and a few others. As retirees, we're Category 6, the lowest priority of SA travelers. The document above is our signup sheet showing a few of the bases we applied to, and the (very important) date & time of signup, 2019-08-03, @13:26.


Three numbers determine possible selection for seats on the airplane: Category, date of seniority, and roll call time. The SA system works this way: We can apply (as above) up to 60 days prior to a desired travel date, and it's best to try a hop close to the end of that date. Seniority date & time is critical for two reasons: A higher number provides priority for a seat, which is good. It's best to arrive at the terminal with a high seniority number. Fifty days is okay, 56 is better, 59 days might be ideal. But... When day 60 passes into the sunset, you turn into a pumpkin, with zero seniority, which is bad. It's a crapshoot, as far as that goes. 


 Facebook page posting of potential flights


Each base has its own Facebook page, which posts upcoming flights 72 hours in advance. So we kept checking potential flights, planning to arrive at a terminal to capture two seats on one of those posted hops. On the left side above are listed number of T for 'tentative' seats. We learned that, aside from indicating the aircraft to be flown, these numbers mean nothing. The 53T indicates a C-17, and the 73T a C-5. But those seat numbers rarely or never remain that high. These are cargo aircraft, and that mission supersedes passenger transport. On this particular screen we watched the seat number offering to Rota decline from 53, to 23, to 0 when the hop was cancelled. Note the 0200 roll call time for Charleston. That figure changed, to eventually read a more civilized 1600. When 'competing' for these flights, travelers can mark present up to 24 hours in advance. Call-ins are not allowed; travelers must be physically present at the terminal for 'roll call.' Horror stories abound of SA travelers missing roll call by 5 minutes when they returned a rental car, or were checking out of base lodging.


 Dover Air Force base AMC pax terminal counter


To compete for a flight we had to show the AMC terminal staff proper documents, our military ID cards, passports for travel outside CONUS, and our printed proof of seniority, the document that showed our sign-up date and time. We learned early on that the staff at these terminals, the Airmen (AirPersons?) are dedicated to making the Space-A merry-go-round function like a well-oiled machine.


Here’s what we learned on our first encounter with them: They’re very professional, very helpful, knowledgeable, kind, abundantly willing to help, and invariably friendly. But here’s the thing. Their orders are to process information, handle baggage, issue boarding passes, guide travelers through security, and manage the flow of people and data, nothing more. They’re not in the business of making exceptions, raising a Cat 6 traveler’s position to Cat 5, upping someone's seniority number, finding space on the airplane for pleading customers, or persuading the pilot in command of the aircraft to take just two more people, pretty please. Here's a description of our first (unsuccessful) attempt to fly SA to Europe: 


 Our boarding passes: Dover to Rota. Yes! Tapas tomorrow!


We knew beforehand that our chances of getting aboard a flight were tenuous, that the mission of the U.S. Air Force supersedes all, that there are zero guarantees for Space-A travelers, and zero promises. Still, our 1st SA adventure was exhausting. We were soooooo close! Here's what happened. 


At 1635 roll call started for a flight to Rota Spain. With only six or seven fellow SA travelers in the terminal it was very likely that we’d find seats, and shortly be winging our way across the big water. The terminal staff checked our baggage, attached tags, weighed everything, and issued boarding passes. Terrific! We’re on our way! 


 Airman (Air Person?) Overson tagging bags


At around 1700 we passed through the security check and metal detectors, and were ushered to the waiting room, where a bus would soon take us to the flight line. Wow. Is this cool, or what?


 We had boarding passes and everything!


At 1715, there was no bus. No big deal, this is the military, and they have their schedule.


At 1730, still no bus, but we had boarding passes in hand, and there were very few of us, so we thought we were halfway to Spain. Well... Here comes one of those 'SA not-so-fasts.'


At 1750 a bus did arrive, this one full of Navy Seals. The 30 or so young men filed into the waiting room, took seats—our seats, as it turned out—and a strange feeling of unease settled on the room.


At 1800 the staff called for all Space-A travelers to please return to the terminal. Uh-Oh! There’d be no flight for us that evening, the Airman explained. Despite our boarding passes, checked luggage, and our high hopes and expectations, the Navy needed the airplane, those Seals had to get to Rota, so too bad, so sad.


Our hopes were dashed at, one might say, terminal velocity. It was an example of the vagaries of Space-A travel, and a very disappointing experience. We’d been so close we could taste the tapas! We could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the Flamenco dancers! Que triste!


 The Eagle's Rest Inn. Great base lodging, with a wonderful staff


So it was back to the Eagle's Rest Inn for the night to regroup, grab some chow, and check for another flight. We soon found one, this time back up the road at McGuire AFB. The hop was supposed to be from McGuire to Spangdahlem Germany. Hey, last time I checked, Germany was in Europe, so we schlepped up to McGuire, marked present for the Spang hop, and waited. Well...


We didn't get on that flight either, missing out by about two seats. (!) Our odds were improving, but we were at that time down (up?) to seniority day 57, so we were running out of options. Then we found what we thought might be the answer. McGuire posted a flight...back to Dover! And Dover, believe it or not, posted a flight to Charleston, where not one, not two, but three flights were posted to Rota Spain! Did we mark present for those flights? Boy, howdy!


 Boarding pass: McGuire to Dover


We hopped on down to Dover, successfully completing our first ever Space-A hop with the Air Force. 


C-5 and crew at McGuire AFB 


We boarded the big C-5, buckled in, Airman 'Kevin' briefed us for the flight, and we were soon wheels in the wells headed to Dover. Our first SA flight lasted about as long as it takes to make oatmeal. No matter. We were now Space-A veterans. Soon we'd sign up for the flight to Charleston, and, hopefully, from there to Rota Spain and the rat-a-tat-tat of Flamenco dancers.


 Lockheed C-17, primary cargo hauler for the Air Force


At Dover we marked present for the Charleston flight the next day, hoping to capture seats from there across the pond to Rota Spain. The flight to Charleston turned out to be the high point of our Space-A adventure, even if it didn't take us across the water to Europe. Here's what happened.


 Yours truly with the C-17 Captain


Captain 'M' is a young pilot in the South Carolina Air Guard. His weekend warrior duties put him in the cockpit of the C-17, taking the big airplane wherever his assignments indicate. He and I talked shop for a time before takeoff for Charleston. 


 1st time in a military cockpit in 19 years


Shortly after takeoff the crew invited us up into the cockpit. We climbed the ladder, took our seats directly behind the pilots, and enjoyed the view from 35,000 feet. It wasn't flying to Europe, but it was very satisfying to watch those pros do their job, and to be in that position.


 Sunset over South Carolina, and landing at Charleston


The flight down the coast to Charleston was just over an hour and twenty minutes. During the flight I chatted up the third pilot, a young fellow who'd once been a crew chief on the C-17, and then decided to fly it instead of fix it. Unlike a helicopter, the C-17 can cruise more than 10,000 miles, depending on load weight. It can land at almost any hard or soft-surface runway, and it has more bells and whistles than a pinball machine. At 300 million bucks apiece, the C-17 moves military supplies and materiel all over the world with little effort. 


 Flying ain't what it used to be


The picture above was taken from behind the pilot in command. To a non-pilot, it looks like any other cockpit shot, a pilot, some gauges, a few buttons and switches here and there, the usual aviation environment. To this old, grizzled, ancient-history aviator, the photo is a revelation. Every operation, function, navigation device, warning system, alert light, engine and internal systems gauge, and every guidance device in that airplane is digital. But the picture is more than that for me; it's a graphic illustration of how young people today navigate their world, even if that world puts them in the cockpit of a sophisticated, 300 million dollar cargo aircraft. 


When I flew helicopters back in the twentieth century, the aircraft control panel held analog gauges. Control devices, system alarms and alerts, internal warnings and monitors, all were driven by electric pulses, or actual fluid pressures. The controls moved when I moved them, not when some computerized and digitalized algorithm intervened. My navigation device was what we referred to as the trusty old Mark 1 eyeballs. I had no fly by wire devices; wires were to be avoided.


But the picture made sense. As I watched those two young pilots, both likely born not long before I retired from the cockpit, I realized that they'd grown up playing video games. They'd cut their teeth on digital devices, and nursed in the high-tech environment of electronic equipment. They'd never used a corded phone. Never lived without a laptop, or a smart phone close by. They'd maybe heard of the yellow pages, but Google was their idea of a library, an encyclopedia, an information source, a road (or air) map.


I couldn't help thinking old-guy stuff: What if their digital system fails, and they have to hand fly this plane on an ILS approach down to minimums when the weather's on its ass? What if the number three transponder fails and they have to revert to making radio calls, and position reports? What if the number 4 electric buss fails and they have to manually transfer its functions to another buss? What if, what if?


I understood as well that those pilots were truly professionals, that they were fully in charge. I knew, too, that whatever system malfunction or failure they might encounter had already challenged them in an equally sophisticated simulator.


Still, it was a bit bemusing to see all the automatic, self-tending, autopiloted, computerized navigation and aviation going on. Deep down inside I felt a warm satisfaction. I knew I'd really flown my aircraft all those years ago. I'd had my own seasoned hands on the controls, and whatever happened in my cockpit happened because I made it happen. The aircraft wasn't flying me; I was flying the aircraft.


Still... I give a shout out to that C-17 crew. Thanks, guys. You didn't have to invite me into your cockpit, but you did, and I'm grateful to you. Thanks, too, for mentioning my service, my 30 plus years wearing the pickle suit. You didn't have to thank me for it, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. So, thanks for your service, enjoy the hell out of it, and keep the greasy side down.


 Sunset over South Carolina's Low Country


Our 1st Space-A adventure ended shortly after the hop to Charleston. We were emotionally and physically spent, and our seniority number was nearly 60, so we were running out of options.


We'll try again. This time we'll succeed, because we gained a lot of knowledge about the Space-A benefit, and what it truly is. Some things we know for sure: Even though it's free, Space-A is NOT a way to save money on travel. With commercial flights here and there, rental car costs, lodging, meals, and various other incidentals, Space-A can easily be the most expensive free flight ever. 


We had a good time. We learned a lot. We interacted with a lot of young military people who we came to admire very much, and who showed us what their generation is capable of, and that's a lot. We met a lot of great people, fellow Space-A adventurers who helped us along the way, and shared their own SA tales with us. BTW, if you're reading this, thanks Matt, hope your Hawaiian birthday was the best. We'll likely see some of those folks again, maybe this time in Europe! Thanks for reading.









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