Flying in giant C-17 far from first-class

Veterans can sometimes take free rides on overseas missions

The Burbank, Ill., couple would be joined by 43 more passengers at Joint Base Andrews, Md., on a more than nine-hour New Year’s Eve flight over the Atlantic Ocean and across much of Europe to Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

“I just decided to do this yesterday and that’s what you can do when you retire,” said Donald Cusack, 61, an Army retiree and former intelligence analyst. “It’s really cool. I just wanted to do something, go somewhere.”

Service members and their families, and retirees like Cusack, were traveling “Space-A” — short for space available — on an Air Mobility Command flight, meaning if a seat on the 54-seat jet was available they could travel like the others without charge.

The C-17 with the 445th Airlift Wing normally ferries troops and cargo around the world, but on this leg of its eventual trip to Afghanistan, plenty of people were headed to Europe after the Christmas holiday.

The experience is not like flying commercially or basking in comfort.

Climbing aboard the cargo jet, some service members had young children in tow carrying toys, pillows and blankets. In flight, the noisy jet is so loud passengers have to wear ear plugs for hours and shout at close proximity into each other’s ears to be heard. Passengers sleep on the metal floor in their own sleeping bag or curl up in a ball on metal and cloth chairs during the long transoceanic trek.

And it’s cold. Staying warm means blankets and extra layers of clothing.

Luggage is stacked on top of each other on a pallet, wrapped in a giant, webbed bundle in a kind of see-through plastic, and loaded aboard the aircraft, sharing the same space with passengers.

On the upside, eligible riders are given a ticket for a meal on the flight.

While dozens of people got on the trip at Andrews, five others were on a waiting list and didn’t.

“You can never be sure you’re going to get a seat,” said Larry Kreider, 62, of Strasburg, Pa., who boarded the flight at Andrews.”You can’t get upset if you can’t get a seat on the flight because it’s not their fault.”

“You’ve got to have that flexibility,” said Cusack, who planned to travel to Italy, too, but hadn’t decided how long he would stay in Europe on the flight over.

The trip was Kreider’s first Space-A flight. With his wife and daughter in Italy, and with college bills to pay for his daughter, the flight was a cheap way for him to travel overseas.

“It’s cheaper, that’s probably the main thing,” the Air Force retiree said. “… You just have to be patient and understand the system is not perfect. Patience with a capital ‘P.’ If you have that mindset, you’ll be fine.”

Linda Cusack, 51, wasn’t deterred by any of the potential pitfalls of traveling in a military cargo plane.

“I think it’s fantastic that they do this for the military and their families,” she said. “I think it’s awesome that they let you lay on the floor and sleep.”

Shrugging her shoulders, she acknowledged, “it’s a little noisy, but who cares?”

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