Iraq Diary: Up In a BIG Plane [Update With Video from C-5 Flight Deck]

I’m writing this from the passenger deck of a C-5 somewhere out over the Atlantic, heading toward Rota, Spain. There were a couple of major plot twists before we were able to board. We had initially been told there simply might not be any available seats. As it turned out, that wasn’t quite it. Our plane was to be carrying an exceptionally heavy load of military goodies to be delivered to Iraq and was right at its payload limit. Once it was determined that we could be squeezed aboard, weight-wise [thank you, Jenny Craig ;-)], we learned that Corey, Dave and I were to be – the only passengers!

Video from C-5 flight deck here.

At 4:50 AM we were driven out to the waiting plane. Bathed in the orange glow from nearby light stanchions, the gargantuan C-5 was a deeply-impressive sight. But as the minutes ticked by, waiting first in the vehicle and then out on the tarmac in a surprising South Carolina chill, it was clear that something wasn’t right. It turned out that, given the presence in the payload of lots of stuff that goes boom, a special waiver was required to permit civilians on board. We had visions of coming this tantalizingly close only to be turned back to await another flight who-knows-when. It naturally came as a huge relief when we were eventually waved on board. We entered at the plane’s front and ran a gauntlet to the rear through an amazing array of equipment, from military vehicles of various types to pallets of the stuff that was presumably at the heart of the waiver issue.

Climbing a steep ladder took us to the passenger deck, and but for the absence of windows the set-up is similar to a wide-body commercial liner. Room for about 70 with a center aisle with three seats on either side, reading lights and, yes, two perfectly good restrooms. One other difference – the seats face backward. We were issued ear plugs and things are a bit louder than commercial, but not ear-splittingly so. Then again when the four huge jet engines roared to life, sending us hurtling down the runway, the overall effect was thrilling. Corey and I bumped fists to celebrate that we were indeed off on the adventure.

We stretched out and were catching up on lost sleep when about an hour later we were gently prodded awake and informed that we were to be accorded the signal privilege of visiting the flight deck. Moving from the dark passenger cabin, back through the payload area, the light on the flight deck as we headed into the rising sun was absolutely dazzling.

One thing that struck me: the military is largely a young person’s world. I was prepared for the enlisted people who manned the passenger terminal to be of recent HS grad age, but was struck by the youthfulness of the pilots themselves – both Air Force captains. While superbly-trained and tremendously competent, these are not grizzled veterans. Hard to imagine they were much if at all north of 30. That youthful endurance can be a big asset on some of the very long runs they make. This nine-hour flight to Spain is a relatively short-hop by their standards. Trips can run to 22 hours during which they’ll see two sunrises.

VIDEO FROM C-5 FLIGHT DECK HERE.

When I expressed surprise at our relatively low cruising altitude of about 25,000 feet, the co-pilot explained that the extra-heavy load simply didn’t permit the plane to climb higher. As we burned fuel over the course of the flight, shedding weight, we would gradually ascend.

To be continued from Rota, where it looks like we’ll have some time to explore the Mediterranean-seaside village before continuing on to Iraq.

Mark Finkelstein
Mark Finkelstein is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.