Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Okinawa and the Loadmaster

Note: This is the first installment of a 3-part series about my four days in Okinawa. At the bottom of this post is the link for the second installment.

"-ello, my name - Lance Corporal ---- and I will be your loadmaster for - evening." 

This is the first thing I heard over the C-130's engines from the friendly 6'4" bald black guy with a green flight suit, eyeglasses and noise-deafening earmuffs. I was standing on the tarmac, about 50 yards from the large cargo plane and, for some reason, the title of "loadmaster" made me chuckle. Apparently we would have one for the evening. But then I realized that this was the start of a "safety brief" and, just in case the plane went down over the Pacific, I should probably pay attention. This was not your normal commercial airplane ride:
I, along with three other Marine Corps wives from my spouse's unit, were heading from Iwakuni, on mainland Japan, to Okinawa, a Japanese island about two hours south across the ocean. We were going to partcipate in the squadron's Jayne Wayne Day (or Jane Wayne Day, or J. Wayne Day, depending on who is writing the event request), which is when military spouses get to try being a Marine for a day. More on that adventure in another post...
But, first, we had to get to Okinawa, as cheaply as possible. Which means Space A, or Space Available. Essential, with a letter from the spouse's boss, I get to travel on military aircraft when there are seats available... for free. And what was available to us to fly to Okinawa the day we wanted was a no-frills C-130.
LCpl Loadmaster (a.k.a. Babysitter of Civilian Females) gave us our safety brief, which briefly explained where the bathroom was (a glorified bucket with a curtain in the cargo hold of the plane), where the life jackets were (tucked in some cargo netting towards the front of the cargo hold we were seated in) and that there was no smoking or tobacco product allowed. It's a two hour flight. You should be fine, he said to any potential smokers. Does anyone get airsickness? If so, let Loadmaster know so that he can get you a bag. Obey anyone in a green jumpsuit, and ask those people the questions... Including if you can use the bathroom. LCpl Loadmaster disappeared about five minutes into the flight, for the majority of the flight, so I couldn't ask him anything. Hopefully I won't have to throw up, I thought.
We had to take our own luggage out to the plane. And up about six stairs to get inside the aircraft. I had my rolling duffle, purse and backpack... About 60 pounds of crap. I pulled the "girl" card: I acted like I was going to attempt to make the first step and then looked at LCpl Loadmaster with my best damsel in distress face. LCpl Loadmaster didn't hesitate... He grabbed my duffle and hopped up the stairs with it to put it inside. Good. Thank you. I don't think my knees could have handled that... After all, it is my 20th high school reunion this summer. 
As I embarked on the aircraft I looked around the dark cargo hold. Windows are tiny portholes, three on each side in the front section of the Aircraft where we were. Too high to be able to see out of, so window preference people would be in trouble.
I didn't have to worry about lost or stolen luggage. I didn't send any of it through an x-ray machine. At the terminal, we just stepped on to the big scale at the check-in counter and were weighed with our bags. Once we rolled it out to the plane ourselves, the luggage was piled up in the center of the plane and then got its own seatbelt across the middle.
We had to figure out our seat belts ourselves. Below is a photo of the puzzle that was. Thanks to my hours playing with Legos, I was the first wife to figure it out. Go me! No, I'm not competitive at all.
No flight attendants showing us how to wear the life jackets or blow in to the tubes if they don't self inflate. LCpl Loadmaster took care of that requirement. No movie. No beverage cart. No crying babies. Not as cold as I would have expected. 
But there was plenty of legroom.
We were not told to turn off electronic devices, in fact almost everyone was on one as we taxied out to the runway. I was still responding to Facebook notifications in between taking the random pictures you see here. There was no waiting on the tarmac... We slowly taxied out and then, without stopping, the jets got serious and we were accelerating and taking off. 
Light headedness. Loud. Lots of vibration. Really loud. Glad the spouse insisted I have ear muff things.
There were seven Marines in the cargo hold with us... who couldn't have cared less about the spousal presence. It was too loud to talk anyway. One was reading Henry Kissinger's "On China." Another had very unnecessary sunglasses on. It was pretty dark, since the tiny portholes let in just a little light and there were seven 3-inch lights above us, in a 18x12 foot space or so. Most of the Marines fell asleep, unimpressed by our chariot.
Right next to my right leg was a giant metal box the width of the cargo hold and about 8 feet high without any visible ties.
I remember thinking, "I hope it is locked down underneath somehow." It was in the center of the cargo hold and the only way to get to the back of the plane was over it, which LCpl Loadmaster did once. He had about 18 inches of space to crawl. 
A couple of times LCpl Loadmaster did visual checks out the portholes and then to two different shaped canisters on the inside walls of the plane, one of them above me.
I know this is probably a Vietnam-era plane, before such checks could be done from inside the cockpit, so I hope LCpl Loadmaster knew what he was checking for. He had headphones on with a really long cable attached, that he had to keep moving around with him, like I would do with a vacuum power cord. He seem to be an expert at flicking the cord around luggage, gear and my feet. I'm surprised they haven't figured out a wireless way to do that. Maybe they have, but just can't pull it off with this aircraft. Totally possible since the Marine Corps gets all the other branches' hand-me-downs. 

I kept busy writing this blog post and reading. Two hours was the perfect amount of time on a C-130. It was enough time to get the experience of a sore rear end and back from the lovely cargo net seats, but not enough time to get really uncomfortable and hate the experience, needing some Advil or a stiff drink or five afterward. It was a little chilly on the flight, but not nearly as cold as I thought it would have been. Fortunately it was about 65 degrees when we landed in Okinawa... a huge improvement from the 45 degrees we left behind in Iwakuni. And, luckily, the weather stayed gorgeous the entire four days were were there.

Landing in Okinawa was uneventful. I can now say I have flown in to MCAS Futenma, which, in a few years, will be handed back over to the Okinawans, and no longer be possible. After exiting the plane, thanking LCpl Loadmaster and the crew, and walking to the tiny, run down airfield terminal (complete with a disgustingly molded women's restroom toilet) I immediately took off my jacket and scarf and didn't look at them again for the remainder of my time in Oki. While the inhabitants of the island were wearing long sleeves and jackets, I enjoyed the lukewarm breeze... smelling slightly of jet fuel and exhaust.

Off to my next adventure!

Click here for part two of three Okinawa posts.

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