This is a long read, but if you need a chuckle for the day, this is it. I have placed this under the category of “Fiction” but in fact it really is a true story… no, “Once Upon A Time.” Happened in late 2005.
This is a no kidding story from a Coalition Airbase in Qatar. All of the following events actually happened, nothing is made up. The names have been omitted to protect the stupid. Details for particulars were added to lend clarity to the reader who may never have been anywhere near the Middle East, a military airfield or a military aircraft. The story was told second hand to me from an Air Ops Airman working at Al Asad Air Base in the Western Region of Iraq when I was there in 2005 and 2006. When this happened he was working Air Ops in Qatar and was listening in on all the radio traffic and spoke with most of the parties involved throughout the event. Nothing has been “made-up” or exaggerated; in fact, the naked truth is probably even funnier… or perhaps more troubling.
An active duty Air Force C-130 crew from Texas is taxiing off the ramp at Qatar Airfield with 50+ Army guys in the back. It’s 2:00AM, but still very hot. The wind dies down at night, the humidity kicks in and it can stay well over 90 degrees all night during long this time of year. Combine the heat of the flight line, cramped conditions, fumes from the aviation fuel, vibration of the running engines, weight of the personal battle armor and… well, it’s not a comfortable environment. Some of the active duty Air Force crews use older model C-130E and C-130H1 aircraft.
Whereas they are a very reliable workhorse the air conditioning does not work so well. The heat and fumes alone can make people airsick… add all the other variables and it’s inevitable. These soldiers, all dressed up and headed north to the fight have been sitting in the belly of this bird for over 30 minutes just waiting to taxi, another unfortunate variable. Well, as the aircraft creeps along the taxiway an Army guy pukes all over himself and a neighbor in the back of the airplane. Then a sympathetic puker takes out himself and the guy across from him. Then another, then another until there are ten guys whistling partially digested MREs back and forth in the back of the aircraft. All this mind you and they haven’t even taken off.
Rumor has it that there is an Air Force Regulation that states that after 20 pukers, it’s considered a medical emergency; for 10 pukers, it’s only a mess.
The loadmaster relays his disgust to the pilot. The pilot, a Captain with not too many hours of Pilot in Command time (also known as Aircraft Commander or A/C), has two Lieutenants for his copilot and navigator and three other Airmen on his crew, he is frantic. As a crew they can’t figure out the best course of action. It’ll be a miserable four+ hour flight to their destination and the chances of it getting worse are not at all slim. ‘Another puker,’ says the loadmaster. The pilot–who can now start to smell the vomit in the very front of the aircraft as it wafts up in the heat–calls the command post to find out what he should do because he hasn’t taken off yet and the floor in the back of his plane is getting repainted with industrial grade vomit. ‘Another puker,’ is the call from the back of the plane. The voice on the command post radio (probably a single or double striped airman that has never flown in a C-130 in his life and doesn’t care to either) tells them to park the airplane where it is, shut down the engines and perform an emergency ground egress. Back to Play Station for the young airman, ‘…and don’t call me again!!!’
An emergency ground egress is what you would do if the plane caught on fire. It’s what you’d do if you saw fuel pouring out of the wings. It is for really, really bad things. A ground egress is a tricky thing and even during pristine conditions is a dangerous endeavor. You can’t just shut down your engines and walk away. You have to declare an emergency with the tower (who hasn’t heard any of the conversation with the command post because they are on different radio frequencies) who then calls the fire trucks and paramedics. All the soldiers have to get far away from the plane because it is loaded with 44 thousand pounds of fuel and, since they are (were) going to fly into a combat zone, has a whole bunch of incendiary, pyrotechnic flares, and thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition. Thus, an emergency ground egress is not something to be taken lightly.
These six aircrew members, some with a decade or more experience than the A/C (remember, that’s the Aircraft Commander) are all on headset when the voice on the command post radio tells them to do the emergency egress. They know the facts: they are on a taxiway parallel to a two mile long active (very active) runway with fighters, bombers, tankers, JSTARS, C-17s, C-141s, C-5s, 747s, C-130s and any other number of military aircraft from several different nations either headed to combat airspace or returning from combat airspace. There is one taxiway, and they are on it; it’s not like they can pull over to the curb. They have an aircraft full of soldiers, some of whom are puking. The smell is bad and getting worse. What do they do? These young airmen are trained for combat, and they are good at what they do, but this is something that has never come up before in training or discussion. Another transmission for the Crew Chief, “Captain, another puker, sir, what are we going to do?”
They shut down their engines, blocking the only taxiway that runs alongside the runway, and have everyone exit the aircraft running like a herd of cats to get away from the explosive vomit; un-believable. Even in a perfect environment maintaining control during an emergency egress is like controlling jackrabbits on a flat bed. Al Qaida could not have planned this better. This very active airfield, a major player with air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan is now almost completely shut down. Any departing aircraft will have to back taxi on the runway to leave which means that no aircraft can take off or land while someone is taxiing and vice versa.
Hey, it gets better…
An emergency has been declared by an A/C and the tower has called in the cavalry. Who is first on the scene? Paramedics? Fire department? Rescue? Security Forces? No my friends, it’s an Airman from ATOC (Allied Tactical Operations Center). (ATOC handles cargo and passengers on the flight line.)
The ATOC representative is there to lend a hand, or so it seems. The ATOC rep wants to find the A/C. Remember, it’s 2:00AM. They’re not corralled on the ramp anymore, they are out on the taxiway. Unless you’ve been there you just don’t know how dark it is… it is dark-dark. Meaning, even if there were street lights they would do no good. It’s a total cluster because these folks have run away from the aircraft until they felt silly and then they ran a little more. This ATOC guy is more than a little anxious as he sorts through the crowd so he finally starts shouting for the A/C. The A/C works his way through the crowd to the vehicle, relieved that there is someone there with a radio. Finally someone with experience is on the scene, someone who can help, someone who can give viable direction; maybe, but maybe not.
So, what are the first words out of the ATOC rep’s mouth? “Sir, I’m here to help” no, that’s not it. “Sir, help is on the way and we’re gonna take care of this”, no that’s not it. It’s, “Sir, I am writing you up for a safety violation. These passengers are on the airfield unescorted and none of them are wearing reflective belts. What is your name, rank and squadron number?”
Not ‘What’s your emergency?’ Not ‘How can I help?’ Not ‘Let me help you.’ I am writing you up for a safety violation. There is great irony in this. The army guys are sporting the brand new electronic pattern camouflaged fatigues. It’s night out and no one can see them because they are wearing camo–kind of the whole point, right? So the USAF in all it’s wisdom hands everyone who transits through the Al Udeid Air Base a reflective belt (along with a man purse, but that’s not germane to this conversation) that the user MUST wear under penalty of death from sundown to sunup. Even if you are just walking that meager 300 feet to the toilet in the middle of night, you must wear this belt. God forbid you don’t wear this belt when you go to the bathroom. We can’t win this war without this belt! What in God’s name are you thinking trying to walk around in camo at night without a reflective belt? Were you not born with a brain?
These are Army guys. When they land in Iraq, the whole point is that you are not supposed to see them; that whole ‘fighting the insurgents thing’ or something along those lines. Bad guys shoot at them, they kill bad guys and blow stuff up; that’s what they do. They get hostile fire pay and pay no taxes as compensation for what they do. It is a very dangerous and difficult job. People are trying to kill them because of what they are trying to do. It is easier for them to do their job, from what I gather, when the bad guys can’t see them. These are Army guys.
This is an ATOC guy. He is in Qatar, kinda like being in Miami. He is getting hostile fire pay and he also does not pay taxes as compensation, but he’s in Qatar. He will never see Iraq and he will never see Afghanistan. The reality of this conflict is far removed from him and his own personal understanding. What is important to him is trivia, misguided and truly comical to the Army guys. While he is eating Dairy Queen and complaining that he has to walk 300 feet to use the lavatory, there are people in Iraq complaining because a mortar landed 300 feet from their tent. An ATOC is not an Army guy.
Wait, there’s more…
The ATOC Rep calls off the emergency response vehicles, who never showed anyway, and the aircraft commander pockets his write-up for a safety violation.
Frustrated, the young captain asks his loadmaster to get the plane cleaned up as fast as possible so they can depart. Air Operations is acting like they are on fire because aircraft are not take off on time. God help you if you take off more than 14 minutes late. Your boss will come to see you. Your boss’s boss will come to see your boss. Your boss’s boss’s boss might even come to see your boss’s boss. This can and will get stressful. And on the off chance that you have a Distinguished Visitor (e.g. Admiral, General, Colonel, politician, or some other self righteous pain), getting that DV to their destination is your number one priority. You are ordered to bump passengers (war-fighters) and cargo (bullets and bombs) off of your aircraft so some perfumed prince of the Pentagon or DC can spend ten minutes on the ground in Iraq and figure it all out. Crews selected to carry DVs are notified hours in advance and check the aircraft over and over again while waiting on the self-important, self-righteous royal pain masquerading as a DV!
The Captain has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he thinks about this. He needs the loadmaster to clean that Hercules as fast as possible to get the hell out of there. Now the loadmaster, in true loadmaster form, tells the A/C that he’s not cleaning up vomit puddles (fifteen at last count) because it’s not his fault. He asked the Army guys when they got on the plane if they needed airsick bags and they all said no. No self-respecting Army guy is going to accept a vomit bag when headed to a combat zone. It is clearly the army’s fault and they should clean it up.
The A/C approaches the Army troop commander, who outranks him by the way, and asks him to get his people back on the plane to clean it. ‘No can do, Captain… they don’t want to do it. I can’t make my people clean up another guy’s vomit because it is a biohazard. Since I didn’t see who puked, how can I punish the right soldier? And even if I did know which guys puked, look how the puke is now all mashed together. It’s all mixed up. I can’t make a soldier clean up another’s vomit without PPE (personal Protective Equipment). And who can remember where they were sitting anyway? No, I’m sorry young captain; you’ll have to clean it up yourself.’
I love it! I can’t figure out why these inter-service operations never really work. Look at the love between the branches of the military! One team, one fight!
The young captain takes the ATOC radio and asks maintenance to clean the vomit because he’s too scared to push the issue with this Army Major (Army guys must look scary to him) or with his loadmaster (maybe enlisted guys scare him, too.)
Maintenance says, ‘Nuts. Maybe if you had brought it back to the ramp where we keep our equipment we could have helped you out. But since you parked it way out in the middle of nowhere right next to an active runway, we can’t do it, sorry, you’re on your own. After all, it’s your plane. You clean it.’ The aircraft commander is really frustrated now. He is now very late for his take off, no one is listening to his orders and he thinks the smell of the puke is starting to permanently seep into his flight suit. Who can he turn to for guidance?
He calls the voice at the command post. ‘Who can I make clean this plane?’ he asks. The command post guy is pretty mad at this point. He was either playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ on his PlayStation, reading a comic book, napping or otherwise lounging around doing nothing. This fool has bothered him again. What to do?
The Command Post calls and wakes (a little past 3:00AM now) the full bird Colonel who heads the medical group. ‘We have a C-130 shut down blocking the parallel taxiway because there a large human biohazard-type spill. Could you please send a team down to clean it up?’ I’m sure the colonel is scratching his head at this point. He asks if it was an aero medical evacuation mission and what type of biohazard it is. That’s a smart question, really. If it’s air evac, let the aero-meds clean it and he goes back to bed. The command post tells him that it was not an aero-med mission and that he doesn’t know what type of biohazard it is but he does know that it is delaying the mission. A true statemen really, since the voice at Command Post does not know which MRE meal the soldiers spewed about the deck of the aircraft. The Colonel wakes his team and sends them to the flight line on their fool’s errand.
They show up and find out why they are there. They don’t ask any questions. They clean the vomit. They leave. The next day they report to the Colonel what they were used for and the Colonel is livid. He will have someone’s balls on a silver platter for this.
OK, all is well with the world, the Army guys, each with their own personal airsick bag (some with two) board the plane. The young A/C takes off and returns well after sunset some 17 hours later. His boss, his boss’s boss and his boss’s boss’s boss are all waiting to chat with him when he lands.
He walked into the bosses’ office some time ago. Not sure what that poor Captain is doing now, but it may not be flying.
And that’s how it was, that day, when circumstances took over and over-ruled common sense. Sadly, this happens all the often.