Old Salt’s Rental Car. Photo courtesy of Robin Wallace.
The Good: Military Space “A” flights are free to qualified U.S. military members that have the patience of Job.
I still meet many military retirees who have never flown Space-A, but that believe that all flights are reserved and guaranteed. They think everything will go as they have scheduled, but the truth is much different. This 2015 Old Salt’s mission was like getting hit in the face with ice-cold water.
The Bad: Often the flights you want or need don’t leave on your schedule.
For Example: On Friday, April 17th, 2015 we departed the Memphis Air National Guard base on a C-17A at about 1700 to Andrews Air Force Base, MD. About two hours later we landed at Andrews Air Force Base and began processing for our next stop at McGuire Air Force Base before our trans-Atlantic flight to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. About an hour later, when we arrived at McGuire, we found out that we were bumped off the Memphis C-17 and that four other passengers with higher priority had taken our seats. Over the next four days we were not able to qualify for any flight to Ramstein out of McGuire.
While waiting for flights, we spent Friday night and Saturday night sleeping on sofas in the O-6 / E-9 lounge in the terminal. We then decided to get day-by-day rooms for two days at the All American Inn at McGuire Air Force Base. The unplanned stay cost $124 each. When on Tuesday afternoon, 21 April, we discovered there were no flights out of McGuire to Ramstein for another 2 days. So we decided to rent a car and drive back to Andrews Air Force Base so we could catch another C-17 listed for the following Wednesday afternoon.
As we arrived at the air terminal at Andrews and right after check-in, the Secret Service had us evacuate the terminal for a security sweep because President Obama was catching Air Force One from our terminal. After he departed, we had to go through the same security process TSA uses (shoes, x-rays etc.) for boarding a flight, but this time, just to go back into the terminal. About two hours later the Secret Service came in again and had us assemble in the back parking lot. This time it was because Vice President Biden was leaving on another flight from our terminal. After he left, we were invited back in but we had to go through the same TSA process just to get back in the building.
About four hours later and for a third time, the Secret Service came in and escorted us to the parking lot. This time it was because President Obama was returning. After almost an hour in the parking lot, we were informed that the President was running late so they wanted to go ahead and process us for our C-17 flight to Germany. Again, we had to go through the entire TSA screening process. Upon boarding the C-17, we were notified that President Obama’s plane was only about 20 minutes out so we couldn’t take off. Not sure what happened, but he did not land for another 45 minutes to an hour. By that time we had been sitting in the cargo hold of our plane for more than an hour without going anywhere.
After the President disembarked Air Force One, boarded Marine One, and finally departed for the White House, were we given the authority to start engines and begin taxiing for take-off. All of the delays caused our flight to be at least two hours late.
The Very, Very Ugly: We arrived so late at Ramstein that the Hertz car rental office was only minutes from closing. The nice Volvo SUV we had reserved was long gone by now because we were days late arriving. The only thing they had left was a 2015 Land Rover “Defender”. In our opinion, this vehicle- part dump truck, part Jeep- was a throwback to the 1942 North African campaign where British Field Marshal Montgomery faced off with the Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Photo courtesy of Robin Wallace.
This thing we called a tank, or at times “The Beast”, had few upgrades since 1942; roll-up windows in the back, only one 12V outlet and at least 40’ plus turning radius. It had very poor workmanship with unpainted rivets and basic exposed hardware normally covered in any other SUV or Jeep. It took us hours to determine how to get it out of four-wheel drive as the owner’s manual was missing. Upon arriving in Poland, we drove on some unimproved roads and the beast’s suspension was so stiff it rattled our teeth. It was oversized; meaning we couldn’t park it in public garages so we had to plead with hotels and businesses to let us park it on their lot overnight. To me it was like the watch you got in the Cracker Jack box with a Rolex logo. This was a $58,000 piece of junk. Next time we will get a ride into the town of Ramstein and rent a real car there.
After renting the tank, we had to drive most of the night to arrive at our hostel in Berlin. We arrived well after midnight. By this time we had been awake for about 26 hours straight.
We were not done yet. While driving west of Salzburg, Austria and while taking the expressway off ramp, we encountered a policeman standing in the road directing us to pull over and stop. Then another policeman approached the driver’s door and asked for my home driver’s license, International driver’s permit and rental car contract. In English, he told us that we did not have our “highway tax sticker” in the windshield; thus we had to pay the 120 Euro fine (right now).
He escorted me back to his police van where he had a cash register and a console set up where he could even accept a credit card. This was the ultimate “speed trap”. No warning for the tourist, who is so valuable to the Austrian economy; they just wanted the money!
After we paid the fine, he told us to hold on to this ticket/receipt as it was good for 24 hours. Then he said we could go into any Austrian gas station and buy a monthly sticker for 8 Euros. The policeman had written a note in German on our ticket and when we went to the gas station to get our 30-day sticker, the attendants had a real belly laugh when they read the note he had written on our ticket. We had no idea! It’s obvious we were the butt of that joke! Austria was the highest taxed place we had ever visited in Europe.
Here is another example of its high tax structure. Most big cities in Europe have the Sandeman’s NEW EUROPE free tours where, if you like the tour, you can tip the guide at the end of the tour or pay nothing depending on how much you appreciated your tour guide’s presentation. When we arrived at Salzburg, we started looking for the free tours, but the hostel staff told us that the free tours were banned in Austria. They said the reason was because the government could not figure out a way to tax the tip given to the tour guides.
In dollar terms of this trip, here is the summary: The flight delays costs us our reservations at Ramstein (a loss of $60 each ) and two days at Amsterdam ( a loss of $160 each) plus one night at Bonn, Germany (a loss of $13 each) and finally, unplanned stays at McGuire AFB (a loss of $124 each). Last but not least was the outrageous highway use tax fine we paid in Austria at $33 each. This added up to $390 each in total unplanned expenses.
Note: This was not our typical trip, but all that could go wrong, went wrong. To some people this might be a game changer but, to hard core Space “A” people, this is just part of the adventure. You learn and truck on to new experiences.
Oh, by the way, you must be prepared: If you have a problem at home and must return immediately, be aware that a one-way commercial airline ticket back to the USA can cost anywhere from $1, 200 to $1, 500 as of May 2015. Space-A travel can save you a lot of money, but you do have to put up with a few glitches along the way. Patience! Patience! Patience!
SCPO Robin Wallace USN (Ret.) Cordova, TN email@example.com
Reprint from November–December 2015 • Volume 45, No. 6