Redeployment Journal (Days 9–10)
The following morning I woke early, checked out of the Navy Inn, and made my way back over to the airfield to make sure everything was good to go with my flight. I got checked in and we boarded the C-130 through the back cargo bay door and took spots along the bench seats. As usual, when the pilots were ready, they wasted no time. We quickly taxied to the end of the runway and turned the corner into the acceleration for takeoff without even stopping.
The C-130 rumbled down the runway and took off heading west, and within moments we were back out over the open water of the Med on a course toward Naval Air Station Sigonella on the island of Sicily. As I watched the island of Crete fade into the distance off the left side of the aircraft, I knew I would be back someday. Our flight path would take us in a westerly direction to the south of the Greek coast and the boot of Italy and finally into Sigonella, which was located on the far eastern side of the island of Sicily.
As we leveled off into our flight pattern, I looked out the round portholes on my side of the aircraft. Although it was another perfect day, there wasn’t much I could see; the nearest land mass would be the northern coast of Libya, and it was some two-hundred miles away, so I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t see it. All I saw were hundreds of miles of ocean. I settled back into my bench seat and continued my reading on Sicily. The crew said we had about 525 miles and a little over three hours to fly.
Naval Air Station Sigonella, also known as “The Hub of the Med,” is a U.S. Navy installation located on an Italian Air Force base in eastern Sicily, Italy. Situated eight miles west of the town of Catania, and about twenty miles south of Mount Etna, it is near the center of the Mediterranean Sea and well placed to support operations by U.S. naval forces, other U.S. military units, and U.S. allies and coalition partners. I kept my fingers crossed in the hope that if NAS Sigonella was the so-called “Hub of the Med,” then I should surely be able to make a connecting flight that same day onward to Rota, Spain.
This C-130 ride was uneventful and relatively smooth. As we began our descent, I tried to see if I could get a view of Sicily out the porthole, to no avail. As with our approach into Souda Bay on Crete, we were barely over the coastline before the pilot descended rapidly to the Sigonella runway.
We landed and the C-130 made its quick taxi to the air terminal. The crew advised the plane was only going to be on the ground long enough to off load the passengers and some supplies and then had to take off again for parts unknown. This meant the pilot wouldn’t be cutting the engines, and we could expect the familiar blast of hot engine exhaust to pound us as we exited the rear of the aircraft down the cargo bay door and made our way on foot to the air terminal. I grabbed my gear and made sure to stow my cover in my pack so as to not lose it on the tarmac or worse have it get become debris that would get sucked into another aircraft’s engine intake.
I never really got used to getting blasted by the prop wash of a C-130, and this morning was no different. These were thoughts going through my mind as I crossed the tarmac and looked up to the north and saw the peak of Mount Etna for the first time. My jaws dropped open a bit. I was looking at an active volcanic mountain that stood nearly 11,000 feet in height and was slowly sending a cloud of vapor drifting upward. It was a spell binding sight. I would later learn Mount Etna is the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps.
I made my way out of the beaten zone of the prop wash, walked into the terminal, and found the clerk who was taking care of the passenger manifests. I repeated the process I had done so many times on this voyage thus far and patiently waited for the passenger clerk. I handed over my ID and paperwork and asked if I could get a seat as soon as possible over to Rota. “Sir, there’s supposed to be a C-130 flight headed out this afternoon at 1700.” “What do you mean there’s ‘supposed’ to be one?” “Sometimes they don’t come in and sometimes the schedule changes at the last minute.” “Ok, well can you just put me on that manifest? If it falls through, I’ll take the next one available.” “Okay. You are good for the 1700 flight, and the first flight out to Rota after that is tomorrow at 1000.”
This was getting to be repetitive. But I had known this when I made my decision back in Bahrain a few days ago. “Okay. If I need to stay overnight, is there a Navy Lodge or Inn here?” “Sir, there’s an Inn here and NAS 1 has a Navy Lodge.” “NAS 1? What’s NAS 1? Isn’t this NAS Sigonella?” “There are two bases here. This is NAS 2. NAS 1 has a Navy Lodge and the commissary and exchange and all the usual MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) stuff. NAS 1 is about a 20-minute drive from here.” I didn’t want to mess with that; there was no telling what would happen if I left the base with the airfield and then needed to hightail it back to catch a flight. I resolved to just remain on NAS 2 if possible. “Where’s the Inn located from here?” “Sir, there’s a little shuttle that can take you over there.” I looked at my watch. It was nearing 1400. “I think I’ll just hang out here until that 1700 flight gets in. If it gets cancelled, will the shuttle still be here to take me over to the inn?” “Yes Sir.” “Okay, thanks.”
So I had three hours to burn before I would know whether I was continuing on to Rota that night or staying overnight on Sicily. I found an open computer station and checked my civilian email account. There were a few messages from family about my trip, asking when I would arrive home. I was cryptic in my responses, per security policy, but I intimated I hoped I would be back in a couple of days.
I called my wife and checked in with her to tell her where I was and what I hoped my itinerary would be for the rest of the trip. “Italy huh? You just happened to work this where you got stuck in Italy? Sounds like a conspiracy somewhere,” she teased. “It’s Sicily actually,” I told her, as if that made a huge difference in the seeming exoticness of what I was doing. “And, I think they’re going to get me back out of here this afternoon on another flight to Spain, but we’ll see.” “Why can’t you just drive over to a real airport and fly straight home today?” “Because they will never pay me back for the ticket. You know how that goes. It would probably cost something like one or two thousand dollars, and without prior approval they will never reimburse me for that. This is all free.” “Well, if you are coming in to Norfolk, I need to know when because it’s a three hour drive up there and I want to be there when you get there.” “Okay, babe, I will give you plenty of notice, believe me. The flight will take a lot longer than your drive, so I will call you right before I take off.”
Next, I called Colonel Dawson at Camp Lejeune, as he was six hours behind me and likely just getting a start to his day; it was a little after 0800 back on the east coast. Per his instructions, I provided him an update on my situation and told him when I hoped to get back into Norfolk. “Okay, well that’s about par for the course with what you’re doing. But so far you’re instincts have proven right, because they still haven’t opened the airport for Americans in Manama. Be safe and keep me in the loop.” “Yes, Sir, I will.
About two hours later, as I was waiting for the 1700 flight call and surfing the internet to catch up on the news, the clerk came over. He had bad news. “Sir, the 1700 flight just got canked. Some kind of mechanical issue.” I groaned. I told him I was going over to the inn and would be back for the next flight in the morning. “Showtime is 0830 Sir. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” “Not your fault.”
I hopped aboard the shuttle van for the short drive over to the Navy Inn. My luck continued to hold, as they had plenty of availability. I got into my room, dropped my gear and sat down to hook up my laptop to see what I could do with what I had left of the day. The traveling was wearing me down and I was tired. Maybe I would just stay on base.
I changed into civilian clothing and got a map of the base from the clerk and started walking. I thought of taking a taxi into the town of Catania, but it was eight miles and I just wasn’t up for it. It was already late in the afternoon and I didn’t have the motivation to leave the base and deal with the possible harassment upon trying to get back through the gate of such a large base at night. In short order, I was able to find one of the on-base restaurants operated by the MWR office. It was Italian food, which gave me a chuckle; I was going to eat Italian food on Sicily, but on a Navy base. I wondered if it would indeed resemble Italian fare and if it would be any good.
The meal was actually surprisingly good. I had chicken parmesan with an Italian salad and a basket of garlic bread. Although I was tempted to partake, I turned down the wine; I figured I would have plenty of time to catch up when I got back to North Carolina. I probably ate too much and had to turn down desert.
I walked out of the restaurant and hesitated, weighing whether I wanted to see anything else on base. I decided no, and walked back to the inn to watch some news and rest up. I checked my email again and called home before calling it a night.
The Sicilian morning dawned bright and sunny, but it was beginning to seem a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. As I had done the previous two days, I got up and packed my gear and checked out of the inn. I walked across to the small exchange (PX), filled my thermos with some Italian dark roast, and hiked back to the inn. I caught the shuttle back over to the air terminal and noticed a C-130 sitting outside where mine had parked yesterday when I deplaned. This was a good sign. I checked in and learned everything was a green light for the 1000 departure.
This time, the flight would take a little longer. We were scheduled to get in to the Navy base at Rota, Spain, a little after 1500, so this would be the longest C-130 flight yet, about five hours. Maybe once I saw how many other passengers there were going to be I could devise some type of sleeping rig; five-plus hours was going to be pushing it in the cargo hold of a C-130. But based on what the clerk had told me back in Bahrain — which seemed like an eternity ago — this would be the last C-130 flight for me. It would be all jets from Rota back to the United States.
At about 0945 they walked us out onto the tarmac and up the ramp into the cargo hold. It was the same configuration as usual, no seats, just benches down both sides, facing inward. I pushed all the way up to the front on the left side so I could maybe catch a glance or two out the left side of the aircraft. I knew on the way in we would be flying very close to — if not right over — the North African coast and the Strait of Gibraltar, and I hoped I would be able to see it all.
I settled in for what I knew was going to be a long flight. I just hoped it would be a smooth one. As soon as they lifted the cargo bay door, the crew fired the engines and within minutes we were taxiing and heading out to the runway. As with every C-130 I had ever taken we made the turn and didn’t stop; you knew you were taking off when they plane turned a corner and the props began to rev and the plane started building speed. We lifted off and turned westward yet again.
I took some time to read up on my destination in Rota. I learned that Naval Station Rota is located on a Spanish naval base in the Province of Cádiz, near the town of El Puerto de Santa María, and it is the largest American military community in Spain, housing both Navy and Marine Corps personnel. There are also small Army and Air Force contingents on the base. Located near the Strait of Gibraltar and at the halfway point between the United States and Southwest Asia, the base provides invaluable support to both American naval forcesoperating in the Mediterranean and to U.S. Air Mobility Command units transiting to Germany and Southwest Asia.
We flew methodically across a short expanse of the Med until we crossed over the coast of northern Tunisia, passing just north of Tunis, and began following the coast of North Africa as we moved westward. We passed across the border into Algerian airspace, and off the left side I got glimpses of the various Algerian towns along the coast. As we neared the capitol, Algiers, we flew out offshore; apparently the Algerian government would allow us to use their airspace, but they didn’t want us passing over their capitol city, which made sense. I could see the Bay of Algiers off the left side of the plane and got some great views of the city’s ancient and beautiful coast as it met the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
We continued on and eventually crossed into Morocco, eventually turning northwest as we passed near Tangier, and headed out over the Strait of Gibraltar. The views were incredible. We then picked up the Spanish coast as we headed into our descent into the airfield at Rota, located on the southwest coast of Spain. We turned into the wind as we came in from the east and landed just after 1500 local time.
I doubted there would be any flights heading out to the Lajes Field on the Azores this late in the day, but I was going to ask anyway. I headed into the terminal and found the flight ops clerk. Again, I repeated the dance I had learned trying to get a seat on something to the Azores so I could make my last connection home. “Sir, the flight today out to Lajes Field left at 1200. But there’s another one tomorrow at 1200. Want me to put you on that one?” “Yes, yes.” “I am just asking because most people like this area and want to hang out for a few days before they head back out.” “Look, I’m sure this place is awesome, but I am redeploying from Iraq and I’m not interested in hanging out anymore than I have to. Plus I am having zero luck getting on any more than one flight a day. I want to get home, so just put on the one that leaves at 1200 tomorrow.” “Okay Sir. Let me print this out for you. Be here at 1030 in the morning to check in and make sure we have you on the manifest.” “Will do.”
Naval Station Rota had both a Navy Lodge and a Navy Inn, so I figured I’d check out the Navy Lodge to see if it had any rooms. My luck continued to hold as I got a room. I dumped my gear and decided to walk around the base. The lodge was next to a very nice golf course and the idea of playing floated briefly across my mind, but I decided that might be a bridge too far. I was really beginning to feel the effects of all the travel and figured I would just relax.
I continued walking over to the Navy Exchange nearby and decided I would burn some time over there and perhaps pick up something for my wife and the boys. I look back now and think maybe on Sigonella and Rota I should have done something like I did on Souda Bay and ventured outside the gates, but at the time I was too focused on just getting home. And I was tired. I knew I’d be back someday.
I continued walking and eventually stumbled on a huge pizzeria on base that claimed to be the largest such facility in the entire Navy. When I walked in I realized I hadn’t had pizza for six months, and the aroma put the hook in me. I ordered a Hawaiian pizza to go and took it back over to my room, where I devoured the entire thing while watching major league baseball highlights on ESPN. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening. I checked my email, called home to report my progress, and turned in at a normal hour. I wanted be rested and ready for my flight out the the Azores the next day.
To be continued.