Getting off the ground can be the toughest part of flying Space-A

Illustration by Bev Schilling/Stars and Stripes

By PAUL ALEXANDER | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 10, 2015

Some I recognize, like the guy toting the “Ugly Stik” fishing pole. Others are easily spotted as they shamble around with the same dazed, glazed expression that says they can’t believe they’re stuck in this bad daily rerun.

Space-Available can be the greatest thing since The Mile-High Club — a chance to travel for free on military flights.

Then there are trips like this one, where everything goes wrong and hopes of getting out quickly are dashed with unintentional cruelty.

It had started out with such promise. The plan, proposed by my wife as we looked at several options for a pre-school shopping trip stateside from our residence at Yokota Air Base in Japan, was the cheap route. I’d go alone since I could stay with friends and spend more on our two daughters, 10 and 12, along with a stop at Victoria’s Secret for my wife.

I had traveled Space-A twice before and almost cockily felt I had a feel for how the system works — and doesn’t work. The key is to be flexible, so I would fly to Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, on a Thursday with a target of getting back home exactly a week later. I had four extra days as a cushion in case of problems. I could fly via Hawaii or Alaska.

Getting to Travis was a breeze — though a chilly one. I didn’t get my leave paperwork until noon but made it through roll call five hours later and soon was hugging the family goodbye.

I grabbed one of the two seats at the very back of the plane only to learn why they hadn’t been snapped up: They were right by the open stairwell to the unheated cargo area below. By the time the flight was halfway through, I was wrapped in three blankets and wishing I wasn’t wearing shorts.

Still, I reminded myself that it was free. The shopping went well, and it was great to catch up with friends, munching home-cooked meals in Oakland and grilling buffalo burgers in Santa Monica. Though it was a short visit and I still wasn’t fully over jet lag, I headed back to Oakland on Tuesday. Travis’ Facebook page showed a flight leaving for Yokota the next day.

But when I woke up the next morning, the flight schedule no longer had Yokota listed. I chuckled, thinking of similar occurrences before and the standard Space-A warning that schedules can change without notice. Nothing was on the agenda for Thursday, but another flight was marked for Friday with 73 seats. I was in the second priority category, so it was pretty certain I’d be aboard.

So I checked into the base’s comfortable Westwind Inn, dropped off my rental car to cut expenses and relaxed in my room. After my hectic schedule so far, it would be nice to have a little free time to relax with my feet propped up and the TV remote close at hand.

Again keeping costs in mind, I walked the mile to the commissary to pick up some food, including a loaf of bread, packs of turkey and ham, a few beverages and some snacks. There would be plenty left over for the flight.

Friday morning came, and the Travis passenger terminal was abuzz with people gathered for roll calls on several flights. More than 70 were hoping to get on the C-5 headed for Yokota, including several families with small children. They regularly checked a TV monitor showing where they stood on the priority list. I saw the guy with the “Ugly Stik” for the first time.

Nervous smiles turned to disappointment as word came that only three seats were available. The courtesy phones were quickly swamped as people called friends, rental car companies and hotels, then trudged out the door with their luggage carts.

Unfortunately, when I called the Westwind, it was fully booked. Talk about a sudden crisis. The base’s rental car office was all out, too. The terminal closes from 10 p.m.-4 a.m., so there would be no sleeping there. I frantically called the USO — they’d have to refer me to the Red Cross. I hung up. I didn’t feel homeless, but a night roughing it outdoors suddenly seemed like a real possibility.

I sat around the terminal the rest of the afternoon, using their free Wi-Fi and calling the Westwind every hour. I was making my last call at 5 p.m., already resigned to wrapping up in a blanket on the grass somewhere, when they told me they had a handicapped room available.

“Does it have a bed?” I asked.


“I’ll take it.”

The next couple of days are a blur of walks to the commissary for more supplies and lots of bad TV. I learned the depth of America’s love for zombies — there are at least four TV series on the undead now, and there were back-to-back zombie movies on the cutely named Syfy network one night: Ving Rhames toted a skull-crushing hammer in one, and Mariel Hemingway starred in the other.

That’s how I started learning more about Travis. The base is pretty well located if you’re gonna be stuck somewhere, so it’s particularly popular with retirees, some with RVs. San Francisco, the Napa Valley, Yosemite National Park and the Pacific Ocean are all within driving distance. There’s a big outlet mall a few miles away in Vacaville and an Anheuser Busch Brewery 20 minutes away.

But I’d given up my rental car. So I discovered that I could get temporary membership at the base library, which gave me access to their video collection, and I burned through a couple of those. A bowling alley is across the street from the hotel. The combined enlisted and officers club has a batch of big-screen TVs to watch sports, along with free happy-hour appetizers for club members, even if you joined at another base. There’s a food court and a Starbucks.

Despite the distractions, frustration grew as the days dragged by. Keeping in contact by Skype, my wife and daughters shared the sentiment.

One day summed up just how unpredictable Space-A can be.

A flight was scheduled with 73 seats. Right before roll call came an announcement that instead of stopping in Alaska, the plane would go direct to Yokota — great news for all but a few who had planned to end their travel at Elmendorf.

The roll call began and my name was called. Then as I waited in line for check-in, another announcement came: because the flight was going direct, more fuel was needed, eating into the weight allowance, so fewer people would be able to go. The roll call was suspended.

Since I was still in line, I was a little disappointed for those who hadn’t been called yet, including “Ugly Stik.” Then again, fewer people would mean empty seats and room to stretch out.

As I was eight people away from checking in, a third announcement came. Check-in was being suspended, too, as they had reached the weight limit. Crushed, I headed for a seat in hopes that a couple more seats would open up. It never happened.

Two days later, another Yokota flight was listed with 14 seats available. I was 20th on the roll call list, but my hopes remained high because right in front of me was a family of six, including four small children. Surely they would stick together, and I would get the last seat.

Nope. The father took it, saying he had to get back to work right away. I know that was probably the right decision professionally, but I wonder if the wife being left behind with the kids — and dropped to a lower category — might come up in some future argument.

When I asked the terminal staff why another flight was taken off the list, I was told it was traveling heavy and hauling hazardous materials. I said I didn’t care, that if there was an accident, the crash would kill me before the hazardous material. They just laughed.

By now, the hotel staff knew me well. I had a good chat with “Ugly Stik,” a retiree who was looking to get to the Philippines. Other people who were equally stranded waved when they spotted me. One was a Florida-based serviceman who was trying to get to Yokota to escort his Japanese wife back; he was driving back and forth from the terminal to his father’s place in Reno, 3  ½ hours away.

My ninth day at the Westwind passed, raising my bill there to $540. I was on my second loaf of bread, fourth pack of lunch meat, second box of microwave popcorn and a batch of grapes from a weekly farmers market. I discovered a decent barbecue restaurant outside the base, though it was a long walk and my knee ached. I was tired of the food court.

Another Friday, and the hotel was booked again. This time I rented a car, did some more shopping at Vacaville and had lunch there, striking up a good chat with a golf fan as we watched Tiger Woods climb into contention at a tournament for the first time in a while.

That night I slept in the red Volkswagen Jetta. It was chilly, and strong winds had the car rocking — all in all, a miserable night, especially because a flight was listed for Saturday morning, but only 10 seats were tentatively available, terminal staff said that could drop to zero, and no flights were scheduled for the next two days.

I already had lost an extra week of leave time, and the ordeal was seeming endless.

The morning finally brought some good news. The monitors showed 73 seats available. With a rubber-band ring, made by my youngest daughter, on my right pinkie for good luck, I was sixth on the list. And although I waited for another stroke of bad luck, it didn’t come.

I got on the C-5 and pumped my fist. Ten days after I started trying to get back, I was finally going home.


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