It was an impressive sight.

Even before the 173rd Airborne Brigade marched out to meet its transportation Wednesday, the C-17s parked along a taxiway at Aviano were turning more than a few heads.

The base in Italy is home to the 31st Fighter Wing and its contingent of F-16 Fighting Falcons. Larger military planes occasionally make stops. Often, it’s C-130 transport planes based at Ramstein that hook up with units from Vicenza and Italians for monthly jumps.

But the C-17s, based at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and McChord Air Force Base, Wash., are less frequent visitors. And having 16 of the hulking planes lined up on taxiways nose to tail is even more rare.

“Have you been inside? It’s bigger than my apartment,” said one soldier.

In what seemed like a scene from a “Star Wars” movie, the camouflaged members of the 173rd, each bearing heavy packs and weapons, marched by the hundreds to the taxiway. Individual units separated from the long lines and swung toward the planes that would take them to Iraq.

After that, there was plenty of time to contemplate the hazy sky that obscured views of the nearby mountains.

Jumpmasters circulated, making sure each soldier’s parachute and backup chute were secured in the proper manner. One after another, each soldier had to stand up and contort — as much as it was possible with the 100-plus pounds of equipment they were bearing — in a series of awkward positions while straps were pulled, tightened and tested.

After soldiers got the OK, many parked themselves on the pavement, closed their eyes and tried to get some rest. They had a long flight and an uncertain night ahead.

Airmen on hand said riding on a C-17 is relatively the same as riding on the smaller C-130. But the C-17s can comfortably carry about 100 paratroops in addition to some equipment. And those needing to stand up don’t have to literally walk on top of everyone else to get to their destination. There’s a little room in the aisles.

But those expecting first-class meal service were probably disappointed.

Asked about the food served on the flight, an Air Force staff sergeant grimaced and pointed to a large stack of white boxes. “Probably ham and cheese [sandwiches]. Or maybe peanut butter and jelly,” he said.

Not that those on board were complaining. Many probably weren’t hungry anyway. Less than five hours after they took off, they were out the door, into the night and on the ground in Iraq. No major injuries were reported Thursday afternoon.

Hours earlier, as planes started moving slowly toward the runway, crowds started to gather around the base. Some were pilots with the 510th and 555th Fighter squadrons and admitted being jealous of their Army counterparts.

People stationed at Aviano had seen the hundreds of soldiers and airmen from the States shopping at the base exchange and commissary for a few days.

Now it was time to watch them leave.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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