Thursday, June 17, 2010

Passing Gas

May, 2010

One of our coworkers from a different area, I’ll call him “Dean” … because that’s his name  … had collaborated with the commander of an aerial refueling squadron at MacDill Air Force Base and had made arrangements for some of us to take a ride aboard a tanker while it was doing a training mission out over the ocean. Dean asked me the usual baiting question, “would you like to go along” and I replied emphatically, ”yes”. He then did the unexpected “switch” part of the “bait-and-switch” maneuver and put me in charge of getting the list of people organized and car pools set up. Alright, I guess that was coming.

Within a couple of days we had 24 folks desiring 20 spots and the coordination had all but been accomplished. There were some last minute changes and challenges, but Robin and I got going around 5 P. M. and headed west toward Tampa. A couple of months earlier we had headed to the west coast and took the longer, slower Tamiami Trail. This time we were in a hurry so opted on I-75. The highway is smooth and fast, and it was relatively empty as we made time across the southern end of the state. We took an absolutely beautiful alternate route once we got into the south part of Tampa, and just barely missed seeing the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico from a high bridge. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Missed it by that much!”. We arrived at MacDill AFB just past 9:00 P.M. and found that our names were indeed on the list. We obtained directions to the guest hotel (“go four stoplights and turn right, signs will show you the way” … not even close, but we lucked in to it  ) and checked in. We went hunting for food and ended up back off-base at a “Five Guys” burgers place and enjoyed a late night meal (it was actually pretty good, but not the best on the planet) then returned to get a nap. Our bus was to pick us up at 5:30 A.M. so it was a short night’s rest. We all met in the hotel lobby and the bus took us to the NCO mess hall for breakfast. We were served cafeteria style and Robin and I ate full breakfasts for something on the order of $8.00. Not bad at all.

From the mess hall we traveled to the briefing room/passenger terminal where we were checked in for the flight and received our safety briefings. Next we climbed back aboard the bus and went to the flight line (no pictures allowed) where many tanker aircraft were parked. We boarded, got another short briefing and began the first part of the mission … waiting. Now a point of perspective must be that the KR-135 aircraft was built as a war machine and it serves a couple of purposes. Primarily it transports huge amounts of fuel into the sky to allow the cargo planes and fighters to refuel while airborne. It’s secondary capacity is as a cargo mover and as a last function it can carry passengers. Carrying tourists is not what the airplane does best; not at all. There is a row of straight-backed nylon webbed seats along either side of the fuselage. Harnesses hold you in place and there are no seat cushions, arm rests, tray tables, overhead lights or vents any kind. After the door the aircraft closed, we began to discover what the flight crews already know…the air conditioning is painfully inadequate. It began to heat up in the ‘cabin’ as soon as the doors were closed. The outside of aircraft is painted gray and the thing absorbed sunlight like a heat sponge. As soon as we taxied away from our parking area we were informed that the second aircraft would be delayed about 30 minutes, awaiting the rendezvous airplane. We were meant to go as a flight, so we waited also. It got hotter … I don’t think it got much past 100 degrees, but with little air movement, and the noise of the engines, it was pretty uncomfortable. One of our group became claustrophobic and was escorted up to the cockpit to be able to see out and get closer to some fans. The Boom Operator brought cold water around and felt a little better.

The aircraft finally took off and we were on our way. We were scheduled for a four hour training mission out over the Atlantic Ocean east of the Carolinas. Since we were late departing, the mission would be shortened as the next set of training flight would be arriving on station at their scheduled times.

The problem now became … you guessed it … cold. Moving along at 30,000 feet above sea level, it was pretty chilly outside and the cold quickly moved inside. Not quite ‘see-your-breath’ cold, but enough to again be uncomfortable, especially in some sweat-soaked clothes. Fortunately, Robin and I nad brought along some layers, so we did OK all in all.

Robin was blessed with being able to lay down in tone of the observation stations directly adjacent to the boom operator. She got a short lesson on how it works and was thrilled to see the looming C-7 cargo plane slip in several hundred yards behind us and gradually close the distance. The boom operator called the shots and with a very noticeable ‘thud’ the two aircraft became one as the refueling boom hit its mark and locked into place. Since this was only for training, no fuel was actually transferred. As a matter of fact, the pilots traveling in the C-7 were actually undergoing proficiency check rides.

Several more connects/disconnects were made with members of our entourage each getting their turn to climb down into the tail of the tanker and watch these huge cargo planes flying only yards away from us. I held off going until the very last, as I was privileged to ride on a KC-10 out of Buckley Air Force Base several years ago as we wanted those folks who’ve never seen this operation to be afforded an opportunity to go first. When I did get to climb down, it was just as the last check-ride was being attempted and the pilot of the C-7 was very timid about closing the gap to the boom. We did not get connected before we had to break off and start heading home. Time had run out.

The trip home was a temperature extreme ride in reverse, going from freezing to roasting and thankful for the opening of the hatch so we could escape into the relative cool of an 85 degree day. The tour would take us next to the Officers’ Club where a buffet lunch had been set out (well, for anyone actually but we came late so we had the place to ourselves) for only $10. Following lunch we were to go up to the MacDill AFB Control Tower (MCF) to visit with some folks and get a look at the operation. Robin and I declined on this part as our schedule (don’t you hate that) dictated that we get an early start on our return trip. Reports that we received indicated that we missed a great time and there were several networking opportunities with the Commanders and Quality Assurance Officers of the base.

While this was not an official F.A.A. function, it did offer bridge-building opportunities and it is always good to put faces to the name of people who work alongside you to accomplish the daily mission of protecting our homeland and providing air traffic services to the men and women who serve.

To the flight crew, Captain Andy, Sergeant Garcia, the Base Commander and Wing Commander, and to Dean and all the folks that I didn’t meet who helped orchestrate this great outing, I would like to offer my sincerest thanks and humble admiration. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on an Air Force Base and it brought back a lot of memories. I’m still proud to have served and I’m still proud of those who do.

Thank You. God Bless America.

Ohhhh Mexico!

We have a week off! It has been a considerable amount of time (perhaps around 2 years) since Robin and I have had an unfocused getaway. There have been plenty of ‘getaways’ but they have had, for the most part, some focus item that was the driving force for the time away from work.

Ah… work … remind me to talk about that in a little while; there are some major developments along that front.

We are currently spending a week at the resort timeshare Robin purchased some ten years ago located in Mazatlan Mexico. A few of you reading this have been there so you know what it is like to be a few steps into paradise at this resort. I will point to a few pictures from previous trips to give a feel for the place. What you can’t get a feel for is the staff, the sound of the surf, the relaxing time in the pool(s) or walking on the beach or just sitting typing on the laptop while the songbirds sing and the sea breeze comes in through the screens. Yep, this is good stuff. I can wholeheartedly recommend getaways like this to regain perspective and to truly escape for a short time.

Since it has been over two years since we’ve been here, we have been ‘wowed’ by some of the changes that have taken place. It’s obvious to me that the global economy has taken a downturn (the resort is only 45% full as I write this) and still there have been a few other resorts pop up in an area which was once fairly remote. It is still nothing like a crowded Miami strip of beach, but there are now several other big buildings and one large high-rise visible from the grounds here. The nearest one is a huge facility called the RIU, apparently an all-inclusive resort that just opened a few months ago. The result of all the new competition has been surprising to us. The company has thrown (I would guess) millions of dollars into expansion here.


They’ve built more units, fancy villas that could sleep 8 or 10 folks and each have their own swimming pool, and they have a new gym and spa that are absolutely amazing considering that it is a ‘perk’ for owners and guests.

There are two restaurants, two delis, a full service bar and a small grocery shopping provision. There is a brand new pool and one that is now adults only. Couple that with pool-side wait staff and swim up bars and there isn’t much reason to leave the immaculately maintained grounds anymore. I like this place!

So, I do have some time on my hands so I will do my best to catch up with the last few months. It has indeed been an adventurous time, busier than I would’ve ever imagined and full of challenges and changes. The good stuff is simply that Robin and I are still enjoying life, we still stop and smell the roses, we still count our blessings to be with each other and to be surrounded by great friends and family whether they are close by or on the far end of the country from us. We are still cozy in our 5th wheel and it is still functioning perfectly (no problems mechanically or electrically or otherwise) and we have made application the management of the park we are at to stay ‘long term’, which could grant us a permanent spot in the park along with a somewhat reduced monthly rate. We’ll know if we are approved in a couple of weeks. It’s been right at a year and a half now since we left behind brick and siding for the RV and it has proven to be a good call. One of the side benefits of living this life style is that we have come to know a great deal about south Florida. When we have pulled the coach from one park to the next, we have struck out to explore the areas and find our way around. We now have ‘favorite’ restaurants and hang-outs that we visit for a few months at a time, then we move and visit the other half of them, then we come back to the first bunch again. It’s pretty unique and we’ve claimed a lot of territory as ‘local’. I suppose that’s the nature of it in the ‘big city’ as we plan accordingly to drive 55 miles to visit the boat and have dinner out and it really isn’t such a big deal.

The down side is that everything takes longer because of the distances and the traffic here. We do spend a lot more of our time in the car; maybe that explains why (it seems) everyone owns a high-end car like Mercedes or Infinity or Cadillac or Lexus. If you have to live in your car, it might as well be a nice ride. Of course, upon closer examination you are unlikely to find one of these cars that aren’t dinged, scraped or scratched. We’ve been spared paint-to-paint contact so far, but it has been close a few times already. The world’s best drivers do not live in Miami-Dade County! 

It’s June in Florida again, and that’ll bring with it briefings from local and state agencies, as well as our work, about what happens if a hurricane hits. The forecast for this season is more active than last year, but a forecast is exactly that. We will prepare and train accordingly; the Hurricane Response Team (HRT) at work will put the schedules and lists together in case of an emergency, and Robin and I will keep a watchful eye on the National Hurricane Center’s website (NOAA texts us if a storm develops). We still plan to hook up and pull away to some (relatively) safe inland area should a strike be imminent but we’re certainly hoping to be spared that project. Truly, all we can do is what everyone else does: watch diligently and plan accordingly.

What I will do now is try to catch up, like on a month-to-month basis. I'll post them as I complete them, not in any order. Once I get them all done, I'll reorder them accordingly.
Sorry for being tardy, but I've been chasing my tail lately, doing a lot of typing but not necessarily the kind I like to do.