The Blue Bird Express

In the, shall we say, “Good Ol’ Days” it was our experience that innumerable delays were the norm when flying overseas. The usual scenario was a broken airplane complicated by crew rest (all spent with our team locked in some hangar at one or another airfield). Our flight surgeon was pretty successful at predicting where and when these breakdowns would occur. He claimed to hang out in the cockpit with the front-end crew and listen closely to determine where the pilots had girlfriends stationed. Be that as it may, we usually arrived in country after about twenty hours of flight time.
On one particular mission, the C-141 loadmaster approached us as we unloaded our gear and offered up a case of orange juice. He was certain that we would need the extra hydration in the equatorial sun, and he didn’t want to have it in the back of his airplane anyway. This delighted our dental technician to no end and he drank about half the supply of hot, canned juice. In retrospect, this may have been an error in judgment as acidic beverages can leach heavy metals from the solder used in the metal cans and produce acute GI toxicity.

After about an hour or so of sitting on the airfield with the blistering sun beating down on our weary, circadian rhythm confused bodies a twin engine light cargo plane appeared out of the cloudless African sky. The team did an engine running on load all the while gagging on the hot, blasting engine exhaust as the equipment was loaded along the center aisle of the aircraft. By the time the team had climbed over the cargo, each other, and crammed themselves into the red nylon seats the young dental tech was not looking well (apparently the juice, sun and exhaust were beginning to take their toll). The pilot looked through the door at us, roared a friendly “Jambo”, gunned the engines and roared down the tarmac with enough G’s to make a Tomcat jockey proud. Mike, the dental tech, looked as if his stomach was still back on the 141.Across from young Mike sat two smug SF medics who had been patiently observing the aforementioned activities. They smiled knowingly. 
As we departed Nairobi, the flight leveled out and the cool air so common to being at altitude began to flow. All seemed well. The flight upcountry was scheduled for roughly two hours and the team very quickly began falling asleep to the drone of the big engines beating away just a few feet from them through the thin skin of the aircraft. At about thirty minutes into the flight the aircraft was over the savanna, so one of the more energetic guys climbed into the cockpit and asked the pilot to take the plane down to about two hundred feet for a better view of the abundant African wildlife. The pilot obliged the team’s camera buff and abruptly plunged from one thousand to two hundred feet in what seemed (to those who were conscious) like a death plunge. 

At two hundred feet the thousands of zebra, gazelle, giraffe and other assorted animals seemed like a river of wildlife flowing away from the flight path. Soon, the pilot began to, almost recklessly, “horse the aircraft” to and fro in an attempt to chase this species or that in response to our resident photojournalist. Flying nap of the earth (NOE) at high speeds has a way of making passengers distinctly uncomfortable. The aircraft tips and sways, visually the earth plunges and veers away, the cargo groans in response to the tension on the straps securing it to the floor of the plane, and the engine power rises and falls. The body is subjected to sudden powerful upward and downward pressures that one feels in the pit of their stomach and at the base of their spine. The head is whipped to the left and right. One instinctively clings to the cargo netting in a futile attempt to steady oneself. And, the body begins to betray you. The visual, auditory, proprioceptive, and tactile stimulus begins to overwhelm the brain’s ability to process the information. 

Many veterans of NOE respond to the above torture session by simply grabbing the nets, closing their eyes, and taking deep, slow breaths. They occasionally open their eyes to see how their fellow passengers are dealing with the ride. This was the case with our wise, aforementioned, SF medics. Other, less experienced, passengers handle the session with much less ease and grace.

It was at about this point in the flight when one of the medics nudged his “homie” and nodded to the dental tech across the isle. They laughed out loud, smug in their experience, at the thought of the approaching eruption. Mike began swallowing rapidly, then spitting onto the aluminum floor of the aircraft, and looking around wildly for an airsickness bag. One of the medics yelled above the roar of the engines, “Mike, you damn well better not puke on me or I’ll kill you! Use your hat, you juice guzzling wimp! These words had no sooner left Smug Medic #1’s mouth than the young dental tech clamped both hands over his mouth, became bug-eyed, and began to violently expel his stomach contents. As the contents reached Mike’s hands it shot through the spaces between the fingers with the force of water on a breached hull. The orange fluid flew in all directions, but strangely enough the majority of it drenched Smug Medics #1 and #2.The other Special Forces team members, after ensuring that they had not been hit, roared with laughter at the two medics. The medics in a fit of embarrassed rage fought to get out of their seats with the intent of doing bodily damage to said technician, but it was about this time that our trusty flight surgeon whipped out some injectable promethazine (Phenergan®) and addressed Mike’s misery. Though he could do little for the vile stench and wounded egos of the two “less” smug medics. 

Don Shipman