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At 51,000-feet, generals live the high life

Military commanders travel in the highest of style, thanks to a fleet of luxury jets based at MacDill Air Force Base.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

TAMPA -- Imagine you're flying on a jet.

Instead of a seat size that requires the flexibility of a yogi, you sprawl in a chair that feels like a leather La-Z-Boy recliner.

Instead of a teeny bag of peanuts, your favorite dinner is served. It is cooked to perfection, and the flight attendant follows up with warm, homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Instead of standing in line at airports with ornery travelers and missing your connecting flight, you travel across the globe at almost the speed of sound.

This is better than coach, better than first-class. Superior, even, to a business class ticket to Asia. This is air travel, four-star general style.

The nation's military commanders don't usually fly to meetings or missions with the grunts. They fly like Hollywood celebrities or rich executives, even when clad in fatigues.

And many of these luxury flights leave from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

MacDill is home to the 310th Airlift Squadron, which was reactivated in 2001 after it was based in Panama. The small group has one job: to shuttle the nation's combat commanders around the world.

The flights can be short, from one Florida base to another. Or they can last around the world, although the plane has to stop about every 10 hours to refuel and change crew for safety reasons.

"Every mission we do is a high visibility mission," said Lt. Col. David Dale, the squadron's commander. "We give five-star service to the four-star commanders."

There are three airplanes at MacDill, and three others at three Air Force bases around the world. Seven commanders -- including Central Command's general, Tommy Franks -- have access to MacDill's three planes, and all flight requests are scheduled at the Pentagon.

All of the MacDill planes are new C-37s made by Gulfstream. They are the Rolls-Royces of the flight world -- they even have Rolls-Royce engines. Pilots say they are the equivalent of driving a luxury sports car instead of a station wagon-like jumbo jet.

"It's a nicely decked out plane, about the same as an RV," said Dale. "But it's a little more expensive."

At $50-million each, the planes are flying fortresses, airborne offices and cozy apartments rolled into one.

The commander has his own seat in the middle of the cabin, a blue, leather chair. He also has a couch that folds out into a bed. His staff or other "DVs" -- squadron lingo for Distinguished Visitors -- sit in similar seats in the rear of the plane.

Everyone has his own personal video screen for watching DVDs, individual Sony headset for listening to music and an outlet to plug in a computer.

Each plane accommodates 12 passengers. There are two pilots, one flight engineer and one communications systems operator who makes sure the general's phone calls are secure and static-free. The communications person also monitors weather reports.

There is one flight attendant on every journey. Allison Miller has been on the job four years.

Miller wears a conservative blue dress and a smart pink scarf around her neck when she flies on the C-37. Like her airline counterparts, she serves drinks and smiles a lot.

She also learned how to handle a rifle at basic training and holds the rank of sergeant.

"I got into the military because I wanted to travel," said Miller, who has been in the Air Force 11 years.

At mealtime, each general or admiral tells the attendant what he would like to eat. Some commanders are gourmands who thumb through Bon Appetit magazine for hints.

Others, like Gen. Franks, request more down-home fare.

"He's a big eater," Miller said.

Franks enjoys biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs and chicken-fried steak.

"That's at one sitting," she said.

Meals are served on platinum-ringed china graced with the United States seal.

The attendants often have to find fruits, vegetables and other fresh items in other parts of the world, which can be a challenge. A general once asked for hot wings on an upcoming flight -- so the attendant had to scour stores near the base for chicken wings and sauce.

That was somewhere in the Middle East.

The squadron almost always has a flight in the air, taking off, or about to land. Schedules change quickly, and it's not uncommon for a commander to visit two countries in a day.

The 56 crew members at MacDill have been to every continent except Antarctica.

"People always say, 'Oh, you've seen the world,' " Dale said. "We have seen a lot of runways."

Some runways are better than others. One in La Paz, Bolivia, is at 13,000 feet. Honduras is a "challenging approach," the pilots say, because of the giant cliffs nearby.

Like commercial pilots and attendants, the military crew doesn't always get to spend much time on the ground, but they know the good hotels nearby.

"The Dominican Republic is wonderful," said Senior Airman Abbey Skinner during a recent tour of the squadron's headquarters.

"Is that where we had no hot water in the hotel?" Miller asked, then paused. "No, that was Curacao."

There's one runway the crew hasn't visited: Baghdad. The crew is taking bets on when the 310th Airlift Squadron will first land there.

Dale won't discuss security measures taken when the generals fly overseas, but the logistics -- such as getting diplomatic flight clearances over certain countries -- can be sticky, especially on short notice.

Yet if the plane breaks down, no problem. The flight engineer is also a certified mechanic.

But if the aircraft requires major repairs, a civilian Gulfstream mechanic based at MacDill flies to the plane.

Dale said some may say the flights -- and the amenities -- are extravagant.

But because the generals are flying to high-stress assignments -- to South America to discuss drug wars, to Bagram Air Force base to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, to Washington to consult with the president -- a relaxing flight is worth the expense, he said.

The plane flies at 51,000 feet, and the pilots keep the cabin pressure lower than commercial jets, which they say reduces jet lag and fatigue.

"They're well-rested when they arrive," Dale said.

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