Flying “space available” on a cargo plane to Japan

Though at times challenging, military life also has its perks. One perk being the ability to fly space-a (space available) on a cargo plane, anywhere in the world- for FREE! Sounds great, right? Well, there are a few caveats. The schedule is only posted seventy-two hours in advance, can change without notice, and you may or may not be selected for the flight, hence the name space available. But for one with lots of flexibility and patience, it’s an incredible deal, indeed!

Matt had a six-week assignment in Tokyo this past July, so joining him was a no brainer! After careful watch of the flight schedule, the girls and I decided to try for a flight to Okinawa, a tiny island about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, with a connection to Yokota Air Base the following day. If all went as planned….

But first, the unmistakably Alaskan sights on the way to the passenger terminal.

We arrived at the terminal for the 10 p.m. check-in, only to be sent home due to weather issues in Okinawa. “Come back in twelve hours”, they said. Our space-a journey had begun, indeed.  But at least we had the light of the midnight sun on the drive home (yes, this is what 11 p.m. looks like!)

The great thing about living on an air base is the close proximity to the passenger terminal, and with no traffic (except the occasional bear crossing), it makes for a super easy commute.

Ahh, all checked in, and through security. Did I mention no crowds, either?

Take heed when your “airline of choice” also offers earplugs upon boarding, there is a reason!

And we’re off! A quick bus ride to the flight line.

The monstrous C-5 was our ride, and also happens to be the largest military aircraft in the world. It can transport six Apache helicopters or five tanks at one time- that’s big!

Through the back-end loading ramp, we entered the bowels of the beast, then it was up a very steep ladder to the seating area. The cargo space was almost completely full with what seemed like a hundred pallets.

Then, it was seat-yourself. But, hey, at least there WERE seats! You are not always so lucky with cargo plane travel.

We each got a row to ourselves as well, making the possibility of sleep a little greater.

Not to mention leg room for days!

We received brief and comforting flight instructions with phrases such as “if the lights go out that’s VERY bad”, and “we’re flying over a typhoon which is never a good thing” and I have also never heard the term “barf bag” used in one pre-flight speech as often. The girls were slightly freaked out, while I chuckled at the perfectly pragmatic attitude of our seasoned military host.

There was definitely no in-flight service or hot washcloths passed around for this transpacific flight. In fact, the chips and Sprite were more than we expected.

And the water station. Help yourself.

I even found the barf bags! But, luckily we didn’t need one.

Remember the earplug dispenser? Well, they were needed (our noise canceling head phones were a lifesaver)! The hum of the engine was more like a roar. You have to yell at the top of your voice to hear someone seated next to you. Not exactly a comfortable way to travel.

And don’t forget the darkness! No windows make for a interesting ride.

An uneventful nine hours later, we landed in Okinawa, and stepped out of the plane into the steamy humidity of the tropics. A stark contrast from the crisp, cool Alaskan air. Also, a 9 p.m. sunset was such an oddity for two girls accustomed to the midnight sun.

 Now the real space-a fun began…trying to find last minute accommodations while dealing with jet-lag and a phone with no service. Also, the base hotels and surrounding hotels were full, due to the recent typhoons.

   Our options:

  1. “Sleep” at the terminal for five hours and try to get a connecting flight scheduled to leave at 3 a.m., which would be a long-shot at best.
  2. Spend twenty-four hours in Okinawa and try for one of two flights to Yokota Air Base the following day.

We opted for number two, and thanks to Wi-Fi, the Hilton app and all-night-taxi’s-that-take-credit-cards, we were on our way to get some sleep- FINALLY!

So, as you can see, flying space-a may be free, but not always stress-free, (and I really missed having Matt along who usually deals with these logistics). Up next…..twenty-four hours in beautiful Okinawa.


  1. Alice/e
    September 7, 2018 / 2:29 am

    I LOVED Eva’s facial expressions during this post and I wish we could have tried to fly Space-A while we were there……

  2. amarabray
    September 27, 2018 / 1:17 pm

    I’m worried that with no windows I would get motion sick, but still, it sounds like an adventure. I hope if I were in your position I would take advantage of space-a travel.

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