Spirit of California taken to Czech

The Spirit of California C-17 from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., flys over the Czech Republic during the Brno International Air Festival. The Spirit of California was the first C-17 received by the 729th Airlift Squadron at March. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

The Spirit of California C-17 from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., flies over the Czech Republic during the Brno International Air Festival. The Spirit of California was the first C-17 received by the 729th Airlift Squadron at March. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman David Flaherty)

Pilots from Spirit of California from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., sign autographs at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic. The crew, from the 729th Airlift Squadron, had just completed an aerial demonstration at the air show. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

Pilots of the Spirit of California from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., sign autographs at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic. The crew, from the 729th Airlift Squadron, had just completed an aerial demonstration at the air show.

Children at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic give a salute while taking a tour of a C-17. The aircraft, the Spirit of California, and crew are from the 729th Airlift Squadron and had just completed an aerial demonstration at the air show. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

Children at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic give a salute while taking a tour of a C-17. The aircraft, the Spirit of California, and crew are from the 729th Airlift Squadron and had just completed an aerial demonstration at the air show. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

The Spirit of California from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., lands at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic. The Spirit of California was the first C-17 received by the 729th Airlift Squadron at March. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

The Spirit of California from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., lands at the Brno International Air Festival in the Czech Republic. The Spirit of California was the first C-17 received by the 729th Airlift Squadron at March. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David Flaherty)

March Air Reserve Base, Calif. -- All that was missing was the red carpet. Everything else was there: flashing cameras; enthusiastic fans pushing against a metal railing; people signing autographs. 

The arrival of the Spirit of California, a C-17 Globemaster III from March Air Reserve Base's 729th Airlift Squadron, in the Czech Republic was a very big deal. 

The occasion was a September good-will tour that included stops at two of Europe's more popular air shows, the Brno International Air Festival and NATO Days. Over 50,000 people from across Europe attended both events. The crew of March ARB's C-17 was thrust into the spotlight. 

"We needed to put on a great presentation for the people of the Czech Republic, because they haven't had much experience in dealing with the United States," said Lt. Col. Michael Fick, a demonstration pilot from the 729th AS. "It's always fun to see people clapping and cheering. It's great that they want us to come back next year." 

Armed with stickers and airplane pins, the crew of the C-17 worked the rope line. A flurry of questions in a foreign tongue bombarded the men, along with pens and paper for autographs. 

"I didn't necessarily think our airplane would be as popular as it was," said Maj. Stephen Little, a pilot with the 729th AS. "The citizens were a very warm and gracious people. I think there was a really good sense of cooperation between both of our NATO countries." 

The stakes are high: NATO planners consider the Czech Republic a vital link in their plans to install an anti-missile radar system throughout the continent. Some Czech politicians are wary of being drawn into what they think is another arms race, but the planners of the air show believe events that bring people together to witness the latest in aviation technology will ultimately help create a better understanding and acceptance of NATO policy. 

"The main goal of NATO Days is to establish trust in the general public," said Zbynek Pavlachik, one of the air show planners. "Security has a price. Since the fall of communism, people must understand this. Without our allies, it is impossible for us to be secure." 

Some local politicians disagree. In recent interviews they have said more weapons of any kind just makes them a bigger target. But, to the thousands of people pushing and shoving for a glimpse of the C-17 Globemaster III, this symbol of NATO readiness was all good. 

"NATO for us is good for our country's security," said Gam Pasecol, husband and father of two who brought his family to the air show. "Even during communist rule, in my house, America was our friend." 

But the fans attending the show did not come to make a geopolitical statement. They like Americans. And, to them, the C-17 from March ARB is about as American as you can get. 

"You see pictures of the C-17, read about it in newspapers, and see it on TV, but to actually see it in real life is quite amazing," said Maj. Slavisha Vlatchich, a test pilot with the Siberian Flight Test Department. "It was a big shock to me and all the other spectators to see such a big airplane that was so maneuverable." 

As the March crew handed out the last of their free memorabilia, a MiG-29 jet roared across the Czech sky in the air show's next demonstration. The crowd's attention steered away from the stationary C-17 and became preoccupied with the aerial display of the Soviet-made jet. 

"I think the U.S. has to continue to put forth the effort towards countries like the Czech Republic and show them that we care," said Capt. Ryan Van Scooter, a pilot with the 729th AS. "It's important that they don't just see America as something that's on TV, but that they actually have an interaction with us." 

The arrival of the C-17 from the 729th AS was a very big deal. The crew was not only thrust into the spotlight, becoming temporary American ambassadors, but hopefully played a part in the country's stance on the protection of itself as well as its neighboring NATO allies. 

"We are happy that communism is gone," said Petr Ptagek, a civil defense attorney who was 12 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. "And even during the darkest days of communist rule, we really didn't feel NATO was the enemy."