“Bert” is as stumpy as a bull frog, as strong as an ox and as agile as a ballerina. Bert is formally known as “Fat Albert,” and she’s the huge C-130 Hercules transport plane that performs the opening act for the Navy’s Blue Angels precision fight squadron.
Her primary mission is to transport equipment, spare parts and support personnel between the Blue Angels air shows.
Bert may be a service vehicle but when the best of the best Marine aviators take command of her four 4,300-horsepower engines, she climbs, rolls, dives and roars with amazing precision and agility. As a private pilot myself, I’m as awed by the antics of Fat Albert as I am impressed by the precision of the Blue Angels’ F/A-18s.
So when the invitation came to ride in Fat Albert for a full-scale practice run of the Pensacola Beach Air Show in July, I jumped at the opportunity. A few media members get the invite for each show along with some Naval sailors who get selected for service excellence.
The calendar moved slowly leading up to fight day but my heart was pounding with anticipation as I finally passed through NAS Pensacola security. Once checked off for physical fitness, the fight briefings were thorough and precise. Our captain is Major Dusty Cook, a mix of military professionalism along with a sharp sense of humor and a devious grin. He runs through the intense maneuvers of the fight plan in exacting detail without referencing a single note. Then he gives our orders…
“This is not a commercial airline fight. Your gear must be secure at all times or it will be gone. If your cell phone comes out of your pocket or hand, it will crash into tiny little pieces and you will stick around after the fight to pick them up. If your seat belt is loose, you’ll be jostled about and you won’t like it. If you come out of your seat belt, your body parts will make a mess all over the cargo area. Our fight crew takes meticulous care of Bert. They won’t be happy if that happens. Cinch your seat belt tight and secure your gear.
“If you lose your lunch make sure it goes in the barf bag you’ve been provided and not on the people around you. That starts a chain reaction we don’t want to see and makes a mess you’ll have to stay late to clean up too. On my last fight only one person got sick. That was disappointing and I’ll do a better job with you guys on this fight.” That’s when I noticed the devious grin.
The fight itself was more than imagined and difficult for a simple writer like me to put into words. Start with the roar of four powerful Rolls Royce engines as the big bird quickly lifts five feet off the runway and accelerates to about 200 knots before the pilot pulls it into a 45-degree climb angle (a commercial fight ascends at about 10 degrees). At this point we’re pulling about 2gs, which translates to my body feeling twice its already overweight heaviness. This is exactly how I would suggest leaving a hostile combat situation, but…
After the steep climb, Captain smirk pushes the plane over into a dive. Without warning we go from heavyweight to weightless. The fight crew in the cargo area float about the plane, holding onto whatever is available. The remainder of the demonstration fight continues like a high intensity roller coaster ride, except it lasts about 10 times longer.
Fat Albert makes turns with 60-degree bank angles, high-speed low-altitude passes over the crowd, steep climbs and more weightless dives. And the landing at Pensacola Naval Air Station is something of a high speed combat assault fight accelerating down a crossing runway followed by a high-angle banking turn and short field landing, precisely ending the fight on the spot we started.
And to answer the most asked question, my barf bag was empty but quite a few others were not. Nice job, Major Cook!
Local media estimated the air show delighted more than a quarter of a million spectators on the ground, packing the beach and on thousands of boats anchored in the beautiful lagoons, bays and gulf waters surrounding Pensacola Beach. The Blue Angels Flight Demonstration inspires audiences by showcasing the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
I learned on this fight that Navy sailors and marines look up to Fat Albert and the Blue Angels with spirit lifting pride be- cause what they see is a bit of themselves on display… the amazing professionalism of each and every member of the United States Navy and Marine Corps on display for all to appreciate.