My buddy Sagar is an editor for a small aviation magazine/website, and with the Blue Angels coming to town for Fleet Week, he planned to write a piece on them. Wanting some photos to go with his story, he contacted the Blue Angels public relations office to try and get a spot aboard Fat Albert, the modified C-130T Hercules that usually starts their show, during one of their training runs. However, the Blue Angels have a policy of one flight per lifetime, and since he had done the same ride a few years ago, they recommended he find a different photographer for the flight. Somehow he had problems finding anyone able to go, so he asked me if I’d be willing to go on the flight and take some shots for him to use in his piece. How could I say no?
When most everyone heard me say I was going up with the Blue Angels, they assumed it would be in one of the F/A-18s, and none of the news I’ve seen made any mention or had any footage of Fat Albert. While this overlooked C-130T obviously doesn’t have all the glamour and excitement of a fighter jet, it is incredibly versatile, small enough to pull some amazing maneuvers and large enough to transport the 45 or so Blue Angels maintenance and support team and several enormous palettes of their gear to and from the 35 or so shows they perform a year.
Photo by Sagar Pathak.
Due to a scheduling mix-up I showed up to the United Airlines Maintenance lobby at San Francisco Airport on Thursday and was told I’d be flying on Friday. No problem, I’m certainly not going to raise a stink when they’re giving me a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I showed up on Friday, got my visitor’s badge and was then driven along with three other photographers through the United Airlines maintenance area to the hangars where the Blue Angels crew were setup.
We were told to just hang out for an hour until we’d head over to Fat Albert and get briefed. The Blue Angels F/A-18s were out on the tarmac getting prepared so I weaved my way through the many United Airlines employees that were admiring the Angels to find some good shots of the Angels getting worked on.
There was also a restored World War 2 era P-51D Mustang that I was particularly enamored with.
Before we headed over to the plane we had to fill out some waivers, and I recalled Sagar telling me that I should ask for a spot in the cockpit, so I quietly asked the Blue Angels PR lady about it and she told me they would try and get me a seat up there.
Then the time came and we walked out past the F/A-18s and grouped up behind Fat Albert.
There we were told that the pilots would be out in 20 minutes for a briefing and until then we were welcome to walk about the plane, but asked not to touch anything on the instrument panels. Here is the hold where those not in the cockpit sat:
And here is a view of the cockpit from where I sat:
Captain Ben Blanton arrived with Captain John Hecker and conducted a briefing with his crew in which he explained what maneuvers they would be doing, what angles, what elevations and a great deal of other information that flew right over my head.
Fortunately, Captain Blanton had a second briefing with us giving us the flight plan in layman’s terms.
We then boarded the plane and I climbed up to the cockpit where I sat down next to an NBC Bay Area cameraman and realized how fortunate I was to get a spot next to a major media guy. We strapped in and were handed air sickness bags and headsets. Having a headset really added to the experience, as I was able to hear the inter-crew and air traffic control communications. It was a bit crowded in the cockpit with two pilots and four crewmen in addition to the NBC guy and myself. Two of the crewmen were standing and it became apparent that we had probably taken their seats, but they didn’t seem to mind. The doors were closed and the flight engineer had a little fun with going through the engine start checklist – a procedure they’ve done hundreds of times, he would announce each propeller coming up to speed with “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-otation 1” and the same for 2, 3 and 4.
We taxied out to the runway where we waited perhaps 20 minutes in line watching plane after plane land in front of us while the crew cracked some jokes with each other. Finally we got our turn and we were off.
The takeoff was far different than a commercial flight, the plan was to simulate a takeoff in hostile territory with a short runway. Essentially take off, stay low, speed up, and then trade speed for altitude, so we sped up and began flying at six feet off the ground, and while staying only six feet above the ground increased speed to around 200 mph, at which point the pilot pulled up to a 45 degree angle and we felt 2+ Gs of force push down on us until we reached 1000 feet at which point we leveled out and had about two seconds of zero gravity. During those two seconds one of the crewmen flew out of his chair and did flips before falling right back in his seat, clearly he’d had a lot of practice.
Then we got some very disappointing news over the headset, someone in the hold had a medical emergency, so we had to return to SFO. We circled the airport waiting for a spot to get in and land, for what felt like 20 minutes.
When we got our turn at landing a warning light came on indicating that the front landing gear was not down. The pilot did a flyby and had the air traffic control tower take a visual inspection and they informed him that it was in fact down and he was safe to land.
We landed in what was by far the smoothest landing in a plane I’d ever felt – I didn’t even realize we had touched the ground until the pilot hit the brakes. We taxied back to the United Maintenance area and just like that the flight was over.
As we disembarked a doctor came aboard to take a look at the injured passenger. Talking with the passengers that were back with him I found out that when we did the zero gravity bit, his seat belt broke and he floated up. When gravity returned he fell to the floor and gashed his face. While it wasn’t a serious injury, just requiring some stitches, they decided to be safe and take him to hospital. The captain and PR people apologized and told us we were welcome to come back another day or wait until next year for another go at it, and then we were whisked back to our cars.
Stay tuned for a post about my second flight aboard Fat Albert Airlines…
For more photos, see my smugmug page.