A quick recap of my first brief flight on Fat Albert Airlines can be found here.
While driving home from SFO after my first flight on Fat Albert I was both incredibly excited and somewhat disappointed. Yes, I flew with the Blue Angels in my first non-commercial flight, but we had only been in the air around 30 minutes, and the majority of that was waiting to land so the injured passenger could get checked out by a doctor. So when the Fat Albert captains and Blue Angels public relations people offered the possibility of getting on another flight, I had to go for it. The opportunity to be one of the rare few to get two flights with the Blue Angels was quite enticing, so I contacted the proper folks the next day and got a call informing me that I’d be able to go back up Sunday. The flight on Sunday was extra special because it wasn’t merely a training run, it was part of the Fleet Week Air Show seen by an estimated million people.
Not only was Sunday one of the Fleet Week Air Show days, but it also happened to be United Airlines Family Day at SFO. So, as I waited at the United Airlines maintenance lobby for security to come drive me to where I needed to be, several hundred people walked by in droves. When a security car finally came for me, I was driven through the mass of humanity to the all-familiar hangar that we got dropped off at on Friday. There I learned I was late to the party and not ten minutes after my arrival, the other passengers and I were escorted out to Fat Albert. As we walked out the crowds cheered while trying to figure out who we were.
Just like before, we were told that the captains would be out in 20 minutes for a briefing and to feel free to walk about the plane. Feeling like an old pro, I enjoyed watching the excitement in others as they walked about the plane, wanting to brag “Oh yea, I’ve flown this before”, but not wanting to explain “Because on my first flight one of the seat belts back here broke and someone got hurt”.
Although the first flight was brief, I had experienced a bit of motion sickness, so I came prepared this time and took some Dramamine in hopes of keeping my lunch down.
Right on schedule the Captains Ben Blanton and John Hecker arrived, the crew assembled and conducted their briefing on the days flight plan (pardon the audio).
Followed by the layman’s briefing Captain Blanton gave to us (again, pardon the audio).
When it was time to find our seats a crewman told me they had a seat for me in the cockpit again, which was a completely unexpected, but gleefully accepted surprise.
Just like before I was handed a headset and an envelope containing an air sickness bag, which I foolishly put under my butt, forgetting the zero gravity portion of the previous flight and how it caused things to float about the cockpit. We buckled up, and I tugged on my seat belt as hard as I could recalling the incident on the previous flight. Just before we were all set to start firing up the engines a call came over the headset informing the pilots of a half hour delay due to fog.
As we waited, the elderly man sitting next to me struck up a conversation with Captain Blanton, recalling how he used to fly C-130s in the Air Force. They talked about many of the planes they had flown, the ups and downs of each and the crazy stuff they had done in them. Then the conversation somehow turned to me as the captain asked me where I was from and what I did. I explained that I was a software engineer from Santa Clara and struggling to find something that might be remotely interesting to two men whose job it was to fly a plane that for me just sitting in might well be the highlight of my adult life, I expressed my love of watching the Blue Angels at Moffett Field when I was a kid. Fortunately, my chagrin was short lived as our half hour delay was over. We buckled up, the engines came to life, and we taxied out to the runway.
Just as we got out to the runway another call came over the headset – another delay due to fog, this time an hour. The crew debated going back to the maintenance area to conserve fuel or wait and hope the fog lifted sooner than an hour, and we all grew concerned that this flight might not happen because fog usually gets worse as the afternoon rolls on. It was decided to stay and wait it out, so the crew played guess what commercial plane would land next and who had eaten the most exotic food. Slightly sooner than expected we got the go-ahead and taxied out to the runway and took off, not giving anyone a chance to delay us further.
The pilot did the same short-runway hostile environment takeoff, taking off and flying 6 feet above the ground, then cranking it up to 200 mph, at which point he pulled back to 45 degrees taking us up to 1000 feet where he leveled off. We experienced a brief period of zero gravity and the navigator did a flip and landed perfectly in his seat as he had the previous day.
Having taken Dramamine and being ready for the 45 degree takeoff and zero gravity bit I felt great. The captain did some 60 degree banks and another zero gravity bit, and it reminded me of an incredibly intense roller coaster ride. We made our way to the holding area by the Golden Gate Bridge until it was our turn to perform in the Air Show.
Then we got the call to begin and flew down to about 60 feet from the water and buzzed the boats nearby before demonstrating the hostile environment takeoff for the crowd, followed by some heavy banks, and cranking the plane up to its top speed of 370 mph.
Same stunts, different day.
The joy I felt with each 60 degree bank quickly faded into panic as I felt my stomach turning followed by the horrifying realization that my air sickness bag had floated away at some point. The feeling got worse as I scrambled in search of the envelope containing my bag, and finding that my fellow passenger’s bag had floated away as well I came very close to asking the navigator for another bag. Thankfully, I was able to calm myself down, taking deep breaths and using some mind over matter I told myself that I was not going to be that guy that lost his lunch on the Blue Angels crew, and most certainly not with my GoPro still recording.
On the way back to SFO we passed by Candlestick and snuck a peek at the 49ers clobbering the Bills.
My memory of the rest of the ride is a blur, which is a shame, because the landing sounded incredibly awesome. Simulating landing on a short runway in a hostile environment, the pilot keeps the plane very high as he slows the plane down until it is just about to stall, then puts the nose down at a very steep angle, and playing a game of chicken with the ground he pulls up at the last moment to avoid disaster and lands.
Upon our return to the United Maintenance area we were greeting by cheers from the many people still at the United Family Day. Thrilled to be on the ground, but my head and stomach still spinning, I cautiously got up and exited the plane. We got to chat with the crew, thank them and take pictures before we were taken back to our cars.
My stomach was still in knots for the rest of the day and the following day, most of which I spent sleeping because I mistakenly grabbed Dramamine that causes sleepiness. It was an unforgettable and educational experience – I learned I don’t have the stomach for this type of flying. My thanks to Mary for getting me on both flights, Rachel the Blue Angels PR lady for getting me in the cockpit, Captains Blanton and Hecker and their crew for such an incredible, twice-in-a-lifetime experience, and of course, thanks again to my best man and wing man Sagar Pathak for setting it up so I could go in the first place.
Here is a view from the same flight that another passenger took from the hold.
See all my photos from the experience here.
See all my videos from the experience here.
I’ll link to Sagar’s article when it becomes available.