In the Back of Fat Albert
The Marines operate a Lockheed Martin C-130T Hercules as part of the storied Blue Angels Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Nicknamed Fat Albert, the four-engined tactical turboprop transport carries a mini-maintenance shop and the required non-piloting Blue Angels crew members from their home at Pensacola, Florida to air shows across North America. While the plane and its crew of 5 perform this routine mission a few round trips per month, a very different and anticipated part of each Blue Angels air show is the opening C-130 performance, where the crew displays the rugged tactical flight capabilities of their beloved “‘Bert”.
This Photorecon writer was part of a group of civilians that got the opportunity to fly aboard Fat Albert’s practice flight of during the Great State of Maine Air Show over Labor Day Weekend, 2015. Since the Marines use their C-130/KC-130T/J aircraft for multiple missions (tactical troop transport, air refueling tanker, logistical transport, and even close air support now), the aerial demonstration contains maneuvers not experienced during routine cross country flights. It was described to us as an “eight to nine minute roller coaster ride”. Having already seen the flight demonstration from the ground, I wondered aloud how much practice by the crew was needed to present this “tactical flight” show. Gunnery Sargent Micah Bachtold, Bert’s Flight Engineer, gave me this insight to four of my questions:
[Before the season begins…] how long is the practice program – is it a syllabus? “Typically for Fat Albert’s demonstration practice it is two weeks long, 4 hours a day. There is a syllabus, where we operate under the crawl, walk, run. The maneuvers we do in Fat Albert are the same maneuvers we utilize overseas. However we put it together into an 8 1/2 minute flight to entertain the crowd.”
How many times weekly do you practice the routine during the show season? “Tuesdays are a practice day for us when we are back in Pensacola, FL. Then at a show site we will fly the demo Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, one time. There are occasions where we will fly twice, and that typically happens if we perform a night show (happens around sunset).”
Is there a designated spare airplane if Bert has a long-term problem? “There is not a designated spare airplane. Should we need to get an “Ernie” (that what we call a spare Bert), we have to request through our channels to borrow a gray one from a fleet squadron.”
Finally, how many crew members in total are qualified to fly one of your flight demonstrations? “Typically we have 3 pilots and 5 enlisted members. During a normal weekend we will take 2 pilots and 3 enlisted members to a show.”
Besides having an invite to fly aboard Bert (several members of local media outlets, first responders and military members are normally invited on practice flights), there are a few other requirements to be met before flying. A general physical well-being is needed; a checklist was provided for guidance.
A “motion sickness” bag is issued to every rider, with detailed instructions given as to how it is used and then closed tightly afterwards – so its contents don’t become airborne during the rest of the flight. The preflight safety briefing stressed that it would be “a very dynamic flight” and it was not uncommon during these types of combat maneuvers to have a few riders fall ill. If you did, you should prominently show “the bag” proudly as you exited the aircraft – for photos! Additionally, I imagine this was to prove that you used the bag, and didn’t have to clean up the inside the aircraft after yourself too. (Yes – if you soiled the plane, you clean up after yourself – that is part of the deal if you’re riding in Bert).
The whole crew assembled underneath the tail of the airplane for their pre-flight briefing, given by the flight’s aircraft commander, Captain Katie Higgins. Besides the regular Marine crew, several additional Blue Angels team members were aboard to assist with any issues caused by us – the visitors.
After she “flew” the entire routine out loud, complete with specific speeds, angles of bank, and aircraft configurations, she repeated the basics for the non-aviators in our group to understand. The routine: takeoff and remain at low altitude (around 5 feet off the runway) until near its end. Then a maximum performance climb was initiated until the airspeed fell to 95 knots, where the “pushover” occurred. After a few turns to reposition, we’d fly the parade pass from left to right, with a high bank angle. Reversing course, we’d make a high speed flat pass at 305 knots about 50 feet off of the runway, and then make a sweeping right turn to end up facing the crowd head-on. Pulling up over the crowd, we’d turn left to reposition for our final high-angle approach and landing… and reduce from 145 knots hurtling downward towards the runway’s approach end to a touchdown speed of 115 knots. Maximum braking would follow.
The rear of the C-130 is bigger than a full-sized bus, with two rows of seats that face each other, mounted on the fuselage walls. Looking out the pair of portholes and the windows on the rear entrance doors would be the only way that we’d be able to judge our speed or direction across the ground. There was an adjustable ladder strapped down in the center of the floor, under the plexiglass bubble mounted in the roof. Sunlight streamed through the bubble too, although there was one lucky rider perched upon a thin jump seat up there who blocked part of this light.
Before the pre-departure briefing, we were cautioned that the plane was already “pre-flighted”, and not to touch anything we weren’t told to. We all carefully got in the back – a few more than a dozen of us – and got buckled in. The crew’s intercom was put on speaker in the rear, and their checklists, completed in convincing Fat Albert – like raspy voices, were read off. Engines were started and the narrator’s music program and dialogue was piped in for the crew’s timing purposes. It got pretty dark while we were taxiing to the runway after the cargo door was closed. We turned and stopped on the runway momentarily… then the crew told us to get ready, and over the speaker, we heard Captain Higgins growl “‘Bert’s rrrrrrrolling!”
Suddenly, I was pushed laterally in my bench seat towards the rear of the plane. Soon the rumbling from the landing gear ceased as we lifted off, and the lateral force subsided. The Blue Angel crew yelled to get ready again, and we were pushed (or pulled – I’m not sure) once again as we climbed. Next, the pushover occurred and the subsequent few seconds were, literally, out of this world. Just like astronaut training, we went into the realm of negative G’s (a G is the force of gravity – one G is normal force on earth) and weightlessness. One of the crew was holding onto the adjustable ladder, and flew off the floor like a tethered Olympic diver… he almost did a vertical handstand before we began to recover our normal gravitational attraction and he landed gracefully on his feet. Although I was expecting the negative G’s we encountered, I barely remembered to hold onto my camera well enough to avoid being hit in my face with it.
The turns and banks weren’t what I expected… instead of sharp, grueling maneuvers, these were forceful, steady, and lasted longer than any I have experienced during my limited aerobatic experience. We would end up pulling no more than one negative and about two positive G’s, but some of the turns were sustained for what seemed to be a half minute or so. There were times that I couldn’t pick up my camera as it was plastered firmly in my lap… and after the flight other riders voiced the same observation. Thank goodness I had a bit of core strength! I can’t imagine how Marines or Navy SEALs, weighted down by combat gear, weapons and maybe even a parachute, can remain steady in their seats while enduring a tactical flight….
After the pushover, there were shorter periods of negative and longer periods of positive G’s, but none as dramatic as our initial experience. I had almost begun to relax as we continued to make steep turns until once, while being pushed into my seat, I glanced out the porthole window aft and across from me, and watched green trees whip past us while in a steep bank. A second or two later, a voice within told me to knock that off, or I’d be using “the bag”…. After touchdown, the smell of burning rubber from the tires and brakes wafted aboard as the cargo door was reopened for fresh air. That seemed to be my wakeup call from the dream state I had fallen into…where, without visual cues to anticipate anything, I felt gravity pulling and pushing me around in all directions while in steep turns and the high performance climb, and the unnatural weightlessness of the pushover.
After shutdown, we unbuckled and spilled out onto the tarmac to talk with and pose for photos with Bert’s crew. Every one of the Blue Angels team that I spoke was eager to show us what they did for a living and to talk about their big plane’s capabilities. The higher performance “J” model of the C-130 should put on an even stronger show; and I was quite impressed by the physical stress that the crew endured while “just doing their job” in the current “T” version.
I watched the Fat Albert demonstration the following day from the ground in Brunswick, Maine. The crew gracefully guided the big blue, white and yellow plane through its paces. Remembering what my flight was like the day before, I never would have guessed that the scene inside was so different than what it looked like outside the plane. My behind-the-scenes look at Bert’s demonstration of “combat maneuvers” afforded me the chance to experience the great contrast between missions that the Marine Corps operates with their C-130s: I’ve flown straight and level in a number of airplanes, but now I’ve felt the physically demanding “tactical flight” conditions in a big plane too. My hat’s off to the Marines that fly the Blue Angels’ C-130, for now I’ve learned that they do much more than straight and level flying on a routine basis, and that it isn’t as easy as it looks to ride in the back of the big transport plane while flying “tactically”.
Special thanks need to go to Fat Albert’s crew, especially GYSGT Micah Bachtold, for explaining their mission and the preparation needed to fly the performance. Also thank you to the Herb Gillen Agency for inviting me to fly at the Great State of Maine Air Show.