My “Fini” Flight on Fat Albert Airlines
When I was informed by the Blue Angels PAO that I was selected to fly on Fat Albert during their show at Miramar, I was more than overjoyed. I was bouncing off the walls. To be honest, the few people I did tell about being selected seemed unimpressed but I knew the truth. I knew the wild ride that was ahead of me, because I trained for it, practiced it, and lived it for several years. I was a little kid dreaming of a cone filled with 16 towering scoops of ice cream and I was going to eat it all. Soon, I would get my “fini-flight.” I missed out on having my last flight in my beloved C-130 that I never officially received while I was a Flight Engineer in the United States Air Force.
After a hard landing in a C-130 Hercules that cracked vertebrae and popped a few discs in my spine, I thought I would be out of the flying rotation for a couple of months at the most. Those few months absolutely tore me apart. The men and women of my squadron were tired from constant rotations both to Afghanistan and Iraq and one less person flying meant that someone else had to pick up the slack. I felt that I was letting them down by not doing my part.
A few months turned into a few more months and after all the pokes, prods, and x-rays came back looking like I was in one piece again, the doctors were baffled why the pain was growing worse seemingly every day. Long story short, a year later, I was diagnosed with a rare disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). The AS had been sparked by the blunt trauma force that blew out my spine and caused the spine to slowly grow together in a process that is more painful than words can describe.
Despite all of that, I submitted waiver after waiver with the Air Force to continue to fly with each one coming back denied. The reality was starting to set in, that I would never fly again in the US Air Force.
The big day finally arrived! My group got escorted out to the aircraft. Almost instantly, the enlisted crew of Fat Albert Airlines got to work prepping the aircraft for flight. Flight Engineer Gunnery Sergeant Ben Chapman enthusiastically gave us an initial passenger briefing and informed us that for the most part, this would not be their typical aircraft flight. We would be pulling 2.5G positive and also negative Gs allowing complete weightlessness at the top of the initial climb.
After his brief, I made my way up to the flight deck of the blue, gold and white painted C-130T (BuNo 164763). Fat Albert was much like the final version I flew on in the USAF except for the fact that this one had all the pipes and plumbing for her original job of air refueling helicopters and harriers.
When I walked up to the crew entrance door, the smell hit me. There is nothing in the world that smells like a C-130. Years of living in the dirt, open to the rain , puked on, spilled food and drinks, human gasses, and the heat of the onboard systems cooking the dust, she smelled just as I remembered…beautiful!
Her flight deck looked a bit newer then the ones I was used to, but to many people this would look like an ancient airplane from this vantage point. This was not a “glass” cockpit; the C-130 was designed from the outset to be tough, reliable and an unstoppable workhorse.
The rest of the crew arrived and now it was time for the flight briefing. The aircraft commander for today was Captain Benjamin Blanton. The Captain got his crew in line much like the tight formation that the Blue Angels are known for. Captain Blanton started off with crew introductions and gave a short explanation of what each member’s duties were in the aircraft. He then talked us through every step of the flight and informed the crew, that for any reason, any member could call a “knock it off” if anyone saw an unsafe flight condition.
Captain Blanton then handed the briefing back over to the Flight Engineer, Gunny Chapman for seating assignments. Along for the ride there was a film crew from the Discovery Channel, a local TV news channel, and several young Marines. One young Marine, clearly not knowing what to expect, decided to wear a flack vest and was therefore picked to sit up in the bubble located centerline on the wings where there is normally an escape hatch. Although I know it was the best seat in the house, this young Marine won this prize for no other reason than that he made the Gunnery Sergeant laugh his ass off when he saw him dressed for combat!
One Marine was picked for each of the two paratroop doors. These doors where fitted with a makeshift seat to look out the large square windows. This configuration was much like what our loadmasters handmade to battle the hours of standing in those doors. Our loadmasters had a view of the rear of the plane which the flight deck did not possess. They were the eyes and ears for the threats, such as Shoulder launched Missiles and early on, Anti-Aircraft Artillery that we would encounter.
Finally, a Discovery Channel crew member and I were picked to sit on the flight deck. Perhaps that over-prepared Marine wasn’t so lucky after all, I was finally back! I was in my old home, the flight deck of what is the most recognized and famous C-130 on Earth.
It honestly did not hit me how much I missed this plane until the checklists started to be called off. There is nothing like the rhythmic calling off of checklist items as there is in a multi engine, multi crew airplane. So much is done by audible cue that each member tweaks their voice as to not to sound like anyone else on the crew. Flight Engineer Chapman starts to call out the before start checklist.
Electrical control Panel….”Set “(Called out by the Flight Engineer)
Radios……”On “(Called out by the Co-Pilot – for today Major Edward Jorge)
The crew continued to set the flight deck for flight while following the direction of the checklist. The Flight Engineer then went into what can only be described as a rhythmic tap dancing of his right hand over the upper panel …starting the auxiliary power unit and fuel panel in preparation for engine start.
“Before Start checklist is complete…”
“Engine start checklist”
Captain Blanton energetically called out “Clear Number 3 Engine” “Three clear… Three is turning” answered back by the flight mechanic.
And then the plane started to come to life. The airplane rocked slowly to the left and right as the #3 engine (the right wing’s inboard engine) started to turn. All the while, the two pilots and the flight engineer looked for anything that would be atypical of a normal start.
Then almost to himself, the Flight Engineer calls out the engine starting flow while he moved his head up and down to follow the indications on the engine gauges as they had occurred. “RPM; Fuel flow; Ignition; Oil Pressure; Hydraulic Pressure; Parallel; Starter; Series; Peak T.I.T.” (Turbine Inlet Temperature). As soon as the pilot heard the last utterance from the Flight Engineer’s mouth he called “Clear #4” and all remaining engines were started this way.
“Engine Start Checklist is Complete”
The crew ran a few more checklists as we started to taxi out toward the runway. All crew members busied themselves visually clearing and scanning the surrounding area to make sure that our wings were clear of the Helicopters parked around the ramp leading to the runway. The pilots were talking and spotting the M1A1 tanks that were used in the MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) demo a few minutes prior. Major Jorge sang his high praise for the deadly beast and both pilots agreed which brought back memories of my time with my crew just making ordinary conversation as we prepared for take-off.
We edged closer to the hold short line before the runway and then were given approval from the tower to line up on the runway. The crew prepared for flight and the ‘Before Take Off’ checklist was begun in earnest. Again, my headphones came to life with the symphony of crew voices answering to the checklist callouts. Once again, hands were moving in tune with the voices preparing the flight deck for flight: touching, turning, flicking and pushing the several dials, knobs, buttons and switches. Finally, I heard the phrase I had been waiting for, “lineup checks complete.”
We were cleared for takeoff and now the show began. The engines were brought up to full power again. The engineer looked over his engines, making sure they were good to go. The pilot released the breaks. The instant we started moving, the copilot, in what I can be only described as his air show voice, yelled out
Then in a matter of seconds he called out “80 knots”. After the pilot had two positive indications of the 110,000+ pound aircraft lifting off the runway, he called for the gear to be raised. The pilot kept ‘Bert just feet off of the runway to gain speed for what we used to call a zoom maneuver. The entire time Co-Pilot Jorge is calling off of the radar altimeter and the air speed indicator making sure that the pilot was safely off of the runway, “One foot, 140 (knots), one foot, 150, three feet, 155, two feet, 160”.
Instantly the pilot informed the crew that he was pulling back on the yoke for the rocket-like 45 degree climb. We got thrown back into our seats until the pilot reached 1100 feet, and then promptly threw the yoke forward to level out the aircraft. For a few seconds, we were weightless. (Damn, I have missed this!)
Honestly, the rest of the flight was almost a blur. I did not remember each pass and maneuver that followed in the next few minutes. What I did remember were the same characteristics of the pilots leaning left and right, hands all over the windows looking way back, scanning left and right in low level high banked turns like we had done countless of times into a dozen or more airfields similar to Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan.
The pilots continue yanking the yoke left and right, hitting 60 degrees of bank while also pulling 2+ Gs. All the while, nimbly keeping the plane on time, and safely choreographed for the show. We did a few passes and then brought the plane back around. After gaining 1200 feet of altitude and slowing the plane down with full flaps to 95 knots, the pilot threw the nose down to what is arguably the best thing about the C-130, the assault landing, short field capability. Again, the Co-Pilot was yelling out the radar altimeter and airspeed much like he had done on the take off roll to aid the pilot flying.
The pilot guided the plane on her steep dive to the runway for a precision touchdown to ensure that the plane stopped in about 1500 feet, but more importantly, right on the air show center. The Navigator was cleared to open the top escape hatch to raise the US Flag and the entire group of passengers in the cargo compartment erupted in cheers. Some were cheers of joy, and I am sure that some were just happy to be back on earth after that rollercoaster ride in the sky.
After we rolled back to the parking spot and engines were shut down, we hopped out. Captain Blanton asked me if I had a good time. “Hell yeah” I said with a grin spanning from ear to ear. “For me, that was therapy.”
I would like to thank Cpl. Posy of the MCAS Miramar Public Affairs Office as well as MC2(AW) Jen Blake of the Blue Angels Public Affairs for making this flight happen for me. I would also like to thank both the Maintenance crews for the hard work keeping the planes flying and also the ‘Bert’s Operations crew for one hell of a ride.
All original photographs can be seen at TacAirPhoto.com