(Watch for the view of West Seattle – and the SBX – through the open cargo door!)
Story, photos, and video by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
At the age of 10, I was delighted to be just tall enough to ride the infamous Rebel Yell roller coaster at Kings Dominion in Virginia. A big part of the victory was that my super-competitive but shorter younger brother wasn’t. He had to cool his jets with the parents while I happily went through the turnstile to ride with my pretty teenage cousin.
However, the victory of my foray into big-kid territory was short-lived once we were strapped in and began to ascend the coaster’s towering first hill. With the ominous sound of clicking, we lurched ever closer to the top – and the inevitable drop on the other side. It was one of the first times I remember experiencing what it was like to suffer the consequences of a choice (not to mention to know how it felt to set a land-speed record for regret).
But it wasn’t until after I enthusiastically said “yes” that I did a bit of research on what the flight would entail. Compared with the Blue Angels’ famous sleek F/A-18 Hornets, the 150,000-pound Fat Albert looked like a chunky, lumbering cargo plane.
I hadn’t seen it fly before but figured it might do a few low passes, wave its wings around, and we’d be back on terra firma for a photo op. I figured wrong. With an exhilarating, stomach-churning flight, I was reminded again of just how deceiving looks can be.
The United States Marine Corps has flown Fat Albert, or “Bert” as they call it, since 1975, in support of the Navy Blue Angels. It’s named after a TV cartoon show that was popular at the time. It’s a supply-and-logistics aircraft that flies personnel, equipment, and spare parts between shows. In fact, immediately after its flight this morning, the crew of Fat Albert loaded a malfunctioning engine from Blue Angel jet number 5, which they told us they would be flying to Naval Air Station Lemoore (in central California) for replacement:
The Lockheed C-130T is a versatile military aircraft, the only one of its kind to remain in continuous production for more than 50 years. It has a wingspan of just over 132 feet and a top speed of 366 mph.
After we were escorted out to the flight line this morning, we were invited to clamber around a bit and explore the aircraft.
That was followed by extremely thorough briefings, first for the crew and then for the passengers, by Fat Albert’s commander for our flight, Marine Captain Edward Jorge (at left in photo below, with co-pilot Capt. Ben Blanton).
It was as if Capt. Jorge had memorized every maneuver of the fairly long flight we were about to take, complete with detailed references to the terrain over which we’d be flying. He told us the maneuvers were not designed merely to impress the spectators, but had their genesis in combat maneuvers that were routinely employed in theaters of war.
When we were ready to go, we loaded up and strapped ourselves in. Two lucky people were seated behind the pilots at the back of the flight deck, while a young Marine Staff Sergeant, who was along for our ride, was elected to ascend a ladder and sit with his head protruding from a clear plastic bubble at the top of the fuselage.
The rest of us sat in bench seats along each side of the empty cargo bay. Double seat belts ensured that we’d stay secure for our acrobatic flight. The view to the outside was limited to a few high porthole windows, fore and aft, as well as larger windows towards the tail by the “paratrooper doors.” This wasn’t a plane designed for pleasure flights.
Airsickness bags were distributed to everyone with a warning to not let pride prevent you from taking one, as people were commonly sick on the flights. I took one dutifully, though as an experienced sailor and veteran of many choppy flights on small aircraft, I didn’t think I’d need it. I reassured myself that I’ve never been seasick, carsick, or airsick. But in the back of my mind I heard the clicking of a roller-coaster car.
As we taxied out to the runway, the aft cargo door was opened, providing an unusual view of Boeing Field and the crowds assembled for the show. They closed the doors just before takeoff, and we waited for what seemed like ten minutes before being cleared to fly. Then we turned onto the runway for blastoff.
The plane accelerated aggressively, much more powerfully than an airliner, lifting gently just a few feet off the runway, paralleling it until we had reached sufficient speed to climb sharply. The force of gravity was immediately double that of normal. My body and camera felt leaden. At the apex of our steep climb, the captain pushed the plane over the top of the arc, giving us a few seconds of free-fall. The Marine crew members, who weren’t strapped in like everyone else, rose to their feet, tethered only by their hands on a ladder which was secured to the cargo bay floor. We all laughed in delight. Stomachs felt fine. That wasn’t so bad.
From there the rest of the flight quickly devolved into a blur. Geographical reference points occasionally passed one of the tiny windows. The plane went into roll maneuvers. Buildings and trees a second later were featureless white clouds. There’s a bit of SODO. Then Elliott Bay. There’s Beacon Hill’s PacMed Building (until recently the home of Amazon.com). The plane rolls again. Back to white.
Perhaps my favorite part of the flight was a delightfully level and steady part of the program in which the aft cargo door was opened again. A couple of crew members, secured to the aircraft with elaborate harnesses, walked right up to the edge and looked out.
The view was breathtaking as we executed wide turns: Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and then Downtown and Elliott Bay again, followed by the northern part of the West Seattle peninsula. Marvelous.
Minutes later the door was closed and we were once again rocketing across the landscape. There were a few more dips and arcs, doubling and then erasing gravity like some kind of bizarre Newtonian Algebra equation. The porthole windows continually alternated with trees and clouds as arc-light rays of sun raked across the interior of the cargo bay. Then we were over Lake Washington, flying sideways, seemingly forty feet off the water, with hundreds of white pleasure boats whipping by in a blur.
It was perhaps 2/3 of the way into the flight when I felt it happening. My breathing grew rapid. I began to perspire, despite the fact I could feel cool air blowing on my bare arms and legs and knew I wasn’t warm. I had no consistent view to any kind of horizon and my sense of equilibrium was totally confused. I saw some others reaching for their sick bags. But not me. No, I did all I could to fight it off. I breathed deeply. I swallowed continuously. Minutes dragged by. I locked my eyes on the windows to get some semblance of orientation to the ground. But then another tight turn, another series of rolls and not only was my body no longer speaking the same language as my mind, it simply wasn’t listening.
The final minutes of the flight were a struggle to coordinate the logistics of my own in-flight anti-meal service, with my desire to continue to record with my camera the physics experiment continuing to transpire around me.
Fat Albert’s swan song was a steep dive to the runway. The aft door was opened wide once again, to the much-appreciated view of daylight, a straight horizon, and the oddly comforting smell of fresh air mixed with jet exhaust. We taxied back to the parking-area fences still lined with admiring throngs, and exited the plane while mopping our brows and cleaning ourselves up.
Our pilots and crew emerged from the plane, in their superhero-hued flight suits, as unruffled and chipper as they were before the flight.
As we stood around asking questions and taking more pictures, I felt myself smiling again. But I was unsure whether I could attribute it to the exhilaration of the flight or to the gratitude I once again felt to be standing on level ground.
After my Virginia roller coaster ride, I was inconsolable. My cousin kindly offered to buy me a snow cone to get me to stop crying. That I refused such a treat speaks to my level of post-ride trauma. I’d go on to ride many roller coasters. But the horror of that first big one would always somehow be indelible.
There were no snow cones offered after the flight today. Just glossy certificates with a photo of the aircraft, the signatures of the pilots and crew, and best wishes from the Blue Angels and “Fat Albert Airlines.” The experience had some unpleasant moments. But I’m sure I’ll look back on it mostly as a privilege and happy that I was tall enough to spend an hour playing in the skies with the big kids.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Either from Boeing Field or Lake Washington, you can see Fat Albert fly one more time later today (Sunday) just before the six Blue Angels go up (takeoff is usually between 1 and 1:30 pm). We recommend the Museum of Flight, for the dramatic “steep dive” Christopher mentions – plus a low flyby – and the crew member visible from the top “bubble” holding a flag as they taxi after landing.