News Article | 10/26/2007

‘Fat Albert’s’ Simulated Combat Flight

There’s no doubt that the Blue Angels stole the show at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show.

The F/A-18 Flying Hornets of the Blue Angels executed tight formations, flew upside down, made seemingly suicidal passes at each other and kept the crowd begging for more.

But none of that would be possible without Fat Albert and his crew of dedicated mechanics who keep the Blue Angel fleet in top shape.

Fat Albert is the Marine Corps giant C-130T Hercules transport plane that carries all the gear and support personnel necessary to put on a successful air show.

Much like its smaller cousins, I found out firsthand that Fat Albert, named for the famed Bill Cosby character, has a few tricks up its sleeve. After all, the C-130 serves not only as a troop transport, but also as a gunship. It is versaltile and capable of some impressive combat maneuvers of its own.

The day before the air show started, I was invited to take a seven-minute ride on Fat Albert.

After signing the liability waiver, I received a briefing from the pilot, Major Russ Campbell. He explained that this would be a simulated JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) run, which means we would be taking off at a 35-degree angle. If we’d actually had the JATO rockets on the side, we would have taken off at a 45-degree angle. Yikes!

He went on to explain other fancy maneuvers that we would be doing, like sharp turns and a steep 25-degree landing. I learned they all have a purpose.

At the air show, they were meant to entertain the crowd.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, they are meant to save our troops’ lives by getting the plane to a higher altitude as quickly as possible and avoiding hazards, whether its antiaircraft fire, small-arms fire or even a hostile aircraft.

I hopped into the plane through the cargo door in the rear. Along for the ride was our freelance photographer Bill Miskiewicz, a reporter from a local radio station and a few Marines.

Then a crew member handed me an envelope with a white baggie inside in case I “lost my lunch.” Once Campbell fired up the four Allison turboprop engines, there was no turning back.

I’m not used to strong G-forces, so the sharp takeoff glued me to my little seat right away. I had nothing to hold onto except my seat. When we reached the desinated altitude, Campbell dropped the nose, putting us in zero gravity for a short time. The experienced riders relished the momentary weightlessness, while I sunk my fingers deeper into my seat.

In Baghdad, C-130s take off this way to limit the time they’re exposed to enemy gunfire, Campbell said.

Then the plane started banking, right, then left, then circling back again, as if taking evasive action. One minute I’d be looking straight down at the ground, the next I was staring straight up at the sky.

Every time Fat Albert executed one of its choreographed maneuvers, crew members cheered like they were watching a teammate get a slam dunk. Many of them weren’t even strapped in — they were just savoring the way the plane jarred them around.

For me, it was literally a gut-wrenching wake-up call for what our troops must experience leaving or coming into Baghdad.

Before we took off, Campbell warned us that our return to the runway would not resemble the usually cushy landing passengers experience at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

He wasn’t kidding. He nosed it over into a breath-taking dive, pulled up at the last moment, hit the ground hard, full flaps — even lowering the main back cargo door as a huge speed break, and stopped within 900 feet.

Again, the abbreviated landing limits the amount of time the Hercules is vulnerable to attack and lets it use smaller landing strips.

I gladly unbuckled my seatbelt, attempted to orient myself and quickly exited the plane.

On Saturday, I watched Fat Albert do the same routine in front of thousands of onlookers.

While it didn’t perform 360-degree turns or a 180-degree climb like the F/A-18s, I knew how it felt as I had gotten just a tiny taste of what it’s like when the plane enters combat space with America’s sons and daughters onboard.