Fleet Week came to San Francisco last week, including the always popular visit from the Blue Angels. The Navy Public Affairs office worked with the Cisco Social Media team to recruit some volunteers to participate in the airshow and get a ride during the demonstration flight of the Blue Angel’s C-130 “Fat Albert” support plane.
Now, normally Cisco folks get enough of airplanes during the week, but your humble and intrepid data center reporter just happened to be free and offered to report on his experience. I was joined by fellow Cisco blogger, Gordon Feller, Director of the Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) Public Sector Practice Urban Innovations team, his wife Mary McNamara, a journalist and television critic for Multichannel News, who provided live tweets during the flight, and a group of other Bay Area journalists, photographers and media personnel.
The Marine Corps’ “Fat Albert” Airlines accompanies the Blue Angel team to each of their demonstration locations and carries all of the support and maintenance crew needed for the week. It is the only Marine Corps aircraft permanently assigned to support a Navy squadron. It is flown by a crew of three pilots and five enlisted personnel. Fat Albert flies more than 140,000 miles during the course of a show season, carrying 25,000 pounds of cargo and 45,000 pounds of fuel. The C-130 cruises at about 340 knots (approximately 370 miles per hour) at the low altitudes we flew over the Bay.
Four Allison turboprop-engines producing more than 16000-shaft horsepower provide the C-130 with the power to land and depart on runways as short as 2500 feet. Having done a little research and consulted with a friend with some C-130 flight experience, I knew a bit what to expect. But nothing can quite prepare for an envelope pushing, full throttle exhibition flight, unless you strap yourself inside one of the clothes dryers at your local laundromat and put it on tumble dry.
After some preliminary pre-flight preparations, filling out some medical releases, and providing contact information for next of kin, we were escorted out onto the tarmac, past the Blue Angels and several thousand adoring fans (of the Blue Angels, not your humble reporter), and out towards Fat Albert. We were provided a pre-flight briefing by Captain Benjamin Blanton and his crew. We learned about the steep take offs and approaches that we could expect, how we would be experiencing negative “G”‘s, and the proper use of a barf bag. Captain Blanton also briefed his flight crew on the flight plan in some sort of high-speed code that would have filled up my handy memory stick, but somehow they all absorbed it without taking notes or requesting clarification. I was beginning to get the sense they had all done this before. In fact, later that evening as I was giving my own pre-bedtime briefing to my kids about brushing their teeth, I began to think there really is something to all this military education and respect for authority.
The C-130, as you undoubtedly know, is a cargo plane and very little accommodations are made for civilian comforts. Nevertheless, I found there was a lot more leg room than most of my departures off the runways of SFO. Since there are hardly any windows, just a few porthole sized openings on the far side of the plane, I can’t claim I had much of a view as we performed aerial stunts in front of the throngs of people that had convened along the bay front from the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Marina Green and past Fisherman’s Wharf. Most of us had been hoping that we would get to fly through the maneuvers with the back open(!) as they had done the day before, but due to weather and/or time constraints this wasn’t possible. This may have all been for the best, because when you are pulling G’s and loose cables and airmen are all flying to the roof of the cargo hold, perhaps it’s better to not see just what’s going on outside.
The C-130 is known for its short, steep full power take-offs and then rapid leveling off producing the quick adjustment from positive to zero G forces. We performed this maneuver at least 4 times, and the best way to describe it is something like the Hollywood Tower of Terror at Disneyland on steroids without all the cheesy Twilight Zone videos. The crew members, which generally stood throughout the flight performing their duties, would hold onto the cargo ladder and feet would fly to ceiling as shown in the photo at left. As we performed other full power aerial demonstrations for the crowds I found it comforting to keep repeating: “These Blue Angel pilot teams are the best in the world… These Blue Angel pilot teams are the best in the world…”.
The flight was actually delayed on the runway (nothing new here) for about an hour or so due to fog on the bay, and we apparently were held up in the air a bit waiting for our turn to perform, so we were fortunate enough to have an extra long “experience”, which I think is some sort of military code for white knuckle ride. Although, ironically, the only guy who “lost it” on this flight was one of the trained crew members. The Cisco contingent felt particularly proud of our cast-iron stomachs, plus the fact that we elected to only have Saltine crackers for breakfast and held off on lunch altogether.
As we caught glimpses of the tops of the SF skyline, tops of sailboats, and the Bay Bridge out the windows at a couple of wing span’s distance, we eventually made our way back to the airport and an equally abrupt landing as the take-off. But as they say, any landing you can wobble away from is a good one. And I felt particularly relieved that this one ended at about a perfect duration. Ten more minutes and I think a few of us would have been sweating out the ending. I think we all decided that this really was a ride of a lifetime and an extraordinary experience, but not one you’d do every weekend (without getting paid anyway). I think if I had the opportunity to do it again, I would definitely want to do it with the cargo door open. Knowing what the ride is like now, I could probably concentrate on the wider view out the back, and maybe find the wherewithal to take a photo or two at zero G.
Back on the ground we all had a chance for photos and questions with the captain and crew. Their hospitality was superb, even if they couldn’t serve drinks in flight, and everyone was amazingly impressed by what for most would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of an airshow like this. Back in the hangar we got some souvenir photos, and a lift back to the parking lot for the pedestrian ride home.
Fortunately, in years past, I’d seen the Blue Angels perform over the Bay, since we weren’t able to see them except on the tarmac at SFO as the pilots boarded the aircraft. It’s always an impressive show and well worth trying to catch if they ever come to your area of the country. Some of the behind the scene experiences I found interesting though is that the pilots get a full blown police escort out to SFO from their downtown hotels (nothing like having to delay an airshow because the pilots are caught in traffic). But despite the police escort they don’t get limos, they have to drive their own cars. I guess it wouldn’t be right to have someone else drive a Blue Angels pilot around. Speaking of cars, the Blue Angels team has their own color-coordinated Corvette, as well as a Ferrari, which we photographed in the hangar.
The Blue Angels team are all Navy personnel that apply and rotate onto the Blue Angels support team for typically three year duties. Our liaison, Blue Angles Public Affairs Office Petty Officer Rachel McMarr, based in Pensacola, FL, said she was the one of over one hundred applicants for her position on the Blue Angels team. Everyone that hosted us for the afternoon couldn’t have been more professional, sincere and hospitable in allowing us to tag along for this flight. All in all, it was a great experience, and a rare insight into how some of the best and brightest are serving our country, and the extraordinary equipment that they rely on.