Last May, fans of the Navy’s flight demonstration team, better known as the Blue Angels, were heartbroken when the squadron’s long-serving KC-130T Hercules airlifter that went by the nickname of Fat Albert had to be retired without a replacement. Just a month later, the news hit that the Navy closed a long-in-the-works deal with the Royal Air Force to purchase one of its sidelined C-130J Super Hercules airlifters to take on the role. Now it seems that aircraft may have appeared for the first time and over a very high-profile locale—San Francisco Bay.
Aviation photographer and our friend Paul Carter, who goes by the handle Planephotoman on Flickr, informed us of a particular flight he was following on plane tracking software this morning at around 9:30AM. The plane, a Royal Air Force C-130J C5 Super Hercules flying under the callsign ALBERT01, had flown up the California coast and swooped down into the bay area at low altitude, completed a number of maneuvers over the water, and then exited via the way it came in—over the Golden Gate Bridge. Paul notes that he saw the C-130 get below about 200 feet while tracking it over the bay.
It had been rumored that the aircraft being tracked, registration ZH889, was going to be the airframe the Blue Angels would receive from the United Kingdom for conversion into the next Fat Albert. The Navy paid $29.7M for the second-hand C-130J and said it was hoping to take delivery the plane in the Spring of 2020.
We have reached out to the Blue Angels for confirmation and comment on this intriguing flight and the status of their next-generation Fat Albert airlifter, but it is a federal holiday, which may delay their response. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that nobody saw a C-130 roaring over the bay at a couple of hundred feet off the water this morning. Maybe we will get some photos to help understand exactly what configuration this aircraft was in during its little surprise visit to San Francisco.
It’s also worth noting that one of the team’s highest-profile events every year is San Francisco Fleet Week that occurs in October. During the festivities, the Blue Angels’ Hornets and Fat Albert fly remote shows, where the air show routines don’t take place over the airfield they are staging from, but over the water in front of huge masses of spectators.
The ex-RAF C-130J is supposed to be in the team’s hands soon, if it isn’t already, and the Super Hercules will bring a whole new level of performance to the Fat Albert air show routine. Depending on what actually happened here, maybe that routine is already being flown, if even in just a test capacity.
At the same time, it is worth stating that maybe this could be a bizarre coincidence and a RAF Hercules with an ALBERT01 callsign was doing some sort of flyover in the bay for a completely different purpose. But considering all the elements that have lined up, this seems somewhat improbable, especially considering that the RAF doesn’t even operate the C5 subtype anymore. Still, coincidences do happen. Also, the team is currently undergoing its winter training at NAF El Centro in Southern California. Fat Albert is traditionally present for much of this training. If the new Fat Albert has been delivered, it wouldn’t be far from the Bay Area.
Regardless, with the Blues getting Super Hornets to replace their aging F/A-18 legacy Hornets, the 2021 season represents a historic moment for the 75-year-old iconic institution.
We will update this post when new information comes available.
UPDATE: 2:53PM PST—
Apparently, the RAF has put C5 variant of the C-130J back in service as a replacement for a stretched -30 model that was lost. Maybe this was a Royal Air Force sightseeing tour?
UPDATE: 11:23PM PST—
Ok, so this appears to have been a RAF C-130J, or at least it is flying in RAF colors still. TWZ reader Michael Toews dropped us some pics of the Herc in question flying out of San Luis Obispo airport and noted it has been doing so for the last week. I was also able to get some tracking data to load on the aircraft (would not load this morning) and it has been flying some odd routes around the area, including a very similar profile over San Francisco Bay a week earlier.
Another reader noted that RAF Hercs do some training in the area periodically. So, at this point, this really does look like a “bay tour” of sorts for RAF aviators.
That’s where the story stands now. We will update it further if more info comes available.