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What Happened When We Took a Ride on One of the Air & Water Show Planes

Nimble C-130 workhorse provides support for Blue Angels, and thrills for journalists.

A couple of the passengers got to ride in the cockpit with the pilots. One junior Air National Guard member perched in a seat looking out a bubble on top of the plane. But the rest of us strapped into seats along the walls of the cargo compartment, and our view of the flight was through small portholes high up on the walls. For us, the flight was felt more than viewed.

Spoiler alert: I got out my air-sickness bag, but I did not use it.

This despite being probably the oldest passenger (and likely the feeblest) on Fat Albert, the cargo plane that flies in support of the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatics team.

The Angels are in town for this weekend’s Milwaukee Air & Water Show, which takes place along the lakefront from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 15, and Sunday, July 16. They haven’t performed here since 2010 – weather kept them from performing in 2014 – and they’re clearly the marquee attraction at the show.

The six sleek F/A-18 fighter jets that fly in tight formation at high speed are the focus of the show, of course, but they wouldn’t be able to perform without the support provided by “Bert,” a bulbous-nosed, propeller-driven C-130T cargo plane flown by a crew of Marines. The plane carries 30,000 pounds of equipment and 40 passengers to each of the Angels’ 35 air shows a year. It will perform briefly in this weekend’s air show Saturday and Sunday before the jets take over.

The Marines offer Fat Albert flights to service members and the media in each market where the Angels fly, to promote the show. On Friday, the passenger list included maybe two dozen members of the Air National Guard’s 128th Refueling Wing, along with a trio of Marine recruiters and a handful of media people, including me and Brock Kaplan, a page-designer for Milwaukee Magazine. This was only Brock’s fourth flight ever in an airplane – but he’s had a lot of experience on roller-coasters, which did prepare him for Friday, where we experienced 2-G forces on steep climbs, and several instances of zero gravity.

“We’re a cargo plane,” said Major Mark Montgomery, who was at the controls Friday, “but she’s a little bit more nimble than she looks.”

Nimble indeed. There was much pre-flight briefing of the passengers. Gunnery Sgt. Stephen Stewart warned us that items not held tightly during zero-gravity have a way of floating up and then shooting to the back of the plane. The same with passengers not securely belted in. Also, he said, “There is potential for air-sickness, unfortunately. You will get air-sickness bags. If you get sick it’s not a big deal, it happens all the time.”

It started with a “high-performance climb,” in which the plane went up at an angle of 45 degrees — a maneuver, Montgomery later explained, aimed at escaping small-arms fire from the ground in hostile zones, where the C-130s are workhorses. The climb slammed us into our seats at about twice our weights. Then at the top we all lifted up, and the envelope holding my air-sickness bag, which I’d been sitting on, flew out from under me. One of the crew returned it to me when the plane leveled off, and later brought me back a couple of photo IDs that drifted up out of my shirt pocket. The plane banked to the left and right in 60-degree turns, and now we could see things out the portholes – Lake Michigan waves that seemed quite close, and neat South Side neighborhoods that you don’t expect to see out the side window of an aircraft.

Montgomery later said our altitude over the land was as low as 500 feet – and just 60 feet over the lake. And he said those turns are tactics used in combat zones, too. “If we were around mountains and we wanted to make sure we stay in a valley we would turn tight to avoid enemy radar, enemy aircraft,” he said.

Montgomery, asked how the plane became known as Fat Albert, answered, “I guess it’s a cartoon from before I was born. it was big in the ’70s, so I guess they named it that, and since then it stuck.”

I was old and feeble enough to remember that Fat Albert was a pal of Bill Cosby’s when he was growing up in Philadelphia, even before there was a cartoon about it.

Anyway, a couple of passengers did use their barf bags. I removed mine from the envelope and opened it, but the moment passed, and before long we were back on the ground.

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