Ride aboard Fat Albert heavy on the thrills

Date: 5/21/2015

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE – As media members and airmen load on and strap in aboard “Fat Albert,” the Blue Angels’ C-130, an air of excitement fills the fuselage.

As part of their mission to inspire and thank servicemen and women across the country, the Blue Angels offer flights aboard “Fat Albert Airlines” and on a warm and sunny afternoon the Friday before the Great New England Air Show, it’s the boarding call for personnel at Westover Air Reserve Base.

“We’re going to give you the most dynamic ride of your lives,” Maj. Mark Hamilton, U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), co-piloting the plane with Maj. Dusty Cook, USMC, said in the pre-flight briefing.

As the transport aircraft, roughly the size of a 737, lurches forward and begins its taxi toward runway 5, excitement remains, but becomes meshed with a wave of uncertainty.

Facial expressions illustrate several attempting to recall what was to come. What was it he had said? Low-transition, high performance climb? Right hand turn? Left hand reversal? Parade pass? Flat pass? Head-on? Left downwind? What does that all mean?

Pensive looks suddenly change to those of shock as the ride begins.

While his F/A-18 Hornet cousins slice through the air like scalpels, Fat Albert is like a jackhammer, starting his takeoff flying a mere three feet parallel to the ground before a jet-assisted 45-degree ascent. Designed specifically for take offs over obstacles such as mountains or, yes, small arms fire, Fat Albert achieves two Gs, planting passengers back in their seats as he rockets upwards into the blue.

Meanwhile, members of the Fat Albert’s all-Marine crew remain unstrapped, holding tight to apparatus while whooping and hollering. “More power!” one exclaims with a grin on his face.

Suddenly, as Fat Albert reaches his desired altitude and levels out, there’s a feeling of weightlessness. Negative Gs. While those seated remain that way only because of their restraints, crew members let themselves float, legs in the air, some even finding themselves completely upside down.

From there, the eight-minute ride is filled with twists and turns. During the parade pass, Albert tips his wings nearly perpendicular to the ground. Through the window, a new perspective of trees is seen – from directly above.

Airborne acrobatics and the occasional flirtation with weightlessness again make up the rest of the winged roller coaster ride.

As the thrill ride of all thrill rides continues, reactions in Albert’s belly run the gambit of human emotion. Some hold on tight with teeth clenching. Some follow the crew members’ lead and holler in appreciation and support of the pilots. One reaches for her airsickness bag. Still another sits quietly with his eyes closed – Praying? Just sitting back and enjoying the ride? Wondering why he thought Chipotle was a good lunch choice?

All the while, Senior Airman Emily Rodrigues beams a big smile as she sits above the others in what is called the bubble seat. She’s perched in the ceiling of the plane, legs dangling, head and shoulders positioned in a bulbous window on top of the plane, giving her what some crew members called “the best seat in the house” and by far the most unique view.

“Hands down the best day of my life,” she declared after the flight. “I could see the wings of the plane and every time we flipped around, it was … exhilarating for sure.”

A metallic squeal from above, then another a brief time later, signal our descent as the flaps are adjusted. One more negative G show from the crew and an approach resembling a nosedive before leveling out with landing gear kissing pavement.

As the large rear door opens and the return to the tarmac begins, there’s an eruption of applause, whistles and shouts.

Then the moment of truth – trying to stand. The knees buckle for a second, the stomach turns, then equilibrium is restored.

Most dynamic ride ever, Maj. Hamilton?

That’s quite the understatement.