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Blue Angels Fat Albert triumphs across America

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The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels are performing across America led by the team's massive "operational workhorse" C-130T aircraft known affectionately as Fat Albert.

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Fat Albert is the lifeline for the Blue Angels' and the team's F/A-18 Hornet demonstration jets, and the Blues know it's an essential part in the success of every air show.

During 2014, Bert's all-Marine crew includes pilots Capt. A.J. Harrell, Major Mike Van Wyk and Capt. Dusty Cook, and includes five support team members.

In the days prior to each show, 'Bert departs the Blues' home base at NAS Pensacola on a flight to the shows site delivering equipment and spare parts, and forty-five maintenance and support crew members who work hard behind the scenes.

The prime job of any C-130 Hercules is to transport heavy cargo from one sight to another during wartime or to provide aide to a region.

"It's a big aircraft, it's very well built and we've had it in service in the Marine Corps. since the late-60's," Capt. Harrell said from the flight line of Smyrna Regional Airport, as The Great Tennessee Air Show got underway.

The Lockheed Martin-built aircraft, powered by four Rolls Royce turboprop engines, arrives at an air show a few days early filled with everything the Blue Angels will need for several days.

"An air show is a great opportunity to meet a lot of folks," Capt. Harrell stated as we spoke in length about the operations of the Blues' C-130 and their job to help recognize the job of both the Navy and Marines.

"What it boils down to for us is translating what the 500,000 active duty sailors and Marines around the world are doing and telling that story to the American people," Harrell continued with a sense of pride. "It's a very inspiring story and everybody should feel great about what their sailors and Marines are doing."

Painted with aerodynamic high gloss blue, yellow and white paint, Fat Albert is unlike most C-130's in that it is a beautiful aircraft to watch during the air show.

So, how does it feel to soar aboard this massive aircraft?

This aerospace reporter was selected to take part in a flight demonstration aboard the Blue Angels C-130 logistics aircraft.

We gathered at the base of Bert at the aft ramp which leads up into its cargo hull for a detailed preflight briefing by Capt. Harrell.

The aircraft's flight deck is located a few steps above the wide body's cargo hull, and is filled with dozens of the familiar altimeter displays for flight. Twenty-three windows surround the forward section of the cockpit allowing Bert's crew to better visualize their in flight attitude and makes for an amazing view.

The hulking aircraft rattled slightly as the four massive engines were placed at full throttle as we increased speed down runway 32 for take-off.

Bert accelerated down the asphalt runway and we became airborne as it passed 125 m.p.h. as the clock ticked past 3:01 p.m. CDT.

Unlike a commercial or private aircraft, the C-130T held on a flight path at just four feet above the runway as the craft stowed it's landing gear and accelerated to nearly 170 m.p.h. before making a thrilling climb.

In what the Marines' Blue Angels call a Maximum Effort Climb, Bert then launched skyward in a nearly nose up 45-degree climb from the airfield -- six times that of a commercial airliner.

Inside Fat Albert, my facial expression during the climb changed from one of wonderment to that of grinning and a feeling of aviation euphoria -- I was flying again with America's Pride, the Blue Angels.

Ten seconds later, the crew leveled off the C-130 which provided everyone on board with seven seconds of microgravity or weightlessness.

For those few seconds I felt myself lift up from my seat and my feet involuntarily rise above my waistline as I experienced the most incredible feeling of being weightless again.

As the flight continued the pilots performed several passes over the length of the airfield, including a formatted Parade Pass and what Capt. Harrell described as his favorite aerobatic demo.

"My favorite maneuver we do is called a Flat Pass," Harrell began as we stood post-flight near Bert. "It's a maneuver where you do a 270-degree reversal turn and you get 50-feet off the ground and you go all the way up to 320 knots as you pass (the runway's) center point."

The Marine pilot continued, "What's challenging about it is it plays a lot of different dynamics on the aircraft. You're very slow at the beginning and you're very fast in the end so your turn radius changes the entire way around during the 270-degree turn. It takes a lot of pilot skill and eyeball calibration to make it work for you."

Capt. Harrell added with a grin, "It's exciting. It's very intense when you get that low to 50-feet and that fast and in an aircraft this big there's not a lot of margin for error. It's differently a high point for me."

The aircraft flew it's signature Minimum Radius Turn which saw us move into a banking right-hand 320-degree turn over the end of the runway.

During the turns, we were pressed into our seats by the force of several times that of gravity.

During this maneuver, I could also view out the window above me and see the F/A-18C Hornets aligned near the runway ready and waiting to take-off on their own flight demonstration minutes after we landed.

As we neared the final phase of our flight, the Marine pilots took the 100-foot long aircraft into a steep dive to simulate an assault landing.

This type of landing by a typical C-130 would occur if the aircraft was called in to land in a hostile region or onto a short landing strip.

We dove several times steeper than a commercial jet airliner then the crew leveled off a few feet above the runway before dropping the landing gear.

Touchdown!

As the 150,000 pound aircraft landed at 110 m.p.h., the pilots immediately reversed all four propellers to help in slowing down the aircraft as part of the final demonstration of landing on a small skid strip.

The sudden reverse force caused us to slump forward in our seats.

The C-130 decreased it's speed and the aft cargo door ramp was opened to demonstrate how quickly troops could depart a C-130 in the event of a military operation.

As we left the aircraft, the Blue's F/A-18 Hornets moved out onto the runway and then darted over Fat Albert in a genuine salute to their mother craft.

The Blues' air show performances are open to the public at select locations from March through their final show at NAS Pensacola in November.

During an air show, I am reminded that it's not just about the power of the aircraft, but the power of the men and women in the branches of our military who make it all happen.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

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