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NEWS | May 25, 2010

Fat Albert Airlines: The ride of my life in the belly of the beast

By Airman 1st Class Kat Lynn Justen 316th Wing Public Affairs

After pounding the pavement on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews as a public affairs specialist escorting media, taking photos and updating new media sites during the three-day 2010 Joint Service Open House, I was ready for anything. People in my office at the 316th Wing hooked me up with a seat on a flight in the mammoth Blue Angels C-130 "Fat Albert" transporter aircraft, so I snatched my camera and hitched a ride to the end of the show line where they parked the aerial demonstration planes.

About a dozen servicemembers from various military branches gathered under the open bay doors to the hull where the pilot, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Edward Jorge, and his crewmen briefed us on weather, aerial maneuvers and the physics behind what our bodies were about to experience: zero G's and twice our normal body weight.

Nearing the end of the briefing, a crewman randomly asked for the lowest ranking person to come forth. "Who here is an E-1?" No one answered.

"E-2?" nope.

"E-3?" My hand shot up ... and so did a Marine MV-22 Osprey crewman's.

"Which of you two r-e-e-eally wants to sit in the bubble?" the Fat Albert crewman asked.

The bubble? Where on this massive machine of metal would there be something as dainty as a bubble? But from the slight ringmaster tone in his voice, I knew it'd be worth trying ...

I shot my hand up again. The Marine did not.

"Alright, that's you," he said.

After the briefing my group entered the plane and the Marine approached me. "The bubble is the best seat in the house," he said. "My friend told me if I was to sit anywhere, to sit in the bubble."

I looked at him curiously ... Why hadn't he raised his hand then? I thought.

He was given a prime window seat, but it paled in comparison to the bubble. There, about eight feet above my head in the dark ceiling of the plane was what looked like a glowing white oculus. Beneath it was a tall aluminum ladder and dangling canvas and steel seatbelt straps.

I took a seat with the rest of the passengers against the wall, and, once Fat Albert taxied to the runway and positioned itself for takeoff, I was told to ascend to the bubble. The seat above me was no more than a welded steel slat for a perch. The trapped heat was intense and immediate as I climbed into the small ceiling space. A crewman helped secure me in and I met a sea of smiles from other servicemembers looking up from beneath my dangling feet.

It truly was the best seat in the house, as it boasted 360 degrees of sight out of a dome window from the top of this behemoth plane. I could see the tens of thousands of people gathered tightly around guardrails and static displays of the air show.

This, I knew, was going to be an incredible ride, for this was no ordinary C-130. Fat Albert was lithe for his size, and performed aerial maneuvers not often seen from a plane this large, such as jet-assisted takeoffs in less than 1,500 feet, as well as the ability to reach 1,000 feet in just 15 seconds ... and we would be at the very center of it.

The plane started to accelerate and gained speed quickly. I watched as the throng of visitors became a blur past me, and then suddenly tip to a 45 degree angle; we were airborne. The other passengers in the hull let loose cheers and laughter. I was simply in awe, gripping one of the handholds in one palm and eagerly snapping with my camera in the other.

The pilot took us on a rollercoaster ride of dips, cuts, dives and tilts. I watched as we carved through the horizon - the tilted wingtips appearing to just shave the treetops. Houses grew small and then large again quickly, and I outstretched my hand to pluck their toy-like images from the landscape. It was a childhood fantasy - I was soaring over the nation's capital on the back of a sleek blue and white dragon.

We circled the crowd on the flightline and, with each pass, a flurry of camera flashes lit up like fireflies in a Morse Code cadence of "H-E-L-L-O."

On the final run to land, the pilot tipped the nose in a direct dive to the runway. Out of the bubble, I could see the hangars grow larger and larger and the wide-eyed expressions on people's faces become more apparent. I prepared myself for a rough and hard-hitting impact. The blood escaped my knuckles as I gripped the handles on the sides of the bubble.

BUMP, RUMBLE, RUMBLE ... SHOOOOOH ...

The plane landed and rolled back on an angle until the nose faced the crowd. Were it alive, I pictured it taking a bow before its many fans.

That was it? We've stopped? Incredible!
The passengers erupted in a chorus of cheers, applause and laughter. The captain had landed this plane as softly as any major airline - and on a dime! So where did they keep the peanuts and hot towels?

The pilot taxied back to the holding position on the tarmac where we unbuckled and exited the plane, everyone excitedly chatting amongst one another. I ran up to the Marine in the group and thanked him again and again for not competing for the seat. "Why didn't you raise your hand?" I asked. He smiled as he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I saw you with the camera there and thought that you would really like it."

Even though he knew it was the best seat in the house, he generously gave it to his fellow servicemember, and through his generosity, as well as that of my coworkers, the crew and the pilot, I was provided with the greatest and most memorable ride of my life on Fat Albert Airlines.