Flying on the Blue Angels' 'Fat Albert Airlines' at SF's Fleet Week

At the annual military extravaganza in San Francisco, CNET flies the friendly skies in the Blue Angels' support craft, a C-130 named Fat Albert. The plane may be chubby, but it gives an intense ride.

James Martin Managing Editor, Photography
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
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James Martin
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Fat Albert on the tarmac in Oakland, Calif. James Martin/CNET

It's Fleet Week in San Francisco, and though the ships and sailors enliven the town, the star of the show is always the Blue Angels. If you've ever watched these daredevil fliers, you know they put on quite a show, flying their F/A-18s within feet of each other as they roar over the city.

Supporting these sleek fighters is the lesser-known "Fat Albert," the lumbering Marine Corps C-130 Hercules aircraft that carries 45 maintenance and support personnel from show to show, along with the specialized equipment and spare parts needed to complete a successful performance.

Fat Albert isn't any ordinary transport vehicle. The Lockheed Martin C-130 tactical transport is the opening act for the Blue Angels' shows, warming up the crowd with its own impressive display.

This week, prior to the weekend's official festivities, I met the Blue Angels on the tarmac in Oakland, Calif., and I experienced Fat Albert Airlines up close -- including a ride on the chubby airplane. It was a nauseating ride -- complete with mandatory barf bags -- the wildest, longest and most dynamic roller coaster I've ever experienced.

My big fat Blue Angels flight (pictures)

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Security at the airport was tight. I had an invitation, and even so it was difficult to get through the door. I waited nearly 5 minutes for permission to enter the Landmark Aviation building. Motorcycle police were escorting the pilots onto the site, and spectators lined the perimeter fences vying for a peek at the Blue Angels' F-18s parked on the tarmac.

Initially, it had sounded like this was to be a standard media flight, but when I showed up, I was the only nonmilitary member. We stepped out onto the tarmac, and the press contact gave me a wry smile and asked if I was ready -- he commended the fact I was the only journalist to show up. "Do you get motion sickness?" he asked. I was unsure of the answer. That made me momentarily question my decision to be there.

I'd seen the Blue Angels fly many times, but I'd never been this close. The tarmac was bustling and loud and smelled of fuel as the pilots and flight crew checked and double-checked every detail a few yards from me.

The application process for becoming a Blue Angels pilot is rigorous, requiring at least 1,250 hours as a pilot of an F-18 or F-14. And becoming a Fat Albert pilot is tough too, requiring at least 1,200 hours behind the controls of a C-130.

As we gathered on the tarmac in preparation for our flight, Fat Albert's all-Marine Corps crew went over a few safety details and the plans for our flight. We'd spend roughly an hour in the sky, cruising over the San Francisco Bay and San Francisco itself in airspace that's restricted under normal conditions.

The three pilots and five enlisted aircrew lined up at the rear of the plane and ran through the flight plan. Reciting from memory, Major Aaron Harrell went through every detail of the demonstration flight, calling out every turn and altitude change that would happen. It was reassuring to hear the plan in such detail.

During a 9-minute portion of the flight, we'd run through a highly choreographed flight demonstration, Harrell said, which would take us as low as 50 feet off the water and include bank-turns, climbs and dives that would show the capabilities of Fat Albert. "You will experience significant G forces," Harrell said, "from 2Gs to negative Gs." He reassured us that though the ground and sky would at times look to be in places where they shouldn't be, everything would be fine.

San Francisco's Sutro Tower pokes up out of the fog. James Martin/CNET

Stripped down to the essentials, Fat Albert's interior boasts none of the comforts one finds on a commercial airliner. Everything is entirely utilitarian. Seats with lap belts line each wall, and cargo rollers cover the floor. I'm seated near one of two windows in the last seat, nearest the cargo doors, which would open up for a portion of the flight.

Our flight demo begins with a "low-transition takeoff maximum-effort climb," a wild ascent that sends the Hercules skyward at a 45-degree, nose-up angle to an altitude of 1,000 feet, simulating conditions in a hostile combat environment. To give you an idea of how steep and quick the takeoff was, a typical airliner climbs at about 10 degrees. With this takeoff, our plane takes just seconds to get from the runway to 1,000 feet, where we experience a flash of weightlessness before leveling out.

Out over the San Francisco Bay, we're aboard Fat Albert Airlines, on a spectacular tour of the skies. As we fly over the island of Alameda, past the newly opened eastern span of the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, the cars below on I-80 are breathtakingly close. Passing downtown and flying directly over CNET's headquarters, we cruise out toward the western edge of city, where a thick layer of fog has settled in. The sun shines as we cruise just above the dense marine layer, and Sutro Tower pokes up through the fog. The cabin of the C-130 is loud, hot and smells of exhaust.

The rear bay opens and two of the crew members, tethered to the aircraft, pose for a selfie at the edge of the open cargo bay, the bright white fog in the background.

(Check below for a short video from my ride with the Blue Angels.)

We cruise a while, taking a few scenic laps out over the bay and above downtown, closer to buildings than I've ever been in an aircraft for sure. We make a sudden move, banking left. I look at one of the crew and he gives me a thumbs-up. We've begun the demonstration sequence. As we bank sharply left, then sharply right, my window is filled with sky then water before we level out briefly and climb sharply. The engine roars and I'm completely disoriented as we reach the apex of our ascent and go weightless. My lap belt keeps me seated, but the crew is floating, along with anything else not strapped down.

It goes on like this: dipping, diving. It's hard to tell what's happening, but it's like the craziest amusement park ride you've ever been on. We were each handed an air-sickness bag prior to takeoff -- and at least three members of the military needed to use them. The ascents and descents were intense, but mostly brief. The tight turns produced strong G forces, though, and lasted longer, so for me they were far more stomach-churning. We banked into turns at 60 degrees -- wild compared with a commercial flight's 15-degree turns.

Though I didn't need to use the barf bag, by the end of the daredevil demo sequence, I was glad it was over. As we headed back toward Oakland I was sweating, trying to hold it together and feeling like I had woken up with a bad hangover. I was glad to be back on the ground, but the feeling lasted for hours after we landed: I was clammy, hot and unsure if I was going to be sick.

The Blue Angels themselves touched down just moments after we did. We were supposed to be just the opening show, but the beautiful fog layer we experienced over the western part of the city was too much for the F-18s -- they were grounded. So for the tens of thousands of people around the bay who were casual spectators prior to the weekend performance, we were the main event.