The inaugural Smoky Mountain Airshow attracted larger than expected crowds over the weekend lined up to witness the dynamic flying formations of the headline performer the Blue Angels.
Their hulking C-130T Hercules transport followed by the six high gloss blue and yellow F/A-18 Hornets performed against a sunny blue sky high above the McGhee Tyson Airfield near Knoxville on Saturday and Sunday. The Blues Delta Squadron’s flight demonstration concluded each day’s performance before nearly 120,000 in attendance each day.
As the Blue’s jets roared to life prior to take-off, it was the team’s heavyweight C-130 known as Fat Albert which wowed the crowds with its own flight demonstration. Flown by an all-Marine crew, Fat Albert took off from the national guard air base to showcase its handling characteristics and how the C-130 is used overseas or in combat situations.
“Fat Albert’s a great time to fly, but what’s more rewarding than flying the demonstration is interacting with the public, doing the school visits, and traveling to different cities like Knoxville,” said Fat Albert pilot Major Mark Montgomery on Saturday following the flight demonstration. “I’m really enjoying Knoxville and its community.”
This aerospace journalist, including a select few members of the Marines, Navy and Air Force, were invited to fly aboard the massive aircraft on a wild flight. As we arrived at Fat Albert we were greeted by Bert’s all-Marine Blue Angels flight crew and support technicians.
“We do have an all-Marine crew flying Fat Albert and we have Marine maintainers working on these jets,” Montgomery said. “These jets are fairly old, but because their hard work and professionalism they keep them flying and they keep them beautiful and we get to watch this excellent demonstration here today.”
Bert’s flight engineer GySgt. Micah Bachtold began with the safety briefing followed later by a preflight briefing by lead pilots Major Montgomery and Major Mark Hamilton. Our 15 minute flight was timed to depart following Team Aeroshell and before the Blue’s six F/A-18’s departed for their respective flights.
“It’s a very dynamic flight in which you feel both positive and negative G’s,” GySgt. Bachtold confirmed as we stood near the aircraft’s aft section.”When we get in put that seat belt on and don’t take it off ’cause if you do and we experience negative G’s you’re gonna end up on the back and the ramp and you’re gonna get hurt and we’re gonna have to land.”
Bachtold threw humor into his briefing to lighten up the tension, “You’re gonna receive an air sickness bag, people do get sick on this flight. When we experience the weightlessness what’s inside comes out, and my mother taught me to share, but you can be selfish with this one.”
Major Montgomery then added with a grin, “Remember to use the plastic bag and not the envelope. And, whatever you brought onto the plane remember take it off… and that includes your lunch.”
We began with a visit on the flight deck of Fat Albert, and the hundreds of throw switches and gauges in place forward, center and overhead used to fly the massive aircraft. Even after earning the distinctive title of Blue Angels pilot, the flight crew posted a small postcard size note above the left seat which reads, “Fly Good. Don’t Suck.”
After a few minutes in Bert’s command pilot seat, I left to return to the cargo hull mid body of the four engine transport plane. We all strapped in for flight, and then given an air sickness bag by the crew. I then grinned back and stowed it in my pocket.
The mid body of Fat Albert is the entire reason why the Blue Angels rely on the C-130. For each airshow they attend, Bert transports several thousand pounds of cargo, replacement parts for the Hornets, and support personnel who help manage their role in the show.
“This C-130 came off the line in 1991 and it flew in the fleet for several years, and we got it and painted it bright blue,” Major Montgomery added. “It’s flown around the world in support of our armed forces and Marines everywhere.”
Unlike a commercial aircraft, the hull area prior to taxi through landing is hot, smoky and the smell of smoke can be overwhelming to some. This is normal for the men and women in the armed services who load and transport equipment into a military cargo plane every day around the globe.
Following the start up of Bert’s four propeller engines, our flight began its taxi out to the runway and in position for take-off. And, unlike a commercial plane, this C-130’s take-off was more like a space shuttle launch — speed and a nearly nose up launch into the massive blue skies of eastern Tennessee.
A few seconds into the nose-up take-off known as the Maximum Effort Climb, Montgomery leveled off Bert and then dipped the nose slightly to create a parabolic arc. From the ground, airshow crowds witnessed a beautiful flight, but inside we floated in our seats as we felt weightlessness for seven seconds.
In that short time, the microgravity of our flight allowed three of Bert’s flight crew standing in the hull before us to perform flips and go airborne in dramatic fashion. Everyone at that moment felt helpless and exhilarated at the same time. We later felt it again minutes later.
During the Blue’s C-130T demonstration, the pilots put the 150,000 pound aircraft through several maneuvers to simulate many of the flight profiles the military flies. From a low flat pass 50 feet above the deck; a sharp left banking turn providing two times the force of gravity; and concluding with a steep dive toward the runway, touching down and followed by a sudden reverse of all four engines to slow the aircraft to show how it could land on a small skid strip in a remote region.
The pilots and technicians of the Blue Angels in closing reminded everyone of how important the work of the Marine Corps. and the branches of the military are over their own jobs. Although welcomed, they would rather differ the appreciations to those not in the spotlight.
“We all come from the fleet, we get friendly looks and a lot of people want to buy us drinks at the bar,” Major Montgomery stated as he highlighted the work of the military personnel present for the flight. “We want to take those ‘thank-yous’ and pass those to you. It’s the people in the camouflage, in the flight suits that are deploying and doing the hard stuff. Right now there are Marines sleeping in the mud, and there are guys worrying… Thank-you.”
The Blue Angels airshow season runs from March through November each year. From the squadron’s home base at NAS Pensacola, the Blue’s perform practice flights over the Naval Aviation Museum during most Tuesday and Wednesdays of the year.