Over the weekend, thousands gathered along Pensacola beach to see the blue angels. But before the F-18s perform for the crowd, there’s another member of the team that sets the stage.
Pensacola Naval Air Station lies southwest of the city, across a bayou. It’s home to the Blue angels—the US Navy’s flight demonstration squad, and the hangar is buzzing with service men and women preparing planes for the group’s practice run over Pensacola beach.
The airshow includes seven F-18 Hornets. It’s a fighter jet the Blues have been flying since the late eighties, but to get to the shows all across the country, they rely on a plane that’s even older. All the gear, all the parts and all the tools they need keep those jets running gets loaded into the back of a C-130.
“The Lockheed Martin aircraft company has been building this airplane since the late-fifties,” Marine Corps Major Dusty Cook says. “And we ended up picking these up in the Marine Corps, I actually flew the first one. It was built in 1961, and guess what, we just retired that aircraft in 2009.”
Cook is piloting the plane, known as Fat Albert, along with Captain Katie Higgins—the first female pilot in the Blue Angels. They’re both wearing cobalt blue jump suits with two yellow bands running down from their left shoulder.
Cook’s talkative, and can’t seem to stop grinning—that’s when his dimples come out. It’s clear he loves flying, even before he starts matching the sound of the planes prop engines during the preflight checks.
There’s room for about thirty on board the plane, so they usually invite a handful of people from the base, like Dru Rivas Martin, to come along.
“First time for me,” Rivas Martin says, “I’ve been here for three years, about to head out to California, I leave in a month and so I’m really excited to be on the C-130.”
Rivas Martin works as an air traffic controller. But before getting on the plane there are three different briefings and there’s a bit of a theme—the air sickness bag.
“Open it up, do your thing, cinch it off,” Gunnery Sergeant Josh Summers says. “Keep it cinched off the remainder of the flight. Again, if we experience negative Gs and you’re holding it loosely, what’s inside’s gonna come outside and the guy to the left and right of you are going to get sick as well.”
“Then it’s going to start a chain reaction of awfulness,” he concludes.
And he’s not kidding around—everyone gets a small manila envelope marked motion sickness bag with a small white trash bag inside. Shortly after take-off Cook pushes the nose of the plane down and as it dives, the three crewmembers in the back of the aircraft—Gunnery Sergeant Chris Villalobos and petty officers Kyetta Penn and Megan Stricklin—grab hold of something fixed to the fuselage and float weightless for a few seconds.
Three people ended up needing their manila envelopes.
At the beach Cook puts the plane through a series of climbs, dives and banks for the spectators along the shore.
“You’re going to get a sweet little taste,” Cook says. “It’s gonna be about a twenty—twenty-five minute flight, but eight minutes of that is just me having fun. So the biggest thing I told you is, I want you to have fun, if you’re not having fun and you feel sick and everything else… meh, it’s not my fault, I’m still going to have fun.”
But for all the maneuvers the best part of the flight was on the way to the beach. Villalobos cranked open the ramp at the back of the plane, and Penn and Stricklin, rigged up with safety cables, wandered out the end, sat down and dangled their feet off the edge.
With the wind whipping through the plane the heat was finally bearable. And looking out the back you could see roads and bridges grow smaller and the point where the water goes from emerald green to deep blue just off the shore.