|By Leo Cachat|
Finally, after months of waiting, Thursday, May 1st had arrived. Camera gear in order, scanner frequencies programmed, and the confirmation of a ride up with fellow The Aero Experience contributor Fred Harl early that morning had me feeling like a six year old on Christmas Eve. I couldn't wait to get to the airport. Everything was great except the weather - cold, cloudy and windy - but that was not going to stop Fred, Mark Nankivil (who met us there), or me from catching the arrival of the Blue Angels and "Fat Albert."
Upon arriving at the TAC Air building at 8 a.m., it was obvious from the amount of media already there that this was a special day. We were briefed by Mark Sutherland (Airshow Public Affairs Director) on the arrival procedures and given our credentials and instructions on where we could go and what we could do. Mark could not have been more professional or friendly with the access he gave us, and I again say THANK YOU! This was truly a dream come true for me to know that in minutes I would be photographing something I had loved since I was a little boy. At this point we headed out to the TAC Air ramp to wait.
Outside the terminal doors and to the right sat "Aluminum Overcast," EAA's B-17 Flying Fortress. We then walked beside a beautiful F/A-18 Hornet - Blue Angel 7 - the dream was now a reality and right in front of my eyes. Needless to say, after I stopped shaking from excitement, I got some beautiful shots as it sat lonely waiting for it's family to arrive. About 30 members of the media were gathered on the ramp, cameras and video cameras in hand or on tripod. There was a common topic at first - the cold. But then my scanner came alive with this transmission: "'Fat Albert' on a 3 mile final at 1500." Looking to the right in the dark, cloudy sky, you could see the unmistakable shape of the Marine Corps KC-130T come into view with lights on and exhaust trailing the four engines. This was a special occasion for me, as it was two C-130's flying over our street when I was about six years old in Cleveland that captured my imagination and started me on my love affair with aviation. Now I was going to photograph one of the most famous KC-130's in the history of aviation and air shows, "Fat Albert." As "Fat Albert" overflew the airfield, the click of shutters was quite noticeable, and in moments the beautiful bird made a left turn to land.
So, "Fat Albert" was now on the ground he taxied into his parking spot. Immediately the crew was out, lined up on the ramp with their bags. The crew stood at attention, received their instructions, and immediately started getting ready for the arrival of the rest of the team. At this point, we were introduced to MC1 Eric Rowley, who takes care of the Public Affairs for the Blue Angels. He briefed us on the mission of the team, provided us with media kits, and answered all the questions he could. He also designated which media outlet was going to interview which pilots. He was very surprised at the number of media that were in attendance. MC1 Rowley was also very professional and friendly, and deserves a big THANK YOU also for his time and effort. Now it was time for one of the most famous jet teams in the world to descend upon Spirit of St. Louis Airport.
Again another call came on the scanner, and it was the Blue Angels calling in from 11 miles out. They called again at 5 miles out, and then they came into view in their trademark delta formation. They overflew the field, made a left turn out and came in to the delta break to land. Upon landing, God smiled upon us. The clouds broke and we had blue skies to photograph the birds as they parked. The crews were then interviewed by various media outlets. That was the last time we would see the sun for over 24 hours.
After interviews were completed, the team had to debrief and get ready to run their sight checks on the area. This is a flight where the team flies and looks for landmarks as points of reference to keep them aware of the show area and their proximity to it and each other. The sight checks were scheduled for noon with a practice scheduled for 2 p.m. This gave us the opportunity to warm up and get a bite to eat.
At noon the four planes that make up the diamond took to the skies, completed their checks and were then followed by the solos. All checks were made successfully, setting the stage for their first practice. It was flown as a low show due to the cloudy and turbulent-looking skies. Conditions for photography were less than ideal, but there was no way I would miss taking pictures of these beautiful aircraft. "Fat Albert" took to the skies first and put on a dynamic demonstration showing capabilities that an airplane that big should not have. In the hands of skilled pilots like Capt. Dusty Cook, Capt. A.J. Harrell and Maj. Mike Van Wyk of the U.S. Marine Corps, the KC-130's true capabilities could be seen. This aircraft provides support for the 7 F/A-18 Hornet's that the Blue Angels fly - transporting the crew and gear needed to maintain the aircraft we watched fly. No airshow would be possible without them. Great work gentlemen! On a side note, Capt. Cook is one of the coolest guys to follow on social media.
After "Fat Albert" landed, it taxied back with it's trademark U.S. Flag out the top hatch and crew member waving to the crowd. The Hornets were then preparing for their demo. Each Hornet had a crew member in front of it giving various hand and arm signals to the pilot who was testing the movements of the flaps, elevators, rudders and leading edge slats. The smoke was also tested at this time. When the checks were completed, each crew chief turned and sprinted back to a place in formation to allow the planes to taxi to the runway for their demonstration flight.
As is always the case practice started with the diamond take off followed by the two solos. The practice was as good as a regular airshow flight with the speed, precision and timing that the Blue Angels are known for - even with a low cloud deck. We were treated to a few overhead passes as our location was quite a bit left of the actual show location, and no one was disappointed with what they had witnessed as the practice came to a close. We were able to experience the taxi back into their spots on the ramp and watch the crew as they secured the aircraft until the next day's practice. The only exception was Blue Angel 7 as they prepared it to for a media ride. The Superintendent of a local school district was strapped in and ready for her flight looking very excited. Upon her return, her joy was obvious and she was presented with a picture from Lt. Ryan Chamberlain the Blue Angels narrator and pilot of Blue Angel 7.
This concluded our Thursday as it was 6 p.m. and Fred and I had a long ride home. We were anxious to get our gear recharged and ready for our early return Friday morning. We said goodbye to Mark Sutherland and hello to Skip Stewart, who had just arrived and told us about the cold flight up from Memphis. We also said goodbye to our friend and fellow contributor, Mark Nankivil, and took to the road in anticipation of what awaited us on Friday.