By Scott Colbath
I got the call on a Thursday evening:
Joe: “Hey Scott. What are your plans for the show weekend at El Centro?”
Scott: “Well, I planned on being there all weekend just in case you needed me. What’s up?”
Joe: “How would you like to go for a ride on Fat Albert?”
Scott: “Sure, but they are probably going to have to carry me off the plane.”
And so it began. Plane Wars…….The Quest for More Vomit.
I am a person who has suffered motion sickness running my sport bike up a twisty road. I have done a track day where I made it about six laps before I had to stop to get myself together before going on, only to do a couple more laps before calling it quits. As a kid, I once hurled in my uncle’s Cessna, when the plane was getting bounced around from turbulence on a flight along the Maine coast. When we reached the abandoned airfield up near Cherryfield, I then had to find a chunk of scrap wood to scrape my barf off the floor and out on to the tarmac. I once made it about one minute before wishing I was dead in one of those theme park rides where they put you in a pod that moves you all over the place, while you stare at a large screen of things coming at you, or flying through the air, or whatever. It’s all designed by sadists who just want to make people like me blow chunks. Now, I was going to strap myself into a large tin can, with similar sadists at the controls. Although this time instead of sadists, it would be a team of phenomenally talented U.S. Marine pilots taking forty or so people through a series of maneuvers demonstrating the full range of the KC-13o’s maneuverability.
I didn’t have to give this decision a moment’s thought. I’m doing this. This isn’t something that just anyone gets to do. I am one of a fortunate few who gets the chance to do some pretty cool things. My passion for photography has allowed me to be arm’s length from top fuel dragsters as they blew past me, shaking my insides. I’ve wandered the pits and track’s edge at NASCAR races. I have been in cages with wolves and other wild animals at a rescue center. I’ve photographed some great rock stars. But most special to me, are the chances I have had to shoot some of the best aviators in the world, up close. You haven’t lived until you have stood with your toes on the edge of a runway as three F-18 Super Hornets take off, one after another, almost blowing you over. Well, I actually was blown over once, but that’s another story.
So the planning begins. First, I obsess over this opportunity all Thursday night. I hardly sleep. I almost give myself motion sickness just thinking about the fact that I don’t want to get motion sickness. I’m excited. Kid-on-Christmas-Eve excited. But the flight is still a couple weeks away. What to do? Friday morning I start my research into the best way to prevent motion sickness. Thank you Google. I now have a prescription for Scopolamine patches. Talking with an aviator friend yields other options which I must investigate further. Conversation on a couple of internet message boards yields responses such as “Dude, you’re going to puke your guts out” to “Get a seat near a window so you hopefully can stay oriented.” Nothing groundbreaking was uncovered.
An email shows up in my inbox a few days after I got the invite. It is a medical screening form. They ask a number of questions……
Are you between the ages of 18-65?………………………..Check
Are you between the weight of 110-270 pounds?……….Check
Are you able to enter Fat Albert without assistance?……Check
Do you have motion sickness, or fear of flying?………….Shit.
I thought about this for a long time. I have absolutely no fear of flying, so no issue there. But the motion sickness thing. Well, I’ve not been taken down by motion sickness, ever. Just the one time I barfed when I was a kid, and some other times when I felt like hell afterwards. Nothing I can’t deal with. It’s not like I lose the ability to walk or talk. I just don’t feel good for a while. So, I check that box as a “No”, I convince myself that I’m not really lying to them or myself, and I move on. Worst case, it’s just a little white lie.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. Now it is the day before my flight. I’m in El Centro, outside the base, watching Fat Albert go through a practice demo. I assume it will be the same thing I’ll experience in just 24 hours. It looks pretty wild. Steep climbs, hard banking turns, high speed passes, and finally, a nose dive at the runway for a fast and short landing. I’m both excited and concerned. Excited because, well, who wouldn’t be? Concerned, because I am wondering just what I am going to feel like when I am up in the air. But it really doesn’t matter. Thursday night I eat light. Friday morning I wake early and have a cup of coffee and a small snack. Nothing else but sipping water until after the flight. I put my Scopolamine patch behind my ear around 0900, figuring it will be working at full strength by 1430 launch time. All is well.
I arrive at the gate at NAF El Centro a little early. I and a few others are greeted by an extremely nice guy named Skip. Or was it Biff? I don’t remember his name for the first few hours while on base. I was under the pre-flight stress one would expect when going up in a C-130 flown by Marines intent on turning my stomach inside out. Later on I learn his name is Zip Upham. Zip is the PAO at NAS Fallon, and a former Naval intelligence officer. He was down for the weekend, helping out an extremely busy Kris Haugh (deputy PAO NAF El Centro) at the air show. Both were gracious hosts and took very good care of us all. Thank you Zip, and thank you Kris.
We were all herded inside one of the hangars where we joined some folks from the U.S. Border Patrol, the local media, and some Navy personnel. Most of us in the room were going on the flight. Others were there just to get some film footage for a story. Roll call was done for those flying this day, and we were all handed a card to fill out. This card made it very clear that if Fat Albert were to hit the ground at a high rate of speed, in a flaming pile, the Navy was not responsible. After weighing the possibility of death versus the chance to take a spin on Fat Albert, I gleefully signed my name on the line. Hey, you only live once.
Shortly thereafter, we were driven out to Fat Albert. We then met the crew and experienced the pre-flight briefing. There was one briefing for the crew, and another one for the rest of us. The one for the crew sounded something like another language to me, complete with numbers and terms, the meaning of which I had no idea. But the crew understood perfectly, nodding in agreement, and that is all that matters. The pre-flight for us mere civilians sounded more like English, and included things like “We will be going up in the sky” and “We will be turning”. This sort of language is perfectly understood by my pea brain.
Our pilot on this day was Captain Dusty Lee Cook. A very stout looking, no BS kind of guy, who I could imagine probably enjoying a Subway foot long sub in the cockpit of Fat Albert while he tears across the sky with a bunch of unsuspecting victims in the back of his plane. It turns out Dusty is from Texas, and a Texas A&M grad. No surprise. Dusty and his ilk are a very rare breed. He is not driving a taxi in Newark. He is putting something which is more or less a building with wings, through some very intense maneuvers. The rest of the Fat Albert crew are a bunch of badasses themselves. None of these guys got here by simply being good at what they do. These guys are all the best the Marine Corps – already a highly-selective organization – has to offer.
After our briefing, we all board the plane, and are all issued barf bags that were in nice little envelopes. We were encouraged to keep them handy, because we were told that whatever we brought on the plane, we would be bringing off (if you get my drift). I slipped mine into my boot where it would be easily accessible. But why would I need it? I have a Scopolamine patch on. Right?
I grab the first open seat that comes my way. I’m not near a window, not that it matters much. There is a window across from me, but I can’t see much out of it. We were instructed to fasten our seat belts. I made sure mine was good and tight, and I even put my camera strap through the belt to help keep it with me, having a good idea what was about to come my way. I notice a ladder is strapped down to the floor of the plane, and one fortunate soul is instructed to climb the ladder up to the “bubble”, where he will have a 360 degree view of the outside world as this ride takes place. It sounds like an awesome place to experience this ride.
A few minutes later we were charging down the runway at full power. I could feel the landing gear come off the ground, and we remained just above the runway by a few feet for what felt like ten seconds, then it hit us. The plane pitches upward at a 45 degree angle and we are all jammed in our seats for several seconds. Fat Albert rapidly climbs. The crowd goes wild. We level off for a second or two. Then, just as soon as that ends, the plane is falling out of the sky. I’m experiencing zero gravity. My body is lifted what felt like a foot out of my seat, and I wonder how the hell this is happening, considering how tightly I fastened my seat belt. Towards the back of the plane, crewmembers are, for lack of a better phrase, hanging ten, their legs flying in the air as they hang on to the ladder in zero gravity. A few seconds later, it’s back to normal. But not for long.
Now the series of hard left and right turns start coming at me. I am completely disoriented. I try shooting video with my camera, but I’m not really sure what I am aiming at. At one point, I almost couldn’t lift the camera out of my lap due to the G force I was experiencing. At times, Fat Albert is banking hard at 60 degrees, and we are feeling almost 3 Gs of force. No wonder lifting my camera was difficult. How does the Fat Albert crew do this on a daily basis? I couldn’t even tie my shoes right now, if I had to; and they are casually hanging out, floating in the air and chatting it up.
I am smiling and completely confused at the same time. Then it starts. My stomach decides it has had enough. The camera is now being ignored in favor of the barf bag that I have pulled out of my boot. I’ve got nothing in me to hurl up, but that doesn’t stop my stomach from contracting over and over. I must have looked like a cat trying to honk up a hairball. I’m completely disoriented. My stomach is convulsing. I have no idea if I am throwing up, or down. And what is up with my Scopolamine patch? It’s failing me! But I’m still smiling.
After a while, my stomach surrenders. It knows there is nothing left, not that there was anything to begin with. Now I can sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride. We do a few more hard maneuvers and at one point, I see farmland passing by out the window at a very high rate of speed, and also very close to me. We were apparently in a hard right turn, but I could never have told you that based on what my body was feeling. Only the fact that I sat on the left side of the airplane and the small porthole window was pointing almost directly down at the ground was my clue. After a few more intense turns and a high speed pass by flight center, it was time for a nosedive towards the runway for the landing. We touch down and Captain Cook drops anchor and has the plane stopped in less than 1,500 feet. A moment later the ramp drops. The fresh air and smell of smoking rubber from the tires was something my senses welcomed. We taxi back towards the hangars. The ride is over. It feels like it just started.
Looking back, I would do this again and again. Maybe even with the added benefit of a reduction in my motion sickness. It could be my own little version of SPAD (self-paced airsickness desensitization) which is done by the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute for Navy pilots who experience air sickness. I may be on to something here. Maybe I could become a Navy aviation airsickness test subject, travelling with the Blue Angels all summer and hitching rides on Fat Albert. You know, for science.
Many thanks go out to Kris Haugh and AzAP for making this possible. Also, the entire crew of Fat Albert deserves thanks for their extreme professionalism and skill. I was in very good hands.