Hurricane Irene puts damper on Brunswick air show ticket sales

BRUNSWICK — Just after 3 p.m. on Friday, Casey Brey’s feet floated 6 feet off the ground.

But only for a second, before the U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant came crashing back down to the belly of Fat Albert, the Blue Angels support plane, a big grin on his face.

The Fat Albert crew members are the techies in the elaborate, airborne play that is a Blue Angels demonstration. They fly equipment and people between air shows, make last-minute dashes to other air fields if a part is needed, and stay on the ground while the six F-18 pilots rip through the sky.

While the Fat Albert guys are usually in the background, they take to the sky before every Blue Angels flight to show air show spectators, and a handful of reporters who ride along with them, what the C-130T Hercules is capable of.

Which, despite its misleading name, is a lot.

On Friday afternoon, after handing out motion-sickness bags to all the passengers, Capt. Edward Jorge launched the plane into the sky. Over the course of the 10-minute ride, the plane experienced zero and 2G gravitational forces, causing passengers to float and then be pinned into their seats, and reached its top speed of 370 mph while flying only 60 feet above the runway.

However impressive Fat Albert’s performance may be, few spectators at the Great State of Maine Air Show on Friday had probably ever heard of the plane, or thought very hard about whether the Blue Angels have a support crew. Indeed, Fat Albert isn’t even included in the air show program.

But that doesn’t bother Gunnery Sgt. Ben Chapman, Fat Albert’s flight engineer.

“People who don’t know who Fat Albert is aren’t real air show fans,” he said.

Besides, in the military, everyone has heard of the big, blue and yellow propeller plane, and being part of the support staff for the Blue Angels is a big deal, said Oscar Arita, the logistics specialist for the team.

Arita said the job is competitive, and looks good on a military resume. Everyone on the team’s 110-member staff is hand-picked based on their past history in the military and endorsements by supervisors.

You don’t just have to be good at your job, he said, you have to want to be the face of the military for the duration of the three-year tour, something Chapman was excited about.

“I love to talk,” he said, adding that the recruiting and outreach aspects of the Blue Angels is one of his favorite parts.

Recruiting is the official mission of the Blue Angels, and Arita and other Blue Angels staff often visit local schools before the air shows. Fat Albert also takes local recruiters up in the plane, which Chapman said gives them exciting stories to tell prospective recruits. Over all, he thinks the military gets a good bang for its buck – the $34 million the U.S. Navy spends annually on the Blue Angels.

Before the Navy decommissioned Brunswick Naval Air Station in May, the air show was free to spectators. This year, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the civilian group tasked with base redevelopment, charged $20 at the gate for an adult ticket on Saturday, and five dollars less on Friday. The Sunday show was cancelled due to Hurricane Irene.

George Daddona, who drove down from Mechanic Falls, said the admission price was worth it.

“Not everything in life is free,” he said. Besides, his wife Linda bought him the tickets back in February as a birthday present.

Mike Morin, from Sabattus, saw things differently.

“It’s a tough year to shell out money for extracurricular activities,” he said, although he still bought tickets for himself and his two sons for the Friday night show.

While MRRA officials didn’t have final attendance numbers, Executive Director Steve Levesque on Monday estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people attended the show Friday night and Saturday.

Levesque had been hoping for closer to 30,000, but Levesque said the hurricane undoubtedly dissuaded people from attending on Saturday.

“This is a regional show, we get people in here from Canada and all over New England, so I imagine a lot of the people who had to travel didn’t come up,” he said.

Levesque said MRRA had budgeted $800,000 for the three-day show, but costs – and revenue – were significantly less because of Sunday’s cancellation.

Still, he said he was pleased with how the show went, and said he hoped MRRA can host an air show at Brunswick Landing again next year.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

The Blue Angels practice their demonstration on Friday afternoon before the gates open at the Great State of Maine Air Show in Brunswick.

The C-130T Hercules, also known as Fat Albert, is the Blue Angels support plane.

Sean Kirby and Cory Keller kid around in the back of Fat Albert before take off.

The Fat Albert crew preps for flight. From left, Cory Keller, navigator Joe Allen, Cmdr. Ben Blanton, Cmdr. Edward Jorge, flight engineer Ben Chapman, loadmaster Casey Brey and Sean Kirby.

Spectators watch stunt flier Dan Marcotte high above the Blue Angels’ parked F-18 jets on Friday night, Aug. 26, in Brunswick.

Spectators at the air show on Friday night squint into the setting sun while watching stunt fliers.

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