Fat Albert, the Blimp that carried a boat from the Florida Keys to Cuba
Fat Albert is a large white blimp that’s tethered to a truck at the blimp base on the backside of Cudjoe Key. We used to have two of them there. It’s named for the cartoon character by the same name. Each one carries a payload for its specific purpose. One sends out the TV Marti signal to Cuba, while the other one is a part of the continental US air defense network. It’s part of NORAD, it carries a radar and monitors suspected drug smuggling flights, fast boats smuggling Cubans, weather, any low flying plane and other potentially harmful activity. It costs $500 dollars per hour to operate this low level radar surveillance.
Fat Albert is helium filled. It can be raised to a maximum 15,000 feet, but it stays at 10,000 feet tethered to the blimp base by a single cable with a maximum breaking strength of 26,000 pounds. It measures 175 feet long, 58 feet across and the tail wing from tip-to-tip is 81 feet. It can lift a payload weighing 1,200 pounds.
In 1990 TV Marti was established to broadcast news and our own free world propaganda to Cuba. The start up cost was $40 million. The annual budget ranges from 11 to 15 million dollars. It’s ardently backed by the Cuban-American Community in Miami who are gung ho about the Anti Castro programming. They broadcast TV Marti to Cuba 30 hours a week where the signal is successfully jammed and has been since it began broadcasting in 1990. In Cuba it’s known as “No se ve TV” (“No see TV.”)
I’d like to share with you a story that’s been circulating in the Florida Keys for years. It’s about one of the Fat Albert blimps. I don’t know if it’s true or not but it’s a good story anyway.
It was a hot August afternoon when Fat Albert’s radar picked up a severe line of thunderstorms approaching from the northwest. The commander at the blimp base ordered the blimp down. But before they got it down lightning struck a nearby transformer. This caused the clutch on the winch to disengage. The cable was peeling off the spool being pulled by the blimp. The emergency generator finally kicked in the clutch immediately engaged with a horrible thud. The gears began grinding and then were stripped. The huge reel began spinning as fast as it could turn. The emergency break was engaged. It had no effect, it was too late the reel was spinning so fast that it fried the emergency break.
Another blot of lightning pierced the sky, this one ran down the cable to the machinery below and blew the whole thing apart. The cable snapped and Fat Albert was free with cable in tow.
The winds were pushing the blimp south. The cable was dragging just off the ground. As it passed thru the trees, it wrapped around their trunks and branches stripping them clean. It was now heading for US 1. The cable drug across power lines ripping them from their poles. It drug across the highway and across the ocean side of Cudjoe Key where it exited into the water and headed south.
Earlier that afternoon a fisherman in his small boat had anchored on the reef . He hadn’t noticed the line of thunderstorms developing behind him. By the time he saw them it was too late, the burst of cold air was already upon him. He hurried to pull his line in and pull the anchor. The anchor was stuck. He tried to pull it with his engine but it wouldn’t come loose. About this time something caught his eye. He looked up and couldn’t believe what he was seeing, Fat Albert was headed right at his boat. He scrambled for his knife and cut the anchor line. He turned the boat to run for shore. The wind gusted and blew the dangling cable across his boat. The wad at the end got wedged between the transom and the engine. The fisherman was now attached to the blimp. The rain was pelting him and he was getting very cold.
Each time the wind would gust the transom of the boat would come out of the water then it would be let back down. This continued until the thunderstorms had passed. The sun came back out and the seas began to settle down. He sun was warming the helium in the blimp. It began to rise taking the fisherman and his boat with it. He was first pulled backwards at a great speed then the transom was out of the water next the whole boat was out of the water and getting higher. He clung to the sides.
Back at the blimp base they were tracking Fat Albert with the other blimp. It was headed for Cuba. They were afraid the Cuban Government would capture the blimp and get the sophisticated equipment on-board. Boca Chica Naval Air Station was called. The order was given to shoot the blimp down.
The jets were scrambled. When they got within visual range, they noticed the boat with the fisherman dangling from the cable. The radioed this back to command. They were asked if the guy was alive. They replied that the guy was waving at them. They were ordered to shoot the blimp down. The blimp was flying at 10,000 feet, the pilots knew if they shot it down this guy would be killed in the fall. Command decided to try and let the blimp down slowly by putting only a couple of holes into the blimp. They fired at the blimp now this fisherman thinks they’re shooting at him. The blimp begins to sink. It’s calculated that it’s losing 100 feet a minute. It’ll take one hour and forty five minutes to fall. This will put it fifteen miles north of Cuba.
About this time two Cuban MIG jets appear. The US jets are low on fuel so they return to Boca Chica leaving the MIG’s circling the blimp.
A US Coast Guard Cutter is en route to intercept Fat Albert. They have to grab it while they’re in international waters. They’re three miles from that when they’re able to position themselves under the blimp and let it set down on the deck.
The small boat and the fisherman splash down near the cutter. He beats the cable free from his boat. He cranks on his engine and it starts. Nearby is a group of Cuban fishing boats. They rush over to see if he’s OK. Someone calls his name. He asks where he is. He’s just off the coast of his hometown. He turns his boat toward the coast line. He’s going to see his family.
I told you it was a good story. It is documented that a blimp broke loose from its tether on Cudjoe Key during a storm in 1984. It was shot down by a Navy jet off the coast of Cuba.
After that, remote flight control stations were constructed. Several years later in the 1990's the Fat Albert carrying the TV Marti antennas broke away taking 20,000 feet of cable with it. It headed north. A helicopter followed it to the Everglades. Technicians were able to use the remote flight control stations to send signals telling Albert to dump helium and bring it down. This time they didn’t have to shoot it down. It landed in a bunch of trees in the Everglades. The area was so remote that the recovery team had to repel into the area from a helicopter. It took a week for them to recover the blimp. It suffered only minor damage to the machinery on board. It was recovered and returned to service.
We’ve been missing our Fat Albert’s for over a year now. Hurricane Dennis formed in the tropics on July 4, 2005. On July 9 it made a pass near the Florida Keys. The technicians at the blimp base didn’t have enough time to deflate the blimps before the storm hit. This I don’t buy because you know days in advance that you’re in the path of a storm. Instead they removed the payload from both blimps, the radar equipment and the TV Marti transmitter and antenna. Winds whipped up to 113 mph. The fabric skin of the blimps was shredded.
It costs $1.3 million for a replacement blimp. A couple of weeks ago Fat Albert once again appeared in the skies of the Florida Keys. It's a good thing because lots of people use him to navigate by when coming in from the backcountry. They’re still tuning it up. I can see it being raised and lowered but I haven’t seen it all the way up to the 10,000 foot height yet. It’s good to have at least one of them back up in our sky line.
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Return from Fat Albert to the Lower Keys
Return from Fat Albert to N The Florida Keys