Sun-News photo by Norm Dettlaff
The Blue Angels' "Fat Albert," a C-130 transport plane, comes in for its final approach at the Las Cruces International Airport on Tuesday. The airplane carried military pilots who will be training at the airport for a couple of months, Lt. Marc Overman, said.
Article Last Updated:
Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Pilot cadets training in Las Cruces
By Christopher Schurtz

A bright mid-January sun glistened off the royal blue body of the Blue Angels' C-130 transport plane, the renowned "Fat Albert," as it banked into a wide arch before coming to a soft landing at Las Cruces International Airport on Tuesday afternoon.

Fat Albert rolled confidently to rest as a large American flag held on for dear life to the side of the large, pot-bellied plane.

"We're going to need 4,000 gallons of fuel," a voice called out from the loudspeakers.

Soon leaving the plane were the first of nearly 40 U.S. Navy and Marines pilot cadets who will spend the next two months learning to fly and honing their skills in the clear New Mexico skies.

Most come from the naval base in Corpus Cristi, Texas. According to Naval Commander John Barfoot, the Las Cruces International Airport is one of several airports like it where the U.S. Navy trains its present and future pilots. In Las Cruces, they will be using as many as 19 T-34C's to train. Several of the small craft buzzed into the airport as the sun began to set.

Barfoot, a 23-year veteran, said the principle reason the Navy has come to Las Cruces was shining him in the face. He said the clear, warm skies are a far cry from the poor, overcast weather in Corpus Cristi this time of year.

Last year, the Navy trained in Roswell. Barfoot said on trips across the country, Naval pilots who stopped in Las Cruces to refuel recommended Las Cruces as a good spot for training. Several trips by Barfoot confirmed the positive recommendations, and the decision was made to come to Las Cruces for training through March 9.

Much of what brought the Navy to Las Cruces to begin with had to do with Adventure Aviation, which became a contracted fuel supplier about three years ago. Owner Jo Jo Asprey said her company was the first at the airport to become a contracted supplier.

Asprey said a contracted supplier is able to get the exclusive contract to refuel military or government planes if they land at their airport. For the past couple of years, these types of planes have stopped to refuel at Adventure Aviation, which also runs a restaurant at the airport.

"I'm interested in Las Cruces. Of course I care about my own business, but this is going to mean almost $1 million to the economy of Las Cruces," Asprey said, adding Adventure Aviation will actually make little from fuel it sells.

Asprey said she and manager Bob Reich encouraged the Navy to come to Las Cruces for almost three years. She said the city and the county did little to lobby the Navy to come and credits the Navy's decision to their experience with those at the airport.

"This deployment came about because the Navy liked coming here," Asprey said.

The U.S. Navy will spend around $350,000 while stationed in Las Cruces, Barfoot said.

Included in that sum is rental for hangar space, fuel costs and hotel accommodations. It also includes paying for city fire and police department support while the Navy is doing exercises at the airport, which the city council approved at itsMonday meeting.

The fire department will provide aircraft rescue and firefighting personnel at the airport during the six days a week the Navy will be flying over Las Cruces. A minimum of five fire personnel trained in aircraft rescue and firefighting will be present, at a cost to the Navy of $75 per hour.

Police officers will act as on-site security during the same period, with all costs, including overtime, being covered bythe Navy. At least one officer will be stationed at the airport at a cost to the Navy of $25 per hour.

Though the trainees were escorted to Las Cruces by Fat Albert, the Blue Angels will not be training here; Fat Albert will be in California by Wednesday morning.

One of Fat Albert's two pilots is Marine Maj. David Michael -- the Blue Angels are a Naval squadron, but Fat Albert's crew is made up of U.S. Marines. Michael explained that the plane, built in 1964, serves as the Blue Angels' support craft during their shows.

The Blue Angels, the spectacular, aero-gymnastic demonstration squadron stationed in Florida, appear in 75 shows a year, with Fat Albert often making its own dramatic entrance.

The four propeller-driven engines, each 5,000 horsepower, drive the plane to a top speed of 360 miles an hour. But the plane can take off and land in a distance smaller than that required to land a single engine plane, Michael said.

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