While we were still in the Florida Keys last week, a strong low pressure system went through, bringing with it rain and very high wind.  Since sitting by the pool became an exercise in literally holding onto your hat, Mike and I decided to take a drive to find two local things that we’d heard about – little deer and big blimps.

     The Keys is home to a type of deer that are very small.  Called Key Deer, they stand about waist high and look like standard white-tails except for their size.  They are protected and freely wander the roadways and back country of Big Pine Key.  At least, we heard that’s what they did.  We never saw one, but looking for them brought us to the Blue Hole, the largest fresh water lake in the keys.  Being from Minnesota, I thought calling this pond a “lake” was very humorous, but since our lakes do not typically have alligators – and this one has at least two – I figured we could just split the difference.
     Since the deer remained elusive, we continued south on US 1 to Blimp Road.  When we drove to Key West a couple of days earlier, we had seen two of the large unmanned aerostat blimps hovering overhead, but didn’t have time to track down their home on the ground during that outing.  This visit, we knew we probably couldn’t get into the Naval air station but wanted to try to get a closer look at the blimp(s) anyway.   Since it was so windy, one of the cream-colored blimps was visible from the road riding out the weather on the ground.  Unfortunately, our little digital cameras couldn’t really do it justice so the photo below is not mine.

photo courtesy FAS.org

     A little research revealed that the blimp(s) are nicknamed “Fat Albert” and:

  • are 175 feet long and 58 feet across with an 81-foot tail wing span; the envelope is filled with helium
  • are typically tethered at between 8,000 and 10,000 feet over Cudjoe Key although they are approved to go up to 15,000 feet
  • carry an underbelly payload of radar and computers for defense and weather forecasting purposes
  • Radio Marti, the American radio station that broadcasts news and information to Cuba, sends its signal from Fat Albert
  • have served as “eyes” over the Keys for 33 years, assisting in the war on drugs and looking for illegal aliens.  

     The “cool factor” of these blimps is very high which is why even though I only saw them in the air and on the ground for a brief time, I was saddened to hear that this program will be deflated on March 15 of this year after 33 years overhead.  These types of blimps are also in use along the American/Mexican border in the Southwest so maybe these Alberts will just be reassigned.  Many of the local residents of the Keys are not happy to be losing “their” balloons, but a signature campaign to get the Navy to agree to keep them in the Keys was not successful.

      The fact that the Fat Alberts were used to look for illegals and drugs reminded me of an incident that occurred in the Keys in 1982.  One Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Border Patrol decided to check every car leaving the Keys for illegal aliens and contraband.  Given that many, many people go to the Keys for a weekend getaway and leave on Sunday afternoon to go back to their homes on the mainland, it’s no wonder that the resulting traffic backup was more than 18 miles long.  After a couple of days, the officers decided to also check IDs to be sure that those leaving the island were U.S. citizens.  This move left the local Keys government officials fuming so the mayor of Key West  – a free-wheeling town noted for doing things its way – decided that since the U.S. government was treating the Keys like a foreign country, the Keys would secede and become a foreign country.
      The formation of the “Conch Republic” was covered world-wide and the negative publicity caused the checkpoint to be taken down after six days.  The Keys went back to being part of the United States, but you can see Conch Republic flags flying on private flag poles up and down the islands.

Where is the rig this week?
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is open from 2-5 p.m. today at Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee.  The public is welcome during those hours but must call 812-240-2560 to schedule an appointment to see the “RISE ABOVE” movie.  This unusual requirement is because the Traveling Exhibit is on high school grounds and the public is not typically invited under those circumstances.
Next week, the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, NC.  Ages 18 and under will be admitted to the Traveling Exhibit AND the Museum at no charge.  Those over 18 will pay admission to the Museum but admission to the Traveling Exhibit will be included at no additional cost.   The Squadron’s red-tailed P-51C Mustang will not be accompanying the Traveling Exhibit to this event, but the “Swamp Fox,” another privately-owned P-51, will be there.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.



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