SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --
The cartoon character “Fat Albert” can mean different things to different people depending on what generation one belongs to -- older generations might call this character a comedian while newer generations might see it as classic.
However, to a select group of Shaw Airmen, this nickname refers to a particular “customer.”
“Fat Albert,” a Tethered Aerostat Radar System that looks like a blimp, is a Department of Defense Aircraft tasked to provide over watch for the U.S. border and supply data for U.S. Customs, Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The blimp is equipped with various cameras and surveillance equipment and was fabricated to track drug smugglers who are on the ground and airborne.
The 20th Component Maintenance Squadron precision measurement equipment laboratory flight from Shaw AFB calibrates 94 items across two “Fat Albert” blimps located at Cudjoe Key Air Force Station, Florida.
According to Tech. Sgt. Timothy Barnes, 20th CMS PMEL electronics section NCO in charge, “Fat Albert’s” mission is to “keep an eye in the sky,” serving as an airborne asset not visible from the ground.
That invisibility is paramount for “Fat Albert” to execute its mission of countering drug trafficking operations conducted by the U.S. border patrol, U.S. Customs, Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard
“Aerial surveillance serves in the detection of narcotics before they reach the U.S.,” said Chip Lyons, Cudjoe Key site manager. “It’s important to stop these runs, because they are destroying our youth.”
Airman 1st Class Steven Suarez, 20th CMS PMEL journeyman, said he takes pride in knowing his work supports agencies nationwide, to include preventing illegal drugs from entering the U.S.
“It’s great to see our impact is not just Air Force wide but influences outside agencies as well,” Suarez said. “I’m from Miami, so I know first-hand the effects of drugs on youth. It’s good to see what I do here is making an impact around the country.”
Supporting “Fat Albert” requires performing calibrations on gauges, torque wrenches and test measurement and diagnostic equipment.
“TMDE, such as spectrum analyzers, are used to precisely position satellites,” Barnes said. “The equipment acts like a frequency counter and enables communications and radar applications to be broadcasted and received accurately.”
Equipment calibrations on the TMDE used to maintain “Fat Albert” must be precise. If measurements are inaccurate, potential drug shipments can slip through.
PMEL Airmen also calibrate the systems that assist with the collection of contraband once it has been identified by “Fat Albert.”
Once it is spotted and recovered, contraband is weighed on a large one-of-a-kind scale kept precisely accurate by the 20th CMS PMEL flight. This scale is capable of weighing up to 453 kilograms of contraband at a time -- a massive amount of drugs that could go unnoticed without accurate calibrations.
“Our main task being customs and border patrol, we need our equipment to do what [it is] designed to do,” Lyons said. “Without Shaw’s assistance in the calibration and certification of our equipment, we cannot do our job.”
Besides “Fat Albert,” the 20th Component Maintenance Squadron’s PMEL flight serves customers from a myriad of locations. Whether it’s adjusting weaponry systems and hardware for space and ground-bound assets in support of the Air Force mission, or calibrating, tuning and maintaining various pieces of equipment the flight’s mission is as diverse as its customer base.