After more than 30 years of keeping an eagle eye on air and sea traffic from the Caribbean Sea to Tampa Bay, a Lower Keys fixture appears to be going the way of the Dodo.
The tethered Air Force blimp colloquially known as "Fat Albert" that hovers over Cudjoe Key will end its 33-year flight on March 15, according to an internal email by the defense contractor that operates the blimps nationally -- Virginia-based Exelis Systems Corp.
Coast Guard Keys commander Capt. Al Young confirmed Monday that Fat Albert will be coming down permanently.
The blimp, a Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) in military parlance, is part of an Air Force program that apparently has fallen prey to the budget hatchet. The Air Force told Exelis employees on Jan. 15 that TARS sites -- there are such blimps along the Mexico/U.S. border as well as the Florida Straits -- will be axed.
The company tried to strike a deal with the Department of Homeland Security for it to take over from the Air Force, but those talks apparently failed, according to the company email.
Multiple messages left at the Air Force Air Combat Command in Langley, Va., seeking comment on Monday and Tuesday could not be answered by press deadlines, military personnel there said.
"In the [request for proposals], the government also indicated its intent that aerostat flight operations will cease on March 15, 2013, and that the remainder of the fiscal year will be used to deflate aerostats, disposition equipment, and prepare sites for permanent closure," the Exelis email states.
A person who answered the phone at the Cudjoe Key station Monday said all questions about Fat Albert should be directed to the Air Force.
The blimp has been a source of barroom fodder for Keys residents, as rumors of its mission have swirled since it first rose above Cudjoe Key. The 250,000 cubic-foot blimp was the first such aerostat used by the Air Force. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard use the blimps in counter-drug trafficking operations.
There are actually two TARS blimps at Cudjoe Key, according to the Air Force. Both are low-level surveillance systems. One was formerly used by the State Department to transmit TV Marti, an American television signal, into Cuba.
The other blimp is used in counter-drug operations and by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), according to the Air Force.
The blimps reportedly can withstand up to 65-knot winds. TARS was part of the largest such blimp system in the world; and the first aerostat in the program went up over Cudjoe Key, according to the Air Force. There are also TARS sites in Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and Texas.
Young and Coast Guard Sector Key West Cmdr. Gary Tomasulo were in meetings Monday and Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. Young told US-1 Radio's "Morning Magazine" show Monday that he would prefer the Air Force kept Fat Albert flying, as it assists the Coast Guard in its anti-smuggling mission.
"It appears to be a funding issue, and I believe what the Air Force is doing is saying, 'If it has value to the Department of Homeland Security, then find a way to pay for it' -- I think that's what's going on right now," Young said. "Its presence has deterrent value to illicit trafficking here in the area -- both human and drug trafficking.
"And it also allows us, here at the Coast Guard, to maintain real-time visibility of air and surface resources."
Young called the blimp a tool the Coast Guard is going to have to live without.
"We've got some pretty sophisticated tools that we work with already, but if you're asking me, 'Do I want to work without it?' I would tell you no."
Many residents appear to agree with Young as a petition has taken flight via the White House "We the People" online platform.
The national petition is called: "Keep the Tethered Aerostat Radar System Operational in order to help secure the Southern Border of the United States" and can be seen and signed at petitions.whitehouse.gov.
As of Tuesday, there were 343 signatures out of 100,000 needed to garner an official response from President Barack Obama's administration.
The petition states: "This shutdown will open one more door to those wishing to bring narcotics into our country or otherwise violate our southern border by removing a vital sensor system that is used by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and other agencies. Direct the US Air Force and/or the Department of Homeland Security to continue operating this system in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico."
Fat Albert has popped in and out of headlines over the years it's been flying guard. Most recently, in 2007, three people were killed after their private Cessna plane hit one of its cables and crashed.
In January 1991, the blimp broke free of its tether while being lowered for maintenance and drifted over the Everglades before crews activated a remote-control pressure valve.
The program suffered a series of crashes between March 1993 and February 1994, when high winds claimed three aerostats, according to Citizen reports.
The Miami Herald reported in April 1989 that the blimp broke free while it was being lowered due to inclement weather only to crash into the Gulf of Mexico about a mile north of Cudjoe Key.
But the most dramatic Fat Albert story may well be that of the four lobster fishermen who were taken on a wild ride when they hooked a runaway blimp to their 23-foot fishing boat in August 1981, according to Miami Herald reports.
Fat Albert lifted the boat and its 175-horsepower engine into the air before dumping the fishermen in the water near the Mud Keys.
That Fat Albert was finally shot out of the sky by Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jets using air-to-air missiles.
Jaime Benevides Jr., the captain of that fishing boat, told the reporter he was trying to help the Air Force by towing Fat Albert back to its rightful roost. He was otherwise happy to have his boat back, as well as his Evinrude outboard, after the ordeal.
"It cranked right back up," Benevides said.
Historian Tom Hambright, who oversees the Florida history section at Monroe County Library's Key West branch, chuckled as he perused clippings regarding Fat Albert.
Hambright compared the soon-to-be-extinct blimp to the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station Jacksonville Detachment's Key West radio station on the Saddlebunch Keys that closed in September.
"[Fat Albert] was a landmark, but the world is changing," Hambright said. "It's an electronic world, and we're seeing just the beginning of it. Computers are changing everything."