The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News


Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Fat Albert Cudjoe Key

Chinese spy balloon? Boring. We’ve got Fat Albert and the F-35s

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Chinese spy balloon? Meh.

While the conspiracy brethren and their political media managers were agog last week over that Chinese spy balloon’s cross-country journey, the Florida Keys were all “hold my beer. I’mma gonna make me up a Facebook meme.”

When you’ve got Fat Albert (spying on the Florida Keys since 1978) hovering above ya out on Cudjoe, and you’ve gotcha a sky and ocean full of secret military stuff, who’s gonna get exercised by a 2,000 pound balloon that gets blown out of the sky right outside Myrtle Beach?

I wonder what the Vegas over-under odds were between Myrtle Beach and, say, Atlantic City? Or Cape Canaveral? We’d have gotten a ton more iPhone videos if we’d blown up that thing over Miami, right? It was all about the jet stream, but don’t let a little science get in the way of a good hyperventilation.

Key West Island News
Hold my beer while I make a meme

Anyway, back to Fat Albert. Fat Albert, so dubbed says local lore by, well, locals, is one of eight remaining Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems (TARS for short; blimps for the rest of us) that hover along the U.S. southern border. Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security uses them to spy (the official word is surveil, but spy sounds ever so much more like a Key West mystery novel) on boats and low-flying planes.

Doesn’t take a genius to figure out said boats and planes might be (a) smuggling drugs or (b) smuggling people. In 1978, Fat Albert was the first TARS deployed by the U.S. Air Force and he survived at least two federal defunding takedowns in 2013 and 2018. He had a baby brother in July 2017, but I think Hurricane Irma did in that little one in September 2017, so Albert goes it alone these days.

He just hangs there over Cudjoe Key alongside Blimp Road, an unmarketed tourist attraction (“Hey, look! Is that a blimp up there?! OMG!) Although it would be kinda cool if we painted “spying on the Keys since 1978” along its great white girth.

I don’t recommend a closer look. Fat Albert’s home tether is a military installation; I suspect there are guns involved. Folks in the Keys take Fat Albert for granted because, as Dave Barry might put it: “We don’t spy on ‘Muricans.”

Fat Albert TARS locations
Locations of the eight TARS installations along the U.S. border. Courtesy of:

Which brings me to the other secret military stuff.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s not secret if you live here. You can be enjoying sunset from the Truman Waterfront Park or the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham and up pops like a dozen wet-suit garbed humans, clambering over the edge or up the side, or a coupla helicopters hover overhead and drop tiny humans out the side, and, well, we just go on chatting like nothing to see here.

Or you’ll be hearing sea lions barking and your brain is going “we don’t have sea lions in Key West” and then you’ll go “oh. Yeah. Like secret stuff.” Coupla days later there’s a story with Rob O’Neal pictures of said sea lions (not seals; those are the humans) and you know you’re not crazy.

Speaking of crazy. So, I’m coming back to town from new Publix just before the Fifth Street light on Monday when I holler “Holy (secret stuff). That plane’s not moving. No, really it’s not.” (That caused a bit of a ker-fluster with Ranger Ed, who was driving and apparently paying appropriate attention to yet another 12-year-old driving a golf cart on North Roosevelt with her oblivious parents looking at the view.)

But, yeah, it wasn’t moving no matter which angle and I crawled around the seats to see. Had I been a golden retriever, I’d have had my head out the driver’s window. That plane was just hanging there like Fat Albert except way more ominous. Sorta like one of those low-budget Armageddon flicks or, perhaps a Chinese spy balloon in disguise.

Google is my friend so I whipped out the smartphone and asked “does the military have fighter jets that can hover”? Well, of course they do and the speed at which Google returned results was pretty much like Google flipping me the bird and saying to me: “Really? You ARE clueless.”

That’s a version of the F-35, which is officially designated as an STOVL: short take off and vertical landing, single-seat, stealthy, supersonic, multirole fighter, and unofficially designated as “beats a Chinese spy balloon.” A Marine friend of mine says the F-35 is what made him go Marine. (It was first a Marine fighter until everyone else got hold of it.)

That thing hovering over North Roosevelt paying no never mind to me acting like a golden retriever was way cooler than some dumb Chinese spy balloon. Hold my beer while I make a meme.


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