Fat Albert

Maybe you’ve seen it? Hovering in the air, ocean-side, less than twenty miles from Key West? It’s a big white blimpish looking thing with a slightly suggestive shape. From a distance, especially at dusk, some people think it’s a UFO. For many years I called it “The Big White Wee-Wee” because it’s reminiscent of a -- well, it’s sort of phallic in shape. My husband heard me refer to it and set about to educate me regarding its real name and purpose.

What I learned from my Mr. Know-it-all was quite fascinating but don’t tell him I said that. The big wee-wee is actually a Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), a radar system housed within an enormous balloon, operated by the U.S. Air Force. It’s stationed on Cudjoe Key. Its primary purpose is to provide radar surveillance data used to detect low-flying aircraft attempting to enter U.S. airspace with illegal drugs. Second to its counterdrug mission, it provides surveillance data used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. What my husband didn’t know is that the big wee-wee is also used to broadcast “TV/Radio Marti”, which provides Cubans with uncensored news and updates on current events.

I learned that President Reagan established Radio Marti in 1983, with the lofty intention of hastening the fall of Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. Broadcasts actually began in 1985 although many North American broadcasters were strongly opposed to the plan because they feared retaliation by Castro. Those fears were realized when Cuban-based transmitters broadcast signals powerful enough to disrupt morning radio shows in several states. To this day, Cuba continues to broadcast interference with U.S. broadcasts targeted at Cuba in the endless effort to censor the information to which Cuban citizens are exposed.

Once enlightened by my husband on the purpose of the big white wee-wee, I learned that it’s known locally as “Fat Albert”. Huh.

Fat Albert is basically a fabric balloon filled with helium that can be elevated up to 15,000 feet while tethered by a single cable. The air space around it is restricted for a radius of two miles for both security and safety reasons. The data collected is transmitted to the station on the ground in which a flight director monitors several screens to make sure the system is operating properly.

In spite of the fact that Fat Albert is marked on air navigation charts inside a restricted area that contains the warning “Caution: Unmarked balloon on cable to 14,000 feet”, a Cessna flew into the tethering cable in 2007. The left wing was ripped off and there were no survivors onboard.

There are rumors that in 1991, Fat Albert broke from free from its tether while being lowered to the ground for maintenance. Heading first toward Miami, the balloon changed directions over Big Pine Key and headed out over Florida Bay. The story goes that U.S. Air Force reconnaissance planes located it and a helicopter equipped with a remote control radio instructed Fat Albert to pull his plug. He obeyed and emptied himself of the helium that kept him flying high. The big white wee-wee went limp and drifted into Everglades National Park where it eventually hit ground about seventy miles from home.

Fat Albert is not unique; there are several other aerial radar systems across the country. Other sites are located at Yuma and Fort Huachuca, AZ, Deming, NM, Marfa, Eagle Pass and Rio Grande City, TX and Lajas, PR.

Next time you’re driving through Cudjoe Key, open your windows and let out a great big “Hey, hey, hey” to Fat Albert and tell the big white pee-pee that I said "hi."