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On wings of Blue Angels, toy journeys from one heart to another

By Wayne Drash, CNN
  • Blue Angels deliver thousands of toys to needy families in New Orleans
  • It's the first time America's storied flight crew has been used as Santa's sleigh
  • Toys donated by Lockheed Martin workers in Georgia and Texas and Toys "R" Us
  • Man with $10 to his name can now celebrate Christmas with his family

Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia (CNN) -- The Blue Angels C-130, Fat Albert, moves like a lumbering fullback down the runway, its engines roaring. A hula girl hood ornament, on the cockpit dash, shakes her hips.

The giant plane lifts off gracefully and soars over the North Georgia mountains with 137,000 pounds of "precious cargo," as one crew member calls it.

When air traffic control gets wind of the flight and its mission, airspace is quickly cleared, a national salute to America's storied flight crew. On this December day, Fat Albert is Santa's sleigh.

The crew is delivering thousands of toys donated by Lockheed Martin employees and Toys "R" Us to hard-hit families in New Orleans as part of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.

"When you give a toy to a child, you're telling them they're not forgotten," says Capt. Edward Jorge, an 18-year Marine veteran who is commanding Fat Albert.

Minutes before takeoff on Dec. 2, a top Lockheed executive watches as footballs, basketballs, dolls and toy trucks are placed aboard the plane.

Lee Rhyant is reminded of his childhood, when he learned, at age 10, that there would be no presents under the Christmas tree. "No child should ever feel that pain."

In New Orleans, a carpenter who lost his home to Hurricane Katrina is wondering how he'll pay for Christmas for his two daughters and three grandkids. By day's end, Kenneth Burrell will be near tears -- of joy, awe and thanks.

To him, the men and women in their signature blue jumpsuits are more than just Blue Angels. They are the angels who saved Christmas.

"I can smile," he says softly.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

'I used to be on the other side'

The Lockheed hangar in suburban Atlanta is filled with excitement. Two pallets of toys are packed, wrapped in cellophane and ready to be taken to families in New Orleans, and the Blue Angels are on hand to deliver the goods.

The greatest investment we can do for this country is to invest in our next generation.
--Blue Angels Capt. Edward Jorge

It's the start of a 1,200-mile journey, with one stop in Fort Worth, Texas, to pick up more toys.

The mood is bright and festive. Speeches are given about the need to give to America's underprivileged.

Lee Rhyant is executive vice president and general manager of the Lockheed facility, responsible for more than 7,000 employees here. He beams with pride.

"I used to be on the other side," he says. "I understand these are not bad people. These are just people in unfortunate situations."

One of eight children, Rhyant says it was his mother who told him and his three oldest siblings that there was no money for Christmas presents.

"They loved us all, but they had to make sure the younger ones got something for the holiday season," he says. "What hurt the most was to see what it did to our mom, to have to tell us that."

Rhyant wanted a Tonka truck that year. He's always had a special hankering for the iconic toy trucks. When he got his first job at 22, he went out and bought himself a set of Tonkas.

Rhyant knows full well that an event in youth can shape the rest of a child's life. He's become one of the nation's top executives, hobnobbing with the elite and traveling the globe. Yet he's never forgotten that Christmas and his mother's pain.

As the toys were being loaded onto Fat Albert, Rhyant spied many Tonka trucks. His heart picked up a notch. "I wanted to snatch one," he says with a laugh.

"But I know somewhere, there's going to be a boy just like me who gets it with a smile on his face -- and a parent able to share in his joy.

"I'm just so fortunate to be able to give back and fortunate to be a part of this country where you have people gather together, come together and throw away their agendas and say, 'We're going to help somebody today.' "

From Iraq to New Orleans

Capt. Edward Jorge flew a four-engine turboprop low and hard over Iraq in January 2005, the highlight of his military career. He helped carry 3,000 Iraqis to polling stations in the first election after the U.S.-led invasion.

A commotion rang out from the back of his C-130 when the plane landed, happy chants that could be heard over the deafening roar of the mighty engines.

"You could hear these people cheering, and you could see the tears coming down their faces as they walked off the plane," Jorge says. "It was very emotional for me, because these people just wanted to vote. That was democracy at its purest."

Today's mission is different, but the theme is the same, one of hope, of looking out for the next generation.

Jorge stands in the cockpit monitoring the two pilots, flight engineer and navigator of Fat Albert. Buttons are everywhere. A red-and-gold bumper sticker says simply: "Fly Marines."

The Blue Angels are best known for their mach speeds, flying across the sky in F/A-18 Hornets. But Fat Albert keeps the jets in the air. The C-130 brings 40 maintenance and support personnel to air shows, along with tons of spare parts and communication equipment.

The Blue Angels have never canceled an air show because of maintenance problems, a source of pride for Fat Albert's crew.

I understand these are not bad people, these are just people in unfortunate situations.
--Lee Rhyant, Lockheed executive

The cockpit of the C-130T Hercules is impressive, with windows from floor to ceiling. "It's like an office with a great view," Jorge says, "the best view in the nation."

The conversation this day ranges from the serious -- arriving safely -- to bar talk. There are jokes about a never-delivered C-130 order to a foreign enemy and how the elderly make for good neighbors. When the crew learns that one of the men has never been to Las Vegas, oh, well, you know the saying "... what happens in Vegas ..."

The hula girl shakes her hips more. "She brings us luck," Jorge says.

The Blue Angels are on the road about 300 days of the year. They typically perform 35 air shows a year. Fat Albert logs more than 140,000 miles annually and begins each air show before the jets take over.

The 10 Blue Angels aboard today have volunteered in their off-time.

"This is the first time we've ever done this," Jorge says.

It's such a new mission, the toy delivery doesn't have a name. Jorge calls it the Blue Angel Toys for Tots Sleigh Ride. He hopes it becomes a tradition.

"The greatest investment we can do for this country is to invest in our next generation. No kid should be left behind. No kid should ever feel he's not worth having a toy."

The plane's first stop is a Lockheed facility in Fort Worth. Christmas music plays over loudspeakers in the hangar. Santa and an elf greet the Blue Angels.

Dozens of Lockheed employees are gathered around. The women swoon at the men in blue. Men watch with great admiration, too.

The pomp and circumstance last 15 minutes. Two more pallets of toys are loaded. And just like that, the Blue Angels are gone.

"All right, let's go give some toys to kids," Jorge says, back on the plane.

They're on a mission.

Saving Christmas for a man with $10

The plane swoops in low over New Orleans. Seconds after landing, Yeoman Second Class Chanel Campbell is asked to come to the cockpit and raise the American flag.

She climbs through a hatch and unfurls the flag for her hometown. "It's the first time I've done that," she says, beaming.

The 10 Blue Angels exit through paratrooper doors, carrying Santa bags filled with toys. The bags are handed to three families in need.

One family is headed by Kenneth Burrell.

"Good day for me today," he says. "Grandkids are gonna love this. I couldn't afford to go out there and get them anything. This is going to be a big relief off my shoulders."

Although 2005 presented Jorge with the highlight of his military career, that year is what turned Burrell's life upside down, like so many others in New Orleans when Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

Burrell's home was washed away by the storm. In the months that followed, the carpenter was too depressed to work. He bounced around different towns across Louisiana and Texas, staying with family. "But it wasn't home."

His situation worsened last Thanksgiving, when he had a stroke while working to rebuild his home. He lost movement in one arm. He's struggled the past year to get by.

Yet he's benefited greatly by the generosity of others. St. Bernard Project, a local charity, helped rebuild his home. He moved in recent months with his two daughters, ages 25 and 20, and three grandchildren.

Christmas was looking bleak. He has just $10 in his banking account. "That's all I have left to my name," he says. "I'm hoping it's still in there." A smile spreads across his face.

Burrell is a man who has seen so much, lost so much. He's also emblematic of the never-die spirit of this great American city.

"I've got a lot on my shoulders. I've got these grandkids to raise, but I'm going to do it," he says. "The Lord gave me strength, and I'm here for a reason: to take care of them."

He glances over at Fat Albert, sitting on the tarmac. He notes it's not red and white like Santa's sleigh, but its bright blue and yellow colors mean just as much. "That's a beautiful thing."

Dozens of volunteers from United Way, Toys for Tots, a group called Humanity, St. Bernard Project and other organizations form two lines near the plane. Led by former New Orleans Saints defensive end Charles Grant, they unpack the crates of toys, handing each one in conveyor-belt style for loading on a nearby Army truck.

The volunteers squeal with excitement. "An Easy-Bake Oven!" a woman shrieks.

One of the last items placed aboard the Army truck is a bright yellow Tonka dump truck. It's traveled more than 1,200 miles this day, from the watchful eye of a top Lockheed executive to the care of the Blue Angels.

Somewhere in New Orleans, a little boy soon will unwrap the gift. His eyes will bulge; he'll jump up and down. "Mom," he'll shout, "it's just what I wanted."

As the Blue Angels might say: Mission accomplished.

CNN's Robert Johnson and Simit Shah contributed to this report.