Megalifters prove you’re never too fat to fly.
- By Kara Platoni
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 2 of 4)
Aero Spacelines soon had its contract. The Pregnant Guppy promptly reduced NASA’s cross-country transit time from 18 days to 18 hours. “It enabled them to keep the schedule that they needed so they didn’t have to scrub any launches,” says Savage.
With proof that airplanes could safely be super-sized, NASA ordered an even bigger one. Dubbed the Super Guppy, it had a 141-foot-long body and 25-foot-wide fuselage. A hinged nose that could swing open 110 degrees for loading replaced the removable tail. In the meantime, Airbus, which manufactures aircraft components in France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, was also warming to the Guppy concept. In the early 1970s, Airbus began using four Super Guppy Turbines—a generation with Allison 501-D22C turboprop engines—to shuttle subassemblies internationally, saving time and eliminating bureaucratic hassles. (However, it also led to the taunt that every Airbus took its first flight on a Boeing.) “By using aircraft, you add flexibility to your industrial process,” says Bruno Gutierres, head of new programs and development for Airbus’ logistics and supply chain. “You are not dependent on weather conditions, for example, like you are with surface transports.”
Despite producing two more airplanes in the 1970s—the shorter, fatter Mini Guppy and Mini Guppy Turbine—Aero Spacelines foundered, particularly after the Mini Guppy Turbine crashed in 1970, killing its crew. NASA retired its original Super Guppy in 1991, and the Pregnant Guppy was cut down for scrap; there were no replacement parts for these unique aircraft, and Aero Spacelines had long gone out of business. Besides, Airbus was manufacturing ever-bigger airplanes, and needed even bigger cargo haulers.
By 1997, Airbus parked three of its Super Guppies, and traded the youngest of its litter to NASA—the one the agency still uses today— in return for cargo room for the European Space Agency on the space shuttle. Airbus replaced the Guppies with a whale-like airplane of its own invention: the Beluga. A modification of the Airbus A300-600, the Beluga can carry more and fly faster and higher than the Guppy. Cargo is loaded onto the Beluga via a hatch above the nose that swings up; to make this possible, the cockpit was dropped 51 inches, giving the Beluga its distinctive pointy nose.
True workhorses, Airbus’ five Belugas fly daily. “This aircraft is fully integrated into our industrial process and it’s very reliable for us,” says Gutierres. “This is something we are using day to day, something very important.”
Boeing hopes to accomplish something similar with its Dreamlifter, the newest entry into the realm of jumbo airplanes. It will shuttle parts of the company’s new 787 Dreamliner between Italy, Japan, and three U.S. cities, compressing shipping time for components previously routed via rail or sea from 30 days to one. Based on the Boeing 747-400, the Dreamlifter somewhat resembles an overinflated toothpaste tube, with the cockpit where the nozzle would be; when it debuted in 2006 still coated in green primer, bystanders likened it to a flying pickle. (Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Scott Carson reportedly joked to Joe Sutter, chief project engineer for the original 747, “Sorry for what we did to your plane.”) The 787 components are loaded through a swing tail with the world’s largest cargo loader.
Perhaps because of the difficulties Boeing has had with its related Dreamliner program, the company declined to let staff associated with the Dreamlifter give interviews for this article. (The 787’s delivery has been delayed by supply chain problems, according to news reports, and last year the program’s general manager was replaced.) However, the airplane’s specs alone tell an impressive story: The Dreamlifter is the first monster hauler designed to cross oceanic distances—it can fly 7,000 miles without refueling. Although NASA’s Super Guppy Turbine still claims the title of fattest airplane, the Dreamlifter is the most voluminous; according to the company’s magazine, Boeing Frontiers, it’s big enough to engulf a three-level, 10-lane bowling alley.
But, well—how do these enormous airplanes fly?