Megalifters prove you’re never too fat to fly.
- By Kara Platoni
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
NASA’s Super Guppy crew members hear this question so often that most of the time, they just shrug good-naturedly and say that they drove in on the highway. When pressed, they’ll admit the big airplane actually feels quite small. “It’s not like flying with a house on your back,” says Frank Marlow, who has piloted Guppies for NASA since 1979. “It is really very clean and very nice.”
In fact, says Beluga pilot François Cantin, pilots of that aircraft get the opposite impression, thanks to the Beluga’s lowered cockpit. “When you are seated in the front of the aircraft, it seems that you are flying almost a small aircraft, because you are quite close to the ground,” he notes. Pilots can barely see the wingtips, much less the plane’s bulk, he says. “It’s really when you leave the cockpit that you notice at once that you are really in an incredible airplane.”
Unless a crosswind hits you.
“In this aircraft, you can feel it move laterally in turbulence, and no other aircraft behaves like that,” says Cantin. It’s like the sideways push you feel when driving a car over a bridge during a storm, he says. Crosswinds make landing the Super Guppy very difficult, adds pilot Terry Pappas. “Because it’s such a huge surface, a strong crosswind generates a tremendous amount of force on it—it wants to turn the tail downwind and it makes the nose point into the wind,” he explains. “That’s what you call weathervaning. Well, once you get that tendency going, it’s very difficult to counteract. You’ve got this rudder that you can use to help you counteract it, but if you’re a half-second late getting that control surface displaced, now you’ve got this huge 140,000-pound [with payload] machine already starting to rotate into the wind and it’s hard to stop.”
But those are about the only similarities between these two enormous airplanes. The Beluga is a modern jet airplane; the Super Guppy is a dinosaur. It’s a four-engine turboprop and all-manual, with no autopilot and no hydraulics except for the nosewheel steering, the brakes, and the windshield wipers. “It’s old-style flying,” says pilot Rick Hull. “You don’t take off and as soon as the gears are up and the flaps up, the autopilot’s on and you’re talking about what’s going on on Wall Street.” The Guppy prefers to fly out of trim and requires, let’s say, a certain degree of watchfulness. “It’s like going in a china store with a three-year-old,” says Hull. “You can turn your back on it for about two or three minutes, but you’re not going to like what he’s doing, you know?”
It’s also one of the few airplanes that still fly with a nine-person crew. Two flight engineers, two loadmasters, and three mechanics must disconnect the control cables, manually unbolt the nose before it can be swung open, carefully situate the payload, and pack the cargo into the Guppy’s special 16,000-pound shipping fixture. This half-pipe-shaped fixture, which rolls in on rails, mimics the cargo bay of the space shuttle and holds the payload steady. Since the hold is not pressurized or climate controlled, sensitive cargo can be protected by a lid that forms an immense silver cylinder—one, the crew notes, resembling a giant beer can.
While the Beluga flies constantly, the Super Guppy flies maybe a half-dozen missions a year—but they’re each about a week long, and include several stops. The long hauls, as well as the old-fashioned flying style, make the Guppy crew a very close team. Pilots still call out commands to flight engineers, an unusual exercise in thinking ahead for pilots accustomed to flying two-seaters. As Pappas puts it, it’s like driving a car while having the passenger shift the gears. “We’re kind of like a concert duo,” says flight engineer Larry Glenn, who has been flying NASA Guppies since 1987.
The Beluga, by comparison, flies with a three-person crew—two pilots and a flight engineer. Another key difference: while Cantin says the Beluga’s size affects speed and climb rate only minimally, the Super Guppy flies so low and slow that, as Hull puts it, “you feel like you’re riding in the Goodyear blimp”—an impression aided by the roomy cockpit, the panoramic windows, and the fact that most of the crew ride seated around tables, at which they often share sandwiches and a cooler of drinks. “We’re so slow that birds attack us from the rear,” deadpans Glenn. “I mean, we’ve got semis that pass us on the freeway.” Crew members swear they keep a road atlas on the flight deck so they can follow the interstates.