Megalifters prove you’re never too fat to fly.
- By Kara Platoni
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 4 of 4)
Traveling in today’s Super Guppy is a cakewalk compared to flying the original, which lacked such niceties as a pressurized cockpit. “Any time we went above 10,000 [feet]—and we did it a lot— everybody was on oxygen. We looked like a bunch of British fighter pilots,” Marlow recalls with a laugh. It had such a long nosegear that on takeoff the wing faced the oncoming air at an angle that generated lift very early. The result was the unnerving tendency for the main landing gear to lift off first, and the nose last, so the aircraft went trundling down the runway like a wheelbarrow. (The current airplane instead has a Boeing 707 nosegear installed backward, and pilots aim for a three-point landing.)
Because Guppies are so novel, the flight crew occasionally faces hair-raising unknowns. Dan Hill, a flight engineer on the original Super Guppy from 1979 to 1991, recalls that the crew sometimes had to guess how much power the Guppy needed to get off short runways: “We never really knew, because of the lack of testing that was done, how safe it was to go to certain power settings. So we had one that was called ‘Fear Setting.’ At 1,000 feet we’d always do a runway remaining check, and that’s when we determined if we needed ‘Fear Power.’ ”
Marlow, who has survived so many misadventures that his colleagues whisper “God loves Frank” in hushed tones, recalls a mission to retrieve a NASA T-38 trainer that, struck by lighting, had had a fuel tank blown open. Although the smaller airplane was supposed to have been defueled, 50 gallons of gas sloshed out after takeoff, creating heavy fumes and a serious risk of explosion for the Guppy. The flight crew got ready for an emergency landing—then realized that if they lowered the electrically powered landing flaps, they risked creating a spark that could immolate their airplane.
They’d have to try a no-flap landing, but as the runway approached, Marlow realized another problem: “We were going fast and we had never made a no-flap landing in the airplane. We never practiced it. None of our training had it!” As the flight engineer desperately looked through charts for the no-flap stall speed for their aircraft’s current weight, Marlow knew he’d have to guess. “We were 165 knots and I said ‘This feels good,’ ” Marlow recalls. Luckily, he’d intuitively picked just the right speed. After making a safe landing, he double-checked: The magic number was 165.
The original Super Guppy’s most famous lucky break happened in 1965: While it was doing a high-speed dive during its certification test, the force punched a 23-foot hole into the airplane’s domed forehead. The airplane would surely have blown apart, had small access doors at the back of the airplane not popped out, releasing the additional pressure. “For seventeen very long minutes on September 25, 1965, the Super Guppy’s future looked uncertain, indeed,” the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel P.G. Smith, recalled in an article he penned for Air Force magazine. “But who could now say that she is not—quite literally—a great airplane?”
Even though they’re often unflatteringly compared to hippos and elephants and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, the Guppy, Beluga, and Dreamlifter all draw crowds wherever they land. Gutierres recalls listening to the radio on the way to an Australian airport to meet up with the Beluga, when suddenly, he says, “they stopped the program and the guy said, ‘I just saw an incredible aircraft!’ ” Even aviation professionals do double-takes. “We always get comments from air traffic control—‘What kind of airplane is that?’ ” says Glenn.
On that clear December day in Huntsville, Glenn stands inside the Super Guppy’s cargo bay, watching the payload slide in. He turns toward the rear of the airplane and unzips the flap that covers the tail section, pointing to a part of the lower fuselage. It came from the Pregnant Guppy, he explains—by the time this Guppy was built, there weren’t any other parts available, so this piece of its forebear was used. It’s sort of the alpha and omega of Guppy history, he says.
This happens to be Glenn’s last mission; he’s retiring after 42 years of flight. But the Super Guppy will fly on, in a program that will bring the history of NASA’s megaplanes full circle. The Super Guppy will soon begin hauling the Ares rocket, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and other oversize parts for the Constellation program, which will take U.S. astronauts back to the moon.