Big Idea

Megalifters prove you’re never too fat to fly.

“They’ll never get off the ground,” warned detractors of Aero Spacelines’ Guppy series of colossal cargo airplanes. (JIM KOEPNICK)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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.

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