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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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?

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.”

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