The Last of Its Kind Still Flying
February 2, 2016 1:06 PM   Subscribe

In honor of its latest flight transporting the Orion capsule to the Kennedy Space Center, let's consider the world's most bulbous plane, NASA's Super Guppy.
The Super Guppy has a cargo area that is 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide and 111 feet long. The jumbo plane can carry over 26 tons worth of cargo and is often used by NASA to ferry large components around the country that would take too long (or be impossible) to ship by land or by sea.

Gizmodo: One of our favorite weird cargo airplanes, This Is How NASA Transports Spacecraft in an Aircraft

From tested.com, NASA's Super Guppy: Awkward, Old, and Irreplaceable
I asked Foreman what it's like to fly NASA's bulbous bird:
"We typically fly with a crew of 6 or 7: 2 pilots, 2 flight engineers, a loadmaster and 1 or 2 maintenance guys.

It flies like a big airplane but has a very basic flight control system with no hydraulic boost (or power steering) so you have to kind of muscle it around. It definitely lumbers a bit when carrying heavy loads. It's also unique in that we always have the flight engineer set our power for us, even during landings, which takes a little getting used to. This is because it would be almost impossible to both horse the heavy flight controls around AND manipulate the power levers at the same time."
Here, the Super Guppy eats two T-38 aircraft (video)

NASA Super Guppy Takes Off


More images here and here.
posted by Existential Dread (51 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
The genre of "improbably large vehicle transporting improbably large cargo" will never get old.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:20 PM on February 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


Nope, it's still smaller than the Boeing Dreamlifter (with a 27.7 foot wide cargo hold), although I'll grant you it's a lot prettier (the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever flown).

See also the Airbus 300-600ST Super-Beluga and the roc-egg-laying Myasischev VM-T.
posted by cstross at 1:21 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


and the roc-egg-laying Myasischev VM-T.

It has a Thule!
posted by Kabanos at 1:24 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Super Guppy landed at my home base a couple years ago and I got to wander out on the ramp to go see it. Pretty impressive looking thing up close, but with the front - do you even call it a hatch at that point? - swung open and the cargo bay empty, it kinda looks like you could crumple the whole thing with a good squeeze.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:24 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Nope, it's still smaller than the Boeing Dreamlifter (with a 27.7 foot wide cargo hold), although I'll grant you it's a lot prettier (the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever flown).

To be fair though, I didn't say biggest, I said most bulbous (also debatable, I now see!)

And wow, that Airbus Beluga really reminds me of a giant xenomorph head.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:27 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Looks more like a whale than a guppy.
posted by jonmc at 1:32 PM on February 2, 2016


Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts? Is it that large lightweight high-value equipment is really that uncommon, or that the people who design airplanes have extra time on their hands?
posted by miyabo at 1:38 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I recently came across a reference to the VM-T Atlant. While I knew it has been used to transport Buran and other components, I didn't realize the flew an external tank on it. I still can't believe it flew with the blunt end first.
posted by beowulf573 at 1:41 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]



Looks more like a whale than a guppy.

but it's a super guppy
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:45 PM on February 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


but it's a super guppy

A giant airospace guppy to be precise.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:46 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts

Because they tend to be very large, but not particularly heavy -- airplane fuselages, spacecraft, and rocket stages that are very heavy tend not to fly.

Because they're not heavy, it's easy for a suitably ugly large cargo aircraft to carry them.

Because they're very large, it's impossible to ship them by truck. You can ship them by barge, but that takes weeks *and* involves making the object weatherproof.

Rolling the thing into a large-volume cargo freighter solves that. It flies, so it doesn't take weeks, doesn't worry about salt water, and doesn't worry about being too wide/tall to get under bridges.

I'll be honest, I was surprised that a Super Guppy was still flying, but NASA apparently reengined one and held onto it for just this sort of emergency. NASA originally used them for hauling S-IV and S-IVB stages for the Apollo program.
posted by eriko at 1:47 PM on February 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


I looked at that head-on photo in the Wikipedia entry and my brain immediately went, "blorp".
posted by angeline at 1:55 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


(the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever flown).

Boeing: "Dream-gor, fetch me that fuselage."

Dreamlifter: "Yeth, Marthter." *shuffle shuffle shuffle*
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:01 PM on February 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


Do they fill it with helium for the return trip?
posted by bukvich at 2:01 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I still can't believe it flew with the blunt end first.

As I understand it, that is actually more aerodynamically efficient. If the blunt end was at the back, there would be a ton of turbulence rolling off the back and pounding the rear control surfaces. Flying with the pointy end at the back helps to smooth out the airflow and reduce turbulence.

If you've noticed as you're driving down the highway, semi trailers have started sporting devices at the rear of the trailer that create a truncated "pointy" end. It's the same idea...it smooths airflow off the back of the trailer, reducing turbulence and, thus, drag, resulting in better fuel mileage (in theory, anyway.)
posted by Thorzdad at 2:03 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Fast and bulbous. Got me?
posted by davebush at 2:04 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


As I understand it, that is actually more aerodynamically efficient.

Yep. Look at fish, that's the way they're shaped.
posted by eriko at 2:05 PM on February 2, 2016


See also the Airbus 300-600ST Super-Beluga

I feel like I'm watching a Cyriak video.
posted by indubitable at 2:05 PM on February 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


omg...i used to live in 77059 and would see that thing in the sky by ellington, was so weird to see it in the air, and of course...thats what its for...
posted by brainimplant at 2:07 PM on February 2, 2016


A picture of one of these will randomly show up on my Chromecast's screensaver as a NASA photo of the day. Such a weird looking plane.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:15 PM on February 2, 2016


cstross: "(the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever flown)."

You see ugly, I see beauty. To each their own.
posted by Splunge at 2:46 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


It took me awhile to realize that, in profile, it looks simultaneously like a sperm whale with an accessory tail fin and the cross section of an enormous airplane wing.
posted by jamjam at 2:50 PM on February 2, 2016


the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever

When they rolled out the Dreamlifter, or more formally, the 747-400LCF, the chairman of Boeing looked over at the designer of the 747 and say "We're sorry for what we did to your airplane."
posted by eriko at 3:31 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thunderbirds of course had their own version, Thunderbird 2.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:52 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


> Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts?

As they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, if all you have is an airplane design and manufacturing firm...

Seriously though, it's really neat to see aircraft that have only a handful made. Given the overhead and regulation that goes into certifying any changes to anything airplane related, the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to support these "improbably" large cargo aircraft must be immense. Their mere existence makes it look like designing new cargo airplanes is easy, if not the most svelte design.

The Falcon 9, everybody's favorite Space X launch vehicle, is shipped by truck, or possibly by sea on a barge, so it's not all rockets go by improbably large transport aircraft. (It does land on a barge though, so maybe there's some built-in seaworthiness.) Still, I like to think that once they get the kinks ironed out to the FAA's satisfaction, SpaceX will simply fly the Falcon 9 from the manufacturing facility and land it (vertically) at the launch site.
posted by fragmede at 4:08 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts? Is it that large lightweight high-value equipment is really that uncommon, or that the people who design airplanes have extra time on their hands?

I like to imagine it's the aerospace version of of Marty McFly saying "Dammit, Doc! Why did you have to tear up that letter? If only I had more time...
...wait a minute, I got all the time I want! I got a time machine!!!"

Damnit, UPS! why is surface shipping restricted to surface routes? If only there was an aircraft big enough...
...wait a minute, I can have an aircraft as big as I want! I'm an aircraft manufacturer!!!"

(I'm surprised there isn't a business model owning one of these and renting a unique expensive delivery service, but maybe insurance and infrastructure and liability headaches aren't worth it?)
posted by anonymisc at 5:02 PM on February 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002

NASA has a pretty nice-looking website overall — couldn't they upgrade the Superguppy's web page out of the 90s into their current look?
posted by beagle at 5:17 PM on February 2, 2016


I like to think that once they get the kinks ironed out to the FAA's satisfaction, SpaceX will simply fly the Falcon 9 from the manufacturing facility and land it (vertically) at the launch site.

Ooh, that's a really nice idea. But I suspect they'll have to relocate the manufacturing facility because there is no-way anyone is going to authorize orbital-sized rockets to start launching in the middle of Los Angeles. They'll have to move those babies out by truck to at least Irvine...
posted by anonymisc at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Falcon 9 is comparatively cheap, but there's no way it will ever compete on cost with an airplane.
posted by schmod at 5:26 PM on February 2, 2016


"(the Dreamlifter has got to be the ugliest thing Boeing has ever flown)."

You see ugly, I see beauty. To each their own.


"You know, we could build you a new plane without that hump."
"...What 'ump?"
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:36 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


The Falcon 9 is comparatively cheap, but there's no way it will ever compete on cost with an airplane.

Interestingly, the Falcon 9 version 1 is just very slightly larger than the cargo compartment of a Dreamlifter, and also just barely narrow enough to fit through the door. The version 1.1 is 15 meters longer so there's no way it would fit in one piece though.
posted by miyabo at 6:45 PM on February 2, 2016


Ooh, that's a really nice idea. But I suspect they'll have to relocate the manufacturing facility because there is no-way anyone is going to authorize orbital-sized rockets to start launching in the middle of Los Angeles. They'll have to move those babies out by truck to at least Irvine...

SpaceX is in Hawthrone, so they could just drag them down Imperial and launch from a barge off Dockweiler Beach. Although, in real life, being so close to LAX prob means they couldn't launch them anywhere near that part of town anyway.
posted by sideshow at 6:52 PM on February 2, 2016


A giant airospace guppy to be precise.

If that's not the main plot point of a Star Trek episode, it's only because the series was cancelled too early.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:18 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


NASA has a pretty nice-looking website overall — couldn't they upgrade the Superguppy's web page out of the 90s into their current look?

I've read one NASA instructor mention that he pees in the same urinal Neil Armstrong did and uses some other stuff from that era, because the budget is tight.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:27 PM on February 2, 2016


A giant aerospace guppy to be precise.

Which is not a naturally tenable position for a guppy...
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:33 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


... he pees in the same urinal Neil Armstrong did

I'm shocked that Armstrong didn't shatter the thing back in the day with his manly stream of Right Stuff.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:35 PM on February 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


NASA did a big forklift if most of their site from a custom CMS to a responsive Drupal site. Anything that was not in that CMS is still chugging along as it did before, with some kind of long term migration plan.
posted by rockindata at 7:36 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


cstross: "the roc-egg-laying Myasischev VM-T."

Now that's a strange aircraft. It looks like it's got a 30-degree kink in the back, and has no tail (or, rather, it has two tails stuck onto each of the stabilizers, each with its own rudder and oh god how does that even fly).

And, oh god. It was apparently strong enough to carry Buran, which looks like it was bigger than it was. From the look of it, they barely got off of the ground.

Oh god oh god. That wasn't even the biggest thing it carried.
posted by schmod at 7:47 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


For anybody who took one look at that tail profile and the four props and thought "clearly that thing is based on a P-3 Orion", you'd be as wrong as I was. Read the Tested.com article linked in the FPP.
posted by intermod at 7:51 PM on February 2, 2016


The wikipedia image looks like Super Guppy is coming to dominate all the lesser-brained aeroplanes and rule the world!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 8:16 PM on February 2, 2016


anonymisc: "I'm surprised there isn't a business model owning one of these and renting a unique expensive delivery service, but maybe insurance and infrastructure and liability headaches aren't worth it?"

Airbus at least will rent there version for special projects.
posted by Mitheral at 8:35 PM on February 2, 2016


I got to see one up close and personal at the 2012 Joint Base Andrews Airshow/Open House. It completely dominated the area around it, and the cargo bay seemed gigantic even with a bunch of people walking through. The picture I took sort of looks like a plane making a duckface. I was so bummed that I missed the 2015 show.
posted by gemmy at 9:09 PM on February 2, 2016


Actually that wikipedia image is not a Super Guppy. It is just a regular transport plane carrying corn kernels that waited on the hot tarmac for too long.
posted by Kabanos at 9:11 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I had never heard of the Super Guppy before seeing it flying over Clear Lake Shores, TX.

I was driving at the time, and damn near crashed for gawping. It is an utterly bizarre thing to see in the sky if it's not a pre-existing piece of your world concept.
posted by zjacreman at 10:11 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts?
One of them made the news by carrying a very large and wide topless lady (scroll down for pictures). She travelled in a special pressurized container with isothermal protection and an anti-vibration device.
posted by elgilito at 2:08 AM on February 3, 2016


Fast and bulbous. Got me?

bulbous also tapered
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:18 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


(I'm surprised there isn't a business model owning one of these and renting a unique expensive delivery service, but maybe insurance and infrastructure and liability headaches aren't worth it?)

There is, kinda-sorta: you can charter the Antonov AN-225, the world's largest freight aircraft, when you really, absolutely, have to fly an outsize locomotive or something similarly huge (up to 250 tonnes) around the world. It will cost you, mind. The smaller (but still gargantuan -- bigger than a 747 -- 150 ton payload, equal to the non-existent cargo A380 super-jumbo) Antonov 124 is rather more widely available for leasing from Volga-Dnepr and we intermittently spot them flying over the UK on flightradar24.

A guppified An-225 -- now that would be something!
posted by cstross at 4:19 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


What stuns me about the Super Guppy, and what I can hardly find any information about, is how they hinged it, and how the thing is secured again. It's skipped over in all the pictures and videos.

Does it really have mechanical controls -- that are passed through that hinge? I clearly see some electrical cabling (possible hydraulic lines?) across the hinge in some photos. There's mention at allaboutguppys.com of hydraulic pins on the Super (compared to manual bolting on the Pregnant) Guppy, and that's all I've found.

In addition to the basic structural rigidity required, the hinged section also carries the nose wheel, which means the hinge must withstand the force of touch-downs.

Airbus's Beluga seems much more sensible. The only thing that hinges is a giant fairing. It has to withstand comparatively minor mechanical and aerodynamic forces, and I'll bet the plane could still fly if the thing were to come off in flight (without hitting something or hanging off and creating a huge, off-center drogue ... ).
posted by oheso at 4:44 AM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


miyabo: "Why are giant airplanes used only to transport airplane/spaceship parts? Is it that large lightweight high-value equipment is really that uncommon, or that the people who design airplanes have extra time on their hands?"
One other factor, apart from all the good reasons listed by eriko, is that only airplane/spaceship factories are likely to have runways adjacent to both the point of origin and the destination. If you have to figure out some way of transporting your stuff the last 20 miles from the nearest airport to your factory, you're probably better off using another mode of transport altogether.
posted by brokkr at 5:09 AM on February 3, 2016


If you're in the UK you can go and see one of these in person, at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome of a Sunday.
posted by emilyw at 5:42 AM on February 3, 2016


There is, kinda-sorta: you can charter the Antonov AN-225,

Yup. A friend used to work for a company that hired out Antonovs. She still has a model one on her desk.

Lots of stories about the weird things they used to carry around the place.
posted by pharm at 6:00 AM on February 3, 2016


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