Super Guppies: A Rare Breed

how many super guppies are there

There are four Super Guppies, which are large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for hauling oversized cargo components. They were built by Aero Spacelines, based on the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, to transport rocket parts for NASA's Apollo programme. The first Super Guppy, or SG, was built using the fuselage of a C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser, with Pratt & Whitney T-34-P-7WA turboprop engines. The second version, the Super Guppy Turbine (SGT), featured a fuselage constructed from scratch, allowing for a wider cargo compartment. The four Super Guppies were used by Airbus to transport parts for the A300, A310, and A300-600 aircraft, as well as other projects. However, due to their high operating costs, they were eventually replaced by the Airbus Beluga. Today, one Super Guppy remains in service with NASA, while three are on display in museums in the US, UK, and France.

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The Super Guppy's predecessor, the Pregnant Guppy

The Pregnant Guppy was the first of the Guppy line of aircraft produced by Aero Spacelines. The Pregnant Guppy was a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft built in the United States. It was used to ferry outsized cargo items, most notably components of NASA's Apollo program.

The idea for the Pregnant Guppy was conceived in 1960 by ex-USAF pilot John M. Conroy, who realised that modified aircraft could be used to transport large but relatively light rocket components. Conroy presented his plans for a modified Stratocruiser to NASA, where an official commented that the bloated aircraft resembled a pregnant guppy. Although NASA was lukewarm on the concept, Conroy founded Aero Spacelines International to build and operate the aircraft.

The Pregnant Guppy first flew on September 19, 1962, piloted by Conroy and co-pilot Clay Lacy. The aircraft performed flawlessly, despite air traffic controllers' doubts that it would even get off the ground. The Pregnant Guppy successfully delivered the S-IV Saturn I rocket stage, reducing the delivery time from three weeks by barge to just 18 hours by air.

The Pregnant Guppy was made from two Stratocruisers, with a section of fuselage added from one to another to stretch it by 16 feet. The custom-built cargo bay was 19 feet in diameter, sized to carry stages of the Saturn V rocket. The entire tail section of the aircraft could be unbolted and rolled back on a wheeled trolley to access the cargo bay.

As the space program grew, it became apparent that one Pregnant Guppy was not enough, and so 25 more Stratocruisers and ex-USAF C-97s were purchased to construct four Super Guppy aircraft, which were longer and larger than the original. The Super Guppy offered several improvements over its predecessor, including a pressurised cockpit, a hinged nose for easier loading, and more powerful engines.

The Pregnant Guppy served throughout the 1960s and beyond, even after the Apollo program ended, transporting airliner sections. However, by the end of the Apollo program, the original Pregnant Guppy was in poor condition and was retired soon after. It was sold to American Jet Industries in 1974 and scrapped in 1979, with parts used to build the final Super Guppy Turbine.

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The Super Guppy's use by NASA

The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy is a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for hauling oversized cargo components. It is the successor to the Pregnant Guppy, the first of the Guppy aircraft produced by Aero Spacelines, which was used by NASA to ferry rocket parts.

In the early 1960s, NASA was using barges to transport large rocket components from manufacturers on the West Coast to test and launch sites on the East Coast. This method was slow and expensive, so NASA began looking for an aircraft capable of transporting these components. They found their solution in the Pregnant Guppy, which first flew in 1962 and had a cargo hold that was almost 20 feet in diameter. This allowed NASA to transport rocket parts to Florida in 18 hours, instead of the 18 days it took by barge.

The Super Guppy was developed as an improvement on the Pregnant Guppy, with a longer length and a cargo bay diameter of 25 feet. Its engines were also upgraded to more powerful and lighter versions. The Super Guppy first flew in 1965 and remained in service with NASA for 32 years, flying three million miles in support of several space programs, including Apollo and the International Space Station.

The Super Guppy played a crucial role in transporting critical components for NASA's missions. Its extra-wide cargo bay allows it to transport military jet aircraft with wingspans of 7.6 meters. Without the Super Guppy, NASA would not have been able to send astronauts to the moon by 1969.

Today, NASA still relies on the Super Guppy to transport large components for the International Space Station and other projects. The Super Guppy has also been used to transport the Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA's Exploration Mission-1.

NASA's Super Guppy, with the serial number 0004, is the only one still in service and is based at the El Paso International Airport in Texas. It is the last operational Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in the world and is maintained by a dedicated team at NASA. This particular Super Guppy is unique as it was built using parts from the original Pregnant Guppy, including some very old technology from one of the first Boeing 377s ever built, dating back to the late 1940s.

Despite its outdated design and high maintenance requirements, the Super Guppy remains an invaluable asset for NASA due to its ability to transport large and delicate components for their space missions.

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The Super Guppy's use by Airbus

The Super Guppy is a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for transporting outsize cargo components. It is the successor to the Pregnant Guppy, the first of the Guppy aircraft produced by Aero Spacelines.

In the early 1970s, Airbus used two Super Guppy Turbines to transport aircraft parts from decentralised production facilities to the final assembly plant in Toulouse. Airbus purchased the Super Guppies to address the logistical challenge of transporting large parts of the original A300, which were manufactured across Europe. The Super Guppies were an integral part of the manufacturer's operations, allowing Airbus to ferry large A300 fuselage sections throughout Europe during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

The Super Guppy features a unique design that enables efficient cargo loading. It has a hinged nose that opens 110 degrees, allowing for frontal cargo loading. The nose can be opened and closed without disrupting the flight or engine control rigging. The cargo compartment is spacious, measuring 111 feet in length and 25 feet in diameter, making it ideal for transporting large aircraft parts.

To meet the demands of its growing operations, Airbus acquired the rights to manufacture the Super Guppy and built two additional aircraft in 1982 and 1983. In total, Airbus operated a fleet of four Super Guppies. However, as their needs evolved, Airbus transitioned to the Airbus Beluga, which could carry twice as much cargo by weight. The Beluga was based on the A300, the very first Airbus aircraft.

Today, the Super Guppies have been retired by Airbus, with some on display at various locations, such as the Musée Aeronautique Aeroscopia in Toulouse, France, and the Airbus facility in Hamburg, Germany. Despite their retirement, the Super Guppies played a crucial role in the early development of Airbus aircraft, showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the company in overcoming logistical challenges.

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The Super Guppy's design and development

The Aero Spacelines Super Guppy is a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for hauling oversized cargo components. It was the successor to the Pregnant Guppy, the first of the Guppy aircraft produced by Aero Spacelines. The Super Guppy is unique in its ability to transport large and delicate components, such as rocket parts, aircraft sections, and even artwork.

Design and Development

The Super Guppy was designed and developed to meet the specific needs of NASA and, later, Airbus. Its design evolved over time, with two main variants: the Super Guppy and the Super Guppy Turbine (SGT).

Super Guppy (SG)

The first Super Guppy was built from the fuselage of a C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser, the military version of the 1950s Boeing 377 Stratocruiser passenger plane. The fuselage was lengthened to 141 feet and expanded to a maximum inside diameter of 25 feet, resulting in a cargo compartment length of 94 feet and 6 inches. The cargo compartment floor, however, remained relatively narrow at 8 feet and 9 inches due to the use of the Stratocruiser fuselage.

To enhance power and range, the Super Guppy was equipped with Pratt & Whitney T-34-P-7WA turboprop engines. It also featured modified wing and tail surfaces. With a payload capacity of 54,000 pounds, it could cruise at 300 mph.

Super Guppy Turbine (SGT)

The second version, the Super Guppy Turbine, used Allison 501-D22C turboprops engines, similar to the first Super Guppy. However, a key difference was that the main portion of its fuselage was constructed from scratch, allowing for a wider cargo compartment floor of 13 feet. The overall cargo compartment length was increased to 111 feet and 6 inches. These design improvements, combined with a pressurized crew cabin, enabled the SGT to carry more cargo than its predecessor.

The SGT retained the cockpit, wings, tail, and main landing gear from the 377. However, the nose gear was taken from a Boeing 707 and rotated 180 degrees, lowering the front of the aircraft slightly and simplifying loading operations by levelling the cargo bay floor.

Operational History

The Super Guppy played a crucial role in supporting NASA's space missions, including the Apollo program, where it was the only aircraft capable of transporting the third stage of the Saturn V rocket. It also served the Gemini and Skylab programs, and continues to be used for the International Space Station and other projects.

In the early 1970s, Airbus utilised two Super Guppies to transport aircraft parts from decentralised production facilities to their final assembly plant in Toulouse. Recognising the benefits of the Super Guppy, Airbus acquired the rights to manufacture it and built an additional two aircraft in 1982 and 1983. Thus, a total of four Super Guppies were in operation with Airbus.

However, as the Airbus A300 project progressed, the Super Guppies were eventually replaced by the Airbus Beluga, which offered twice the cargo capacity. Despite this, the Super Guppy remains an iconic aircraft, with one still in service with NASA as of 2019, and three others on static display in museums.

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The Super Guppy's current status

The Super Guppy is a wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for hauling outsize cargo components. It is the successor to the Pregnant Guppy, the first of the Guppy aircraft produced by Aero Spacelines. The Pregnant Guppy was derived from one of Boeing's first airliners, the 377 Stratocruiser. The Super Guppy is notable for its large fuselage diameter, which makes it ideal for transporting rocket components and other large cargo.

Five Super Guppies were built in two variants, both of which were colloquially referred to as the "Super Guppy". The first variant, the Super Guppy or "SG", was built from the fuselage of a C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser, the military version of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser passenger plane. The fuselage was lengthened to 141 feet and modified to accommodate a maximum inside diameter of 25 feet. The Super Guppy used Pratt & Whitney T-34-P-7WA turboprop engines, which provided increased power and range compared to its predecessor.

The second variant, officially known as the Super Guppy Turbine (SGT), also used turboprop engines. However, unlike the first variant, the main portion of its fuselage was constructed from scratch, allowing for a wider floor in the cargo compartment. The SGT also featured a pressurized crew cabin, which enabled higher-altitude cruising.

Today, all Super Guppies remain either in service, mothballed, or on display. One Super Guppy is still in service with NASA as a transport aircraft, based at the El Paso International Airport in Texas. This aircraft, known as the N941NA (formerly F-GEAI), is the last operational Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in the world. Three other Super Guppies are on static display at various locations, including the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, the British Aviation Heritage Centre in the United Kingdom, and the Musée Aeronautique Aeroscopia in Toulouse, France. The fifth Super Guppy was scrapped, with its cockpit saved by the South Wales Aviation Museum.

Frequently asked questions

Five Super Guppies were built in two variants.

The Super Guppy is a large, wide-bodied cargo aircraft used for hauling outsize cargo components. It has been used by NASA to ferry rocket parts and by Airbus to carry parts for their airplanes.

Yes, one Super Guppy remains in service with NASA as a transport aircraft.

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