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Toting a fake Space Shuttle nose, NASA's 'Super Guppy' touches down in Seattle

A reporter shares his first-hand flight experience aboard NASA's Super Guppy, designed for carrying massive payloads.

By Robert Z. PearlmanSpace.com / July 2, 2012

The Super Guppy flies with a crew of six: pilots Greg Johnson and Dick Clark, flight engineers David Elliott and Michael Robinson, aircraft mechanic Bob Coyne, electrician Dan Thompson and loadmaster Don Myrick.

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Travis Air Force Base, Calif.

On Saturday (June 30), visitors to The Museum of Flight in Seattle will get an up-close look at a very unusual NASA aircraft. In fact, it’s not uncommon for air traffic controllers and even fellow pilots who spot the "Super Guppy" to ask a simple but telling question: “What are you?”

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I got to find out first-hand. On Thursday, I was invited by NASA to not just tour but fly aboard the Super Guppy, a bulbous cargo plane, as it flew between air bases near Los Angeles and San Francisco. The 90-minute trip up the California coast is one I won’t soon forget, and according to the Super Guppy’s flight crew, it was a rarity — perhaps even a first — for a civilian reporter.

I caught up with the Super Guppy — which is the last in a small fleet of Guppy aircraft flying after 50 years — at March Air Reserve Base in southern California. It’s there that I met the team I’d be flying with, including flight engineers Michael Robinson and David Elliot, aircraft mechanics and loadmasters Dan Thompson, Bob Coyne and Jon Myrick, and pilots Dick Clark and Greg C. “Ray-J” Johnson.

If one of those names sounds familiar, it should. Johnson is a NASA astronaut and one of the stars of the IMAX movieHubble 3D.” Before piloting the Super Guppy, he piloted space shuttle Atlantis on the fifth and final mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.

Before I boarded the Guppy, I had the chance to see it take off and land. Its “swollen” appearance — it looks like a cartoon anthropomorphic plane that held in a massive sneeze — is as deceptive as it is daunting. [Gallery: Soaring with Seattle's Space Shuttle Trainer]

The Guppy looks like it shouldn’t be able to fly, especially when you consider that its cargo hold, which measures 111 feet long by 25 feet wide by 25 feet high (34 by 8 by 8 meters) can carry payloads weighing upwards of 26 tons.

So when it came to take my seat, I’ll admit there was just a slight hesitation. Not that I doubted my flight crew’s skills or even the safety record of the Super Guppy, but just what it would feel like in-flight.

It didn’t help all that much seeing our payload for this leg of the Guppy’s three-day trip to Seattle sitting in the cargo hold. Inside the plane was a space shuttle. To be clear, it was just the 16,000-pound (7,300 kilograms), 28-foot (8.5 m) nose section of a shuttle mockup. Part of the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT), the crew compartment was used to train every person who flew on the real shuttles over the span of three decades.

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