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.
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Now it was the FFT’s turn to fly — and mine.Skip to next paragraph
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I was shown to my chair, a two-seat couch in the rear of the Guppy’s cockpit. These seats, and the seats to my left, are where the aircraft’s mechanics sit. In front of me was the flight engineer’s station and in front of that, the pilots’ seats. What really caught my eye, though, was what was in front of them: windows, and a lot of them.
From outside, the sheer size and dimensions of the Super Guppy grab your attention. But inside, the panoramic, 180-degree view out the forward floor-length windows are the star attraction. The only way to get a better view of the ground would be to swing open the nose of the Guppy, which can rotate 105 degrees to load its large payloads.
From my seat at the rear of the cockpit, I had to crane my neck to see just a sliver of the action. But any thought of unbuckling my seat belt and standing up to get a better view was erased when the crew powered up the Guppy’s four turboprop engines for takeoff.
"We’re going to use most of the runway," Johnson said to his crewmates. The sudden burst of speed — we had been taxiing for a few minutes — pushed me back into my seat. It was a lot bumpier than a commercial airline, too. But the transition from ground to air was smooth, almost unnoticeable, and the climb to altitude was a lot slower than the commercial flight that brought me to California.
The gradual climb was a good thing, too. It gave Myrick, outfitted with knee pads and gloves, time to jump into the cargo hold to climb over and around the shuttle trainer to make sure it was still chained down and where it was supposed to be. [Images: NASA's Visions for Future Airplanes]
Once he finished, Thompson and Coyne went down into the lower cargo hold to shut the lower door that separates the unpressurized back of the plane from the pressurized cockpit.
We climbed to 14,000 feet (4,267 m), the Guppy’s cruising altitude, and were told by the tower to head out over the water for Santa Catalina Island and then head toward Los Angeles.
"There’s the Pacific Ocean, boys," said someone toward the front of the cockpit. "Ten bucks for anyone who sees a whale."
The only cetacean in sight, however, was the flying variety. The aircraft may be called the Guppy, but it’s much more akin to a whale: large, slow-moving and possessing a voracious appetite — for fuel.
The most frequent callout among the crewmembers was a check of the remaining fuel, for the huge Guppy burns through its reserves at a rapid pace. As such, flying west and then north was not the most efficient use of the Guppy’s gas.
Clark called the tower and requested to go to VFR — visual flight rules — rather than follow the out-and-about flight plan the tower had chosen. We gradually banked right and began following the coast north.
It was about this time that my view got a whole lot better. Myrick had set a small garbage pail behind Clark and offered me a seat. From here, I had a bank of windows to my right and Clark to my left. I could view both the cockpit controls and the spectacular landscapes we were passing.
Sightseeing turns out to be a good way to pass the time. Both Clark and Johnson took turns pointing out airfields, city spots and natural landmarks. This wasn’t for my benefit; it was for them. I was just happy to take advantage of their geographical skills (and the GPS running on an Apple iPad positioned between them).
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