Today, an implausible airplane. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
You've seen them, I'm sure —
in magazines, at air shows, or maybe off in a
distant corner of some airport. They are the
strangest flying machines. They'd pass for
four-engine propeller-driven airliners from the
1950s, except for the fuselage — the body swollen
up to gigantic proportions. You'd think there'd be
no way these great, inflated monsters could ever
get off the ground.
This airplane, called a Super Guppy, has a shape
that seems to violate every rule of sensible
design. And yet, it is an important link in
America's space program. But, let's back up a
moment. The antecedent of this weirdly-proportioned
beast was the B-29 Stratofortress, which
began replacing B-17 bombers in the late days of
WW-II. The B-29 was a big airplane with great range
In a modified cargo version, it became the KC-97,
whose body had a figure-eight
cross-section. From that emerged the last great
propeller-driven airliner, the Boeing
Stratocruiser. Only 56 Stratocruisers were
built, but they were the most comfortable of the
propeller-driven airliners. The passenger seating
was in the upper lobe of the figure eight, with a
lounge in the lower lobe.
But, by the late 1950s, propeller driven airliners
were being put out of business by the new Boeing
707 jets. And that might have been the end of the
Stratocruiser. However, NASA faced a serious
problem in the late 1950s. The rockets they were
launching at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, were being
made in California. How to move large rocket parts
across the country?
Science writer Robert Trip tells us they wouldn't
fit on highways or on railways. And, after a
fifteen-day ocean voyage through the Panama Canal,
they usually arrived damaged.
So, some developers gambled on a radical plan.
They formed a company and began buying surplus
Stratocruisers and KC-97s. They cut a Stratocruiser
in half, lengthened the body by sixteen feet, then
grossly increased its diameter. They called it the
It was all done in remarkable haste. Trip tells how
the de-velopers got away with flying Werner von
Braun in a seriously-flawed, not-yet-ready, version
of the airplane. The Pregnant Guppy was followed by
the Very Pregnant Guppy, later renamed
Super Guppy. They also made a smaller
version -- the Mini Guppy.
The Super Guppy
has a twenty-five-foot diameter empty space into
which NASA loaded huge components of Gemini,
Apollo, and Skylab. It's done other jobs as well,
like moving the fuselage of a Concorde SST. The
inside is so large it could house the Olympic pole
vault event. And Super Guppies have recently moved
sections of the International Space Station.
So, the next time you see one of those superbly
weird airplanes, know that they really do fly. And
know that function is not always obvious in the
machines we build. Sometimes the most unexpected
things really do function.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. S. Tripp, Pregnant Guppy: The Strange Epic of the
Ugly Airplane that Got Us to the Moon. Invention
and Technology, Vol. 17, No. 4, Spring 2002, pp.
For some excellent images of the superguppy,
For images of Stratocruisers and KC-97s,
Except as noted, all images are courtesy of NASA.
Dimensions of the Super Guppy.
Mini Guppy, Evergreen Flight Museum (Photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.