click map AirPigz About mail Robert Clupper

click map 787 Caption Contest CoolPix Homebuilt Military Must See Oshkosh Racing RC Space Video Podcast

click map Perfect Paper Airplane Facebook twitter

Search AirPigz...
Popular Previous Posts




Search AirPigz 1000+ posts


« Video: The Mesmerizing Beauty Of The Boeing 747 | Main | Caption Contest #47 Winner - Beware Of BIG Birds! »

1965 Super Guppy Dive Test Goes Bad (Not A Bird Strike!)

Super Guppy fuselage collapsed in a 1965 high speed dive during certification tests

 The story behind what lead to the Super Guppy having such a massive collapse of the upper fuselage is pretty amazing... and while this pic was used in Caption Contest #47, and the winning caption perfectly asked the question: "What kind of bird did you say it was ?????", in reality it was the result of a high speed dive test done during the final phase of getting the airplane certified. Birds were not involved.

 The following story, originally printed in the April 1971 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine, tells the incredible story from the perspective of being inside the airplane when it all happened. It's really interesting to see how close they came to bailing out of the prototype Super Guppy! To learn loads more about this exceedingly unique airplane, check out

By Lt. Col. P.G. Smith USAF (Ret.)
(illustration by Gordon Phillips) 

 MAYDAY! Mayday! Mayday! This is 1038 Victor, the Super Guppy, in flight test over the Mojave Desert. We have had a major structural failure of the upper nose section in a maximum dive and are preparing for bailout!" "1038 Victor, this is Los Angeles Center. May we help you?" "Stand by, Los Angeles, we have a large hole in the nose, and the aircraft is disintegrating and buffeting severely-Thirty-eight Victor will advise intentions." Only seconds before, we had been safely completing flight tests for the huge Guppy-confident that the converted Boeing Stratocruiser would regain from Russia the United States claim to the "world's largest airplane." Certification tests started with the Guppy's maiden flight on August 31, 1965.

 We had completed all the tests except the most hazardous maneuvers-the high-speed dives that are required of all aircraft for airworthiness certification. This portion of the flight tests was saved for the last phase and is called VD, for Velocity Dive. But now, twenty-five days later, on September 25, in clear, blue skies over the Mojave Desert, with only the final VD remaining, disaster struck!


 There was a tremendous bang and a jolting, violent shudder as the huge cargo aircraft hit 275 miles an hour after starting the dive at 10,000 feet. It felt as if a bomb had exploded in the nose section above our cockpit. The Guppy began to shake violently. Midair collision, I thought the worst of all aviation disasters! The whole sky seemed to open up around us with the sudden illumination of the cockpit. "God, it's coming apart!" someone shouted.

 The surplus Stratocruiser had been purchased from the Air Force boneyard in Tucson, Ariz. The aircraft had been completely disassembled and then lengthened and modified with a specially fabricated upper fuselage section. The whole new structure took on a mammoth, whale-like silhouette, with a shocking disregard for aerodynamic aesthetics. Four other Stratocruisers contributed sections to increase the length to 141 feet. A cargo compartment of 50,000 cubic feet-five times that of today's standard jet transports was created by enlarging the fuselage from eight feet, ten inches to a cavernous twenty-five foot diameter. Power from four Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines developed 24,000 horsepower and gave us a 300-mph cruising speed. It was no wonder that eyes were turned skyward in awe wherever the Guppy flew.

Larry Engle and I, pilots for the Guppy, instinctively reached for the throttles to reduce the power applied for the dive. Flight engineers Alex Analavage and John Kinzer and the systems engineer "Ollie" Oliver were behind us in the cockpit. Instrumentation engineer Sandy Friezner was in the forward belly, below the cockpit floor, monitoring his equipment. At the moment of the gigantic bang, the cockpit door was ripped off its hinges and smashed against Ollie's leg, breaking his ankle, as he was later and painfully to learn.


Miraculously. the Guppy made it back with a twenty-three-foot hole in her nose. imploded by the force of a test dive. To make matters worse, the aircraft was ballasted with 30,000 pounds of borate in sacks that burst, blinding the crew.

 "Slow it up, slow it up!" shouted one of the crew over the roar of the blast that hit us. Engle, Analavage, and Kinzer were all veterans of flying non-scheduled airlines. Engle had some 20,000 hours in the cockpit. I was aboard because of my test-pilot time in the experimental turboprop version of the Stratocruiser, and also because I had flown forty different kinds of aircraft since my World War II pilot days. Oliver had served as a crew chief on the Boeing military Stratocruisers and had been hired to help remold the Boeing into the Guppy. Friezner operated a specialized-services company for testing all types of aircraft.

 We had all been through many tight spots, but none like this. We all sensed that our time had come. There had been no indication of any defect in our preliminary VD test the day before when we attained a speed of 250 mph. The only complaint we had for that day's flight was the frustrating loss of the radios because of a recurring short in the electrical system. The uncontrollable buffeting and vibration were severe now, and as the power was reduced, the airspeed fell off rapidly to 150 miles an hour. But the instinctive action to slow up the huge craft boomeranged. Buffeting became almost unbearable, indicating an approach to stalling speed. "We're gonna lose her," I thought.

 Now another obstacle occurred. If the giant plane stalled, it would have been virtually impossible to bail out. We faced the stark prospect of being carried straight down to a fiery crash on the desert, almost 8,000 feet below. Hurriedly, we shoved the power back up. The Guppy wallowed like a giant Moby Dick plowing through mountainous waves, but she managed to creep back up to 175 mph. As the first shock passed and the aircraft somehow continued to fly, someone yelled above the terrific wind roar, "We'd better bail out while we have a chance." I reached for the mike to let the outside world know what was happening to us, but a sudden thought sent a new wave of fear through me. If we bailed out through an emergency floor hatch in the nose-gear well, we would be carried along the underside of the plane. Radio antennas, which had been relocated to improve reception, protruded along the belly. If the slipstream flung one of us against one of the antennas, they could slice him through like a bayonet. We were trapped in a nightmare situation.

 The high-speed dive had to be flown at the maximum gross take-off weight of the aircraft. We had prided ourselves in being resourceful and had arranged to borrow from a chemical dealer in Mojave 30,000 pounds of borate in 100 pound sacks. As the tearing, shredding metal from the nose blew aft inside the mammoth interior, the flying slivers ripped holes in the paper sacks of borate powder. The whole interior, including the cockpit, was filled with a swirling cloud of powdered borate by the slipstream being rammed into her. The bailout order was momentarily withheld. Ollie, still not aware that his ankle was broken, inspected the front of the huge cargo compartment and the super-structure high above us. Hobbling on his good leg, he got back to the cockpit to report his findings. "The whole damn nose section has caved in," he shouted in disbelief. "We got a helluva hole over the cockpit!"


Super Guppy's cargo compartment is larger than C-5A's. Projections behind the cockpit are hinges for her swinging nose.

 Just then, Sandy scrambled up to the flight deck from his compartment below. He ripped open the floor hatch just in time to strike Ollie's ankle a second painful blow. Ollie slumped down and grabbed his leg in agony. We no longer had to guess what had happened to us. The force of the dive had smashed the whale superstructure above the cockpit. We had a gaping twenty-three-foot hole, and pieces were still collapsing and tearing off. Broken stringers and pieces of frame were being ripped loose, shooting through the air like arrows, impaling themselves like steel through tinfoil in the frames that supported the fuselage at the rear of the cargo compartment! It was like flying a giant scoop, and just about as difficult.

 We decided to risk the antennas and bail out. As we got ready, I was suddenly thankful for the six crash helmets I had scrounged for the crew-just in case. I had taken a bit of ribbing for stowing them aboard. It was difficult to hold the hand mike steady as I transmitted the Mayday calls. The aircraft shook so severely that the mike bashed me in the teeth each time I held it to my lips to speak. I wondered if my radio message would even be intelligible. But I remembered the cursing I had given the radios the day before for not working at all, and now was grateful just to get through. But just when it seemed we had absolutely nothing going for us, Lady Luck smiled. The inspection hatches and access doors blew out in the tail section, and this relieved the immense internal air pressure that had been threatening to blow the ship apart. The haze of borate also was whisked away by the rushing air. A spark of "Can we save her?" began to show among the crew.

 "Los Angeles Center, this is Thirty-eight Victor. Request a chase plane for inspection of damage." "Thirty-eight Victor, this is George Air Force Base Tower at Victorville. I can scramble a couple of air defense fighters for you." "Roger, George, we'll take the fighters." "Thirty-eight Victor, this is Edwards Air Force Base Tower. We have a DC-9 in flight test on a take-off roll. Can he help you?" "Roger, Edwards, we'll take the DC-9. George, from Thirty-eight Victor, cancel the fighters, and thank you." The Mayday call was made on an International Distress frequency, which is continuously monitored by all agencies, and gave us instantly coordinated communications. While we waited for the DC-9 chase plane to arrive and inspect our damage from the outside, we again checked the interior damage.


A "shocking disregard for aerodynamic aestetics" allows the modified C-97 to carry this third stage of Saturn IVB, the booster that powers Apollo moon rockets from earth orbit to lunar orbit.


 We knew the huge Guppy well, for in addition to twenty-five days of flight tests, we had flown her on a cross-country tour to display and sell this mammoth cargo-carrying concept to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. We had taken her to the Manned Space Flight Center at Houston, where Astronaut Pete Conrad had wished us good luck, and we returned the good wish. We had also shown her off at the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Ala. Administration officials in Washington, D.C., had viewed her at Dulles International Airport, and top US Air Force brass inspected her at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. We had hoped to convince NASA that the Guppy, built by a small California firm in Van Nuys, could transport the huge Saturn rocket components for the Apollo moon landing much cheaper and faster than originally estimated. NASA had planned to ship the giant, twenty-three-and-a-half-foot diameter, third-stage booster from its Douglas manufacturing plant on the West Coast by barge through the Panama Canal to Cape Kennedy.

 Our company calculated that if an airplane could be designed to accommodate cargo this size, and if it could pass airworthiness tests, surely both government and space-industry officials would be highly interested. The tremendous savings in transportation costs and the elimination of the hazards of a three-week-long ocean voyage to extremely delicate instruments should be especially attractive.

 Now the DC-9 came into view and banked into position off our right wing. We asked how we looked. They replied, "Difficult to tell as we can't get too close yet, but pieces are flapping and still coming off the thing." When the DC-9 was finally able to make a visual sweep of our tail, they gave us our first encouraging report. "The tail appears to be intact with no apparent damage." It was then we made our decision to try to save the Guppy. Our major concern was whether or not the tail section would be able to stand the severe buffeting and vibration long enough to get us down. Loss of the tail would cause the aircraft to tumble and would make bailout impossible.

 We maintained airspeed at 175 mph and now began a shallow descent toward Edwards for a landing attempt on the adjacent Rogers Dry Lake bed. Since Edwards is the major flight-test center in the world, the fifteen-mile-long lake bed is an ideal landing area for experimental craft and airplanes in trouble. The DC-9 stayed in formation with us through the descent, providing skilled eyes to keep us posted on any changes that might occur. Only once did they comment about the gaping hole in our nose. Their consoling words were, "That kind of thing could spoil your whole day!"


The Super Guppy's nose swings open 120 degrees on two 600-pound aluminum hinges. A first in the annals of aviation, and still another curiosity of this highly successful airborne aberration.


 "Edwards Tower, Thirty-eight Victor, ten miles north at 4,000 feet. Request landing on the dry lake." "Roger, Thirty-eight Victor. Land to the south. Crash equipment is positioned and standing by." The approach to the dry lake was long and flat, and we didn't use any wing flaps. The landing gear was to be lowered just before touchdown, and if she pitched up or down, or if a miscalculation were made, we would belly her in on the hard-baked sand.

 As we crossed the threshold of the lake at 260 feet, the DC-9 crew radioed, "Thirty-eight Victor, no gear yet." "Roger, gear coming down." The touchdown was reassuringly smooth. We let the Guppy roll out to a dead stop on the long lake bed. There were six huge sighs of relief. The absolute silence of the desert was a serenade in blessed contrast to seventeen terrifying and almost endless minutes of near-disaster.

 Within five weeks, the Guppy's upper superstructure had been re- designed and rebuilt at Edwards AFB. Joe Walker, who later was killed when his F-104 collided in midair with the XB-70, made her final acceptance flight tests for NASA.

 The Super Guppy has now logged more than one million miles. She and her little sister, the "Pregnant Guppy," have carried a billion dollars worth of space equipment for NASA, and undoubtedly helped to speed up the US timetable for conquest of the moon. The Super Guppy's most precious cargo was the lunar-excursion module Eagle and the command ship Columbia flown by Apollo-11 Astronauts Neil Armstrong, "Buzz" Aldrin, and Mike Collins in their moon-landing mission of July 1969.

 From inauspicious beginnings, great things often grow. For seventeen very long minutes on September 25, 1965, the Super Guppy's future looked uncertain, indeed. But who could now say that she is not, quite literally, a great airplane?


John M. Conroy, developer of the Guppy family, with NASA's Werner von Braun, during construction of the Super Guppy at Van Nuys Airport, Calif.


Originally printed in the April 1971 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine
Learn more at 


EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (3)

Great link and follow up, Martt.

January 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterseerjfly

That's an incredible story. Thanks for posting it.

January 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCliff

Our uncle Larry Engel never spoke alot about it afterwards.

September 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterK Engel

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>