If you lived in Goleta in the late 60’s and early 70’s, you may remember seeing these almost comical looking aircraft flying around, but do you know they served a very serious purpose and helped man land on the moon? They were called Guppies, and their story is quite interesting.
It all started with this guy, Jack Conroy. A remarkable man, he was a part time actor, a bomber pilot in WW2 and survived time in a German POW camp. After the war, he was an airline pilot and was in the Air National Guard, where he set several flight records. One evening Conroy and his friend Lee Mansdorf were discussing the problem NASA was having transporting rocket booster stages aboard ships through the Panama Canal. Mansdorf had recently purchased several surplus Boeing Stratocruisers but was not really sure what to do with them. Conroy believed that they could take one of the Stratocruisers, enlarge the cargo area to hold a rocket booster and contract with NASA to fly the boosters from California to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Conroy presented his plan for the modified plane to NASA, where an official said it looked like a pregnant guppy. The name stuck. Even though NASA was lukewarm on the project at first, Conroy mortgaged his house and started a company with Mansdorf called Aero Spacelines to pursue the project.
The aircraft first flew on September 19, 1962, piloted by Conroy and co-pilot Clay Lacy. When Van Nuys traffic control realized that Conroy intended to take off, they notified police and fire departments to be on alert, but the huge aircraft performed flawlessly. One year later, the Guppy carried rockets for NASA and saved three weeks transit time versus the barge method they were using before. The Pregnant Guppy’s first flight was a little over a year after Kennedy’s famous “to the moon by the end of the decade” speech. It’s a little known fact that the Guppy played a significant role in Kennedy’s dream of getting to the moon by the end of the 1960’s. NASA was given top priority to meet this deadline and the Guppy made it happen.
The Super Guppy flew for the first time just short of three years after the Pregnant Guppy on August 31, 1965. In 1966, Conroy relocated Aero Spacelines from Van Nuys to the Santa Barbara airport at Goleta.
Once relocated to the Santa Barbara airport, construction began on several large hangars where four more Super Guppies would eventually be built.
It was built in a temporary location between the recently demolished WW2 hangar, seen in the background above, and the Airport drive in theater. The Mini Guppy was christened “Spirit of Santa Barbara”, on May 24, 1967. Two days later, the Mini Guppy was carrying cargo to the Paris Air Show, where Conroy was awarded the “Medal of Paris” for the greatest contribution to aerospace for the prior two-year period for the Guppy aircraft.
Aero Spacelines operated the Mini Guppy for several years, transporting cargo until 1974 when it was sold to American Jet Industries. It changed hands several more times through the years and has been retired to the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon, where it resides today.
A second Mini was built in the hangars on Fairview Avenue and named the Mini Guppy Turbine. Unfortunately in 1970 the Mini Guppy Turbine was lost, along with the entire crew, in an accident during flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base, California. No more mini Guppies were built.
Notice in the background the Super Guppy parked in front on the Aero Spacelines hangars.
The Super and the Mini Guppies, resting at home in Goleta.
In 1967, Aero Spacelines encountered financial difficulties and Conroy was forced to sell his company.
His design was so practical and necessary, it’s still in use today. NASA currently uses a Super Guppy manufactured by Airbus Industries.
For a while these unusual looking planes were a common sight in the skies over Goleta, and while many of us may have forgotten about them, they left their mark in aviation history and their legacy lives on.
Sources: allaboutguppys.com, aviastar.org, guppyphotos.com, Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, Brian Lockett, Urban Hikers, Santa Barbara News Press, Edhat, Peter Hartmann & Stacey Wright, Henry L. Fechtman and special thanks to Tom Smothermon.