The Flight of the World's Last Mini Guppy

Can the flight aficionados at the Tillamook Air Museum save this giant cargo plane built to transport rockets, school buses, and giraffes from Africa?

By Marty Patail May 1, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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The Mini Guppy, which turns 47 this month, has seen better days. Years of exposure to salty coastal conditions at the Tillamook Air Museum have corroded its wings and engines. The snub-nosed plane, built to carry outsize cargo, hasn’t flown since 1997. But facing a funding shortfall, the museum plans to transfer its collection of vintage craft to Madras, where the dry climate is friendlier to old planes. If the Mini Guppy is to survive, then it must fly again. If it can’t make the trip, the museum could scrap it. 

Aero Spacelines built five Guppies during the 1960s to haul NASA’s giant rockets, among other things. The Mini clocks in at 85,000 pounds—not including its max 32,000-pound payload—but uses engines designed for a much lighter plane. 

“There were a lot of naysayers at the time,” says Christian Gurling, Tillamook Air Museum’s curator. Nonetheless, on May 24, 1967, the ungainly vessel took flight. For the next 30 years it crisscrossed the world (top speed: 240 mph, half that of a 747), delivering school buses and gunships. In 1969 it rushed new Boeing 707 parts to Palestinian hijackers stranded (with hostages) in Damascus, Syria. In 1972 it carried NASA’s Pioneer 10 spacecraft to Cape Canaveral. That same year, it ferried the Goodyear blimp Europa from Akron, Ohio, to England. At one point, someone wanted to use it to import giraffes from Africa. The bulbous plane landed in Oregon in 1988, when Erickson Aircrane bought it to deliver helicopters to loggers around the Pacific Northwest.

“People always ask, ‘What is that ugly airplane?’” says Gurling. “It’s not ugly; it’s uniquely bizarre.” He is optimistic that this odd but storied plane will achieve liftoff. For its Madras escape, the Mini Guppy will cannibalize another plane to replace corroded parts. We say: do whatever it takes.

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