6 unique transport planes that carry missiles

Space programs and the development of jet aviation have led to the emergence of unique transport aircraft capable of transporting almost any bulky cargo.

In the thirties and fifties, transport aviation was mainly used for the transportation of military equipment , the transfer of military units, the delivery of mail and cargo. But in the early sixties and seventies, she had to solve more complex problems. In particular, to transport stages of space rockets , and then spaceships.

American air trucks

The Saturn space program led not only to the creation of one of the most successful American rockets of the same name, but also to the appearance of an unprecedented aircraft – the Boeing 377 Super Guppy, which was built by the American company Aero Spacelines.

The Boeing 377 Super Guppy was designed to carry fragments of the Saturn rocket.

Previously, parts of the rocket were transported by sea from the US Pacific coast to the Atlantic. The fragments of the rocket were delivered by a special barge, the journey itself took three weeks, but sometimes more if the weather conditions were unfavorable.

NASA management was not satisfied with the timing or cost of transportation, so it took care of solving this problem. This was done with the help of the American company Aero Spacelines, which developed the Pregnant Guppy aircraft in 1962.

The aircraft was based on a four-engine Boeing 377 Stratocruiser passenger liner, which had a radically changed fuselage, modified wings, tail unit and installed more powerful Allison 501 D22 engines with an HP 4680 power. each.

The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser already looked quite “well-fed”, but with an increase in the length and diameter of the fuselage, it really began to resemble a pregnant fish.

However, the anecdotal appearance of the aircraft did not bother the developers at all. The main thing is that the fuselage with a width of 7.6 meters and a cargo area with a length of 28.8 meters made it possible to transport the stages of the Saturn rocket.

Loading was carried out through the nose, which moved off to the left, and it was very inconvenient, since at first it was necessary to undock numerous pipelines and connectors of the aircraft control system, and then dock it all back. Due to the increased weight and deteriorating aerodynamics, the Super Guppy could fly at a cruising speed of 407 km/h, compared to 547 km/h for the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.

The flight range was halved – 3200 km instead of 6760 km. But the main thing was not in the characteristics, but in the fact that the Super Guppy made it possible to deliver rocket stages from the west to the east coast of the United States many times faster and cheaper than a slow-moving barge with a very expensive rental.

NASA did not abandon the use of these aircraft, leaving itself one Super Guppy, which survived safely into the second decade of the 21st century and was mainly engaged in the transportation of modules of the International Space Station (ISS).

Currently, only the Boeing 377 Super Guppy, owned by NASA, is in operation, while four other aircraft are mothballed.


In the 1970s, the US overtook the Soviet Union in the space race with the development of the Space Shuttle. And immediately NASA faced the problem of delivering “shuttles” from landing airfields to the US Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, from where they went into space. And if one landing airfield for the “shuttles” was in Florida, and the ship could be delivered to the launch pad using a special automobile transporter, then the second airfield was in California, and for transporting the “shuttle” again one would have to resort to the help of a barge.

NASA categorically rejected the barge option and decided to adapt one of the transport aircraft produced by the American aviation industry for the transportation of “shuttles”. Moreover, the shuttle was supposed to be transported not inside the fuselage, where it simply would not fit, but on the “back” of the aircraft.

The Boeing 747-100 was chosen as the carrier of the shuttle, which was reinforced with a fuselage, docking stations were installed, passenger seats were dismantled, and instead of them, a centering ballast was fixed along the entire length of the cabin. The wings were also improved, the aircraft received more powerful engines and a modified rear empennage.

The process of installing the shuttle on the “back” of the aircraft was a very difficult and time-consuming task and took several days.

The “shuttle” itself also acquired a special transport cap in the rear, which normalizes the aerodynamic flow. Due to the 68-ton “passenger” carried on the fuselage, the performance of the Boeing 747-100 has noticeably deteriorated. The flight range was only 1850 kilometers against the original 10,000 km, and the maximum speed decreased by almost 200 km / h, to 735 km / h.

After decommissioning, one aircraft was immediately decommissioned and became a donor of spare parts, but they did not plan to scrap it, but decided to keep it as a memorial aircraft. The second Boeing 747-100 SCA first carried the remaining “shuttles” to the US aviation museums, and then itself stood in the eternal parking lot at the Houston Space Center Museum with a full-size model of the shuttle on the fuselage.

With the advent of the 787 Dreamliner in the Boeing lineup, the issue of transporting large-sized aircraft fragments from Japanese and European contracting firms to the United States, where the final assembly of the Dreamliner was carried out, became very acute.

If earlier Boeing liners were assembled mainly from American parts and components, then the Boeing 787 was a global project.

For example, the share of parts produced in Japan reached almost 35%. It was in Japan that the fuselage sections and wings were produced, and the tail unit in Italy and South Korea. To deliver all these large fragments of the Dreamliner to the Boeing plant in the city of Everett, the Americans needed an analogue of the Super Guppy, only more carrying and roomy.

In the mid-2000s, Boeing and the Taiwanese firm Evergreen Aviation Technologies radically redesigned the Boeing 747-400 passenger liner, after which it became known as the Boeing 747-400 LCF (Large Cargo Freighter) Dreamlifter. In fact, the aircraft received a new fuselage with a record-breaking cargo compartment area, which reached 1840 sq. meters.

When creating this aircraft, the experience of developing the Boeing 377 Super Guppy was taken into account, and it was decided to load cargo not through the nose, but through the tail. Thanks to this, it was possible to greatly facilitate this process, since it was not necessary to undock numerous pipelines and disconnect the cables of the control system.

European Airbus flying whales

The European aircraft manufacturing concern Airbus, whose factories are located in many EU countries, from the first days of its existence, faced with the problems of transporting fuselage and wing sections from one country to another. To be more precise, the final assembly of Airbus liners takes place at the concern’s factory in Toulouse, and, for example, the center section is manufactured in Hamburg.


At first, European aircraft manufacturers were rescued by an American veteran – Boeing 377 Super Guppy. But over time, he exhausted his potential, and Airbus began to develop its own transport aircraft. It was created by 1995 and was named Airbus A330-600 ST (Super Transporter).

Due to the unusual shape of the fuselage, the Airbus A330-600 ST was given a different name – Beluga.

The aircraft was built on the basis of the Airbus A300 passenger airliner and differs from it in a completely redesigned fuselage, which has become wider and higher. The nose section with the cockpit was lowered down, the tail unit was modified.

In addition to the aircraft itself, Airbus also had to develop a special loader designed to work only with Airbus Beluga aircraft. The area of ​​​​the internal cargo compartment is 1210 square meters, the aircraft weighing 155 tons is capable of transporting 47 tons of cargo at a distance of up to 1700 km at a cruising speed of 750 km/h.

A total of 5 Airbus Belugas were produced, and all of them are still in service.

The Airbus concern leases aircraft to everyone, and among the tenants there were not only some private companies, but also government agencies, for example, the German Ministry of Defense.

Increasing the fuselage diameter to 8.8 meters allows the Airbus Beluga XL to carry large fragments of other Airbus aircraft, such as the Airbus A330 fuselage, on the basis of which the Airbus Beluga XL is built. In total, it is planned to produce six aircraft of this type, the first of which began operation in January 2020.

Initially, it was planned to replace the Airbus Beluga with its more modern counterpart, but a decision was made to operate both types of aircraft.


Air trucks of the Soviet Union

With the development of the Soviet space program “Energia-Buran” in the USSR, as well as in the United States, the problem of delivering rocket fragments and the Buran space shuttle to the Baikonur cosmodrome became acute. True, unlike the United States, in the Soviet Union it was not possible to deliver bulky cargo by sea, and the railway was not suitable for this. The only option left was to transport “oversized” on a special carrier aircraft.

On the basis of the 3M strategic bomber, the Myasishchev Design Bureau developed a unique VM-T Atlant aircraft, which was capable of carrying on the fuselage both fragments of the Energia heavy rocket and the Buran spacecraft. Of course, the aircraft created for highly specialized tasks had to be seriously modified.

VM-T Atlant first took to the air in 1980, and in 1984 it went on its first flight to Baikonur with the central part of the Energia missile system fixed to the fuselage. In total, three VM-T Atlant aircraft were built, one of which was purely test. The other two made more than 150 flights from the European part of the country to the Baikonur cosmodrome, in fact, stretching the entire Energia-Buran program on their “backs”.

The Energia-Buran program was closed in the early nineties, respectively, VM-T Atlant remained out of work.

They tried to find other uses for the planes, because they remained one of the most unique transport aircraft in the world, capable of carrying 40 tons of cargo on the fuselage. But their uniqueness has remained unclaimed. Nevertheless, the Myasishchev aircraft lived a very interesting and eventful life, in which it happened to be an intercontinental strategic bomber, a tanker aircraft, and a unique transport aircraft.

The VM-T Atlant successor in the Energia-Buran program was to be the An-225 Mriya heavy transport aircraft, developed by Antonov Design Bureau in the mid-eighties on the basis of the An-124 Ruslan transport aircraft. But it so happened that by the time the first and only copy of the An-225 was created, all the necessary transportation within the framework of the Energia-Buran program was carried out by the VM-T Atlant, and soon the program was curtailed and subsequently closed.

The An-225 did not even have time for the capping, although it transported the Buran space shuttle several times for demonstration purposes. The total mass of the Mriya can reach 640 tons, it is capable of carrying bulky cargo weighing 250 tons, both inside the fuselage and on it. The flight range with a load of 200 tons is 4,000 kilometers with a cruising speed of 850 km / h, and the practical range is 15,400 km.

If the VM-T Atlant after the closure of the Energia-Buran program was left out of work and retired, then the only An-225 Mriya produced continues to work to this day. Although the plane does not often take to the air, it regularly finds customers for the transportation of heavy and bulky cargo, whether it is the blades of wind generators or turbines for power plants.

In the nineties, the possibility of using the Mriya as a platform for the air launch of promising reusable spacecraft was considered.

Also, Mriya could become a component of the global search and rescue system. It provided for the prompt delivery of the Orlyonok ekranoplan on the Mriya fuselage, which would remove the crew from the ship in distress and deliver it to the nearest port.

Both of these programs remained unrealized. The second copy of the An-225, the fuselage of which is located in Kyiv, at the Antonov Design Bureau plant, was not completed either.


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