When I recently learned of the planned destruction of another milestone in commercial aviation, I was saddened. Anytime an aircraft of significant importance is broken up, even if there was a fleet of them and a few others still exist, in the case when a one-of-a-kind aircraft is destroyed, it is a historical tragedy.
Since the CL-44 Guppy left Tennessee in September 2002 and shortly thereafter was grounded in England, it’s fate has been in jeopardy. In the last ten years, the last “Guppy” class aircraft designed by Jack Conroy has been slated for the chopping block. The only CL-44 guppy built 9G-LCA (N447T) has been parked at Bournemouth airport England for nearly twenty years. It was sometimes maintained but has been slowly deteriorating. Yesterday, my longtime friend in London emailed and said the CL-44 was scheduled to be broken up on 11 February 2021. A year has passed since then and somehow it has received a reprieve.
The story of the Conroy CL-44 Guppy is the first chapter in my next book, volume II of Ultra-Large Aircraft. The CL-44 should have been included in the first volume to round out Conroy guppy production, but space and deadlines changed the plan. This brief background tells the story.
Jack Conroy built the first B-377 Pregnant Guppy in 1962 by cobbling together multiple fuselage sections of retired Boeing Stratocruisers and grafting a 19-foot upper fuselage on top of the existing airframe. The “Frankenplane” flying contraption was constructed outside as if it were a backyard project. Although clumsy looking and underpowered, it saved the day for NASA by transporting rocket boosters from the west American coast to Huntsville and the cape in hours instead of weeks. Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun was so impressed that plans began immediately for a second larger version. The B-377 Super Guppy with a 25-foot diameter fuselage was even bigger, first flying in 1965.
Both the Pregnant and Super Guppy were built for exclusive NASA and DOD work. So many shortcuts were taken in construction to get them finished they had to be declared “public aircraft.” This designation is how military aircraft are certified which prevents them from ever being used as commercial transports without serious upgrades. Jack Conroy had envisioned a commercial version guppy from the outset. His next project was the B-377 Mini Guppy which first flew in 1967. It had a much longer 132-foot long fuselage with 91.5-foot cargo hold ahead of the fuselage break. The smaller diameter fuselage is 15.5-foot high and was the only B-377 guppy with a hinged swing tail. The Mini was a commercial success almost immediately.
Shortly after the Mini Guppy was completed, Jack Conroy had a dust up with the management of Unexcelled Corporation, which was the parent of Aero Spacelines. Conroy departed and went across the field at Santa Barbara Airport and founded Conroy Aircraft Corporation. Aero Spacelines went on to produce a turbine powered mini version designated the MGT-101 Mini Guppy. Two more second design Super Guppy SGT-201s were also produced in Santa Barbara.
Conroy had multiple aircraft modification projects in progress at his new company in 1970, including the Turbo-Three and STOLifter. However, his primary objective was a new type of expanded fuselage Mini Guppy with visions of an advanced Super Guppy based on the Canadair CL-44. This airframe was selected for multiple reasons. As a long-range turbine powered swing-tail cargo aircraft with a 136-foot long fuselage, it was the perfect candidate for conversion.
Without suitable facilities at Santa Barbara, Jack Conroy was once again faced with converting an airframe outside. This time however, as the airframe was dismantled and cut longitudinally at floor level a temporary hangar was built over it. Everything about the CL-44 was perfect for conversion. It would not need to be stretched or require sections from other aircraft. The amount of engineering and fabrication was considerably less than the previous B-377 conversions had been.
Conroy acquired several redundant CL-44s from Flying Tiger Airlines in a rather curious but not defined deal with CEO Robert Prescott. While several CL-44s were supporting oil well operations in Alaska for Mobil, Conroy began converting N447T. The new Conroy model 103 was first with plans to convert the others when they returned from Alaska. The expanded CL-44 flew from Santa Barbara on 28 November 1969. The flight was commanded by Captain Jim Seymour with Lockheed test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon as co-pilot and Jeff Seidemen as flight engineer. Seymour had logged more than 5,000 hours on the CL-44. The modified Conroy CL-44 had a new volumetric fuselage which was more oval at eleven feet high and thirteen feet wide at mid height. Throughout the spring of 1970, it was flown in a test and certification program.
Photo: (courtesy) Jim Seymour II
On 08 April 1970 during certification testing the modified CL-44 was flown to 25,000 feet with a FAA pilot in command. The pilot nosed the aircraft over for a dive test with too much power on. The aircraft accelerated downward past Mach .73 at which time they lost control. The aircraft began violently shaking almost coming apart. It began sheading panels and parts. The tail was damaged as the co-pilot who was a seasoned CL-44 captain gained control and leveled off at 15,000 feet. The aircraft suffered severe damage, but the crew was able to land safely at Edwards Air Force Base. The next day, Conroy and his team were on a conference call to Canadair about the incident. The Canadair team was shocked. One of the engineers stated, “You flew it to .75 Mach and you are still alive.” The aircraft was repaired over the next few months; however, the left horizontal stabilizer had been distorted and always had a downward droop the entire operational life.”
Shortly after it was repaired and certified, Conroy forfeited the CL-44 Guppy because of financial difficulties. Robert Prescott, who had not been fully paid for the aircraft, negotiated a lease, sale agreement with T.D. Mike Keegan of Transmeridian Air Cargo and British Air Ferries (BAF). Keegan already operated standard cargo CL-44s and ATL-98 Carvairs under BAF. The (Conroy 103) CL-44 Guppy was renamed “Skymonster” and was an immediate success. Keegan stated years later that the guppy grossed more profit in cargo transport than the other CL-44s in his fleet combined. This was the last guppy produced by Jack Conroy. He had conducted engineering studies and made major plans for an even larger diameter CL-44 named the Colossus with a 25-foot plus diameter fuselage and 152-foot length with six engines. Sadly, it was never produced.
Transmeridian operated the CL-44 until December 1978 when it was sold to Heavyweight International. It was owned or leased by multiple carriers and individuals over the next 25 years including British Cargo Airlines, Aviation Leasing Group (ILG/LCA), Heavylift Cargo Airlines, Buffalo Airways, Azerbaijan Airlines, BAKU Express, First International Airlines (FIA), and Johnsons Air. Many of the operators were subcompanies of ILG/LCA, which was controlled by Farhad Azima. The aircraft was identified with corrosion problems in the center-wing in the 1990s but continued in cargo service. It was eventually grounded at Smyrna, Tennessee. A onetime ferry permit was issued to fly it to Teeside Airport in England in 2002. It carried the registration of 9G-LCA. It was subsequently moved to Bournemouth, U. K. in 2003 where it has remained for the past nineteen years.
The ownership passed between multiple characters with rather questionable intentions and credentials. It was reported to have been sold to Geoff Leach in 2003. Leach became involved in a shadowy situation with his son regarding ownership. Attempts were made to get maintenance items signed off by unqualified personnel. The engines were removed and shipped to Australia and stored. The next owner was David Berry, who registered it in the Philippines for an upstart cargo service in 2006. The last owner, in 2016, was an American named Wayne Harland Jordan. All the while the “Skymonster” remained at Bournemouth. When it arrived there in 2002, it was known to have severe wing root and center-wing corrosion issues. British authorities would not allow it to fly until repaired, which may have been impossible then. There were no spares available, and Canadair jigs had long ago been destroyed. After years of speculation and an uncertain fate, the end was scheduled for 11 February 2021 when dismantling was planned at Bournemouth and it was moved to a scrapping area.
The Conroy CL-44 is a “one-of” aircraft. In the opinion of many, it should have been placed in a museum or allowed to stand in public view for all to marvel and enjoy. This is the second time in only two months a milestone aircraft has been planned for scrapping. On 20 December 2020, the SGT-201 Super Guppy F-BTGV was broken up at Bruntingthorpe Airfield, England. It was the first SGT-201 (N211AS) originally built at Santa Barbara as a demonstration model after Conroy’s departure from Aero Spacelines. Airbus acquired it to transport A300 aircraft components between factories around Europe. Three more SGT-201s were built for Airbus and served well until replaced by the A300-600ST Beluga.
We are fortunate to have aircraft museums to preserve some famous and unique aircraft. Sadly, we now live in a throwaway world where little effort is made to preserve the flying giants. It is true they are large and require considerable space for display. However, monuments and examples of the past are no longer appreciated or respected. Milestones in aviation history have lost importance in recent years. In all fairness, this is not of late. There have been incidents in times past when significant “one-of” or low production aviation design have been destroyed with much regret after the fact.
In 1953, Northrop was ordered by the U.S. Government to destroy all YB-49 Flying Wing airframes in production. Not one example was preserved. The Wright-Patterson aircraft museum even destroyed the first hand built YC-124 which had been converted from a Douglas C-74. The museum allowed it to be used for fire department practice. Incidentally, no C-74s were preserved. We only have photos and short archival footage to remember and appreciate these unique limited production aircraft.
Whether it is for economic reasons, politics, or the short-sightedness of colossal ignorance and blazing stupidity, these milestones in aviation development are lost forever. They pass into the recesses of time and are forgotten in a generation, a shame when their significance in aircraft development is difficult to appreciate in just photos and drawings.
Nothing can take the place of seeing one of these flying giants. Anyone who visits the Pima Air Museum at Tucson, Arizona or Musee Aeroscopia at Toulouse-Blagnac, France understands when they see the original B-377 Super Guppy or SGT-201 on display. Wherever the NASA Super Guppy, Boeing 747LCF or Airbus Beluga land there are always gawking spectators peeking through the fence with cameras trying to get a glimpse. But, society in general no longer seems to care about history. Now the CL-44 “Skymonster,” a very special aircraft, has an uncertain fate with moving appointments with the scrapman. I wonder if anyone would show concern if plans were made to scrap the “Enterprise, Discovery, Atlantis or Endeavour space shuttles”? After all they are cargo aircraft. Do children even learn about aviation achievements in school anymore?
There are those who claim the CL-44 is still airworthy however, it is more of an intact museum piece than a flyable airframe. To lift the grounding order the CAA would require proof of sufficient remedial certification work being completed to make it airworthy. The cost of repairs would be millions of dollars. Corrosion in the wing roots exist and is believed to be extremely severe. Patching and “doubler plates” would not be sufficient. The wing spar would need replacement which would require support from Bombardier (Canadair successor). The four Rolls-Royce Tyne engines would require overhaul at a minimum cost of $800,000 USD. The type certificate for the engines has long been cancelled and the props are unsupported with no overhaul facility certified for service. Finally there is no longer a type rated crew to fly it.
As of 18 September 2023, the CL-44 Guppy “Skymonster” is still intact, although parked in an area where aircraft are dismantled. The engines were previously advertised for sale in April 2023, however they appear to still be mounted on the aircraft since the cowlings and props are in place. The airframe is clean and appears intact as noted from a distance. No information is currently available as to the disposition and fate of the aircraft. At such time some movement is observed, it will be reported here. Hopefully it will be acquired by a museum or placed on public display.
There was a time when an airplane flew over and people would stop and look up. I still do. Will that time ever return?
Photos: (courtesy) Tom Smothermon