Clay Lacy on the first Guppy By Jeff Berlin
and much of the equipment for the Apollo program in the hands of an ebullient promoter with an untested machine. But Von Braun loved the audacity of putting one flying machine inside another and was forever after Conroy’s enthusiastic supporter. Jack eventually finished, then sold that first Pregnant Guppy to NASA. Final cost to build: $1,000,000 and Jack had financed it himself, using his house as collateral. As Jack put it, “We finally got a NASA contract because they had a problem that the Guppy solved.”
In later years, von Braun gave Jack a photo with an inscription that read:
“To Jack Conroy, my fabulous friend, who made the Guppies pregnant.”
» The moon and Nairobi – so near and so far away
Angelee Conroy remembers her father’s deeply-felt emotion: “Why the hell can’t someone figure out how to get a TV out here!?” Jack never stopped pushing the envelope.
Clay Lacy: I’ve flown a lot with Jack in a lot of different airplanes. I flew all thorough South America with him. He was a very good pilot. He was more of a transport pilot, let’s say, more than he was a fighter pilot, but Jack could fly a fighter okay too. [The Guppy] basically felt just like the C-97 or the Boeing Stratocruiser to fly. It was a nice flying airplane. It was very quiet. The control pressures were quite heavy so it had a pretty big wheel because it’s all manual. It had rudder boost on the original airplane, but after adding that 17 feet [to the Guppy], we found we didn’t need it any more, so we took it off. One of the concerns was, for a lot of people… it was so big in the front, that if we got in a heavy sideslip, it might try and change ends, but it didn’t. I didn’t think it would. [On the first flight,] we took off out of here (Van Nuys Airport in the Los Angeles Area) and our route over the least populated areas took us out over the Hollywood Hills. [Then we flew west] down Mulholland [Drive] across the top of the Santa Monica mountains and then toward Mojave. And with PR and everything, we must have had eight photo planes, [including] a little Midget Racer. They took a picture [of him next to us] and we got the centerfold of Life Magazine… the smallest airplane and the biggest. So when we went to raise the flaps… there were two concerns.
Anyway, we accelerated to about 140 knots over the hills and I started to bring the flaps up. And when the flaps got within about five degrees of up, [the Guppy] went into a really heavy buffet. So I put the flaps back down to where they were, about 22% I think it was called. There was a Constellation that flew all the press and VIPs up to Mojave for the landing. It was flown by Fish Salmon and Allen Paulson. So we flew around while we waited for it to get there. We left the flaps the way they were on that flight. The second day when we flew it, it had heavy buffeting down to the stall, and then we did sideslips with full rudder because one of their concerns was that maybe it would try to turn around. And we flew all other normal stability checks. Induced a pulse to the ailerons, a little bit, to make sure we didn’t feel any flutter situation. We flew about two and a half hours on that flight. And on the third flight, that same night, if we did all the [testing] that we did, Conroy got permission for us to fly it to Las Vegas and put it on display. The Air Force Association was having their big meeting. That was kind of fun. We were pretty happy [flying the Guppy]. I was happy for Jack, but when we were flying [the Guppy], there was hardly any flying time on it, so we were seeing if we noticed anything different, if something could be changed, could be better. The cockpit looked identical [to the Boeing 377]. It hadn’t changed at all. [When it was all loaded up] it didn’t fly well. It flew okay except it was too heavy. That’s why we reduced the gross weight to about 135,000. At high weights the size [of the plane] started affecting it more than it did at light weights. At light weights you hardly noticed [the size], but at weights of about 130,000 pounds, you started to notice that it flew heavy. It didn’t want to perform. So they figured that 135,000 was about the maximum to have about the same engine out performance that the regular airplane had at 153,000 pounds.
People thought there was going to be so much drag [with the Guppy] that the engines would have to work too hard and wouldn’t get proper air cooling, that we would be going fast enough. Boeing was very interested in this airplane because they were planning the 747, and there had never been an airplane this big in diameter to see if the drag formulas worked. The most popular methods to figure drag from front plate area-the most optimistic one had us at 105,000 pounds with 1900 horsepower. The worst of the drag formulas [predicted we would lose] 60 knots. The best one said about 25. So the way they all averaged out was that we would lose about 30 to 35 knots. When we were light, we lost about 18 knots. Now as we got heavier, the performance went to hell, so the airplane was restricted. The original airplane [the Boeing Stratocruiser] had a takeoff gross of 153,000 pounds and [the Guppy] got restricted to 135,000 because it wouldn’t climb with an engine out. But that wasn’t a big thing because we could make [our trips with] stops. They normally made m ay / j u n e two stops between [the west coast] and The Cape.
Photo by Jeff Berlin
On July 20, 1969, a man would stand on the moon for the very first time. But Jack Conroy didn’t see it happen. Instead, he was vacationing with his family in the isolated bush country of Kenya, looking up at the sky on a clear, cloudless night, struggling to hear Neil Armstrong’s “giant step” commentary coming through on a battered old radio. Jack was emotional about the event that he had helped bring to fruition and upset that he couldn’t see it on television.
A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with the legendary Clay Lacy, who worked with Jack Conroy every step of the way during the Guppy’s development. He flew the first flight as copilot with Conroy, flew with him as test pilot, and then crisscrossed the U.S. with Conroy, flying oversize cargo in support of the United States space program.
[The Guppy] accelerated [well] and didn’t feel all that differentFfrom when we E the A original T U Rairplane E were light. The Stratocruiser is the only airplane where you got into the [pilot’s] seat by walking around the outboard side.