MANSFIELD, Ohio – An unusually large crowd watched as the C-130H Hercules approached Mansfield-Lahm Airport, home of the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing. Trailing moments behind was what everybody came to ogle: NASA's Super Guppy (N941NA).
The aircraft is a spectacle in itself. Some describe it as whale-like; others say it resembles an alien ship from a science fiction movie. All agree it's fascinating to see in the air.
Hundreds of people lined the fences to see the aviation marvel land Nov. 24. The Super Guppy's stardom took a backseat to its cargo – the Orion space capsule, considered a major step forward in human space travel.
The capsule's destination: NASA's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, where it will undergo critical testing for several months.
The Super Guppy's successful landing in Mansfield-Lahm may be just a stepping-stone on its journey, but an important one. The logistics of moving cargo of this size are thought out well in advance. So why did NASA choose Mansfield?
"There's no runway up there [Plum Brook Station], so we looked around at some of those fields and even though some of them may have been adequate for the guppy, the road system didn't support moving the vehicle over road, so that's why Mansfield was chosen, not only the airport facilities but the roads that connect to Plum Brook," said Raymond G. Heineman, NASA's chief of the Aircraft Operations Division.
It's not the closest airport to Plum Brook, but Mansfield-Lahm has a 9,000-by-150-foot runway – just what the whale of an aircraft needs, along with a team of Ohio Air National Guard members ready to assist in the unloading and storage of this historical cargo.
"It was integral to the success of the operation," said Heineman. "Without the 179th support we wouldn't have been able to complete the mission, honestly.
"The vehicle that we were carrying in the guppy maxed out the guppy's performance so there was no way we could carry anything else," he said. "So we needed some sort of airborne support, and the 179th was gracious enough and willing to help us. So without them, we wouldn't have been able to do it at all."
The journey started with a flight out of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After landing in Ohio, the Orion capsule was unloaded with the help of Airmen with a 60k loader. It was then transferred by crane to a 135-foot semitruck to spend the night at the 179th Airlift Wing's C-130H Hercules hangar. The next step in the journey was a slow, six-hour trip to Sandusky that would typically take one hour by car.
"Team Mansfield and our C-130H aircraft provided direct support to all aspects of NASA's Super Guppy flight operations to Mansfield." said Col. Todd Thomas, 179th Airlift Wing commander. "The Airmen of the Maintenance and Mission Support Groups guaranteed a successful mission for the Orion's ultimate journey to the moon."
The 179th has a history of supporting NASA missions. Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, of the famed Apollo 13 mission, was a former member of the 179th Tactical Fighter Group. Almost 50 years later, the 179th is still providing support to lunar missions.
You don't have to be as smart as a NASA engineer to see why Mansfield is a good choice. The 179th Airlift Wing has experience transporting cargo, and Mansfield Lahm Airport is literally built for this.
"We would work with the 179th again, without question," Heineman said. "In fact, the vehicle we dropped off, the Orion capsule, will be done with its testing in April, and we're hoping the 179th can support us again in moving it back to the Kennedy Space Center."