Not many men would undertake the restoration of an airplane as large and complex as a Lockheed Super Constellation. Daryoush Younesi, known to his friends as Benny, doesn’t shy away from a challenge and has been involved in the restoration of four ex- military Super Constellations during the past twenty-two years. Benny said goodbye to the last of his brood on April 26, 2004, when C-121C N73544 departed Camarillo for Switzerland and the European airshow circuit. Benny has over thirty years of aerospace industry experience and is President of Aerocon Engineering Company, a Van Nuys, California based aerospace engineering firm. Born in Iran, Benny first became interested in airplanes at the tender age of eight and began his aviation career in 1978 as an A&P mechanic in Logan, Utah. In the years since, Benny has added IA (inspection authorization) to his A&P credentials along with bachelor and master degrees in aeronautical engineering. In 1982 he formed Aerocon (www.aerocon.org), which has grown to over twenty employees and provides aircraft engineering support to a broad base of customers including Boeing, L3 Comm, Airbus and EADS. Benny is one of a small number of FAA Designated Engineering Representatives (DER) who are appointed to certify, approve and substantiate aircraft designs/modifications on behalf of the FAA.
Benny’s first Constellation “project” began in the early 1980’s when he joined Classic Air. Ascher Ward formed Classic Air during the summer of 1981 with the intent of flying Japanese tourists on 90-minute sightseeing flights to the Grand Canyon from Van Nuys Airport. Ascher traded an historic Lockheed Lodestar to the US Air Force (USAF) and, in return, took delivery of C-121C N1104W in August 1981. This aircraft was delivered to the USAF as 54-177 in March 1956 and went on to serve with Mississippi, West Virginia and Pennsylvania Air National Guard (ANG) units before being retired to Davis Monthan AFB in November 1977. Bill Conner joined Classic Air shortly thereafter and his ex-US Navy C-121J N27189 arrived at Van Nuys on June 11, 1982 to join the C-121C. N27189 was delivered to the US Navy in April 1954 as BuN 131654 and was operated for twenty years by the Navy before being retired to Davis Monthan AFB in September 1974. Their plan was to operate the sightseeing flights under FAR Part 125.
Although Ascher and Bill had managed to purchase two ex-military Super Connies and get them moved to Van Nuys, they did not have the expertise to navigate the technical and bureaucratic maze required for certification. Benny, who had recently purchased C-121C N73544, joined the group and was responsible for preparing the aircraft for passenger operations. This involved modifying the aircraft and completing the paperwork necessary to satisfy the FAA requirements for issuance of a standard airworthiness certificate. While Benny concentrated on the technical aspects of the operation, Ascher and Bill were responsible for marketing and customer service. They planned on using Benny’s aircraft as a backup aircraft but this never happened and it remained parked at Chino and later Camarillo, California. The plan to carry 100 Japanese tourists at a time to the Grand Canyon looked like a good one. Classic Air had an exclusive agreement with Skypac, a Los Angeles based Japanese tour agency, to make the flights and the two aircraft parked at Van Nuys were certainly capable of doing so. Van Nuys based American Jet Industries had scrapped nearly a hundred Constellations at Lancaster, California in the mid-1970’s, so spare parts were plentiful and cheap. Everything looked like it was falling into place until the FAA announced that it would not approve a Van Nuys based Part 125 operation, insisting instead on a Part 121 operation conducted from a larger airport such as Los Angeles International. By this time, Ascher wanted out of the venture and sold his interest.
FAR Part 121 requires that an operator perform 40 hours of route proofing flights prior to commencing operations. The proofing flights cannot be flown with passengers but the regulations don’t prohibit carrying cargo. Since the two aircraft were already configured as freighters, Benny proposed starting operations carrying cargo so the route proofing could be performed while earning revenue. With the Japanese customer insisting on passenger operations, he was overruled by his partners and conversion of the aircraft to passenger configuration continued. Borrowed money was spent on the conversion and not enough remained to complete Part 121 certification. Without the certification, no flights could be made and the loan was eventually called. The two aircraft were unsuccessfully offered at auction on January 12, 1987, with a reserve price of $116,000 apiece. It was a sad ending to such a once-promising venture. At one time, Classic Air planned six round trips per week to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas and three per week from Los Angeles with operations eventually building to five round trips per day. Daryl Greenameyer acquired both aircraft and eventually traded N1104W to the Smithsonian Institute for two HU-16 Albatross aircraft. It was flown to Dulles Airport in 1988 where it is currently stored awaiting restoration and display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. N27189 was bought by the Dominican freight operator Aero Chago SA in April 1988 and operated as HI-532CT until involved in a landing accident at Santo Domingo in 1990.
After the collapse of the Classic Air venture, Benny began exploring other opportunities for N73544. About that same time, William “Winky” Crawford, a US Navy veteran, was attempting to certify an ex-Navy C-121J Super Constellation to haul fish in Alaska. This aircraft had been delivered to the US Navy in December 1953 as BuN 131643. Operated by the Navy for more than twenty years, it was retired to Davis Monthan AFB in May 1974. Crawford bought the aircraft at Davis Monthan in May 1981 and it was flown to Arlington, Washington in June 1981 where it was registered to Northern Peninsula Fisheries as N4247K. While Winky was very proud of his Super Connie, he had no prior experience with large complex aircraft and enlisted Benny's assistance in the project. Benny undertook the responsibility of getting the aircraft into airworthy condition, making the necessary modifications and dealing with the paperwork associated with FAA certification. The aircraft received a standard airworthiness certificate in October 1987 and it was registered to another Crawford company, World Fish and Agriculture, Inc.
Winky found work for his airplane hauling tuna between Palau Island in the South Pacific and Nagoya, Japan and, during the second week of November 1987, the old Connie departed Arlington for an epic journey to Palau Island with Benny onboard. The plan involved flying 34,000 pounds of tuna between the Palau and Nagoya and the first flight arrived at Nagoya on November 24, 1987. Now that one Connie was in operation, the plan was to get Benny’s aircraft flying and have it join N4247K. After about three months, the flights ended and N4247K was impounded in Manila, Philippines. Winky had contracted with a group of unscrupulous Taiwanese and Filipino businessmen to provide gasoline and maintenance for his aircraft. Benny contends that it was their intent all along to seize the aircraft for non-payment of bills and then operate the lucrative tuna-hauling contract themselves. They succeeded in taking control of the aircraft when they put a $200,000 lien on it in Manila. Unable to pay the outrageous bill or fight the businessmen in the Philippine courts, Winky was forced to abandon the aircraft at Manila, where it sits rotting today. Without any experience operating a Super Constellation, the businessmen were unable to resume operations and the fish hauling business went to Japan Air Lines who hauled the fish in half empty DC-8’s. From all accounts Winky was an exceedingly decent human being who was so devastated by his experience in the Philippines that he returned to the US, never to be heard from again!
With the tuna-hauling venture ended, Benny’s C-121C N73544 languished at Camarillo. Delivered to the USAF in November 1955 as 54-156, it went on to serve with Mississippi and West Virginia ANG units before being retired to Davis Monthan AFB in March 1972. It was involved in a very interesting trade involving Boeing 307 N19903 a few months later. Aviation Specialties of Mesa, Arizona owned the historic Boeing, which it had unsuccessfully tried to operate as a sprayer. Although the B-17 did a fine job spraying, its chubbier cousin the 307 was just not up to the task. The Smithsonian acquired 54-156 from the Air Force in June 1972 and traded it to Aviation Specialties for the Boeing, which is today immaculately restored and on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Registered N73544 in March 1973, the Super Connie was used by Aviation Specialties as a sprayer until 1976 when it was parked at Mesa Falcon Field in Arizona. Benny and his partner Mehrdad Khoranian bought N73544 in January 1982 and had it flown from Chandler, Arizona to Chino, California on March 11, 1983. It arrived at Camarillo, California on January 15, 1984, where it remained parked in deteriorating condition until the Constellation Historical Society (CHS) was formed by Benny in 1992.
The CHS was formed with the goal of restoring N73544 and flying it on the west coast airshow circuit. After two years of hard work by volunteers, the restoration was complete and the first post restoration flight was made on June 23, 1994 under the command of Captain Frank Butarac. Her first post-restoration appearance was at the NAS Point Magu Airshow in September 1994 and she remained active on the airshow circuit until departing for Switzerland on April 26, 2004. During this time, N73544 was based at Camarillo and became known to propliner enthusiasts all over the world as the “Camarillo Connie”. In January 2002 the enthusiast community was shocked to hear that N73544 was for sale on eBay. When asked why he was selling her, Benny replied that “I have accomplished the restoration of this aircraft completely and it’s now someone else’s turn to keep it going”. That along with the financial stress of operating such a large aircraft and the fear of not being able to permanently “save” the old girl weighed heavy on Benny’s mind. Benny turned down a $600,000 offer on eBay and, for the time being, the aircraft continued operating out of Camarillo.
The Swiss based Super Constellation Flyers Association (SCFA), headed by Francisco Agullo, had been formed in June 2000 with the goal of bringing a Super Constellation to Europe and flying it on the airshow circuit. The group purchased ex-Aero Chago C-121G HI-583CT, which had been stored at Santo Domingo since 1993. The C-121G was made airworthy, registered N105CF and ferried to the Constellation Group’s headquarters in Marana, Arizona in January 2001 where the restoration would be completed. The effort was abandoned in August 2002 when Francisco became convinced that the aircraft could not be certified with a standard airworthiness certificate. A search for a replacement aircraft began immediately and N73544 became a logical choice due to the fact that it was for sale and had received a coveted standard airworthiness certificate in November 1985. A standard airworthiness certificate would allow the SCFA to carry members to and from airshows, which had always been one of the group’s main goals. In December 2002, SCFA membership was notified that negotiations were underway for the purchase of N73544 and a year later, on December 17, 2003, a contract was signed. The agreement stipulated a five year lease/purchase agreement with joint operation on the European airshow circuit by SCFA and CHS. At the end of that period, the agreement allows SCFA to purchase the aircraft outright. With the combined efforts of CHS and SCFA volunteers, N73544 was made ready for the trans-Atlantic voyage and it departed Camarillo on the morning of April 26, 2004. The first stop on the journey was Omaha, Nebraska where, en-route, N73544 circled Avra Valley Airport near Tucson, Arizona to pay tribute to the group’s first Super Connie, N105CF. After Omaha, the flight continued with stops in Manchester, New Hampshire, Stephenville, Newfoundland, Prestwick, Scotland, and LeBourget, France before arriving under cloudy skies at Basel, Switzerland on Saturday May 8, 2004. Amazingly, the arrival occurred within minutes of the originally scheduled time. With hardly time to properly celebrate the event, the crew and aircraft were off to Berlin, Germany on the first stop of a very busy 2004 airshow season.
To the doubters, I say never underestimate the results that a determined group of hard working volunteers can achieve. My hat is off to Benny, Francisco and the rest of the dedicated group that made this flight a success.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: John Stewart, Michael S. Prophet, Chris Mak, Ron Mak, Steve Williams, Stephen Piercey, Hans-Werner Klein, Mike Head, Peter Frei, Daryl Chapman, Ralph Kunadt, RM Pettersen
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----Created 25 October 2004------Updated 16 January 2005----