Colchane's Mystery L1649A Starliner

Colchane's Mystery Starliner

April 2006

by Steven Raczynski and Ralph M. Pettersen

Fuselage section of N7311C at Colchane, chile in April 2004

For years I had heard rumors about a mystery L1649A Constellation that had crash landed in a remote area of Chile. As the story was told, the aircraft had suffered minimal damage during the forced landing and it was essentially whole with fuselage, wings and engines intact. The aircraft was reportedly on a smuggling flight carrying contraband whisky and cigarettes. There was even a report in the mid-1990's from a "reliable" source that swore he saw an intact aircraft while overflying the region in an airliner. After researching the topic, I determined that the aircraft was ex-TWA L1649A N7311C and that it had been reported to be intact as late as 1979 in Cochane, a remote area of Chile.

In May 2004 I received an email from Maurice Roundy forwarding an email from a German aircraft enthusiast named Helge Huber. He had visited Colchane and photographed the remains of the aircraft. Far from being intact, the only thing remaining of the aircraft was the center section of the fuselage and the right wing out to the main landing gear. This aircraft had been picked clean! Helge also visited the local police station in Chile and photographed photos of the aircraft that were hanging on the wall of the station. These photos were taken in April 1969, shortly after the crash landing, and show significant damage to the aircraft.

In April 2005 I received additional information about the incident from Rex Govorchin via an email from Ruud Leeuw. Rex flew for Trans America and had about 4,500 hours in L1649A’s including N7311C and her two sisters N7322C and N7324C. He said the captain of the ill fated flight was named Bob Major and that the aircraft was overloaded by about 10,000 lbs with a cargo of cigarettes. According to Rex, the cargo was not contraband and was fully disclosed on the cargo manifests. The cigarettes were apparently bound for Asuncion, where they then became contraband for distribution via B-17 aircraft throughout Brazil and Argentina. Its interesting to note that Rex reports that two of the most serious problems encountered during the last year of operations was the lack of 115-145 avgas and the engine fires caused by poorly rebuilt PRT’s.

In October 2005 I received an email from Steven Raczynski who had published a monograph on South American Constellations and DC-6's. Steven, who lives in Argentina, sent me a copy of the monograph in November and I was immediately fascinated by the photos and detail it included. One problem was that it was written in Spanish but, with the help of the “Google” translator tool and some helpful friends, I had the article translated to English by March 2006. This monograph and two others form a trilogy of DC-6 and Constellation monographs. The following is a translation of the article included in the monograph. "The northern Chilean Andes is the homeland of the Indian Aymara people, who have long considered the small village of Isluga, located on the border between Chile and Bolivia, a place of sacred pilgrimage. The local residents only occupy the town’s houses once a year, when they celebrate and honor spirits called “Wiwires” that they believe inhabit the valley. This green oasis in the middle of the valley is very fragile and is in balance with its inhabitants. Surely the residents never imagined that the tranquility of their valley would be disrupted by the fall from the skies of a “metal spirit” in the form of a Lockheed L1649A Starliner."

The Starliner was the most advanced and stylish version of the Constellation family and was Lockheed’s answer to the Douglas DC-7C Seven Seas. The Starliner had been redesigned from the earlier Super Constellation. It had a thinner wing with a 150-foot wingspan, which provided greater separation of the the engines from the fuselage resulting in significant reduction of passenger cabin noise. In addition, the engines were the latest version of the powerful R3350 Turbo-Cyclone, which made it the fastest airplane in its class. In spite of these improvements, it arrived at the beginning of the jet era resulting in only 44 aircraft being manufactured.

Twenty-nine Starliners were delivered to TWA between 1957 and 1958 and were called "Jetstreams" by the airline. They flew non-stop to Europe from California via the North Pole and non-stop from New York and Chicago to Europe but jet aircraft entering service in 1958 quickly made them obsolete on these routes. N7311C was converted to a freighter three years later in October 1960 and in 1968 it was acquired by a Trans America Leasing Inc. of Miami, FL. At the time of the incident Trans America was operating the aircraft in accordance with Civil Air Regulations Part 91. On March 26, 1969, at about 12 o’clock noon, the Starliner was flying over Chilean territory on a flight from Lima to Montevideo, when the pilot informed the Arica control tower that there were problems with the #2 engine and requested permission to return. Shortly after commencing their return, the #1 engine caught fire and Arica tower suggested they use a 600 meter long emergency field that the FACh had prepared in Colchane, Chile near the village of Isluga.

Colchane is located on the border between Chile and Bolivia. There are a few houses, a detachment of customs officers and a radio station operated by Entel, the Chilean telephone company. The skill of the pilot avoided tragedy when, at 14:40, the aircraft made a successful forced landing which resulted in the left wing being torn off and catching fire. Although the pilot was able to control the airplane, had it not collided with a house on the border it would have ended up in Bolivian territory. Of the three North American crew, Captain Bob Major, First Officer W. Eligan and Flight Engineer W. Healan, two received minor injuries and all were transferred 280 kilometers the same day to Iquique in a Jeep that belong to the Entel radio station. The fuselage did not catch fire in spite of the forced landing and its load of 17 tons of cigarettes, bound for Montevideo, was recovered. Once the cargo and all valuable components had been removed from the airplane by Trans America and the insurance company, the fuselage was donated to the customs officers for use as a shelter. Years later the sun and strong winds of the Atacameña Pampas continue whistling and corroding the spirit of what, at one time, was a magnificent Starliner.

Steven Raczynski and Ralph M. Pettersen
April 2006

Photo Credits: Piotr Paleczek via Steven Raczynski, Helge Huber, Mel Lawrence


Editor's Note: I would very much like to thank Steven for allowing me to share this article on my website. Anyone interested in purchasing the “trilogy” can do so via the South American Commercial Airliner News website.
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----Created 4 April 2006------Updated 7 November 2016