I grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City during the 1950's and 60's and can well remember the rumble of DC-6's, DC-7's and Lockheed Constellations making their way into La Guardia and Idlewild Airport. Before the construction of runway 22L at Idlewild in the late 1950's, landing aircraft bound for what is now runway 22R routinely passed over my house at less than 1000 feet. Occasional trips to the old IAB observation deck at Idlewild further fueled my fascination with these wondrous flying machines.
I was fortunate enough to become part of this scene during the summer of 1967 when Saturn Airways hired me as an apprentice mechanic for the summer charter season. Saturn was one of a number of "supplemental" airlines flying charters between New York City and Europe out of the old North Passenger Terminal at JFK. Others were Capitol, Trans International, Overseas National, American Flyers, Standard and World Airways along with a steady stream of British charter airlines such as Transglobe, Brittania and British Eagle Airlines. By 1967, piston power was in its twilight, with even the "lowly" supplementals starting to convert to jet powered equipment. While the 1968 season saw almost a complete conversion to jet powered equipment, in 1967 most of the fleet was still piston powered. Saturn was no exception and it operated four DC-7C's on flights to England and Germany that summer (N90773, N90774, N90778 and N90804). We maintained the four DC-7C's on the tarmac adjacent to the old Lockheed Air Services hangars 1 and 2. This location proved ideal for airplane watching since it was less than 150 yards from runway 13L/31R and saw all the comings and goings of exotic aircraft being serviced by LAS at their hangars. I've often lamented the photo opportunities I missed due to the lack of a decent camera. This experience cemented my fascination with airliners; especially piston powered ones, and started me on aircraft photography as a hobby.
Fast-forward some twenty-five years. During those years I earned a degree in aeronautical engineering, my pilots license and continued my fascination with flying machines. I attended Oshkosh 1992, arriving in style in a Martin 4-0-4 airliner and was very surprised to see not one, but two Constellations parked next to us on the ramp. The MATS L749A Connie and the Save-A-Connie L1049H Super Connie were both in attendance and attracted large crowds, most of whom probably never had seen one before. The two Connies flew most days and their flying exhibition was highlighted one day when they made two passes before the crowd in close formation. Needless to say, the FAA did not approve and this routine was not repeated during the remaining days of the show. While talking to the MATS Connie folks one day, they told me about the flying program that the group was offering at their headquarters at Avra Valley Airport located in Marana, AZ. To see a Connie was exciting to me but to actually fly one would border on fantasy. All that was required was a private pilots license, and current medical and $3,995. The first two items were easy; the last one was the tough one and postponed my fantasy for almost five years until March 1997.
In early 1997, with encouragement from my fiancée Dee Dee, I decided to bite the bullet, spend the money and realize my fantasy. One of the arguments I used to persuade myself was that it would make a great story for Propliner Magazine. Little did I know the events of the day would prove to be less than routine and indeed make for a rather interesting story. About a month before my flight, I received an L649/749 aircraft manual from the Constellation Group and was instructed to study it thoroughly in preparation for the ground and flight school portions of the program. Although I had a multi-engine rating, I had never seen an aircraft manual with so much information and was somewhat intimidated by the task in hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to Avra Valley and embarrass myself trying to fly this beast. I broke open the books and studied like I hadn't since my college days. As part of preparing for the Propliner article, I arrived a day early and interviewed Frank Lang, chief pilot of the MATS Connie. Frank has over thirty-eight thousand flight hours with over five thousand in all models of the Constellation. Needless to say, it was a fascinating interview! I had a delightful morning with Frank and, between his flying stories, even managed to get the required background information for my article.
The next morning dawned with a beautiful sunrise and butterflies in my stomach. Dee Dee had decided that a shopping trip to Mexico would be more fun than tagging along with me and she dropped me off at the hangar at 800am where I met the other three participants. Two were airline pilots and the third was a commercial videographer. Dave flew 747-400's for Cathay Pacific while Clint, 757's for America West. Clint, who was doing his annual proficiency check with Frank, had extensive experience flying this and other Connies along with flying B-17s and DC-3s for the Confederate Air Force. Dave, a Brit, lived in Phoenix and was based out of Hong Kong. What a commute! With these two pros, I was very glad that Bruce, the videographer, had decided to sign up for the program.
We spent the morning in ground school learning the history of the Constellation and basic information about the hydraulic, electrical, emergency, and mechanical systems of the aircraft. Frank spent lots of time discussing Constellation performance parameters and how he wanted us to operate the aircraft. The butterflies didn't go away! How was I ever going to fly the beast and remember all these numbers? I thought back to the days when I thought a Cessna 152 was a complex and intimidating airplane and realized I would do just fine. Lunch was served and then it was time for the preflight inspection.
Tim Coons, lead mechanic and a flight engineer for the MATS Connie, took us through the drill. Even by today's jet standards, this airplane was large. We checked the tires, wheel wells, flight control surfaces, pitot tubes, and many more items too numerous to list. Tim even demonstrated the manual flap extension system located in the main cabin....276 turns to fully deploy the flaps. The airplane had been used for spraying bugs in Canada when it flew for Conifair and the distinctive odor of the insecticide was still present after all these years. It smells like cat urine and when I first entered the airplane I thought the airplane had been home to a group of stray cats.
The airplane was deemed airworthy and it was finally time to climb on board and go flying. Frank took the right seat and motioned for Dave, the Cathay Pacific captain, to take the left seat. With Tim in the flight engineer’s position, the lengthy “before engine start” checklist was begun. Landing gear handle down, circuit breakers and switches, brake pressure, parking brake set, control boost, battery voltage 24-28 volts, crossfeed valves closed, generators off, blowers low were some of the 45 items that had to be checked prior to engine start. Engines are usually started with #3 and #4 first, then engines #1 and #2. The process involves one of the pilots counting twelve blades at which time the flight engineer turns the magneto switch to the “both” position. What results is a frenzy of activity by the flight engineer followed by lots of smoke and noise as the engine starts.
One by one the engines were started and we were ready to taxi to the end of Avra Valley Airport’s runway 12. With only one steering wheel, Dave quickly had to get the feel for the steering this 95-foot long airplane since the taxiways at Avra Valley are quite narrow. Since he was used to steering the mammoth B747-400, Dave quickly mastered this skill and we were soon safely at the end of the runway and ready for engine runup. The main landing gear of the Constellation are “walking gear” and the knack for getting the aircraft “on step” during engine runup can be a challenge for the novice Connie pilot. Back in the old days, it was considered poor form to drop the Connie with a load of passengers in the back! With the aircraft “on-step” the “before takeoff checklist” was successfully completed with items such as generators, flaps, prop governor switches, control boost systems and prop reverse being checked. In addition, the two magnetos on each engine were checked with a maximum allowable rpm drop of 75 rpm.
The aircraft was taxied onto the runway and lined up for takeoff. Flaps were set to 60% and Tim set engine power to 40 inches of manifold pressure and 2,700 rpm. Dave let off the brakes and we started rolling down the runway towards the all-important V1 speed. V1 is the speed at which the pilot still has the option to abort the takeoff and had been calculated by Frank to be 85 knots for today’s flight. We quickly accelerated to 90 knots at which time Dave rotated the aircraft and we were flying. The aircraft accelerated to 120 knots during landing gear retraction after which the flaps were retracted and the aircraft continued to accelerate to 155 knots.
After reaching an altitude of 4000 feet, Frank took each participant through a series of maneuvers. These included 60-degree turns to the left and right and stalls in the clean and gear/flaps down configuration. Being used to flying a rather nimble Beech Bonanza, I was impressed by the heavy feel of the aircraft controls. Even though the control boost system was on, it felt very much like flying a truck. I was also amazed that the aircraft could be flown at less than 80 knots indicated and the gentleness of the stalls. Having completed these preliminary maneuvers, it was now time to see if we could land the beast.
Clint, the B757 driver, was the first to go. We headed 15 miles north to the famous Pinal Airpark in Marana for our first touch-and-go landing of the day. The “before-landing” checklist was completed and we entered the downwind for runway 12 at 1,500 feet and 140 knots. 60% flaps was selected, the landing gear was extended before turning base where flaps were increased to 80% and the airspeed decreased to 120 knots. On final, full flaps were selected and we crossed the runway numbers at 95 knots. Clint’s touchdown was “textbook” after which flaps were retracted to 60% and power increased to the takeoff setting for our takeoff.
We headed back to Avra Valley Airport where the #2 engine, which had been running a little hot, was throttled back to zero thrust for a simulated three-engine landing. The plan was to do a touch-and-go landing at Avra Valley on three engines followed by additional touch-and-go’s by the remaining participants. I was in the cockpit observing the approach and all seemed normal until the gear was being retracted after the touch-and-go when warning lights began flashing and warning horns began sounding. Tim informed the pilots that there was something amiss with the #1 engine, which was confirmed by Clint who reported that a cylinder had blown through the cowling and was being held in place by its ignition wires. Takeoff power was immediately applied to the #2 engine followed by the feathering and shutdown of the #1 engine. What had happened was a simulated three-engine touch-and-go had very quickly degenerated into a two-engine touch-and-go. With order restored, Frank flew the aircraft in a normal pattern with a resulting very routine landing. Frank, Clint and Tim had handled this emergency in a textbook manner, which was a remarkable event to witness. After deplaning, we all got to take a close look at the very large hole in the #1 engine cowling. It was obvious that the engine would have to be changed prior to the aircraft attending an airshow scheduled for the next week in Phoenix. As luck would have it, a spare engine from sister ship HI-393, had recently arrived from Santo Domingo and the mechanics would start this task on Monday morning.
The group retired to the hangar for a debrief after which liquid refreshments were waiting on ice. Dee Dee arrived shortly from her shopping trip and was amazed at what she saw. She wasn’t too sure that flying around in old Constellations was such a good idea! Since none of us had logged our three take-offs and landings, plan B needed to be formulated which, for me, meant returning to Avra Valley eight months later in November 1997.
I was back in Avra Valley, AZ on November 15 to complete the takeoff and landing portion of the program. As in March, the morning was spent in ground school and after a thorough preflight we were flying by 1:30 in the afternoon. Frank Lang and Tim Coons, as in the March flight, were the captain and flight engineer. Part of the day’s plan was to certify Al Malecha, a Constellation Group member, as a designated flight engineer examiner. Apparently with so few large piston engine airplanes still flying, it can be a logistics nightmare getting all the right people together for certification rides. Dick Roberts of the Detroit FAA office was with us and the first portion of the flight was spent performing the procedures necessary to certify Al. Part of the process is to shut down an engine in flight and the #1 engine was shut down and feathered bringing back memories of the March flight. I talked to Dick after the flight and he remarked that his job had been very easy due to the knowledge and professionalism shown by both Tim and Al.
Next on the agenda were my landings and takeoffs. Needless to say I was a little apprehensive but under the expert guidance of Frank Lang, these were accomplished at the Avra Valley Airport with no damage to the airplane or its passengers. Flying an airplane the size of this one is a challenge for someone more used to flying Beech Bonanzas. Frank handled the radio, landing gear and flaps so that I could give my full attention to flying the landing pattern. 120 knots on downwind and Frank lowered 60% flaps, which resulted in the need for a little “nose down” elevator trim. 80% flaps on base leg resulted in the airspeed bleeding off to about 110 knots and the need for a slight elevator trim correction. As we turned to final, flaps were lowered to 100% and power was slightly reduced to keep the nose pointed at the end of the runway, which resulted in us crossing over the fence at 95 knots. The controls were much heavier than what I’m accustomed to which caused me to over-control the airplane resulting in, what seemed from the cockpit, a somewhat zigzagged final approach.
Vern Raburn, owner of the MATS Connie, joined us after my landings and we departed Avra Valley. It was now time for Bill and Peter, the other two program participants to fly the Connie. The air work consisted of straight and level flying, steep turns and stalls. After this was completed, we headed to Pinal Airpark for the landing and takeoff portion of the program. This is a very interesting airport since it is the home of Evergreen Airlines and is a major storage facility for old jet airliners. I would guess that there are 100+ airliners from all over the world stored there. Most seem complete but there are some without engines, wings, and other essential components. With the day’s flying completed, we arrived back at Avra Valley right on schedule at 5pm and Vern asked us if we would like to have a look inside the airport’s other resident Connie, N749VR.
In 1997 this airplane was owned by the Dutch Constellation Society, which planned to restore it to flying condition and fly it to Holland. When we got inside the airplane we were all amazed by its condition. The cabin had been stripped out totally with even the flooring removed. Windows were crazed or missing and even the cockpit seemed empty without any seats. The one thing that still looked good was the flight engineer’s control panel. It was interesting to note that some of original equipment was still in place in the belly from its days flying VIP missions for the USAF. Vern said that the MATS Connie was in similar condition when they got it, which gave us all a true appreciation on how much work has been put into its restoration.
Fast forward to July 2002 when, after eighteen months of restoration by the Dutch Aviodome Museum, the beautifully restored Connie, now registered N749NL, is waiting at Avra Valley for FAA approval for a ferry flight to The Netherlands. The flight will be commanded by Frank Lang with stops planned at Kansas City, Goose Bay and Keflavik before arrival at Lelystad, Holland. Hopefully by the time this article is published, N749 NL will have made a safe Atlantic crossing and is a star participant in the 2002 European show circuit. Much credit should be given to the Dutch Aviodome Museum and their partners at The Constellation Group in Arizona for saving this grand old lady!
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Andy Martin, Dan Salamone, Ralph M. Pettersen
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----Created 7 February 2004------Updated 14 March 2004----