NASM C-121C Restoration
United Airlines Employees Spearhead Restoration of NASM Super Connie
Sometimes good things happen as the result of a bad situation. Back in 2005, the folks at the National Air and Space Museum’s (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center were informed that the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) was planning on building a maintenance and training facility across the street from where their C-121C Super Constellation had been stored since the late 1980’s. MWAA is building a subway at Dulles International Airport to link the terminals and this new facility would pinch off the Connie’s only escape route to the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. It was obvious that the museum had to do something or the old Connie would be trapped forever.
The first attempt to move the aircraft was in the summer of 2005. Its wheels had been removed shortly after arrival in 1988 and the aircraft had been placed on hard points for storage. Seventeen years later, neither the tooling or fixtures required to get the aircraft back on its wheels were available. NASM asked a group of United Airlines (UAL) aircraft maintenance technicians (AMT), led by Gary Berrian, for assistance in getting the old girl ready for her move. This group was well known by the museum staff and had been involved in reassembling the B-29 “Enola Gay” when it arrived at Udvar-Hazy in 2003. They had also been involved in /A>moving the Dash 80, Concorde and B307 aircraft into Udvar-Hazy prior to its opening in December 2003. With the help of some UAL donated lifting equipment and newly fabricated holding fixtures, the aircraft was back on her wheels and ready to be moved by September 2005. The dehumidification system hadn’t been run for many years and the aircraft had become a bird hotel. Massive amounts of bird nest material and feces were removed from the engine cowlings and the many other nooks or crannies the birds had inhabited over the years. On September 22, 2005 the group was ready to move the aircraft along the narrow access roads to Taxiway Foxtrot and freedom. There was a gate that had to be negotiated and the main struts were extended to their maximum height in an attempt to clear the fence. The fence was too high and the airplane was moved back to the storage area to await the development of Plan B.
By April 2007 construction had progressed to the point where the aircraft had to be moved or it would be trapped forever. The UAL team and equipment were called upon again and, on April 8th, a section of fence was temporarily removed and the aircraft made its escape. The main gear tires, very likely Air Force issue from the 1970’s, started coming apart during the tow but held on long enough to allow the aircraft to arrive safely at the west ramp of the Udvar-Hazy Center. Shortly thereafter, the tires were replaced with A320 Michelin radials, which look just a bit strange on the old girl. At this point the museum still hadn’t made a final decision on the fate of the Connie.
Soon after arriving at Udvar-Hazy the UAL and NASM crew began stripping the aircraft of old paint. Using liquid stripper to remove the paint was a hot and dirty job and the group worked from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm to avoid the worst of the day’s heat. There were multiple layers of paint, including the original USAF paint and what appeared to be house paint. Each layer of paint had its own set of challenges with the USAF paint being very difficult to remove and the house paint gumming up. At the end of each work session, all paint stripper residue had to be swept up and properly disposed of. Work progressed steadily and by mid-June most of the paint had been removed and the aircraft was starting to look a little more presentable. About this time, Don Burbank United Airline’s East Coast Regional Manager, was visiting Udvar-Hazy with his grandchildren and noticed a group of museum visitors looking out the window of the museum onto the west ramp where the Connie was parked. Don was so impressed with the interest these people showed in the Connie that he made an on-the-spot decision to help in any way he could to get the aircraft restored and put on display inside Udvar-Hazy. He convinced his bosses at United that this would be a good project to support and, from that day forward, the airline was onboard. With the commitment from United Airlines in hand, the museum finally decided to move forward with the project.
Stripping paint off an aircraft in the open was a bad experience for all involved and the crew decided that the aircraft would have to be painted inside a hangar. As luck would have it, the only hangar at Dulles large enough to accommodate the aircraft was empty after the demise of Independence Air in January 2006. Barry Smith, a Dulles Airport Operations Officer, was instrumental in arranging for the use of the hangar. Barry was a navigator on C-121C’s while serving with the West Virginia ANG and had logged about 1,500 hours in C-121C’s, including the museum’s aircraft. On August 8th the aircraft was towed across the airport to the hangar for painting in USAF/WVANG colors by the UAL/NASM crew. The task had to be completed by November 1st since Mesa Airlines and Colgan Air were due to move into the hangar on that date. This date was later extended to November 30th so that the painting could be completed.
Once the aircraft was under roof and a detailed inspection performed, corrosion was found on the tail, under the deicer boots and in the outer wing panels. The corrosion was repaired to make the aircraft cosmetically acceptable and the boots were removed and painted on since replacements boots are no longer available. Each fuselage rivet was individually cleaned and primed prior to painting. The entire aircraft was then primed and painted using paint donated by Duane Utter at PRC-Desoto. The paint and external restoration efforts were both first class in every way and the entire crew should be congratulated on a job well done.
The museum’s C-121C was delivered to the USAF MATS Division at Charleston AFB as 54-0177 “City of Prestwick” in March 1956. After six years at Charleston, she went to the Mississippi ANG in 1962 for five years, the West Virginia ANG in 1967 for five years and finished her military career with the Pennsylvania ANG in November 1977. The aircraft was sold at auction to Ascher Ward, registered N1104W, and flown to Van Nuys Airport in August 1981. Ascher formed Classic Air in the summer of 1981 and N1104W was one of two Super Constellations he bought to fly Japanese tourists on sightseeing flights from Van Nuys to the Grand Canyon. The plan never came to fruition and the two aircraft sat on the Van Nuys tarmac until February 1988 when N1104W was traded to NASM for two HU-16 Albatross aircraft. N1104W departed Van Nuys on February 21st and arrived at Dulles, after an overnight stop in Kansas City, on February 22, 1988. The Udvar-Hazy Center was fifteen years away from opening so the aircraft was placed in storage with props removed and an elaborate system installed to circulate dehumidified air through the aircraft and engines. Over the years it appeared that the museum lost interest in the aircraft and, if not for the airport construction project, would probably still be tucked away and half forgotten.
At 10:30 am on November 28, 2007 the hangar doors were opened and the aircraft was towed onto the tarmac where it was greeted by a group of UAL, NASM and airport personnel. After a short photo op, Gary Berrian and Don Burbank climbed into the aircraft and the slow trip across Dulles Airport began. 45 minutes later, after traveling the entire breath of the airport, the Connie arrived safely at the Udvar-Hazy Center and was greeted by an even larger crowd of NASM employees and museum visitors. At 2:00 pm, after some jockeying to avoid obstacles, the Connie was safely inside next to the Air France Concorde and the giant door was closed behind her.
While the aircraft was being stripped of paint on the west ramp the right elevator was damaged during a windstorm and sent to Garber for repair. The repair wasn’t completed by the move date nor was the painting of the rudders and cleaning of the props so these items will be installed at the Udvar-Hazy Center. In addition, the USAF/WVANG markings also need to be installed. The decals were donated by the WVANG and arrived at the museum in early December.
The museum plans on restoring the interior of the aircraft, which is currently fitted with a cargo interior. The cockpit is essentially complete but needs cosmetic restoration. Once the interior is complete, the museum is considering opening up the aircraft to museum visitors.
Looking back, the successful restoration of this aircraft was the result of a favorable chain of events occurring. The chain of events began when the aircraft needed to be moved due to the construction project; next the museum found willing UAL crew to perform the work; Don Burbank convinced United Airlines to donate the labor, material and equipment necessary for the project; and the old Independence Air hangar became available at exactly the right time. Break any link in this chain and the restoration probably doesn’t happen. UAL’s contribution included over 1,500 man-hours of labor, rent-free use of support equipment such as lifts, tugs, work platforms, and miscellaneous supplies including many gallons of paint stripper.
The joint UAL-Garber restoration team consisted of the following personnel and they deserve a lot of credit for bringing this veteran aircraft back to life.
Gary Berrian – United Airlines Lead AMT
David Crosby – United Airlines AMT
Ed Archer – United Airlines AMT
Dave Burrell – United Airlines AMT
Jon White – United Airlines AMT
Sam Thomas – United Airlines AMT
Terry Chura – United Airlines AMT
Jeff Mercer – NASM Garber
Robert Weihrauch – NASM Garber
I’d like to thank Gary Berrian, Dave Crosby and Frank McNally for their assistance in the preparation of this article. I’d welcome any photos or information you might have about this aircraft, especially while she was in USAF and ANG service. If you have any information or photos you would like to share, please forward this to me via email.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Fergal Goodman, Chris Mak, Dave Crosby, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 3 February 2008------Updated 7 November 2016