Connie’s Comeback From the Cockpit

Connie’s Comeback From the Cockpit

January 2003

by Henk de Waard

N749NL  Over Holland September 2002

By the early 1960’s KLM was well into its plan of replacing piston-engined aircraft with jets. Being born in 1956, I was a small boy during that time but can still remember walking with my father at Schiphol Airport and seeing the KLM Connies parked, waiting to be sold or scrapped. Charter companies, like Capitol Airways, operated the only Connie flights into Schiphol at that time. Then and there a dream was born: To fly a Lockheed Constellation! About ten years later I was in high school and a Connie landed at Schiphol. It was N7777G, an old KLM L749A aircraft. By the 1970’s, times had changed and access to the apron area was restricted to airport and airline employees. So there I was on the wrong side of the fence close to a beautiful L749A and not able to get up close. I asked the guard if it would be possible to go to the aircraft but, of course, this was not allowed! I guess he was afraid that I would use my bicycle and travel all over the runways. I finally managed to persuade him to let me on the apron and a few minutes later I was sitting in a Constellation in front of Hangar 9 at Schiphol Airport. I had to hand over my bike so he could be sure I would only go within walking distance. Some time later the aircraft left and it would be a long time before the next Connie would visit Schiphol……..

Unfortunately I was born too late to earn my money flying Connies. During high school I started flying gliders. Later on, I joined the Dutch Air force and went to Canada for pilot training on the CT134 Musketeer, CT114 Tutor and CF-5. Upon returning to The Netherlands, I flew the NF-5, F-104G Starfighter and F-16. After that I joined KLM but many years too late to fly Connies! At KLM, I flew the Fokker F.27, Fokker 50, Boeing 747, Boeing 737 and now the Boeing 767. A few years ago I read in Propliner Magazine that it was possible to get a co-pilots checkout on the MATS Connie at Avra Valley, AZ, near Tucson. A boyhood dream was now possible but the $3,995 cost was an obstacle. After some time, my wife convinced me to take the course and finally realize my dream to fly this beautiful machine. In April 2001 I went to the USA to join the people of the Constellation Group during their tour through the country. For about two weeks we toured the east coast and, in the mean time, I learned a lot about the MATS Connie from Frank Lang, Roger Mills and Pete Phillips. Finally my dream came true and I actually flew the fantastic Constellation!!

During the same period, the Aviodome took over the restoration of Constellation N749VR (later registered N749NL) from Stichting Constellation Nederland. I got involved in the “Connie’s Comeback” project and went to the Constellation Group’s headquarters in Avra Valley, Arizona a number of times to work on the airplane. Tim Coons and JR Kerns, of the Constellation Group, taught me much about the technical aspects of the Connie. Finally in May 2002, the aircraft was ready to fly and I was able to make a couple of test and film flights. In September the Connie began its epic North Atlantic crossing via Canada, Iceland to the UK. On the morning of Saturday September 28, 2002, Lockheed L-749 Constellation N749NL, was parked at Manston airfield in the UK. It felt like the morning of my wedding day. It was finally going to happen and those who knew this airplane well knew that she was anxious to go. During the previous few days she had been cleaned and polished and looked great, especially her beautiful nose. She was ready for her arrival in The Netherlands and we were ready too!! We started the engines and one by one they burst into life. Lots of people were making pictures of our departure and, after a short take-off run, we become airborne. We were on our way to The Netherlands and, after a fly-by, we headed for the North Sea. The weather is beautiful with unlimited visibility and just a few low clouds. After about half an hour we saw the Dutch coast and, from Haamstede, we follow the coastline to the North.

A Fokker 50 and Lockheed P-3 Orion would be accompanying us to Lelystad and just north of Hoek van Holland we join up in a "Connie formation". This is a great scene, especially from the cockpit, and we have a great view. To the left of me sits Frank Lang, captain and instructor who taught me to fly the Connie last year, enjoying the view of the Orion. To the right I see the mighty engines, the Fokker 50 and the Pier of Scheveningen. Our flight engineer, Pete Phillips, stands up from behind his panel to enjoy the scenery. In the cabin everybody is enjoying the view from the windows. The tower at Schiphol Airport asks if we can make a pass and we readily agree. From Zandvoort, I steer N749NL to the east and we over-fly runway 09. After a left turnout overhead Amsterdam we pick up the coastline again. We are a bit ahead of schedule so we decide to over-fly Ed de Bruin at Texel airfield. After that a right turn over the Waddenzee and Ijsselmeer towards our holding near Enkhuizen.

The Fokker 50 leaves the formation and lands at Lelystad so its passengers can watch our arrival. The Orion proceeds to the airfield and then it’s our turn. We turn final to runway 23 and look at all those people. What a welcome and honour to view this from this beautiful aircraft. After a couple of fly-bys we finally land the Connie on Dutch soil, "Connie's Comeback" has succeeded. We taxi to the apron and let the audience enjoy the sound of a run-up of the four 2500 horsepower Wright R3350's. Then it becomes quiet and aircraft and crew enjoy the welcome. The people that are still around at five o'clock get another show, start-up. It is still magnificent and after 12 blades, the engines once again burst into life with lots of smoke and wonderful noise. Once again we (Frank Lang captain, Tim Coons flight engineer and myself co-pilot) complete the checklist. We check everything because flight safety again is paramount. Again the aircraft is in great shape and we taxi to the runway. After take-off we make one more fly-by before turning towards the Veluwe. Fortunately Frank lets me do all the work while he enjoys the scenery and follows our route on the GPS. We take a short tour of The Netherlands before heading in the direction of Schiphol Airport.

From the tower, Nanne Dijkstra gives us instructions so the rest of the traffic can continue. What a great view to watch Schiphol for the second time today. I am sure that on the ground there are lots of crew and passengers that want to trade places with us. "She is very beautiful!" says a colleague over the radio. A couple of aircraft delay their take-off to watch the only flying Connie in Europe. After a circle around the field we land at runway 22, the same runway, which was used many times by KLM’s Connies. Its 17.45 and, after almost thirty years, there is another Connie at Schiphol. We taxi to the apron near Hangar 10 and pass a couple of Boeing 747’s, modern replacements for the Connie. I am sure that this 54-year-old lady is far more beautiful than her younger family members. The aircraft is offloaded and the rest of the crew goes to a hotel. When everything is ready, she is towed to the apron of Hangar 9 where she will be parked awaiting her turn to be sprayed in vintage KLM colours in Hangar 14. Truck driver Jaap has a nice change from towing 737's. I pick up my son Tom and put him on a lot cushions in a cockpit seat. From here he enjoys the ride to Hangar 9. It is getting dark when I set the parking brake the last time today. There she is at the same place where the last Connie at Schiphol was parked thirty years ago. For me an important circle is completed. We leave the airplane via the forward cargo hold and we go home. It was a long and tiring day, almost as exciting as a true wedding day. It was great and I feel very privileged to have flown this "Queen of the Skies" again today for more than three hours.

A few days later the leased props and #3 engine are removed from the aircraft and returned to the The Constellation Group. The Connie is moved into Hangar 14 in early October and is sprayed in late-1940’s vintage KLM colours.

Henk de Waard
January 2003

Photo Credits: Peter de Witte, Jean Tailliet, Peter de Groot, Henk de Waard, Wicky de Waard, Michael S. Prophet, RM Pettersen

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----Created 13 March 2004----