While browsing through a June 1997 issue of Trade-A-Plane last summer, I noticed an advertisement for the sale of three 1649A Constellations and associated spares. To say the least, ads for Connies are not very common and my interest was duly aroused. I quickly determined that the three aircraft involved were N7316C, N8083H, and N974R. All are owned by Maine Coast Airways with the first two located at the Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Maine and the third located at the airport in Sanford, Florida. The man behind Maine Coast Airways is Maurice Roundy who has made it his mission to save these propliners from the scrappers. There is no doubt that all three would have been reduced to beer cans long ago if not for Maurice’s efforts. Although very little has been written about these aircraft since 1989, all three have been the subject of feature articles in past issues of Propliner Magazine (Issues 11, 19, 20, 36 and 38).
The three aircraft have a surprisingly similar history. N7316C and N8083H were originally delivered to TWA and N974R to Lufthansa with all being converted to freighters in 1960/61 by Lockheed Air Service. After their retirement by TWA in 1962, N7316C and N8083H passed through Alaska Airlines, Prudhoe Bay Oil Distributing Company, West-Air and Burns Aviation before being flown to Maine in 1983 and 1986 respectively. After retirement by Lufthansa, N974R passed through World Airways, Air Venturers Travel Club, Trans Mediterranean Airways, CJS Aircargo, West-Air and Burns Aviation before being purchased by Maurice in 1985. The aircraft represent the final chapter of piston engine airliner development and are probably the last three potentially airworthy L1649A Starliners in the world today.
Any plans for further investigating the story behind the Trade-A-Plane ad were put on hold due to more pressing matters such as my upcoming October wedding. I had almost forgotten about the three Connies when I met Bill Coons in November at the Constellation Group’s Flying Program in Avra Valley, AZ. He had attended an open house in August sponsored by Maurice at the Auburn-Lewiston Airport and confirmed that the two airplanes were in good condition and for sale. In anticipation of his flight in the MATS Connie, Bill had invested a few hours that day in one of the 1649A’s, familiarizing himself with the cockpit layout. This sounded like a good idea at the time, but on seeing the MATS Connie cockpit Bill realized that there wasn’t a whole lot in common between the two. However, Bill said that he very much enjoyed his L1649A “flighttime” and urged me to call Maurice.
On my return home from Arizona, I contacted Maurice and told him that I was interested in writing an article about him and his three airplanes. We set Sunday, January 11, 1998, as the date for my visit to Maine. What was not in anyone’s plans was the ice storm of historic proportions that hit New England the Thursday and Friday before my trip. Over 500,000 people were without electricity in Maine as the result of the storm, with the Auburn-Lewiston area being particularly hard hit. Notwithstanding, my flight from Washington, DC, to Portland, Maine, was accomplished nonstop in a US Airways Dornier 328. Arriving in Portland, it was evident that there had been an ice storm but much of the city had electricity and I thought to myself “another case of news media exaggeration”. During my 35 mile drive up the Maine Turnpike to Lewiston the next morning, I found this not to be the case. Although the weather was picture perfect with bright sunshine, it was obvious that Maine had suffered a major ice storm. Trees along the turnpike were covered with ice and many were either completely bent over under the weight of the ice or snapped in half. As I exited the turnpike I faced another obstacle....roads closed by the storm. Luckily, the airport was not far from the exit and I successfully negotiated my way there.
As I approached the airport, the two Constellations parked in Maurice’s front yard were quite a sight. He later told me that during the summer months it is not uncommon to have ten or more curious individuals show up in his yard during a weekend day asking about the airplanes. Some ask if it is a B-52, while others, far more knowledgeable about the significance of these airplanes, have traveled from as far away as Europe and Australia to have a look at the two Constellations. He welcomes them all and for the nominal fee of $1 will give them a tour. Maurice greeted me and was somewhat amazed that a Southerner like myself hadn’t been deterred by the by ice storm. He said that their electricity had been out since the previous Wednesday night and he didn’t know when it would be back on. Like most folks in this part of the world, he has a large woodstove and this was heating the house. Maurice designed the house, which includes a garage where he is currently storing two spare R3350 engines, a technical library full of L1649A technical documentation, and a “control tower” containing a kitchen and family room. Although the two airplanes were covered with ice, I was anxious to see them and Maurice was more than willing to give me a guided tour.
N7316C is parked closest to the house so we headed for this airplane first. This airplane was rescued by Maurice in 1983 from Stewart Airport in New York where it sat for six years after being abandoned by Burns Aviation. Six months of hard work by Maurice, his wife Jane Theberge, and Ray Porter brought this airplane back to airworthy condition and it was flown to Auburn-Lewiston Airport on November 9, 1983. A quick inspection of the exterior revealed the aircraft to be intact and in surprisingly good condition. We had to be very careful walking around the airplane since giant icicles were melting in the sun and falling down off the airplane. We very carefully climbed up a set of ice covered metal stairs and entered the airplane. Upon entering, I noticed that the airplane smelled much like so many other old propliners I had been in. Not a bad smell -- just very distinctive. The interior had been stripped bare of all interior furnishings and had a standard cargo floor. A B727 bulkhead and some seats had been installed in the forward cabin. The airplane was also being used to store promotional material, window inserts, and the spinners from the engines. One of Maurice’s ideas on how to effectively use the airplanes was to have them painted in promotional paint schemes for corporate sponsors. There were a number of color sketches depicting a 1649A decked out as billboards for Budweiser, Heineken, Coke, Pepsi, and Kodak. Although a very interesting concept, sadly nothing has come of it to date. Moving forward to the cockpit revealed it to be intact with all radios and instruments appearing functional.
N8083H was parked about 150 yards away and it, too, was covered with melting ice. Last November, Frank Lang, the Constellation Group’s chief pilot, had told me an interesting story about this airplane. He had flown in it from Anchorage, Alaska, to Chandler, Arizona, in 1980 and said that its interior had been outfitted at Chandler for the low level airdrop of marijuana. He said that the aircraft had been flight tested in the desert around Chandler by dropping bales of hay. Propliner Magazine confirmed this in a 1983 article, reporting that the aircraft had been observed conducting “low level agricultural flights” with the rear freight door opened. Apparently the open rear cargo door did not impede the flightworthiness of the airplane and the system was a great engineering success. If the airplane was ever actually used for this mission is not known, but it was “rediscovered” by Maurice in 1986 at the San Pedro Sula Airport in Honduras. Maurice, Ray Porter and G.V. Hill headed to Honduras in the Spring of 1986 to get the airplane ready for its ferry flight to Maine which occurred after six weeks of hard work on 31 May to 1 June 1986. Like her sister ship, N8083H was intact with only the rudders missing. Maurice had removed these some time ago and they are currently stored in his garage with the two R3350 engines. The cabin interior was very much different from that of N7316C and almost exactly as described to me by Frank Lang. It was totally finished in sheet metal with a ceiling probably no higher than 6' 6". It was not too hard visualizing 20,000 pounds of contraband cargo loaded onboard and ready to be dropped out the rear door. As with N7316C, the cockpit was complete and appeared totally functional.
The third L1649A, N974R, is stored at the Sanford, Florida airport where it has been since two unsuccessful ferry flights back in 1988. A full account of these very interesting flights can be found in Propliner issue 38. While the airplane is intact, corrosion has resulted from over 20 years of being subjected to the humid and salty Florida climate. In addition, it has engine, propeller and fuel tank problems which were quite evident during its dramatic and unexpected arrival 10 years ago. The instrument panel has also been vandalized during its stay in Sanford. While it would be possible to restore this airplane to flying status, it would be a much larger task than restoring its two relatively fit sisters in Maine. Shortly after my visit, Maurice traveled to Sanford where he spent two weeks working on the airplane. It had accumulated an ugly greenish-brown coating of mildew which he removed with a high pressure cleaner. Now looking much better, the airplane was towed from an isolated part of the airport to an apron where it is now visible to the general public. Due to the large number of German tourists passing through this airport on their way to DisneyWorld, Maurice would like to paint the airplane in a 1950's era Lufthansa color scheme and move it to a prominent location on the airport. He has written to Lufthansa for permission to do so, but hadn’t received a response as of my visit.
Adjacent to his house at the Auburn-Lewiston Airport, Maurice has four 40-foot trailers full of spare parts that he has collected from Alaska, New York and Florida. A recent trip to Anchorage netted engine, landing gear and rudder parts from N7315C which has finally been scrapped. Although brakes and fuel valves are almost impossible to find, Maurice claims that, with his current spares, he could keep one aircraft airworthy almost indefinitely, two for an extended period, and all three for a short time. With his limited resources he has only been able to maintain status quo thus preventing the airplanes from further deteriorating. Maurice estimates that with three knowledgeable mechanics, it would take 2-3 months per airplane to restore them to an airworthy condition. Having taken part in the restoration of all three of his airplanes, Maurice possesses a wealth of knowledge regarding these airplanes and their systems. Although an accomplished commercial pilot with 14,000 hours in his logbooks, Maurice lacks one very important FAA document.....an A&P mechanics license. For the time being, he has to rely on local A&Ps for sign-offs on work performed on the two airplanes.
In addition to his collection of spare parts, Maurice also has a technical library in the basement of his house full of L1649A drawings, manuals, books, magazines and related material. He has written an inspection program for the airplanes and is currently working with the FAA to get it approved. Lockheed- Martin is providing assistance in obtaining additional tech manuals for the airplanes which will assist Maurice in his dealings with the FAA. We cut our tour of the basement library short due to the lack of lights and retired to the sunny “control tower” family room to discuss future plans for his “family” of Connies.
Maurice said that he had first become interested in the Constellation while reading an Air Classics magazine article in 1969. He bought his first in 1983 and has been chasing his dream ever since. He feels that he doesn’t own the airplanes but, in fact, they own him. He feels a deep responsibility for their preservation and is determined to see at least two restored to full airworthiness. Maurice told me that he would be willing to give the airplanes away to a person, museum or corporation with the caveat that they hire him to assist in the restoration process. With his knowledge and enthusiasm for these airplanes, he would be an invaluable resource to anyone attempting a restoration. As a means to achieve this goal, he recently placed an ad in the February 1998 issue of Trade-A-Plane. It reads as follows:
CONSTELLATION GIVEAWAY. Help! Help! We challenge you individuals and corporations with resources to adopt one of these fine historical aircraft. Choose from three. Sign a contract for restoration and maintenance. We will give you the airplane. Paint the plane in corporate colors for advertising and make a bold splash at airshows, or if you’re a purist, step right up and save one in original paint. This is your chance. Don’t complain about the paint job, if you pass it up. 207-782-2680, Fax 207-753-1153You can also visit Maurice on the world wide web. He recently established a website at www.starliner.net which gives details about his Constellation “giveaway’ program and other interesting facts about the airplanes. Photos, Maurice’s resume and links to other Constellation related websites are also included.
Will he succeed? I, for one, sure hope so and wish Maurice good fortune in this endeavor. With the recent surge of Constellation restorations one can only surmise that the desirability and value of his three airplanes is on the rise and one day soon one of these airplanes will be flying the airshow circuit in TWA, Lufthansa or Air France colors. Maurice is encouraged by the recent acquisition by McDonalds of an ex-Air Force C-131/T-29 which they plan to restore to military markings for the airshow circuit. If McDonalds has adopted such an enlightened corporate attitude, can others be far behind? Only time will tell. Maurice has also recently been in touch with the South African group currently restoring an L1649A and tentative plans have been made for them to visit Maine next summer.
I thanked Maurice for his hospitality and as I was leaving his wife, Jane, was busily preparing a moose stew which she was going to cook on the wood stove. She’s got to be quite a woman...two Constellations in her front yard and, to boot, can prepare moose stew over a wood stove!
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: J. Roger Bentley, Ralph M. Pettersen
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----Created 3 February 2004------Updated 13 March 2004----