April 1, 2005 was a sad day for Constellation enthusiasts in the United States and around the world. At exactly 10:07 Mountain Standard Time, The MATS Connie departed its home at Marana Northwest Regional Airport (AVQ)/Avra Valley for the final time and began an epic journey to a new home on Jeju Island, South Korea. Captain Frank Lang commanded the aircraft on its final journey and the trip ended almost thirteen years of continuous performance in US airshows and a tour of Europe during the summer of 1998. The MATS Connie had been purchased by United Technologies Corporation (Pratt and Whitney Division) in February 2005, and donated to Korean Air for static display at their training facility on Jeju Island. In addition to Captain Lang, the crew consisted of pilots Rick Volosen and Greg Arnold with Carlos Gomez performing flight engineer duties. Passengers Steve Arnold, Jonathan David and Jim Harner were also on board for the trip to Oakland where Jim departed. Joining the group at Oakland were pilot Shawn Dorsch and Korean Air’s Vice President for Safety and Security, George Snyder.
Originally the flight was to have taken a southern route with stops at Honolulu, Hawaii and Midway Island but this was changed when it was determined that avgas was not available at Midway. The possibility of stopping at Wake Island was explored but the US military controls the airfield and does not allow civilian aircraft to use it. In addition to these factors, the southern route involved a 14 hour leg totally over water. The northern route was eventually chosen because it was significantly shorter, avgas was available, and there were no long over water sectors without suitable diversion alternatives. The longest over water sector, between Cold Bay, Alaska and Hakodate, Japan, allowed for reasonable diversions to airfields in Russia, if problems arose. Total flight for the route was estimated to be about 40 hours including stops at Oakland, California; Anchorage, Alaska; Cold Bay, Alaska; Hakodate, Japan; and Inchon, South Korea where the crew and passengers would clear customs. With the most of the contingent returning to the United States at Inchon, Frank, Rick, and Carlos would fly the aircraft to Gimhae (near Busan) where it would be painted in 1950’s era Korean National Airlines colors at the Korean Air maintenance base. After about a week being painted by Korean Air technicians, the aircraft would make its final flight from Gimhae to the airline’s training facility on Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea. Upon arrival it would be put on display next to a retired Korean Air Boeing 747 and Airbus 300. To the disappointment of aviation enthusiasts, nothing came of plans to have the aircraft participate in some Far East airshows this summer.
In preparation for the long flight, The Constellation Group’s hangar facility at Avra Valley saw a flurry of activity during the weeks prior to the flight. The aircraft had performed with remarkable reliability over the past few years but all systems were carefully checked with the number 2, 3 and 4 Curtis Electric propellers being removed, inspected and overhauled. While no problems were anticipated, flying a 57 year old aircraft halfway around the world is quite an undertaking, which was not lost on any of the crew. With preparations complete and weather checked for the route, the decision was made on Thursday March 31st to depart at 10:00am Friday morning. With airline precision, The MATS Connie took off at exactly 10:07am and, after one low pass of the airport, headed northwest towards Oakland, California. Departure from Oakland was delayed a day due to poor weather along the route with the Connie and crew lifting off from Oakland Airport on Sunday morning April 3rd for the 9 hour flight to Anchorage, Alaska. Icing conditions along the planned route required a 100 mile offshore diversion and the crew first encountered the cold conditions that would continue for most of the remainder of the trip.
After a night’s rest and short snow delay on Monday morning, the group departed Anchorage for Cold Bay, Alaska. There were some anxious moments at Cold Bay when the nose gear green light failed to illuminate. Close inspection of the nose gear from the front luggage compartment showed that it was fully extended and locked and a routine landing was made at Cold Bay. The planned one night stop at Cold Bay stretched to three days due to poor weather along the route and a balky number 2 engine. The engine refused to start but after some expert attention by Carlos Gomez, the problem was resolved and the journey continued at daybreak on Thursday April 7th. After crossing the International Date Line, the contingent arrived safely in Hakodate, Japan on Friday April 8th at about 2:30pm after a 13 hour flight. The MATS Connie departed Hakodate at 9:00am on Saturday morning and climbed out over the Sea of Japan for the 800 mile flight to Inchon, South Korean where it arrived safely on Saturday afternoon. Greeting the aircraft and crew was Korean Air chairman and CEO, Cho Yang-ho, who presented them with flower bouquets. The journey continued on Sunday April 10th with Frank, Rick and Carlos making the short flight to Korean Air’s maintenance facility in Gimhae for painting. On Monday April 18, 2005, painted in its new Korean livery, The MATS Connie made its final flight from Gimhae to Jeju Island. Crewmembers for this final flight were Frank Lang, Shawn Dorsch, and Carlos Gomez. Accompanying the crew on the 45 minute flight were Nigel and Janet Joshua of United Technologies, Eunjong Mo of Pratt & Whitney, and George Snyder. Prior to landing, The MATS Connie made a low flyby of the airport and, with that, a 57 year flying career comes to and end. Very sad indeed!
The End of an Era
The Constellation Group’s facility at Avra Valley will be shut down and cleanup operations had begun prior to departure of its long time tenant. A 3350 engine had been donated to a local technical school and the process of removing the remnants of thirteen years of Constellation operations and a number of Constellation restoration projects has begun. No more than 30 minutes after the departure, JR Kern was overseeing the towing of SCAF Super Constellation N105CF and Columbine II N9463 to join Bill Dempsay’s stored DC-4’s at the airport. What are Frank Lang’s plans now that The MATS Connie has ended her flying days? Frank says that he is going to have a hip replacement operation after which he plans on continuing his flying career, possibly flying a DC-3 on the airshow circuit. JR Kern, Tim Coons and the rest of the maintenance crew will complete the facility cleanup and move on to a number of interesting, and hopefully lucrative, propliner projects.
I’d like to thank Frank Lang and the rest of the crew at the Constellation Group for the hospitality they’ve extended to me over the past eight years. The MATS Connie provided thrills to many an airshow audience, including the 1992 Oshkosh show when it flew in tight formation with the Save-A-Connie Super Constellation. The FAA wasn’t very happy about the formation flying but the crowd loved it! I’d also like to thank crewmembers Steve Arnold and George Snyder for providing photos and first hand accounts of the trip.
Friday April 1
Depart Avra Valley, Arizona (10:07am)
Arrive Oakland, California
Saturday April 2
Oakland, California (delayed due to enroute weather conditions)
Sunday April 3
Depart Oakland, California
Arrive Anchorage, Alaska
Monday April 4
Depart Anchorage, Alaska (short snow delay)
Arrive Cold Bay, Alaska
Tuesday Apr 5
Cold Bay, Alaska (delayed due to enroute weather conditions)
Wednesday April 6
Cold Bay, Alaska (delayed due to enroute weather conditions)
Thursday April 7
Depart Cold Bay, Alaska (daybreak – crossed International Date Line)
Friday April 8
Arrive Hakodate, Japan (2:30pm)
Saturday April 9
Depart Hakodate, Japan (9:00am)
Arrive Inchon, Korea
Sunday April 10
Depart Inchon, Korea
Arrive Gimhae/Busan, Korea (for painting at KAL facilities)
Monday April 18
Depart Gimhae/Busan, Korea
Arrive Jeju Island, Korea (for display at the Korean Air training facility)
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Steve Arnold, George Snyder, Ralph M. Pettersen
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----Created 26 June 2005----