Connie Stories From MCI

Connie Stories From MCI – A Junior Mechanic’s Perspective

February 2010

Clint Groves found himself working for TWA as a junior mechanic at Kansas City’s Mid-Continent Airport (MCI) in 1967 and witnessed the demise of many of the airline’s fleet of Lockheed Constellations. TWA flew its last Constellation flight in May 1967 and most of the retired aircraft were parked at MCI and Fairfax Airport, just across the Missouri River in Kansas. A lucky few went to new owners but many were scrapped in place at these two locations. Clinton was gracious enough to allow me to include these interesting memories on my website for all to share.

A Simple Nav Light Bulb Change

Ah yes, what could be simpler than changing a wing tip nav light bulb? It was January 1967 and with TWA at MCI and most of my job assignments consisted of preparing Constellations for ferry flights to new owners or continually moving Connies around because the airport big-wigs considered them "hazards to navigation". Working outside in a heavy snowstorm with gusty winds we would occasionally hear "Thunk!" off in the distance. We were surrounded by Constellations in various states of disrepair, some missing engines, some with weights on the engine mounts to keep them on their noses. The wings were all secured by cables attached to big aluminum needles with a screw type fitting on the bottom that we would screw into the frozen earth. When break time came I set out to see what the source of the noise could be and discovered that as a foot and a half of snow would accumulate on the horizontal stabilizers of the Connies they would fall one by one onto their tails, ergo the "Thunk!"

Anyway, in a day or two the sun was out and although it was still miserably cold outside most of the snow had melted off the Connies. I was assigned to change the right wing tip lamp on a L1649A. Which brings up an easy way to remember which light is on which tip... the political term "left wing" meaning Communist or red is indeed the left wing. The right wing tip is green, the tail light is white (clear), so it goes worldwide or at least here on Earth. The lamps are clear, the covers are heavy colored glass. There was a fueling ladder up to the cockpit door and I decided to change the lamp by entering the cabin, removing an overwing exit and walking out to the right wing tip. Bad decision! Soon as I stepped onto the root of this laminar flow wing I could tell that there was a thin sheet of ice, very slippery even not considering the accumulation of engine oil and exhaust further out. I was about fifteen feet outboard of number four engine when I noticed that for every step I took the wing would bounce about a foot at the tip. I tried moving more slowly, it still bounced. I decided that if I crawled I would be safer. When I found myself on my belly at the wing tip I was scared stiff. The wing was very narrow and slippery and I seemed perplexed that the wing tip was solid lead, probably for some sort of dynamic balance. It was so cold and I was wearing two pairs of gloves, it was very difficult changing the lamp. It seems like it took me a half hour to crawl back into the cabin and replace the exit. Although there had been no heat in that old Starliner for weeks it seemed quite warm compared to outside. When I got home at midnight I checked my collection of airliner memorabilia and found that this was the same airplane I had flown on in 1960 at age 17 from Idlewild to Shannon and Orly. I had been with an old friend and didn't even know it. Now degraded to a freighter with no passenger interior she was still graceful. So my fear of heights had been confronted that day. I've often wondered how I could be afraid when 3 steps up a ladder and yet be a pilot.

Taking Care of The Connies

In June, 1967, and I was still working as an A&P mechanic for Trans World Airlines at MCI. At that time there were no terminals at MCI, it was primarily the TWA overhaul base. I was assigned to the crew they called "hangar engines". We would receive inbound overhaul aircraft ferried in from MKC, remove the cowling and leave the aircraft in the wash dock until it was ready to go into the overhaul bay, once in the bays and on jacks we would remove the engines. Bays six and eight were 707 bays, the doors and overhead pipes were put in place when the 707 tails were expected to be shorter, so, we had to deplete all the air from the main gear struts and blow the nose strut as high as it would go to get the airplanes into the bays. Overhaul time was low then, about 5,000 hours, so we kept busy. When we weren't doing that we dispatched and flagged in transition flights. In the days before full movement simulators the crews actually had to fly the airplanes in training. We would fuel the planes and do designated checks.

Another job unique to MCI and Fairfax Airport in Kansas City, Kansas, was to get Constellations ready for ferry flights to new owners or for the smelter an independent contractor had set up behind the ramp at MCI The contractor would use spray paint cans to make lines and we would take chain saws and follow the lines, then stab the airplane with a forklift and drop the parts into the smelter. I felt like a reluctant serial killer. Sometimes a Connie would strike back when fuel that wasn't supposed to be in a tank would explode when the chain saw entered the vapors. Wow! Destroyed South Pacific fleet and a lot of TWA birds. There was a field behind building 2, engine overhaul, with the left wing of N820TW which had crashed in training and about 65 each R3350 powerplants. The grass was deep, chiggers and mosquitoes were everywhere. We would be sent out to find engines by serial number with enough time remaining to get the Connie off the farm, hang them onto the airframes.

A Run-Up Gone Bad

One early afternoon a good friend and I were going to run a L1649 Connie to check for fuel and oil leaks. My friend was in the Captain's seat, I was in the Flight Engineer's seat with the door open for a clear view of 3 and 4 engines. "Clear to turn 3" came the ground crew on the interphone. "Turning 3", I responded. A radial engine standing a long time could collect oil in the lower cylinders and firing those cylinders could rip them right off the engine case, so we always counted blades. I held the starter switch and counted nine blades before turning the mag switch to both. The cockpit shook violently, there was popping in the exhaust, then a huge display of flame out of the intake duct.

"What's that noise?" my friend asked. "I don't know, we have to keep it turning to blow out the fire" I replied. "No not that, LISTEN!!!" he said. A buzzing sound behind the Captain's instrument panel got louder and louder. Suddenly hornets about the size of golf balls started coming out from under the panel, my friend started to yell as he was repeatedly stung. I took one look and dived head first the twelve or so feet down the metal fueling ladder we had used for cockpit access.

Number 3 engine was now idling, the fire was out. I had bruises and I thought I had a broken hand, but it was just sprained. My friend had to be taken to the hospital and had it not been for the company doctor who had an office across from bay 4 still being there he may have died.

Luckily a lot of the mechanics at MCI were farmers, they were used to hornets, wasps and other things that make my heart stop. They got the engine shut down and sprayed chemicals to kill the hornets. I was still on probation and was sure I would be fired for abandoning my post, but, most of the supervisors understood.

The Super G and PRT

Ship 102, N7102C was the last Super G on the property. Day shift had backed it into dock 2 and we were opening cowlings. I was assigned to Number 3 engine. It had been shut down due to a fire warning. Most of the cowling was hinged at the rear, the lower air intake tub was the heaviest piece. It usually came apart with ease. I lowered the intake portion and then the lower engine cowl when I heard three loud chunking noises and felt a lot of pain in my left shin. The 2 o'clock PRT (power recovery turbine) had broken loose from its mounting clamp and the exhaust pipes too, it had tumbled to the hangar floor striking my left shin on the way down.

A few days later we were set to take ship 102 out of the hangar for run-up. Closing the cowling was about five times more difficult than opening it. We all had "cowling stretchers", a tool with a three quarter inch square three foot long rod with a handle on one end containing a flat screwdriver blade about an inch long with a handle behind it and a place to fasten the tool to the cowling. Dzus fasteners held the cowling closed but there was always about a half inch interference fit. One would secure the tool on one end, put pressure on the long arm and turn the fastener to the locking position.

Run-up was always a thrill because you could never tell what would happen. I've seen flames envelope the entire fuselage at the wing root, cowling fires from fuel leaks, even a metal fueling ladder get caught in the prop blades. There was an oscilloscope at the F/E station and someone good with this tool could tell you exactly which of the 36 spark plugs was misfiring. To me it was useless.

A cylinder change was always a pain. Hold-down nuts were tight and when they would beak loose you were guaranteed bloody knuckles. You always had to be sure the master rod did not drop too low because its piston would drop and the rings expand inside the crankcase. Changing a lower cylinder in rain or snow you would have cold water and warm engine oil running down your neck soaking you to your socks.

I hated doing these jobs at the time, now, some forty years later, it doesn't seem so bad, in fact, I'd jump at a change to work on these fantastic flying machines one more time. The weather at Kansas City was so bad I bid several warm weather stations and ended up at SFO in late 1967.

Clint Groves
February 2010

Photo Credits: Gary Gayulski

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----Created 16 February 2010----