Over the years, I have photographed and written articles on a number of Lockheed Constellations and Super Constellations. The largest “family group” of surviving Constellations is comprised of the remnants of a 1948 US Air Force order for ten C-121A aircraft. Of the seven surviving aircraft, I had photographed and written about all, with the exception of 48-610, which was once named Columbine and served as Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential aircraft from January 1953 to November 1954. I knew that she was parked at Santa Fe, New Mexico and owned by Harry Oliver and Mel Christler, the two men who rescued her from certain destruction in 1990. A telephone call to Harry in January 2002 resulted in a February 2002 visit to Santa Fe.
My first encounter with Columbine was in May 1991 and happened by pure chance. I had recently moved to the Washington, DC area and a friend and I decided to stop by the annual Andrews Air Force Base Open House. As we approached the flightline between two hangars, the unmistakable form of a Lockheed Constellation became evident. Not knowing much about Constellations at the time, but realizing the rarity of the breed, my interest was sparked by the possibility of being able to examine an airworthy example up close. In 1991, Constellations were almost non-existent outside of South Florida and the Caribbean so I gladly paid the $2 price of admission and soon discovered that this was a very special airplane indeed!
48-610 came off the Lockheed production line at Burbank, California in late 1948 and was accepted by the Air Force’s MATS Atlantic Division on December 22, 1948. It was immediately bailed on contract to Lockheed for shuttle flights between McArthur Field, NY and Keflavik, Iceland in support of the Keflavik maintenance base. Upon return to the USAF in November 1949, it was flown to Burbank, California for conversion to VIP configuration and redesignated a VC-121A. The aircraft was assigned to the Washington National Airport based 1254 ATS (SM), where it was used by the Secretary of the Air Force, from February 1950 to November 1952.
Eisenhower, then President-elect, first flew on her during a marathon trip to Korea in late 1952. The seventy-four hour trip was veiled in secrecy and covered 18,000 miles between November 29 and December 14, 1952. 48-610 officially became the presidential aircraft in January 1953 and was named “Columbine”, after the official flower of Mrs. Eisenhower’s home state of Colorado. She was actually the second VC-121A used by Eisenhower named Columbine. The first, 48-614, was assigned to him during the early 1950’s when he served in Europe as the Supreme Commander, SHAPE. This aircraft is currently preserved at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
48-610 served as the presidential aircraft until replaced in November 1954 by the third Columbine, a VC-121E Super Constellation. She was designated the primary backup aircraft until November 1959, except for a short period in May and June of 1955 when Pan American operated the aircraft as “Clipper Fortuna”, with the civilian registration N9907F. President Eisenhower’s last flight on 48-610 occurred during a trip from Augusta, Georgia to Washington, DC on October 25, 1959. Stripped of its Columbine markings, the aircraft was utilized as a VIP transport with the 1254 ATW at Washington National Airport and later with the 89 MAW (SM) at Andrews AFB, until being retired in April 1968. She was flown to Davis Monthan Air Force Base on April 4th with 14,072 hours of flight time recorded.
In the late 1960’s, Mel Christler operated Christler Flying Service with a small fleet of DC-3’s. The company was involved in aerial spraying and Mel felt he needed to supplement his DC-3’s with a larger aircraft. At the July 1970 auction of surplus aircraft at Davis Monthan AFB, he was the successful bidder on a group of five retired USAF VC-121A’s. Unbeknownst to him, included in the group was Columbine, her true identity hidden by normal Air Force transport markings and with only the "0-80610" tail markings providing a clue. The other four aircraft, 48-609, 48-612, 48-615 and 48-617, were stripped of their VIP interiors and converted to aerial sprayers. For some unknown reason, prior to the auction, the main landing gear on 48-610 had been removed and replaced with landing gear from a later model Super Constellation. With mismatched landing gear, the aircraft could not be flown and it was relegated to supplying spares to keep the other four aircraft flying. Stored at the Desert Air facility, engines and other useful parts slowly disappeared and her future seemed bleak.
Until 1980, Mel was unaware of the historical significance of his “spares” airplane. The four converted aircraft had been sold to new owners in April 1979 and Mel had retired from the aerial spraying business and was living the good life. Robert Mikesh, a curator at the Smithsonian Institute, contacted Mel and informed him of the true identity of 48-610, which was still parked at the Desert Air facility. While he felt bad about the derelict state of the aircraft, it wasn’t until nine years later that he and Harry formulated a plan to restore the old girl. Over coffee one morning in August 1989, Mel informed Harry that he planned to scrap 48-610. With not too much effort, Harry convinced Mel that she was worth saving and that they had all the pieces in place to do so. Mel had a wealth of Constellation operating knowledge and Harry had the resources to make it all happen. What they needed were engines and a set of main landing gear to get the plan moving. Both were available on sister ship 48-608 which was owned by Mel and parked at nearby Ryan Field, Tucson.
After retirement from the USAF in April 1968, 48-608 was flown to Davis Monthan AFB for storage. It was bought at auction by Kolar, Inc in June 1971, registered N608AS, and sold to Aviation Specialties in September 1972 for conversion to an aerial sprayer. Aviation Specialties became Globe Air, Inc and by the early 1980’s, it was retired again and put out to pasture at Mesa Falcon Field. Mel bought the aircraft as scrap at the Globe Air auction in October 1985 and got her airworthy enough for a ferry flight to Ryan Field, Tucson in July 1986. 48-608 was offered for sale at the 1987 Oshkosh Airshow auction but the reserve price was not met. Harry Oliver bought the airplane from Mel in early 1990 and she provided the precious spares required to restore Columbine.
In November 1989, a small group consisting of Mel Christler, Harry Oliver, Doug Moore, Cory Brummond, Bernie Overgaag, Merle Lawton and Gordon Oliver (no relation to Harry) began the restoration of Columbine at Bob’s Air Park, where it had recently been moved. Bob’s Air Park is one of many salvage yards adjacent to Davis Monthan AFB and the work proceeded smoothly under the direction of Mel. Engines and main landing gear were removed from N608AS and trucked twenty miles for installation on Columbine. By April 1990, the aircraft was ready for its ferry flight to Ryan Field where the remaining work would be completed. Before leaving Bob’s Air Park, its vintage 1968 “white top” paint job was removed and the old girl was polished to a high sheen. A very sharp looking Columbine made the short flight from Davis Monthan AFB to Ryan Field on April 5, 1990, almost twenty-two years to the day after her retirement flight to Davis Monthan. In command of the flight was Lockie Christler, son of Mel Christler, with Harry Oliver and Tom Woodward in the co-pilot and flight engineer positions. The airplane and crew were greeted at Ryan Field by a large group of enthusiastic supporters. In addition, television reporters from the three local network television stations videotaped the arrival, conducted interviews of the crew and provided extensive coverage of the event.
The airplane was registered to “Columbine II, Inc.”, a partnership formed by Mel and Harry. Their plan was to restore this historic airplane and then trade it to a national museum for a newer airplane such as a military surplus P-3 or C-130. There was, in fact, exactly such a program in place in the late 1980’s called the “Historic Aircraft Exchange Program” which was managed by the United States Forest Service. Due to numerous alleged abuses, aircraft broker Roy Reagan and a USFS official were convicted of “conspiracy to steal government property” in October 1997 and sentenced to 2 ½ years in federal prison. Although Mel and Harry had numerous conversations with a very interested Admiral Donald Engen, then the Director of The National Air and Space Museum, nothing became of these talks due to the Forest Service scandal.
Upon arrival at Ryan Field, additional work was performed and the primary restoration was completed during the summer of 1990. After spending $150,000 on the restoration, Harry and Mel were ready to hit the road with Columbine. They received an invitation to participate in the celebration of the Eisenhower Centennial being held in Eisenhower's hometown of Abilene, Kansas on October 13th and 14th. On October 10th Columbine left Ryan Field and, after a quick stop in Santa Fe to pick up family members, she headed to Colorado Springs for a low flyby of the Air Force Academy during the noon cadet formation. The next stop was Stapleton Airport, Denver where the Lowery AFB color guard greeted the airplane and crew. After two hours on the ground in Denver she departed for Salina, Kansas for an overnight stay before proceeding on to Abilene. After an overnight rest, Columbine and the contingent arrived on Abilene’s 3,200 foot runway the next morning. Columbine served as a centerpiece of the celebration and returned to Ryan Field the following Monday. After the trip, there was considerable discussion regarding the possibility of the airplane going on permanent display at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene but the political support to make this happen never materialized.
After spending the winter parked at Ryan Field, May 1991 saw Columbine on the road again with airshow visits to Roswell, New Mexico and Andrews AFB, Maryland. Columbine’s airshow career ended with a final appearance in Houston, Texas in October 1991, after which she was flown to Roswell, New Mexico and parked. After the short flight to Santa Fe about a year later, the grand old lady was not to fly again until October 1998.
After six years of inactivity, Columbine was prepared for a flight to Scottsdale, Arizona to participate in the Kruse International Warbirds and Vintage Aircraft Auction being held on October 17/18. A two-hour local test flight was undertaken on October 12th and the flight to Scottsdale was made the next day under the command of Lockie Christler, with Cory Brummond and Tom Woodward in the co-pilot and flight engineer positions. Accompanying the flight crew on the uneventful ninety-minute flight was FAA check-ride pilot Al Malecha. A reserve bid price of $1.5M was set but not met and the aircraft was withdrawn from the auction and flown back to Santa Fe. It has been widely reported that bids for the aircraft ranged as high as $1.4M but when I asked Harry about the accuracy of these reports, he said that he did not believe these bids were credible.
What are the plans for this very famous and historic airplane? As was their initial intention, Harry and Mel would like to see the airplane go to a national museum in trade for a more modern, less historic airplane. It’s a shame that the National Air and Space Museum’s “Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center” will open at Dulles International Airport in December 2003 without this historic airplane in its collection. Harry and Mel are also amenable to selling the airplane to an individual or organization with the resources required to place it on the US or European airshow circuit. In the absence of either of the above occurring, Harry is also considering the possibility of preparing Columbine for a few airshow appearances in 2003. Whatever happens, I believe that this very special airplane is currently being well cared for under the stewardship of Harry and Mel. It was obvious from talking to Harry that their goal is to preserve the airplane for future generations to enjoy. One only has to look at the gleaming aluminum fuselage, polished twelve years ago at Bob’s Airpark, to confirm that Harry is doing a good job and that the clean, dry air of the high desert of New Mexico is a great place to store an old airplane.
The article wouldn’t be complete without a short piece on the first post-war Constellations ordered by the USAF. A contract for ten aircraft, designated C-121A’s and assigned serial numbers 48-608 to 48-617, was awarded to Lockheed Aircraft in 1948. All were converted to VIP transports early in their careers with 48-608 converted prior to delivery, as the only VC-121B. This was done in anticipation of Thomas Dewey winning the 1948 presidential election and the aircraft was named “Dewdrop”. Best of plans had to be laid aside when Harry Truman unexpectedly won the election and he chose a VC-118, which he named Independence, as his presidential aircraft. The remaining nine aircraft were converted to VC-121A’s by Lockheed in 1950 and differed from the sole VC-121B in that they each had a rear cargo door. These aircraft comprise a large percentage of the surviving short-bodied Constellations and, until January 2002, seven of the ten were extant.
I would like to thank Harry Oliver and Doug Moore for the considerable time they spent showing me the aircraft and allowing me access to the aircraft’s records. Without their enthusiastic cooperation, this article would not have been possible.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Günter Grondstein, Mel Christler, Harry Oliver, Bob Shane, Graham Robson, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 5 February 2004------Updated 10 March 2004----