The so-called experts said it couldn't be done. "That old Connie parked at Sanford Airport will never fly again", they predicted. Good thing they didn't convince Maurice Roundy, the owner of the Connie, because on October 19, 2001 at 1:40pm EDT, he proved them all wrong! Accompanied by Kermit Weeks in a Beech Baron chase plane, N974R successfully made the 45-minute flight from Sanford, FL to Kermit's Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Florida. In command of the flight was Captain Frank Lang, of MATS Connie fame, assisted by Jane Theberge in the right seat and flight engineer Carlos Gomez. Also onboard were flight mechanics Maurice Roundy, Ben Dual and Paul Jenny.
I first met Maurice at his home in Auburn, Maine in January 1998 while interviewing him for an article I was preparing for Propliner Magazine. His home is located adjacent to the Auburn-Lewiston Airport and has two L1649A Starliner Constellations parked in the front yard. These aircraft, N7316C and N8083H, along with N974R represent three quarters of the remaining Starliner population. The fourth surviving aircraft, ZS-DVJ, is preserved at the South African Airways Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Maurice's three Starliners survived the mass scrappings of the late 1960's and, by 1974, were all stored in Alaska. In 1976 they were leased to a short-lived, but colorful, freight operator trading as Burns Aviation but only N7316C actually completed any flights before cessation of operations. By late 1976, N7316C had been abandoned at Stewart Airport, New York, N8083H was stored in Kenai, Alaska and N974R was stored in Fort Lauderdale.
After being parked for seven years, Maurice, with the help of master Constellation mechanic Ray Porter, restored N7316C to flying condition and she was flown to the Auburn-Lewiston Airport on November 9, 1983. In 1986 Maurice traveled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras and, again with the help of Ray Porter, restored N8083H to flightworthy condition. She was flown to Auburn-Lewiston via Fort Lauderdale and arrived on June 1, 1986. Captain Frank Lang also commanded both of these flights. While the two aircraft are still in reasonable condition, neither has flown since arriving at Auburn-Lewiston. Maurice's third Starliner, N974R had been parked at Sanford Airport since October 1988. It was delivered new to Lufthansa in December 1957 and was fitted with a 32-seat interior for first class service. In very short order, the jet age caught up to this fine aircraft and, in March 1966, it passed on to Air Venturers, a travel club. It was later leased to Trans Meridian Cargo for a short time and passed through a number of operators, including Burns Aviation, before being abandoned at Fort Lauderdale in 1976. Maurice bought the airplane in 1985 and a 2½-year project to restore her to flightworthy condition began.
How this airplane got to Sanford is a very interesting story. In August 1988, an attempt was made to ferry the airplane from Fort Lauderdale to Maine. A large oil leak in the #1 engine and a nose gear that refused to fully retract necessitated a diversion to West Palm Beach Airport. Repairs were made to the engine and nose gear and another attempt to reach Maine was made in September 1988. This time, she got about an hour north when escalating problems necessitated an emergency landing at Sanford. Problems included a runaway #1 prop, fuel pump failure on the #4 engine and a rough running #2 engine. Philip Kemp, who was co-pilot on the flight, tells the full story of this event in Propliner Issue #38.
After this 1988 flight, N974R sat parked at Sanford Airport for eleven years. The airport authorities were very unhappy about the presence of the aircraft and threatened to have it scrapped. In light of these threats, and a $200 per month parking bill, Maurice began the restoration effort in late 1999. He was well along when I visited him in June 2000 to gather information for an article about his project, which appeared in Propliner issue #83. Although it was going to be more difficult this time, because he didn't have Ray Porter to help him, Maurice was confident of a successful outcome. Ray had taught him well and by October 2001, the airplane was ready for a ferry flight to the Fantasy of Flight Museum.
I was vacationing in Flagstaff, Arizona the week of October 8th when I got an email from Maurice announcing the upcoming flight. High speed-taxi tests were scheduled for Thursday October 18th with the ferry flight on October 19th. I knew I needed to be there to witness this historic occasion and decided a roadtrip down Interstate 95 from Maryland was my best option since my Beech Debonair was still grounded as a result of the flight restrictions imposed after the September 11th attacks. After thirteen hours on the road I pulled into the Slumberland Motel in Sanford and was pleasantly surprised to see Maurice and Frank Lang relaxing outside Frank's room. A few minutes later, Jane Theberge, Maurice's wife, arrived and, after a few beers we headed off to dinner to discuss the events planned for the next two days.
Not everyone at the Sanford Airport disliked the old Starliner, and the local fixed based operator, StarPort, had allowed Maurice to park her on the far end of its ramp. Frank and I arrived at StarPort the next morning at 9:00am and preparation for the days taxi tests began. The aircraft was still loaded with tools, spare parts, a workbench and Maurice quickly recruited me to help him move them to an empty forty-foot van parked alongside. As additional spectators and enthusiasts arrived, they were recruited to join the effort and the group quickly blossomed to a dozen laborers. By 2:30pm, the airplane had been unloaded and the van was almost completely full. Frank, Maurice, Carlos and a small group of friends and enthusiasts boarded the airplane. The engines started with characteristic plumes of whitish-blue smoke and the old gal moved under her own power to the end of Stanford's 6,000 foot runway 36. Engine run-ups were performed and the high-speed taxi tests were completed without incident. The airplane returned to the StarPort ramp and Frank and Carlos declared her ready for flight. The event was celebrated that night over beers at one of Sanford's local drinking establishments.
Friday, October 19th dawned bright and sunny with a forecast of showers in the afternoon. The flight had originally been scheduled for 10:00am but Maurice had delayed this to 1:00pm to allow friends from South Africa, who were scheduled to arrive at Orlando at 11:00am, to witness the flight. Maurice and this group from the South African Airways Museum had helped each other with their respective Starliner projects over the years and friendship had developed. Unfortunately, they missed their connecting flight in Atlanta and were not able to arrive in time to witness the flight.
Kermit Weeks, owner of one of the world's premier aircraft collections, would be flying the Beech Baron chase plane for the ferry flight. Kermit had offered to allow Maurice to park the Starliner at his Fantasy of Flight Museum while continuing restoration. Kermit had spent most of the previous day at StarPort working out the logistics of the operation and overseeing the filming of the event. In recognition of his sponsorship of the flight, Maurice had offered him the right seat for the high-speed taxi tests on Thursday afternoon and on the flight the next day. While accepting the offer for the taxi tests, Kermit opted for piloting the chase plane instead on Friday. Prior to the flight, Frank accompanied Kermit to Polk City in the Baron to familiarize himself with the Fantasy of Flight grass airstrip. Particularly worrisome were the two sets of high-tension wires situated on short final and a relatively short 5,000 foot grass runway. Frank returned from his inspection and proclaimed that the museum's runway was adequate and would present no problems. At 1:15pm, the flight crew boarded the airplane, the engines were started one by one and shortly thereafter, all were running smoothly. A crowd of about 200 witnessed the grand old lady move away from the StarPort ramp and slowly taxi to the end of Sanford's 9,600 foot runway 09L. It seemed like the entire airport, including a number of taxiing airliners, were focused on this graceful old flying machine. At 1:40pm, N974R was cleared for takeoff and she turned onto the active runway and began her takeoff run. With the tower controller's farewell of "Godspeed Connie" she gained speed and lifted off after using only about 3,500 feet of runway. The sweet sound of the radial engines rewarded all of those in attendance that afternoon.
The distance from Sanford to the Fantasy of Flight Museum is about 55 miles and the flight was conducted at 1,500 feet with the gear extended. No use tempting fate by raising the gear for such a short flight! With Kermit and the Baron flying in loose formation, the flight followed Interstate 4 and was uneventful until it was time to lower the flaps for landing. Frank called to co-pilot Jane Theberge for approach flaps but the flap indicator showed no movement. It was quickly determined that the #2 hydraulic system had lost its hydraulic fluid due, most likely, to a burst line. It was obvious that the flaps were going to have to be lowered if they were to land on the museum's 5,000 foot grass runway. If they couldn't get the flaps down, they would have to divert to the nearby Lakeland Airport with its 8,500 foot hard surfaced runway.
As Frank turned the airplane towards Lakeland, flight mechanics Maurice, Ben and Paul frantically hammered at a stuck transfer valve, finally moving it to allow the transfer of hydraulic fluid from system #1 to #2. Carlos furiously pumped the wobble pump handle and succeeded in transferring enough fluid into system #2 thus allowing the flaps to be extended to the approach setting. By this time, they had almost reached Lakeland and Frank made the decision to return to the museum for landing. Due to the high-tension lines, the first approach was aborted and a go-around was initiated. Frank later told me that he noticed a number of truckers had pulled their trucks on to the shoulder of Interstate 4 to watch the show. On the second approach, Frank said they were lined up for a 1/2 mile in both directions! The second approach was successful with the airplane coming to a stop, with the aid of full reverse on all four engines, at about mid-field. Total flight time had been about 45 minutes. On board was a very happy and relieved Maurice Roundy. After working seven days a week for many months, from sunup to sundown, with many glitches and a second engine failure to contend with, Maurice had accomplished what most thought was his impossible dream! It was time for him to savor his remarkable achievement with Jane and his many supporters.
After witnessing the takeoff at Sanford I had driven to the museum and was very relieved to see the old girl parked safely on the ramp. There was a small celebration going on inside the museum's restaurant where congratulations abounded and beer and cheeseburgers were being enjoyed by all. A very disappointed South African contingent arrived late in the afternoon and Maurice started the engines one more time for their enjoyment before heading off to dinner and a good night's sleep.
What are Maurice's plans for N974R? He says he will continue the restoration, including installation of a new interior. From time to time, she will be taken out on the grass runway for taxiing. The Fantasy of Flight Museum is located off of exit 21 on Interstate 4 in Polk City, Florida. The admission fee is $25 but for $30 you can purchase a yearly pass. If you happen to drop by the museum on one of the days Maurice is exercising his Starliner, I'm sure he'll ask you to ride along.
I'd like to thank Maurice and Jane for their hospitality during my visit and for asking me to be part of this moment in history. Maurice can be contacted via his website at www.starliner.net.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Carl Kramer, Maurice Roundy, J. Roger Bentley, Ralph M. Pettersen
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----Created 8 February 2004------Updated 14 March 2004----