Save-A-Connie Super Constellation Flight

SAVE-A-CONNIE Celebrates TWA's 75th Anniversary

June 2000

by Michael S. Prophet

N6937C at JFK Intl Airport-June 2000

Kansas City Downtown Airport (MKC) is home to probably the world's finest Lockheed Super Constellation. She routinely displays her elegant lines before awed and excited audiences at various airshows across the mid and eastern United States. Restoration of this proud airliner from a desert graveyard in Arizona required an almost Herculean effort. Since her first airshow debut, she has become a featured attraction capturing the imagination of the public across the USA. During the fifties and sixties MKC was home to many Constellations, as it was TWA’s main base and technical facility. The bulk of its Constellation fleet came in for inspections and overhaul. The first ever Constellation to visit Kansas City was TWA NC86500 “Star of the Mediterranean” a L-049 model, which landed on the 15th of November 1945. Barely three month’s later on the 5th of February 1946, TWA inaugurated it’s international services from Washington, DC to Paris via New York, Gander and Shannon. Piloted by Captain Hal Blackburn, copilots Jack Hermann, John Calder and flight engineer Art Ruhanen, the L-049 NC86511 “Star of Paris” departed La Guardia Airport for a 19 hour and 46 minute flight. For almost 22 years the Connie served as the backbone of TWA’s long haul aircraft fleet. A grand total of 156 Connies were used, making TWA the largest civil user ever! TWA's last passenger flight took place on the 6th of April 1967, when Flight 249, a L-749A model registered N6020C left JFK bound for St-Louis and Kansas City. That same year TWA closed the book on the Connie when, on May 11th, Starliner “Star of the Tagus”, a converted cargo model, made it’s last flight from Newark to Kansas City. From then on TWA became a domestic and international ‘all jet' airline! Now 33 years later, TWA is celebrating its 75th birthday and the Lockheed Constellation would return to JFK International Airport and take part in the lavish four day static display planned at TWA's famous ‘fishbowl’ terminal building.

As a dedicated ‘propliner’ photographer, I have been traveling the globe in search of working vintage transports and restored airliners. I have always been fascinated by the Constellation's distinctive and graceful design and it has been one of my personal goals to photograph all the flyable Constellations that still exist today. I had not been to Kansas City before and this year I decided to make travel arrangements and I signed up as a full Save-A-Connie member. SAC, Inc was first organized in 1986 as a non-profit making organization and during all these years I have been watching their progress. They have come a long way and during March of this year the SAC board members voted on a new name for its museum, as this would better reflect the mission and goals of the organization. The new name ‘Airline History Museum’ at Kansas City (AHM) was promptly adopted. Save-A-Connie (SAC) would still be used as a parent trade name. At the moment the SAC fleet consists of three classic prop driven commercial airliners. The flagship is the pristine Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation N6937C (c/n 4830). Upon completion of her restoration she was christened ‘Star of America’ but the crew refers to her as ’37 Charlie’ She has recently been repainted in full TWA colors, representing a L-1049G ‘Super G’ model, courtesy of Trans World Airlines. The ‘Super G’, essentially an improved L-1049E, was Lockheed's most successful model and was first flown in December 1954.

The Second aircraft is a rare Martin 404 registered N145S (c/n14142). Named “Skyliner Kansas City” this particular aircraft never flew with TWA but instead was delivered to Eastern Airlines in February 1952. She joined the SAC fleet during 1993 after a ferry flight from Fort Lauderdale where she had been a ramp queen for many years. Currently N145S has been temporary grounded due to major engine inspections and the incorporation of several AD notes on her engine mounts. SAC has an additional Martin 404 registered N472M, which is parked at Douglas, California and has been used as a source of spare parts for N145S. During spring this year, a SAC recovery team visited Douglas Airfield and robbed most of her essential parts. The Martin's destiny will soon become clear, when National Aircraft of Tucson will chop her up and haul the parts to their smelters.

Smallest of the fleet is a passenger model Douglas DC-3 registered N1945 (s/n 3294) also affectionately know as “old 386”. This aircraft is the latest restoration project and is a rare DC-3 transport. She is only one of a few existing DC-3’s with a 24-passenger/8-window configuration, as to the standard 21-passenger/7-window layout. She was build by the Santa Monica plant, Calif. and was delivered to Trans Continental and Western Airlines, the forerunner of TWA, during March 1941! She flew with TWA as ‘ship 386’ from 1941 to 1952 and several SAC pilots have actually flown this aircraft while in service with TWA. SAC expects to have the DC-3 finished within the next two years and they plan to keep her flying. Further news was announced when AHM/SAC president Foe Geldersma stated that the organization and its museum would move to a new location at the end of this year. Hangar 9 at the southwest corner of the Kansas City Downtown Airport would be SAC's new home. All three aircraft including the museum and coffee shop would fit inside the hangar. This would make life much easier for the mechanics and ground crew during the cold Kansas City winters. During the 60’s numerous Constellations operated by TWA and Slick Airways were parked inside this hangar.

Sunday June 11th, the day of my departure, arrived and it was time to pack my bags and head out for the United States. After a relaxed transatlantic flight onboard Continental DC-10 tri jet, I arrived at Newark International Airport on schedule. Anticipating a straightforward and smooth layover I awaited my boarding queue at the gate. During the course of my lengthy wait the weather had deteriorated from a sticky afternoon sun, to torrential rains and multiple lightning strikes. As our flight attendant was about to close the forward door on our Boeing 737 the captain made an announcement over the PA system and told us that we could leave the aircraft for some refreshments at the gate. ATC had just advised us that Newark had temporarily shut down operation. As many as 25 jetliners where on the ground waiting to take off and it would be a while before our turn would arrive. We did manage to take off 3.5 hours later and my arrival at Kansas City airport rescheduled for the middle of the night. There was no point in booking a room as daybreak was fast approaching so I decided to remain at the airport and make an early morning start.

At around 8:00am I phoned SAC president Foe Geldersma and he kindly picked me up and offered a tired ‘Propliner’ reporter breakfast and a room the following night at his house. Foe has been acting president for almost four years and also flies the Connie as a flight engineer. He's had a seasoned flying career which began in 1951 whilst in the US Air Force working as an aircraft mechanic. During 1957 he joined TWA as a flight engineer flying on the Constellation. He stayed with TWA for 33 years logging about 20,000 hours on B707, 757,767, DC-9, MD-80 and L-1011 Tristars. The last 23 years of his career, as a Captain in command. He retired in 1990. After a light breakfast it was off to the airport for a status check on the Connie. The upcoming flight to JFK International Airport and the onwards flight to the Glenn Falls Airshow, upstate New York, resolved in a thorough preflight inspection. The final loading of all the related SAC sales items needed to be accomplished and double-checked! While a last minute wheel change had to be dealt with, the Connie also needed to be refueled. She had to be ready for a 6:00am departure the following day. Amid all this frantic activity I toured the SAC facility and the adjacent oil spilled ramp. For the real Constellation enthusiast the SAC museum is surely a must. A large collection of photographs, artifacts, printed material, and video material are on display. A full size ‘cut away’ Wright R3350 engine, a vintage cabin galley, cockpit dials, gauges, logbooks, uniforms and much more. All this will take you back and relive the golden years of propeller-driven aircraft!

Inside the office I was introduced to SAC Vice President Joe Orr. I had spoken to him a couple of times over the phone earlier this year. He was extremely helpful in planning my trip to Kansas City. Joe is a veteran TWA pilot and currently flies as captain on the Connie. His career began in 1949 when, as a young boy of 16, he started taking flying lessons. He did some cropdusting work when in 1955 he was hired by TWA as a copilot on Martin 202/404’s and Constellation. He later became relief pilot on international routes flying Convair 880’s. During 1964 he moved over to the Captain position on Constellations and progressed to the whole range of TWA jetliners. He ended his career as captain on the Boeing 747 with a total of 24,500 flying hours, 5,700 of them in Connies!

Out on the ramp ’37 Charlie’ was receiving all the attention while the dormant Martin sat silently under the Connie’s massive tripletail. I checked out the Connie’s pristine flight deck and met up with Chris Clark, one of the SAC board members, and a copilot on the Connie. He would take up the copilot position for the JFK flight. His flying career was quite remarkable; as we got talking he revealed that he started just before WW2 as flight instructor/trainer. At the end of the war he signed up with TWA to fly Douglas C-54/DC-4 Skymaster’s on military transatlantic flights. After the war he was transferred to TWA’s domestic services flying DC-3’s and DC-4’s. During the fifties he flew all the Constellations models, including the Starliner and has logged about 10,000 hours in them. From the early sixties he moved over to the jets and finally retired as B747 captain with a total of 30,000 hours. Most of the SAC members have a rich aviation background with many of them retired TWA skippers.

The following morning I awoke at 5:00am. Foe and his wife Jutta were already up and making coffee, which I really needed. Prior to leaving the house we loaded the truck with the onboard catering....a first class brunch service consisting of fruit, sodas, crisps, ham and cheese sandwiches and plenty ‘all American’ home-made muffins. It was 5:36am when we arrived at the plane and we quickly loaded up our bags. This flight had a full complement of SAC members onboard, mainly due by the historic nature of the event. Captain Joe Orr, copilot Chris Clark, flight engineer Foe Geldersma and second flight engineer Dick Gooch immediately headed forward and settled in for their lengthy ‘before take-off’ checklist. Also onboard, was SAC former President Dick McMahon promoting the Airline History Museum. The crew wasted no time on the ramp in view of the indicated noon arrival at JFK Airport, just before their busy afternoon rush hour. Once the Connie had landed she was going to be towed inside TWA's Hanger 12 for a complete washdown. Then ’37 Charlie’ would be parked in front of TWA's antiquated terminal in preparation of its official display.

The right forward door was left open for the benefit of the Propliner Magazine photographer. Initially each engine is turned nine blades to check that there is no hydraulic lock in the lower cylinders from oil bypassing the piston rings. The crew takes great care with these engines because the R3350 Turbo Compound engine can reduce it self to expensive junk in a matter of seconds. Engine number 4 was started first and then subsequently number 3 fired up. Below me the huge Hamilton Standard propeller blades started turning and none too soon the massive Curtiss Wright R-3350 engine roared into action, creating a huge cloud of smoke behind her slender wing. As the engines came alive the whole fuselage began vibrating to the rhythmic beat of the pounding pistons. The forward door was closed and we slowly taxied to runway 19 for our run-up.

Inside the cabin the crew prepared for take off. I buckled myself in the seat adjacent to the most forward right hand window. After completion of all the necessary run-ups and the ‘before take-off’ checklist, we rolled onto the active runway and initiated our run. At 104 knots we lifted off the runway as I closely watched the spectacular flames emanating from the ‘power recovery turbine’ exhaust! With the engines set at 2,900 rpm and 51 inches of manifold pressure, we established a positive rate of climb. As I watched this spectacular sight I saw the Missouri River slide underneath the Connie’s massive wings. We had departed to the South and made a gentle left turn towards the west. With the landing gear safely tucked in, the crew made its first power reduction, to 2,600 rpm and 44 inches manifold pressure METO (maximum except take-off). After passing a 140 knots the fowler flaps were retracted and a further power reduction was made. It took us about 40 minutes to reach our cruising altitude of 7,000 feet. Captain Joe Orr selected the power levers once more and set them to 2,000 rpm and 36 inches manifold pressure which gave us a comfortable 190 knots indicated cruising speed (230 knots groundspeed). To help keep track of all 36 spark plugs and 18 ignition coils per engine, flight engineer Foe regularly kept monitoring the cathode ray tube ignition analyzer located on the left of his console. With this analyzer a particular cylinder or cylinders problem can be observed and taken care of before any major malfunctioning occurs.

Following all the excitement during the take-off and climb the crew relaxed, I made my way into the cockpit. Our routing took us over the town of Evansville, Kentucky, Johnstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania and a southerly approach into Kennedy Airport. As I listened in over the ATC, I noticed that some local controllers were not familiar with the aircraft type and copilot Chris Clark repeatedly called back to clarify, aircraft type is a Lockheed Constellation. As we cruised along in all the comforts of which ’37 Charlie’ had to offer, I was introduced to a former TWA air hostess Billie Elliot. She is a dedicated SAC member and is also a member of the TWA ‘Clipped Wings International’, which was founded in October 1941. Clipped Wings was formed by several former TWA air hostesses who decided to keep in contact with each other after their flying career. Clipped Wings is a place where they can share memories, adventures and friends and periodically they work to support and promote TWA. A huge collection of vintage uniforms have been collected and are worn at ‘uniform’ fashion shows for both TWA and private organizations. Three of Billie’s hostess colleagues would assemble at JFK to set the nostalgic mood of the event.

As our brunch was being served I had a closer look at the Connie’s interior. As in accordance with the ‘Super G’ Constellations, this aircraft was painstakingly restored to match the old spacious cabin interior. It includes full size galley, two original sleeper berths, and a first class section with original decorations. The first class section in equipped with full size seats, large tables and an original hand painted ceiling murals. Four hours into the flight the weather changed noticeably and the sun gave way to a murky Grey skies and this would stay until JFK. A last minute course change saw us flying south of Newark inbound for JKF runway 13R. Unfortunately there was nothing to see when we started our descent but soon enough the suburban sprawl became visible when we emerged through the clouds. Captain Joe Orr came over the PA system and advised the cabin crew of our imminent landing. I seated myself in the first class lounge, just behind the wing and simply enjoyed the glorious moment. Our last moments in the air ended with a firm bump and a short burst of reverse propellers. As we slowed down to an acceptable taxi speed we vacated the runway and backtracked to TWA Hanger 12. As we taxied closer to the main hanger bay doors, a exciting crowd of mechanics and office staff gathered to catch the sight and sound of ’37 Charlie’ anonymous arrival. Immediately after the props stopped turning the Connie was swarmed by enthusiast TWA personnel all waiting to catch a glimpse of this all time great passenger airliner. After all, it’s not everyday you run into a Lockheed Constellation at John F Kennedy International Airport. Within 15 minutes a tow truck arrived and towed her inside for a meticulous wasdown, courtesy of TWA. Inside she was flanked by two of TWA main jetliner types a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 and a Boeing 767. Two hours later she re-appeared outside, all ‘spic and span’ and ready for the long tow towards TWA's famous landmark terminal building known as the ‘Fishbowl’. This building which was designed by Eero Saarinen, and was first opened to the public on May 28, 1962. Of all the terminals at Idlewild International Airport (now JKF) TWA’s new flight center was the most honored, winning scores of awards for its futuristic design. To the employees and the travelling public it was first known as ‘the living sculpture’.

Numerous airport workers stopped in their tracks and curiously watched as this elegant and distinctively styled ‘triple fin’ airliner passed by. During her heyday she was a familiar sight at Idlewild Airport She was the master of the trans-oceanic flights, giving her passengers the best in comfort and speed. Nearly all the major airline companies operated the type and she soon earned the title ‘Queen of the Skies’. N6973C arrived at the terminal where she was assigned to Gate 36 in full view of passengers inside the terminal and those airport workers lucky enough to be working that day. During the four days of festivities, this grand old lady was given the'royal treatment' she so richly deserved.

I would like to thank AHM Foe Geldersma and Joe Orr for their kind assistance and help in making this ‘once in a lifetime trip’ possible!

Michael S. Prophet
June 2000

Photo Credits: Michael S. Prophet, J. Roger Bentley, RM Pettersen

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