Flying the Connie

As all airplanes built by Lockheed, the Constellation was more advanced than the other transport airplanes of its era, and even perhaps somewhat "over designed". At Eastern Airlines, between 1963 and 1966, we had three different models of the "Connie"; the 1049, the 1049C, and the 1049G. I had the chance to fly those great airplanes for a little over 300 hours as a First officer (copilot), and less than fifty hours as a Second Officer (flight engineer), which is not much for a career of almost 27,000 hours, but flying the Connie was definitely a great experience.


The Connie's silhouette was extraordinary, absolutely beautiful to look at when we passed them in flight. As seen from above, the wing platform greatly resembled the P-38 "Lightning" after which it had been modeled. On the ground, the airplane stood very high on its landing gear, and required climbing many steps to access the cabin.


For the Second officer's preflight, checking the fuel tanks visually on the wings, and the oil quantity on the engine nacelles, it required someone who was not afraid of heights. The second officer was indeed a very important crewmember on the Constellation, he was in charge of all the systems, and all the engine controls, except for the throttles, and the magneto switches, which could also be controlled by the Captain or the First officer.

Engine start was accomplished by the Second Officer, and the only thing to do by the Captain was to turn the magneto switch on after the engine had been rotated with a count of six propeller blades as observed from the second officer's station.

During takeoff, and in flight, it was the Second officer who controlled engine power for the different flight regimes: climb, cruise, descent, approach and landing. This involved controlling the manifold pressure with the throttles, the RPMs with the propellers pitch, fuel mixture leaning, proper positioning of the cowl flaps, and spark advance. Additionally, the Second officer had to perform many other related duties, such as fuel management, air conditioning, pressurization, anti-icing and de-icing, etc. The Constellation even had an ignition analyzer, and a sharp Second Officer could even tell if any one of the 144 sparkplugs was not firing properly.


Taxiing appeared easy despite the size of the airplane, however for engine run up, or for stopping at the terminal, a special procedure was required due to a somewhat bizarre landing gear arrangement. It was equipped with a "walking beam", designed to smooth out the landings and it could cause the airplane to lurch forward, or backward if the power was not handled carefully. For engine run up, it was necessary to bring the airplane "on the step" with judicious application of power and braking.


The hydraulic systems of the Constellation were impressive, contained in several reservoirs, it was said that if all the hydraulic fluid was drained out, it would fill a 55-gallon drum!

With hydraulic control "boost", the Connie was easy to fly, "a real Cadillac". Without the boost however, it was like trying to handle a big truck without power steering, requiring a lots of muscles!


All the flight characteristics were good, even with two engines out on the same wing, it was still easy to control, but with greatly reduced performance of course. During training, we were required to perform a series of stalls in the different configurations of flaps and landing gear settings, and the airplane had mild stall characteristics with plenty of pre-stall aerodynamic buffeting.

Landings could be made on relatively short runways, and at the Washington National airport (now Ronald Reagan airport) we landed regularly on a 5,000 feet runway.


The models 1049 Cs and Gs were equipped with turbo compound engines, providing an additional 450 horsepower per engine. This was accomplished with the installation of three small turbines, called "Power Recovery Turbines" (PRTs), driven by the engine exhaust, and the resulting power hydraulically transmitted directly to the crankshaft. Those small turbines however had a tendency to give mechanical problems, they burned easily, necessitating stopping the engine and feathering the propeller.

Despite some small problems, the Constellation represented the high technology of the propeller driven airplanes.


Personally, as a pilot, I preferred the Constellation over the DC-7B and the Convair 440 on which I was also qualified as a First Officer, but the trips on the DC-7B and the Convair 440 were much more interesting, we flew everywhere in the Eastern part of the US, whereas the Connie was used mostly for the shuttle flights between Washington, New York, Boston, and a few cargo flights.


For the second officers, who were also qualified as pilots, flying the Constellation was not an easy job. Sitting sideways, there was not a lot to see outside, and frankly of all three crew members, it was the Second Officer who had the most work to accomplish, requiring more in depth knowledge of the airplane's systems. The Second Officers definitely earned their pay.


When Eastern Airlines retired the Constellations, several of our Captains also took their retirement a year or two before the mandatory age, rather than learn the new type of flying, and the new technology required to get rated on the jets.


After the Lockheed Constellation, my new "steed" was another Lockheed; the turbo-prop model L-188 Electra. Some years later, I qualified on the Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star, then the world second largest airplane after the Boeing 747, and shortly after that, I returned on the Electra for my first trip as a Captain, thus continuing my "love affairs" with the Lockheed airplanes.


Getting qualified on any Lockheed airplanes required longer ground schools, and more to learn than on any other transport category airplanes. This was especially true for the Constellation.


On our Constellations, as well as on the other propeller airplanes in our Eastern fleet, Captain Eddie Rickenbaker, the World War 1 ace of fame, and our boss, had been reluctant to install autopilots. He wanted for "his" pilots be the best in the industry, truly keeping their hand at flying airplanes, and frankly, I must admit that the "old timers" with whom I had been privileged to share the cockpit were "real" pilots, and no auto pilot "artists" as it became the case with the arrival of the jets.


© Michel Léveillard, Aérostories, 2000.


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by Mike Léveillard

An L-1049 at engine start. The model 1049 was somewhat noisy due to its short exhaust stacks.

Click!     Craig Simmons photo.

Thanks Craig for this nice shot!

Relative fragility of the Constellation's engines often produced this situation; engine stopped and propeller feathered. The "engine out" qualities of the Constellation permitted flying safely, even with two engines shut down on the same side, the performance however were greatly reduced.

We can however imagine the passengers' concern when looking at a stopped propeller!

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

Eastern Airlines' boss was Edward Rickenbaker (Captain Eddie) the famous World War 1 ace with 26 victories. He left Eastern Airlines in 1963.

Eastern Airlines ceased operations in 1991.

Click!    Photo on right: US. National Archives.

An Eastern Airlines' Constellation in flight. It would be difficult not to be touched by the lines of this graceful airplane.

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

The Second officer's control panel showing the multitude of engine controls.

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

The Constellation stood very high on its landing gear as if it was on stilts.

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

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