Connie stories.

My first flights as Constellation First Officer in 1965 were on the Washington - New York, and New York - Boston shuttle. One month of flying assignment, consisting of two round trips a day, four days a week and in general with the same Captain and Second Officer.

My first Captain on the Connie was one of Eastern Airlines' most senior, an "old timer" with the reputation of being a super sharp, and smooth pilot, who had flown all the older models of the Constellation, with no desire of upgrading to the jets.

Before our first flight, I introduced myself, and told him that I had just completed training on the Connie, and that I was willing and anxious to learn as much as possible about the airplane. "OK Mike!" he said, if you want to this month, do as much flying, and make as many takeoffs and landings as you like, I will work the radio, and I will try to be a good copilot for you. Whoa, what a prince he was, and I was fortunate during my entire copilot's career to be associated with great Captains like him.

Therefore, my first month of flying on the Constellation gave me a lot of confidence in a variety of situations; cross wind takeoffs and landings, landings on short runways, thunderstorms circumnavigation while maintaining the precise navigation required in the Northeast corridor of the US. I was becoming fairly proficient with the airplane, despite some of my landings that seemed to be an effort on my part to shorten the landing gear! One day, Robert Kennedy the President's brother was one of our passenger, and after one of my "spectacular" landing in New York La Guardia, he stopped by the cockpit to say hello, and with his usual smile his only comments were: "that's OK gentlemen, the takeoff was great!" In other words, it was a great flight except for the last few feet.

During this first month of flying on the Constellation, the Second Officer assigned to our trips was also a Frenchman (there were four of us at this time flying for Eastern Airlines), so with our gentleman Captain's permission, we sometimes spoke French during flight, and at the end of the month, we even had our good "old boy" Captain speaking some French.

I have always felt great respect for all our Second Officers, especially on the Constellation. They were also pilots, dedicated to their profession, but very seldom receiving any accolades, waiting for their seniority number to come up for a First Officer position, and eventually to the coveted left seat as a Captain.

Personally, I came with Eastern Airlines a time of great demand for copilots, so my career, as a Second Officer on the Constellation was very short. I had been hired at the right time.

In the early sixties, I must admit that our Connies were beginning to show some signs of fatigue and old age. The legendary "elegance in flight" of those great airplanes was replaced with their sad appearance of "parking residents", with feathered propellers, opened cowlings, oil leaks, and surrounded by mechanics trying to perform small miracles to keep them airworthy.

Some of our trips had become far from being routine, especially for the Second officers. Even when things were normal, our flights, which averaged one and a half-hour, kept our third crewmember very busy. With the additions of a few problems to his normal duties, our poor comrade was more like the proverbial "one arm paper hanger".

Many of our Second officers on the Connie had distinguished themselves with their coolness during some emergency situations; double engine fires, lost of all electrical systems, hydraulic system failure, pressurization problems, etc.

Engines start on the Connie also required some finesse in technique. One had to be very coordinated with the left-hand fingers to properly manipulate the starter, the booster coil, and the primer. Once the engine was started and running on the primer, the mixture control was positioned to rich with the right hand. Occasionally, a starting procedure not performed exactly right would produce a magnificent spectacle of "light and sound"; an enormous BANG, with flames coming out of the exhaust pipes. I remember illuminating the parking in front of the La Guardia terminal one night during one of my few Second Officer trips. "Scuze me captain, no one has ever accused me of being a sharp engineer!"

In 1965, one of our Connie and a TWA jet collided over New York State. Most of the Connie's tail section was severed during the collision, resulting in the lost of elevators and rudder control. In addition, the lost of hydraulic fluid also caused the lost of ailerons control. If it had not been for the ingenuity of the crew in improvising a mean of controlling the airplane, it is safe to say that all souls on board would have perished. By using differential engine power, the Captain was able to restore directional control somewhat, and by varying the power on all the engines simultaneously, a small amount of pitch control was regained. After a wild ride on the way down, the airplane was crashed landed into an open field. The Captain and crew safely evacuated the airplane after insuring that all the passengers were out of the airplane. However, a young sailor was reported to be still inside the wreckage, so the captain went back in what was left of the burning airplane in an attempt to save him, but the oxygen bottles exploded while they were still inside. According to other passengers who had attempted to free the sailor from his seat, he had appeared to be paralyzed by fear, and they could not release his seat belt. Therefore, the poor sailor had died; victim of his panic, and the Captain had died a victim of his courage.

To return to the role played by the Second officer during this tragedy, I can well imagine him, a pilot with lots of experience, unable to help the other two crewmembers in controlling the airplane. He did however perform all his duties with coolness, regardless of the situation, which must have appeared desperate.

During one of the strike at Eastern Airlines, I had the occasion of flying an L-1649 Super Constellation for a private Florida Company. It was the last transatlantic model; it looked huge, and more beautiful than any other Connie model. Having flown the L-1649 for only 10 or so hours, I do not feel qualified to speak intelligently about the airplane, but I recall that in the passengers' cabin, there were a commemorative plaque stating that this particular airplane had been built especially to fly non stop from Los Angeles to Rome Italy over the polar route. I also remember that the total capacity of the fuel tanks was nearly 10,000 gallons.

In 1966, the last of all the Constellation used by the major US Airlines left for its final voyage. It was one of Eastern Airlines' Connie.

Now, in the entire world, there are only very few flying Constellations, this magnificent transport airplane is gone but not forgotten.

© Michel Léveillard, Aerostories, 2000.

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My Eastern Airlines team mates, the day of our qualification on the Constellation.

(I took the picture).

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

The Lockheed Constellation, the world's best Trimotor?

Note the missing number 4 engine. For anyone doubting the engine out performance of the Connie this picture says it all.

After physically losing part the engine on takeoff for a transatlantic flight out of New York, it was decided to ferry the airplane to the Lockheed factory in Burbank California. What was left of the engine was removed, the hole in the wing was covered with sheet metal, and the airplane was flown across the US, deserving its reputation of being the world's best Trimotor!

One of Eastern Airlines Connie freighter.

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

In flight on a Connie trip. I am on the right flying copilot for a great Captain. If we seemed relaxed and happy, that's because we cannot believe that we are getting paid to fly this beautiful airplane!

Click!    Collection Mike Leveillard

Constellation cockpit. Basic, rugged, and quite simple since all the engine and system controls are located on the Second Officer's panel. No electronic gadgets yet, in 1965 we were still a long way from flying with computers!

Click!    Lockheed photo.

Very few Connies are still in existence, and even fewer in flying conditions. This is a picture of a MATS (Military Air Transports Service) beautifully restored.

Click!    Document IGL

Artist rendering of the mid air collision of an Eastern Airlines Constellation with a TWA jet on December 4 1965.

Click!    Reader's Digest May 1967 edition

version française

by Mike Léveillard

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