by Mike Léveillard

[home]  [synopsis]  [preceeding synopsis]  [forums]  [modelstories]  [library]  [links]

At Eastern Airlines, the Constellation trips were mostly shuttle flights, and a few freighter flights out of the New York base. The shuttle flights between Washington DC, New York, and Boston were not very exciting, but it was the perfect opportunity for the new junior copilots to learn a lot about airline flying in a short time. It was also a chance to fly this magnificent airplane that contributed so much to the history of air transportation, and it made those less desirable trips worthwhile.

Navigation in the Northeast corridor of the United States required a lot of concentration. In the summer there were many thunderstorms to circumnavigate, and during the winter, the altitudes at which we operated the Connie were ideal for icing, requiring constant vigilance for the application of engine anti-icing, and wings and propellers de-icing. With the heavy traffic in this corridor, it was seldom possible to request a different altitude, but the Constellation ice protection systems were so efficient that it never presented any major problems.

The instruments, the radios, and the radar were far from being « High tech », and when compared to the other propeller airplanes in our fleet (DC-7B and Convair 440), the instrumentation even seemed antiquated, but after all, in the mid sixties the Constellation was already an antique airplane.

Let's go for a short flight on the Constellation.

Welcome aboard.

The crew was required to arrive at operations a minimum of one hour before schedule departure time. After checking the weather, the Captain would fill out the flight plan, and determine the fuel quantity required for the flight. For a couple of our Captains, it was an easy task: «Fill her up, the only time that we don't need so much fuel is when we are on fire!  »

After being informed of the required fuel quantity by the Captain, the Second officer would proceed to the airplane for the pre-flight inspection.

During this preflight inspection it was not unusual to see the Second Officer wearing his raincoat while walking around the airplane to prevent his uniform from being stained by engine oil, or by hydraulic fluid from the systems that had a tendency to leak here and there. During the winter, it also protected the poor guy from an occasional glycol shower during the de-icing of the aircraft.

At the arrival of the Captain and First Officer aboard the airplane, all three crewmembers would begin to ready the cockpit, which consisted of checking all the systems, and the reading a fairly long checklist.

At departure time, the « sound and sight » of the big radial engines coming alive was unique, sometimes accompanied by backfiring, smoke belching, and even some "engine torching", with flames coming out of the exhaust pipes if the Second Officer misused the primer. Then, the engines would settle down at idle, the proper operation of all the systems was checked, another checklist was read, and the flight was ready to get underway.

Taxiing the Constellation required some caution, especially during turns on some narrow taxiways where the propellers of engines number 1 or number 4 could have easily « modified » the taxiway lights.

Takeoff was easy…as long as all four engines functioned normally. It was somewhat noisy in the cockpit however, especially on the 1049 model with its short exhaust stacks.

With the lost of one engine on takeoff after passing the speed at which the takeoff must continue (V1), it was necessary as with all other airplanes to react quickly on the rudder to maintain the airplane aligned with the runway center line. In this condition, the automatic feathering system of the propeller on the failed engine would somewhat reduce the workload of the second officer.

After takeoff, the procedures called for a straight ahead climb, or for no more than 15 degrees bank angle until landing gear and flaps retraction was completed; except at some airports such as Washington national (now called Ronald Reagan Airport). A takeoff to the North out of Washington for example, required a fairly steep turn immediately upon reaching the Potomac River. This procedure was designed for noise abatement, and to avoid passing over the White House. Such takeoff performed anywhere else would have caused the Captain some grief if it had been observed by one of the Feds.

In cruise, the airplane was a dream to fly: stable, light on the controls, permitting to offer a super smooth flight for the passengers. However, in this « famous » Northeast corridor, many heading changes were required to stay on the airways that seemed to have been designed by people who forgot that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Many radio frequency changes were also necessary for air traffic communications, and navigation. There was never a dull moment! I wished then, that I could have entered airline flying in the days when the Connies were used on long range flights. I could easily imagine what it would have been like being an Air France or TWA pilot, crossing the Atlantic with this great airplane.

The descent required some planning to avoid reducing engine power to idle, which was not recommended. Therefore, RPMs, and manifold pressure had to be judiciously controlled to maintain a minimum BMEP (Brake Mean Effective Pressure) during the descent.

For the approach, maximum flaps and landing gear extension speeds had to be observed, the engine RPMs were increased to provide maximum power in case of a go around or missed approach, and a well stabilized approach was established.

Landings were easy, except for the author of this story whom once in a while would suffer the embarrassment of a less than smooth "arrival".

On short final with full landing flaps extended, the Connie had a definite "nose down" attitude, and before touchdown, a definite "flare out" was necessary to achieve the landing attitude and to prevent the long nose gear from touching the ground first.

During my short career as co-hero (First Officer) on the Constellation, I had the chance, and the honor to fly with some "old timers" who flew the airplane with grace, finesse, great precision, and who had a unique talent for constantly making beautiful landings.

© Mike Léveillard, Aerostories, 2001.

[ next ]

A typical flight

on the Connie

Eastern Airlines Constellation paints scheme in 1963.

Click!   Mike Léveillard collection.

The somewhat narrow cockpit of the Constellation. The Second Officer's station can be seen on the right.

Click!   Lockheed document.

New color scheme for Eastern's Connies in 1965. Even when sitting on the ground, what a beautiful airplane it was !

Click!             Mike Léveillard Collection

Approaching New York La Guardia airport. Manhattan is on the left.

Click!   Léveillard document.

Arrival of one of Eastern's "Great Silver Fleet" in Florida. Note the de-icing boots on the vertical and horizontal stabilizers.

Click!    Eastern Airlines document.

Connie being refueled on the crowded parking ramp at New York La Guardia airport. Extreme caution was required to taxi out.

Click!   Mike Léveillard collection.

On the ground, this small vehicle provided electrical power for the Connie, and it was also used to tow the airplane. Note the height of the landing gear.

Click!   Mike Léveillard document.

Captain Dick Merrill, one of Eastern Airlines' pioneer. He was a legend in his own time. This picture date from the late fifties, and if he looks like a movie actor it is no coincidence, his wife was a movie actress and Dick himself appeared in some movies.

Click!    Mike Leveillard collection.

version française