by Mike Léveillard

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A few Connie Stories

Pilot qualification on the Connie.

I had always admired the "Languedoc" a French built four engines transport with a tailwheel, and jokingly I used to mentioned to the Captains I flew with, that the Connie would make a beautiful airplane if it was a tail dragger.

One day I saw one…

During loading and unloading of the Constellations freighters, certain precautions had to be taken to prevent the airplane from tipping down on its tail.

Once in a while, those precautions were ignored, and the good old Connie would indeed be transformed into a tail dragger.

It happened to our crew one day in New Orleans.


We were at operations planning our next flight segment to Houston when one of the ramp servicemen came in and told the Captain: « Your airplane is sitting on its tail!  ».

We went outside to take a look, and sure enough « our » Connie now looked like I had always imagined it would with a tail wheel.

The captain barely mentioned: « Finally Mike, Lockheed took your advice! »

What a pity I did not have a camera with me that day!

A Connie "Tail dragger"?

Annonces aux passagers.

Another way to enter the Connie

For the Second Officer's pre-flight inspection, he had to climb atop the wings to verify the proper quantity of each fuel tanks, the oil level of each engine, and while he was « up there » he would check the general condition of the airplane from this vantage point.

To climb on top of the wings, a special ladder was provided, equipped with a chain to secure it to the airplane.

Sometimes, the Second Officer would forget to secure the ladder, and a wind gust, or the propeller blast from another airplane departing the parking would blow it away. When this happened, unless that someone on the ground had observed this incident and helped the second officer back on the ground, the poor guy only had one resource: open one of the emergency exit over the wing and re-enter the airplane through the passengers' cabin.

On the shuttle flights, there were times when things happened very fast and close to departure time, such as the preflight inspection being conducted as the passengers were in the process of boarding.

Imagine if you will, the look on the passengers' faces seeing the emergency exit opening from the outside, and an embarrassed crewmember walking in with his toolkit!


I also remember how dangerous the wings of the Constellation could be for the Second Officers. On the L-1049 model, access to the oil reservoirs was somewhat scary. Those reservoirs were located in the engine nacelles, away from the wing, not a pleasant experience if one suffered from vertigo!   

On the models C and G it was easier to check the engine oil, but still dangerous. The wings were extremely slick when it rained, and especially so during the winter after the airplane surfaces had been de-iced with glycol.

A couple of our Second Officers had slipped, and got hurt falling on the tamarack.

On the shuttle flights, many of our passengers were commuters, and regular customers of Eastern Airlines. They knew several of our crew members who also only flew this type of trips, and some of the passengers even knew them by their first name.

Passenger announcements on the shuttle were usually kept to a minimum; weather at destination, estimated time of arrival, possible delays, etc.

One of our Captains however sometimes made announcements that would startled some of the passengers, if they did not know this character. Here is a sample:

« Hello folks, I have some good news. This old bucket of nuts and bolts got us airborne safely, all four engines are still running, and with God's help, and a lots of tailwind we may even make it to New York without any problems!  ».


We also had some Flight Attendants with a strange sense of humour. One of them also had her routine announcement if one of us had the misfortune to make a hard landing:

« Ladies and Gentlemen, Captain Crunch would like for you to know that we have just landed at New York La Guardia and that Lockheed build some very strong airplanes. The local time in New York is…Heck, I can't tell, both needles of my watch are pointing to six o'clock!  ». Of course this type of pleasantries were neither endorsed, nor appreciated by Eastern's management.


© Mike Léveillard, Aerostories, 2001.

"Who made that landing?" The effects of a rough landing had some very unexpected results.


(Document presented to Mike Léveillard by his cockpit team mates, on several occasions during his career with Eastern Airlines.)

Click!

To avoid transforming the Connie freighters into "tail draggers"; some Airline Companies attached the airplane's nose gear to a large concrete block during loading and unloading.

Click!   Arco document.

The gauges on the instrument panel were nice, but even on the "Superconstellation" the old fashion way of checking the fuel quantity with the "dipstick" was a good policy.


Click!    Arco document.

"Just think they pay us to do that!" Flying the Connie was a real joy for many pilots, as can be seen by these smiling crewmembers.

Click!  Mike Léveillard document

"The Connie sure is a lot bigger than my Spad was". That's perhaps what Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was thinking. The World War One ace was the original "big boss" at Eastern Airlines.

Click!  Mike Léveillard collection.

Eastern Airlines Constellation "nose decorations" in the fifties

Click!   Eastern Airlines document.

Did you know that the Constellations were equipped with knotted ropes? What were they used for? For the passengers and crew to exit the airplane, in case they would had to land on a field not equipped with adaptable stairs, or in case of an emergency! Imagine if you will some Lady attempting to exit the "long legged" Connie and returning to "terra firma" via this emergency mean of exit... The rope installed on the Constellation of the French Flight Test Center, was often used, not only to exit the airplane, but also to climb in !!

Along with a dozen or so of my fellow Constellation copilots « in the making », we arrived at the Eastern Airlines training center in Miami Florida, where for nearly a month, we would learn about the airplane and its systems, which truly deserved their reputation of being  « electrical and hydraulic nightmares ».

There was no simulator for the Constellation, so training took place directly on the airplane at the conclusion of ground school. All went well, the airplane possessed excellent flying qualities, much lighter on the controls than the DC-7B or the Convair 440 due to the hydraulic control boosts. During flight training however, Captains and First Officers had to demonstrate their ability to control the airplane with the simulated failure of both critical engines (number 1 and 2), and with the control hydraulic boosts disengaged. At the conclusion of flight training, all of us felt that our right leg had grown longer from pushing on the right rudder to keep the airplane flying straight. We had also developed arm muscles we didn't know we had!


Finally, the day of the check ride came. It began with an oral examination by one of our Check Captain for the First Officers and by the FAA for the Captains. It consisted of questions about the airplane's limitations, all the systems and of course the emergency procedures.


One of the FAA's typical intelligent questions was: «What is the total number of spark plugs on this airplane?»

Simple enough: 2 per cylinders X 18 cylinders per engine X 4 engines = 144 spark plugs.

When asked by the FAA how the hydraulic system functioned, one of our comic Captains answered: « It works great, we never have any problems with this system ». He tried this funny routine while taking check rides on other airplanes, until one of the Fed asked him: « That's great Captain. Now then, tell me; how do you spell pink slip!  ».


Following the oral examination, the examiner took us around the airplane for the « walk around inspection ». Of course, we had to identify every access doors, drains, etc. and here again the FAA had some choice questions such as: « Where is the drain for the toilets located?» With such knowledge firmly implanted in our memory bank, our passengers certainly had nothing to fear!

The next step was the long awaited airplane check ride, having to perform all the required maneuvers that we had learned during training. Quite frankly, it was a letdown, because during training Eastern Airlines had given us so much more than required that it made the check ride seem easy.

So, with our brand new Constellation qualification in our records, we all returned to our respective bases to impress the Captains with our « great flying skill? ». Thanks God they were a patient bunches!

version française