Every pilot out there is going to hate me for this, but I cannot help but tell this story. To brag. To flaunt my pleasure shamelessly. Please, cut me a little slack, for this has been one of the most wonderful achievements of my flying career. I cannot stop grinning, every time I think of it. A dream has come true, and I have touched and flown history.
Let it be hereby recorded that on August 8, 1999, Mrs. Deakin's little boy Johnny flew a Connie. The real, honest to goodness, king, queen and prince of the props, a Lockheed Constellation, and in command, at that.
About This Airplane
To be completely accurate, it's a Lockheed EC-121T "Warning Star," Bureau Number 53-0548. It bears its original USAF markings on an all-over gray paint job, a tiny FAA registration number of N548GF, and a Certificate of Airworthiness listing it in the Experimental Exhibition category. It lives at the Camarillo airport in Southern California. It bears with bemused dignity the huge belly radome that cannot quite completely ruin the magnificent lines of this most graceful bird, but never mind, you can't see that monstrous tumor from the cockpit. From the cockpit door ("Station 260") forward, it is a pure 1049G Super Constellation, with the very biggest Wright R-3350 Turbo Compound engines, and do they ever sing! It is the only one of its kind still flying in the world, and likely to remain so.
I had the incredible experience of being the PIC on the 3+05 test flight, without benefit of any training whatsoever, and without ever having flown one before. I cannot help but wonder if that makes me only the second person in history to fly a Connie "cold." The copilot was a private pilot (the owner) with about 100 hours in the bird over the past five years, and the FE was an FAA Maintenance Inspector, on his first "solo" flight as a newly rated Recip FE. All legal, too, with FAA waivers and everything. A bizarre situation, to say the least, but who says there's no adventure left in aviation!
The bird is interesting in its own right. Delivered to the USAF as an RC-121D in the Spring of 1955, it was modified to an EC-121T in 1970, then mothballed with four brand-new engines and props in 1978. There is some mystery about possible spooky activities in her final active days, and an unexplained 70 hours in the logs, but no one is talking. She ended up in cocoon storage at Davis-Monthan, and eventually would have been reduced to cotter keys but for the Pima Air & Space Museum, which purchased her along with several others in about 1981. In 1994 the present owner, Wayne Jones, purchased her, and created the "Global Aeronautical Foundation," a non-profit, tax-exempt foundation for the purpose of displaying her to the public as a flying museum. The ship still contains all the electronics gear, with all the crew stations for the long patrols, numerous radar scopes, and other mysterious stuff, which packs the cabin from one end to the other. The massive radar antenna is still in the huge radome, and turns with the touch of a finger.
Wayne takes it to the occasional airshow if offered enough fuel, and it's a fascinating tour, if you ever get a chance to go through it. Well worth the few bucks donation he asks to help pay for a little fuel. At 500 to 600 gallons per hour, the donations are needed!
How I Got Involved
The previous pilot, Frank Butorac, was a very old ex-Lockheed test pilot on Connies. But for some reason, he became angry last summer, and wrote several critical letters to the FAA, grounding the airplane. He died shortly thereafter, leaving the airplane without a crew, and leaving some recordkeeping issues. The FAA informed the owner that unless he got some professionally trained crews, and instituted professional recordkeeping and maintenance, the airplane would remain on the ground. While the airplane is still in magnificent shape, a few ADs and required maintenance had probably slipped by or had not been recorded properly.
Tery McMaster, the FAA maintenance Inspector (who is also a C-130 FE in the Guard) took the project under his wing, soon got hooked personally (a Connie will do that!) and began working on the airplane on his own time. He cleaned up the records and now has everything beautifully organized. All the ADs and bulletins are up-to-date, and he really put the airplane in tip-top shape over the past year, with a lot of volunteer help. Thanks Lord, for volunteers, for without them we'd never be able to fly these old birds. This one is a special challenge, due to the sheer size! It's a day's work just to service it, and when oil is added, it's by the barrel.
As the time approached for a test flight to return the aircraft to service, the FAA assigned a Flight Inspector from the Van Nuys FSDO named Gary Hunt to the project, and set up some requirements that had to be met. An early problem was that there is no way the FAA will consider it a Connie, it's an EC-121, for which there is no type rating at all. Therefore an L-1049 type rating will not suffice to fly it, and a Connie type rating cannot be acquired in it. That is ridiculous, pure bureaucratic BS, but even the good people in the FAA can't get past the paperwork on this one. It must be flown under an FAA Letter of Authorization (LOA). While there are a couple of current Connie pilots floating around, there were absolutely no EC-121 qualified people, since they're all long out of service, except this one. The next best choice was to find someone with recent big radial experience, used to a three-man cockpit, with recent CRM training, and someone the FAA would be willing to designate as an instructor and check pilot. Somehow, for reasons I still do not fully understand, and which I have absolutely no intention of questioning, my name seemed to sorta float to the top (Some would say "kinda like scum on the surface of the pilot pool," but they're just jealous!)
The basic proposition was for me to do the initial test flights under a temporary LOA, and check myself out in the bird. Once I'm comfortable, the FAA has indicated they will arrange for some sort of check ride, then issue me a permanent LOA, followed by a "Letter of Operational Authority" (LOOA), which will entitle me to issue LOAs to others on the beast. Since the standards are the same as a type rating, it's just "examiner" and "type rating" under other names, as far as I'm concerned. As soon as I'm comfortable doing so, I'll move to the right seat, and start the training process for at least two more captains, and several copilots. They won't have it as easy as I did, they'll have a fire-breathing monster in the right seat! But at least I can be tamed, bribed, and distracted with suitable quantities of chocolate-chip cookies and other goodies, applied frequently.
Once we get at least one legal crew up to speed, the airplane can once again attend airshows, go on tours, and do movie work. We're already talking about taking it to OSH next year. Lessee, that's only about 8,000 gallons of 100LL for the round trip. Man, I sure am glad I just fly it, and don't have to feed it!
An Offer I Couldn't Refuse
Now, if you find all this bizarre, just imagine how I felt! I made 'em repeat this proposition a couple of times to make sure I had it straight. Then I gulped once or twice, tried to keep a straight face and act nonchalant, and ever the fool, said, "Yeah, sure, I can do that!"
As a kid (well, I'm still a kid, but you know what I mean), I had watched and listened to these magnificent airplanes, and dreamed of the day I might fly one. Alas, the jets came along, blowing the prop airliners out of the air with their kerosene stink and their awful noise. The props never had a chance, for the jets are faster, safer, and more economical, but no jet will ever raise goose bumps like a big radial does when it coughs to life. To me, the Connie is still a flying wet dream.
The jets gave me new dreams to dream, and I've been lucky enough to have satisfied most of those, although I've not flown the F-104 (yet!) But even with all those years in jets, I never quite forgot the big radials and old airplanes, and especially the big bird with the banana fuselage, the long, spindly nose gear, and the tiny cockpit windows. I still remember that on every single Connie I've ever seen taking off, the landing gear will come up fairly evenly, but at the last second, the left main, always the left main, falls back down almost all the way, then it will slowly come back up again, and the doors will close. I have wondered for more than 40 years what quirk of the hydraulic system causes that, and I'm wondering still. Perhaps some reader can enlighten me? I see nothing in the systems that would cause that.
I had not even seen a Connie in more than 20 years, when I happened to become involved with the Southern California Wing of the Confederate Air Force at Camarillo a few years ago, and the C-46 based there. While flying that, I became aware that there were two flying Connies there, parked nose to nose on a remote corner of the airport. One is "The Camarillo Connie," a beautiful blue and white C-121 converted to a civilian configuration (and legal as a Connie, go figure!)
The other is locally referred to as "The Radar Connie." When I arrived at my first airshow with the C-46 (El Toro), I spotted "The Camarillo Connie" already there on display. In looking it over, I discovered it was being flown by my old friend Chuck Grant, with whom I had worked at Air America and Japan Airlines, where he had been one of my chiefs (one of the good ones). He gave me the tour, and I couldn't help caressing the airplane when no one was looking. But there seemed to be no opening for me.
Later that day, I was standing by the taxiway when it taxied by, with those four giant engines singing their siren song, and I am not ashamed to admit the tears were streaming down my face at the sight and sound. What a magnificent machine! I didn't mind at all getting spattered with a few drops of oil from the smoke it was still trailing after the start, as the wingtip passed over my head.
After that show, by prearrangement, we flew along in formation for a few minutes, both headed home for Camarillo, while some photographers on our C-46 shot up roll after roll of film. What a sight! That big, graceful, curving shape right there right in my window, filling it! So beautiful, with the gear tucked up!
But flying one still seemed a distant dream, for all the seats were taken until Wayne Jones and the FAA decided I could try this one on. I attended a meeting one day, and that afternoon it was somehow decided that I should get to taxi the airplane around a bit, and even accelerate to about 70 knots on the runway, then do a planned reject. They didn't have to ask me twice! We couldn't legally fly that day, but no one will ever know how tempted I was to just let it go! Everyone seemed to be pleased with how I'd handled those simple chores, and shortly thereafter I was notified that I was to be "The Man" for the initial flying, and that they hoped I'd do the instructing on it. I acted suitably reluctant and bashful, but had a hard time not slobbering all over the airplane, the people and the ramp.
Never fully believing it would really happen, I went into a frenzy of study. I talked to Connie pilots and crews, and I went through every manual I could find. I intended to know that airplane at least as well as that other fool who first flew it in 1943. Better, in fact, for at least I knew it would fly, and he didn't.
While the FAA seemed willing to stick any idiot into the captain's seat, they were (properly) adamant that the Flight Engineer (FE) seat be occupied by a real FE with the Recip rating, and who was current in recips, though not necessarily current in a Connie. Our FAA man did not have the recip rating, though he is an active FE in C-130s in the Guard, and knew this Connie rather intimately, having wrenched on it for over a year. Accordingly, he was sent off to Kansas City, where the fine folks who run another Connie ("Save-A-Connie") gave him some training, and the FAA checkride. Good move, the Connie is very much an FE's airplane. I've now proven that any hamburger can fly it, but operating that panel is "something else." Somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm thinking it would be "nice" to have the FE certificate, earned in the Connie.
A Few Little Glitches
On that fateful Sunday, all the players were in place and the airplane was ready, or so we thought. We took our places and began running the checklists, with me worried that at any minute the FAA would would show up and halt the show. Of course I wasn't really thinking of our very own FAA man, flying with us, trusting fool that he is, for he's as nuts as I am.
With the first engine start, the secondary hydraulic system quantity dropped to zero. Okay, no big surprise, fluid drains back into the reservoir while it's sitting, leaving the pipes empty. So we shut down and refilled, putting two gallons of red stuff in, and started up again. Oops, same thing, it needs even more. We shut down to do that, and someone found the left main strut spurting hydraulic fluid and foam, maybe a blown strut seal.
Oh, man! My heart sank, my dream of flying a Connie seeming to take wings without me, for a blown strut seal is a lot of work to repair, and we'd not fly that day.
But wait. Foam? Waitaminnit guys, we shouldn't see foam unless there isn't enough fluid in the strut in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, this is not a blown seal, and maybe it's an easy quick fix ("Not a chance," said the mean little devil on my left shoulder). Hoping, we let all the air out, and poured in four quarts (that's a lot for a strut!) of red 5606 hydraulic fluid, then refilled the strut with nitrogen, and there was only the tiniest seepage, good enough for flight. We figured some flexing would reseat the seals, and sure enough, it did. Those seals may get replaced, this winter.
Still fearful of seeing that FAA man running across the tarmac, waving his arms and screaming "Stop, Stop, it's all a mistake!" we went through the checklists, and fired the lady up for the third time that day. The hydraulic fluid level held solid and steady! Another obstacle falls.
But the little devil on my shoulder was merciless, whispering in my ear "Ha, you'll probably have a bad mag check, turkey." My heart was in my mouth, but all eight mags and all systems checked out flawlessly, and we were ready. The tower cleared us to taxi up the abandoned half of the runway to the threshold, and cleared us for takeoff on the remaining 6,000 feet.
With a final glance around looking for that FAA man (who I'd have ignored at this point), I grabbed a handful of throttles and marched them forward, bringing the big 3350s to full-throated roaring fury. Well, not quite, we're limited to 52 inches of manifold pressure and 2,880 HP with 100 octane fuel (100LL) instead of the 59.5 inches and 3,400 HP we could get with 115/145. 115/145 is no longer available, except for the big Reno racers.
Somewhere around 35 inches, I called "engineer's throttles, max power," and the FAA man in the FE's seat pushed them on up to 52 inches, trimming them nicely for me. The engines sound lovely, partly because the exhaust gasses pass through "Power Recovery Turbines" (PRTs), the shafts of which are connected to the engine's crankshaft by fluid drives, recovering something around 500 HP. Those produce a muffling effect, giving the engine its unique sound, and making them much quieter than the open stacks of most big radials. This is not without cost, however, for those devices are also nicknamed "Parts Recovery Turbines" (and worse), and are another source of failures, often nasty ones.
Acceleration felt really good. The airspeed indicator came right off the peg, and with a glance across the cockpit, I confirmed that both were reading the same value, and rising equally. Initial steering on the takeoff is done by a nose gear steering wheel on the left sidewall, and this is used until the rudder becomes fully effective at around 70 knots. It is my habit to wiggle the rudder a little on this type of steering system, and when it becomes effective, I move my left hand to the yoke, keeping my right hand on the throttles just in case of a failure that might prompt an abort. I was only a little surprised when the rudder pedals became effective well below 50 knots indicated, but moved my hand to the yoke, anyway.
The Need for Speed
It suddenly seemed to me that it was taking far too long to attain 70 knots, which was also the speed we'd agreed upon for the FE to abort. Since he has all the engine stuff back there where the pilots can't see it, I'd briefed him that if he saw anything he didn't like, just go ahead and pull the power off on his own, but only below 70 knots. After that, it was to be my decision alone. The center panel is strangely bare, with the only engine instruments being manifold pressure and RPM. With our gross weight of about 114,000 pounds, refusal speed was 100, after which I would not abort for any reason, and takeoff speed was 113. (Technically, there is no such thing as "V1" and "V2" in this airplane; the military did not use those terms. But "refusal speed" is roughly equivalent to "V1" and "takeoff speed" is roughly equivalent to "V2."
Suddenly, we seemed to be going awfully fast, so I checked both indicators, and both were still showing about 60, and coming up kinda slowly, which did not match the feeling in my fanny. About then I realized the airplane was telling me loud and clear "I wanna fly!" and by golly, the end of the 6,000' runway was sort of approaching rather briskly. We were very suddenly far too late to abort, so I eased the nose up, and away we went, climbing at 80 knots indicated (far below stalling, normally). The airplane flew great, so I just kept the takeoff attitude, which gave me about 300 fpm rate of climb. I called for the gear up and kept takeoff flaps to 3,000' just to be safe, then milked them up.
According to plan, I did a lazy climbing left turn to the downwind, then continued turning left over the Camarillo airport. I had previously coordinated with Camarillo Tower and Point Mugu, and let them know what was happening. I wanted Mugu to be aware of the flight, because if we'd had any major emergency that required an immediate landing on that first takeoff, I wanted to be able to just make a left turn, then a right turn, and dump the airplane onto Mugu's 11,100-foot runway. Their superb emergency equipment provided by my tax dollars also entered into the equation.
But this didn't even qualify as a minor emergency, so we climbed out to 7,000 over the ocean west of Camarillo, where I did a couple of steep turns. They felt good, so I went right into a series of stalls to see just what was going on with the airspeed indicators. I usually consider stalls a waste of fuel, mostly, but this time they sure had a valid purpose! We found stalling speeds of 87 clean, 75 with takeoff flaps, and 55 with full flaps and gear! Somewhere between 30 and 40 knots low. The pitot/static system had just been recertified, and we figured something had been left loose. (It turned out to be mud-dauber's nests, deep in the pitot tubes.)
The speeds were completely repeatable, so we just computed some new speeds based on them and continued with my planned profile, engine shutdown, maneuvering at slow speeds down to V1, METO power, go-arounds, etc., getting a feel for the machine at altitude.
Unfortunately, the first time we put the gear down, we found an unsafe indication on the nose gear, which was worrisome. We talked that over, and decided we'd just do the minimum necessary stuff to get back on the ground once. The IAS indication we were able to correct and allow for, but the nose gear was a definite no-go for further flight involving takeoffs and landings.
We did a landing pattern at 7,000', to get a feel for procedures timing and checklist usage, and a rejected landing. This was a very worthwhile exercise, for it gave me an excellent idea of how the landing pattern would go. For one thing, I left the landing checklist a little too late, which would have rushed us during the real thing.
I had planned to shoot several ILSs into nearby Oxnard right down to the runway with a rejected landing in order to give me a good sight picture on a known descent path, and later with various combinations of flaps and engines out. Since the unsafe nose gear would not have any effect on a rejected landing, I went ahead and did one, ignoring the gear indication, and the loud warning horn with full flaps and unsafe gear. No surprises, the airplane was very stable on the ILS, very easy to fly, although the instruments are so badly located, I have a terrible time getting any kind of scan going. I felt one ILS and go-around was enough, so we flew out over the ocean again, and extended the gear the final time, this time for real. The FE crawled down in the belly to take a peek at the alignment lines on the nose gear, and it showed safe visually, so we figured it was safe to land on it. Very little choice, by then!
I shot a nice, easy visual traffic pattern into Camarillo, offsetting the final as I always do to keep from making the noise-sensitive residents unhappy, got kind of a crunchy landing (but I'll take it!), reversed, and could have turned off at the 3,500 foot point. To save wear and tear on the brakes, I just let it roll to the Delta taxiway, maybe 4,500 feet down the 6,000 foot runway.
We pulled off, stopped, shook hands all around, did the after-landing checks, and taxied home. I was astonished to find we'd been out of the blocks for over three hours! Except for the malfunctions, we had a very smooth flight, everyone worked really well together, just like we'd been doing it for years. Wayne had a couple of very worthwhile and helpful comments during the flight, and Tery did a wonderful job on the panel. Not that I'd know if he didn't, unless he shut an engine down with fuel mismanagement, I can't even see what he's doing, back there!
The Second Flight
The pitot systems were blown out, and to my surprise, a lot of trash came out. (No, it wasn't visible.) I really thought a couple nuts had been left loose (besides the ones in the left pilot seat). How did those mud-daubers build equal nests in each pitot system, anyway? The unsafe nose gear turned out to be a part that had been installed backwards long ago. That was fixed, cleaned, and lubricated, and the airplane was declared ready again. But twelve long days were to pass before all the players could assemble again, since all are employed, and most employers don't really care about flying Connies. This is the chronic problem with all these old airplanes, and the reason for the shortage of crews.
On August 21, Tery and I showed up early, and began the long, long process of doing a thorough preflight. I volunteered to "spin the PRTs," which involves reaching deep inside three different exhaust stacks on each engine, finding the turbine wheel, and spinning it. This gynecological exercise is to make sure it turns freely, with only the resistance of the fluid drive that connects it to the main crankshaft. To my surprise, the #2 engine, lower outboard PRT made a distinct scraping noise, and resisted my efforts enough to indicate there was a problem. I will never again be tempted to skip this check, for this is an excellent example of one thing that can cause a PRT fire. In five minutes we had the cowling open, exposing the outer shroud around the turbine. This consists of two halves of a clamshell-type cover, with a large ring around the rims, holding them together, with two large bolts squeezing the ring tightly. Tery and I busted a few knuckles and offered up a few aviation prayers, for one bolt came easy, the other one resisted all efforts, and finally had to be cut out. By then, the rest of the real mechanics had arrived, and I was in the way, so I collected my two trainees and proceeded to cockpit for some drills and discussion. Good excuse, I thought.
Dana Dorsey is the Chief Pilot for the Connie, and a good thing, too, I don't like that sort of work, I'm content to do training programs. Let him pick em, I'll train em. Dana has a brand-new job with Spirit Airlines as an MD-80 pilot, and has a good deal of experience with radial engines on Convair 440s and North American B-25s. Lee Hughes is a pilot for United, also with radial experience, and both are slated for the left seat on the Connie. Lee was not present for either flight, and I doubt that made him very happy! The other trainee for the second flight was Steve Johnson, a pilot for SkyWest on Brasilias. With less time, and little radial experience, he is slated to first fly as a First Officer (FO) on the Connie. None have any four-engine time, but that doesn't mean much to me. I'm more interested in the fact that they are used to working as a crew, and they are getting ongoing professional training and flying, including CRM and other crew concepts, and that at least the captains know a bit about the care and feeding of big radials.
There is a troublesome paradox in these operations. With full-time working pilots, scheduling becomes almost impossible. It's tough enough with a two-person crew, I can see that getting three people with the time off at the same time is going to be a formidable challenge for Dana. So we really need to check out a number of crews, but once we do that, there isn't enough flying to keep everyone current in the airplane. If we use someone who is retired, he is not going to get enough time in the Connie to remain sharp, and he won't be getting time in anything to keep the skills up. These pilots often very quickly fall behind in regulations and procedures, and lose motor skills, too. At least most working pilots are maintaining their skills in something, even if it does burn kerosene.
As the King of Siam said, "'Tis a puzzlement." It's a real Catch-22 situation, with all the old airplanes. Of course, very few of these charitable, non-profits can afford to pay for any crew member, we're all volunteers, with a few rare exceptions.
But we're hoping to get at least one more captain fast-tracked into the seat, and Tery is tasked with getting a couple more FEs up to speed. That will at least improve our odds of being able to work out a schedule, and may allow us to attend an airshow or two before the season is over.
After that, the real work begins, getting a full training program up and running, then getting a full complement of three crews checked out. The first step will be a good solid ground school. I anticipate doing an intensive five-day course with a PowerPoint presentation, computer projection, and some video. Five days is not much, compared to the old days when new hires spent 30 to 45 days in school on an airplane like this. But there are several differences. Back then, new hires didn't have much experience, and ground schools had to be set up for a broad range of subjects, including regulations and procedures (company and government), weather, aerodynamics and a lot of basic principles of airplane systems.
Want to Learn More?
None of that will be mentioned in my ground schools. In the old days, pilots were expected to be able to do some really silly things, like "draw the hydraulic system schematic, from memory." The modern approach is "What does this cockpit lever do, and how, when would you use it, and what happens with a failure?" I don't care how much hydraulic pressure is available to the brakes through a reducer from the main system. That figure can't be read in the cockpit, or anywhere. If it works, it works, if it doesn't, deal with it. Pre-study and self-study will be musts, for those really wanting to know the machine. It will not be a five-day vacation, unless people are attending just for the interest and the nostalgia value!
I'm doing this already for the C-46 (two days) and the Martin 404 (three days) and those courses have been well received. I'm looking at October 25-29 for the first Connie ground school. The next M-404 ground school will be November 6, 7, and 8. The next C-46 ground school is in January All will be in Camarillo, Calif.
There were rough black and white copies of various manuals floating around, but I get very impatient with these, so I just borrowed the military manual (the "Dash One") for this airplane, and had it copied at a good print shop. It's in full color, so the schematics are useful. It's a great manual, as most of the old military manuals were, for they were produced without regard for cost. If anyone is interested in buying a color copy, contact me. The cost of color copying has dropped dramatically in the past few years, making this sort of thing affordable. I'm also working on getting all this on CD-ROM, and I've got several other old books duplicated too, all for sale.
If you're interested in signing up for one of the groundschools or obtaining one of the books, drop me an enote at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hit 60 in October, and while I've been approved by JAL to keep on flying the 747 as a copilot to 63 (we can do that, under JCAB and ICAO rules), it is time I began looking for new opportunities. One avenue I'm exploring is doing just this sort of thing, highly specialized ground schools on the old airplanes, and possibly engine management for general aviation engines, as well. I believe there is a great need for pilot education in this area, for there are many Old Wives' Tales floating around out there, and much misinformation. If you don't hate me too much for being so insufferable about flying a Connie, wish me luck!
Be careful up there!