Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Connie" © by Paul Berge

She’s got curves, long ones that invite the eye to gaze from her slender nose to what can only be called the cutest tail in the sky. They call her, Connie, a Lockheed L1049 G “Super” Constellation, and she may be getting on in years, but she’s just as beautiful as the day she left the Burbank, Ca. plant a half-century ago. Today, N6937C sits on the Kansas City’s Downtown Airport ramp TWA once called home to its Connie fleet. This Connie never flew for Trans World Airlines, but as one of the last of her line she’s the centerpiece of the Airline History Museum, widely known as Save-A-Connie. Although temporarily grounded, she welcomes visitors the way airlines once lured passengers—with style and a hint of sex.

TWA is long gone as are many of the carriers from those glory days: Pan Am, Braniff, Eastern, Republic…the ghost line stretches into the desert where the great ships were chopped into beer cans. This particular Connie started life in 1958 as a cargo hauler for Slick Airways and managed to live into old age as a Canadian crop duster destined for the junk heap when rescued by dreamers determined to keep a sliver of the airline golden age alive even as the crews who flew these great airplanes pass away.

They weren’t like you and me, the pilots from the I Love Lucy age. For a few brief decades airline pilots were royalty, and passengers dressed appropriately for court. Peasants didn’t traipse into Louis XIV’s Versailles anymore than a 1956 passenger would clod onto a Connie in blue jeans, Harley-Davidson T-shirt and slinging a backpack. They dressed like first-nighters at Noel Coward’s latest on Broadway. In exchange, the airlines allowed passengers’ blood to circulate freely through their legs with seats—all first class—designed for bottom comfort and not for bottom line satisfaction. And, yes, there was food—real food served on real china with silverware.

In this time after World War II, and before airline travel became mass transit, the flight was the thing and the destination almost an afterthought. Americans smoked Chesterfields because Perry Como did, drank martinis with Mamie Eisenhower and hailed Caesar, Sid Caesar, on Sunday nights at 9.

Airplanes had round engines so packed with horsepower that the jet had to be introduced just to give all that ambitious might a place to expand. But when thrust broke free from the banks of supercharged pistons and cylinders, the kerosene power that replaced it may have proved efficient but, frankly, smelled funny. Jets never matched the essence of what it meant to fly instead of merely travel. Now, airlines are subway tubes and terminals are cattle barns with passengers herded down chutes like so many head to be processed rather than guests to be pampered.

All gone?

No. Traces of this once global empire of aerial class now reside in the Airline History Museum (AHM). You can access it 21st Century-style at Or the next time you’re stuck in seat 37G aboard a Crampac Airways SkyBus, waiting for a delayed flight to un-delay itself, run screaming off the airplane. Hop into your Cessna 170 and fly back in time to Kansas City Downtown Airport. As the name implies, it’s where airports should be--within a shout of downtown. Beg a ride or take a walk around the perimeter road until you see the old Quonset-style hangar that once housed TWA’s Connie maintenance shop. That’s the Airline History Museum. Open seven days a week—check online for exact times.

Besides the Super Constellation, the Airline History Museum has a 1952 Martin 404 and a 1941 Douglas DC-3. Martin once competed with Convair for the short-haul routes. This 404 was part of Eastern Airlines fleet of 60 Martin 404s. The DC-3…well, there ain’t nuthin’ the DC-series legends haven’t done since they first appeared in the 1930s. The museum’s DC-3 is undergoing an extensive--and expensive--rebuild, so it’s anyone’s guess when it’ll fly again. But as it sits, who cares? “Hangar Queen,” in this case, is a term of respect for a royal dame who’s earned her crown.

Until two years ago, the Connie regularly flew to air shows and appeared in movies, including Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and Jim Carey’s Ace Ventura. Walk-on roles, however, don’t pay the bills. Avgas alone can suck a bank account dry when burning 400 gallons-per-hour while making circles in the sky training crews. And then, there’s oil. The Connie goes through lots of it in flight, and judging from the oil stained ramps in old photographs, lots of it while sitting on the ground.

Starting up an airline may be folly. Starting up a flying museum dedicated to preserving old airliners may seem like folly, but, thankfully, it’s run on passion. TWA had Howard Hughes to bankroll its operations. The Airline History Museum has volunteers who buck rivets, weld, stitch and swap out engines to get the Connie flying once again. These same volunteers hold fund raisers, and on October 6, 2007 will clear the hangar floor for the world’s most prestigious hangar dance featuring guest, John Travolta, an airport kid from New Jersey who shares that passion for keeping the sound of four radial engines a living part of the American skyscape. You’re invited. Check online for details.

So who flies this thing?

On a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-September I met with Charles “Skip” Gatschet, a retired TWA captain who’d begun his career teaching in a TWA simulator, moved into the Martin 404 right seat where he flew the Ohio Valley until he transferred to Connies and flew the world. In 1986, he made his last flight as captain in a Boeing 767. After that, they did away with the airline.

Gatschet showed me around the museum, stopping to explain the inner workings of a cutaway Wright R-3350- EA3, 18-cylinder, turbo-compound radial engine.* Wrapped around the working data of museum pieces were priceless stories about airline life in another era. I didn’t want to leave. Guys like Skip Gatschet (shown at right) fly the Connie, and if you’re lucky he may be on duty the day you visit. If not, someone else who remembers or simply has respect for this rapidly fading past will invite you to see what aviation can be when beauty lures us into the air. Consider this your invitation…

Save A Connie
, Inc., is a 501(c)3 entity that does business as The Airline History Museum. AHM being a subsidiary of SAC.
Involvement by interested people is easy and anyone can do as little or much as his interest and availability allow. Membership dues are $110 per year, and anyone can join by simply sending name, address, phone number and check along with a request for membership to:
The Airline History Museum
201 N.W. Lou Holland Drive
Kansas City, MO 64116-4223
Or call the museum at 1-800-513-9484 or 816-421-3401. Membership privileges allow unlimited access to the museum, the right to ride on the airplanes to air shows and so forth. There is a monthly newsletter. Donation of one's time and talent to the common effort is greatly appreciated.

The End


* Museum’s Connie engines: Wright R-3350 - EA-3 18 cylinder turbo-compound, originally rated at 3,440 BHP at takeoff. In current operation the museum is restricted by the use of 100LL fuel to 2,880 BHP at takeoff. (restricted to 51" MAP at 2,900 RPM).

© 2007, Paul Berge, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Blakesburg 07

Antique Airplane Association Reunion
© 2007, Paul Berge

Somewhere west, perhaps east, of Ailerona is a patch of aviation sanity in a hyphenated world fascinated with high-tech same-think. It’s Blakesburg’s Antique Airfield (IA27 to those with GPS) located a few miles from an Iowa town that hasn’t changed much since Dewey defeated Truman for the middleweight championship in 1948. A tavern, grocery store with a pair of Sinclair gas pumps outside and a few brick buildings mark the business district where the stop sign is more advisory than law. A WWI artillery piece in a small park dedicated to forgotten heroes aims menacingly toward an empty pizza parlor.

Watch for stray dogs as you turn east through a few of blocks of clapboard houses and double-wides beneath immense shade trees, and then cross a bridge above the Burlington Northern rail line. Leaving town the two-lane blacktop curves through a canyon of green-almost-gold corn. So far, you could be anywhere along the Hawkeye state’s side roads, but you’ve passed into the southeast corner where Confederate raiders once roamed and time hasn’t so much stopped but, instead, ages like a dusty bottle of Châteaux l'Empenage ’47 or a ‘39 Packard in your grandmother’s wooden garage. Time exhibits a muted elegance here. Blakesburg is on the map, but its influence takes your mind into new dimensions, especially when you arrive, as we did, by air.

“Take a deep look,” I called to Mike Vogt, my guest for the day, riding in the 1946 Aeronca Champ’s front seat. At six-foot-something his knees rubbed the instrument panel, making him look more cramped than an airline passenger trapped in seat 27F at O’Hare. He didn’t mind, because the fifty-mile flight from Des Moines to Blakesburg in a 60-year-old airplane transports more than your body. It moves the soul; if not, you don’t have one.

“What's that?” he called over the 65-horse engine and summer wind through the open side window.

“1929,” I answered as we passed behind and slightly below a pair of Travel Air biplanes with round engines and floppy-eared ailerons climbing past our nose. “It returns here every Labor Day, stays for about a week and then flies back into History where the FAA can’t touch it.” And I could see from his smile that he began to see what I meant, began to feel the time shift.

Antique Airfield is the home of the Antique Airplane Association and Air Power Museum, collectively known as AAA/APM. The brainchild of Robert Taylor, AAA founder, in 1953, back before many of today’s antiques were built. A pilot and aircraft mechanic who’d served in the 6th Air Force during WWII, Bob had the vision that one day aviation’s past would need protection. With the help of family and countless volunteers over the decades AAA/APM has quietly preserved 1929, 1939, ‘49, ‘59 and all the winged years before and in between as they “Keep The Antiques Flying!”

And that’s the rub—Flying! The word “museum” brings images of air-conditioned vaults full of polished exhibits behind velvet ropes with sleepy docents explaining the worth of dormant history. AAA’s mission is to keep lift beneath the antiquers’ wings, to live history, to preserve the hardware and the skills to fly, maintain and promote these aviation treasures. Oil, grass and exhaust stains, bug guts and the occasional popped tail wheel spring all go into this clacking—flying—corner of the aviation universe. It’s an exclusive community open to anyone willing to dream of what’s been and what’s still possible when fabric-covered wings attach to the imagination.

This year the flying gods smiled on the AAA reunion as high pressure dominated weather charts, allowing pilots to fly in from both coasts. A nearly full moon and misty sunsets made Antique Airfield seem like a digital movie set where a Luscombe chased a C3 Aeronca around the patch until darkness closed the sky for the night, leaving behind the deepest black speckled with stars you can’t see from the 21st Century.

Inside the Pilot’s Pub, beer and cigars accented flying stories told, retold and embellished with great sweeps of aviator hands. Old voices conjured up ghosts from radial engines days, while younger minds sucked it all in and will carry this time-warped bit of aeronautical purity into their futures. And by Sunday night, after most of the pilots had decamped to retrace their journeys back to Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania in Cessna Bobcats, Stearmans and Fairchilds, those who remained suffered through an awards ceremony in which a tiny speck of the world’s immense population saluted those who Keep The Antiques Flying until the next reunion when the gods will smile again, and 1929 will return to Blakesburg, Iowa where the future is always worth flying.

The End
View the AAA/APM 2007 Fly-In:
© 2007, Paul Berge, all rights reserved (Above right: Pilots Pub with convenient parking)
Photo upper left by Curtis Kelly, used with permission, all rights reserved.