Memories of flying the Connie

The first big airplane I ever flew was the Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the Connie. The Connie simulator was just a procedures trainer (no motion, no visual) so most of the flight training was done in the airplane. I confess I was scared to death! The biggest thing I had ever checked out in was the Piper PA-23 Apache. I had had a few hours in the right seat of a Beech 18 and a Lockheed Lodestar, but of course was not allowed to touch anything except fly it a bit in cruise as neither had an autopilot.

But, most of all I was scared because in those days it was either up or out. No second chances and no reverting to previous status. When new hires started checking out as captains a couple of years later, 14 percent of the DC-9 student captains were terminated. Less than half were low time former GA pilots.

A typical training period lasted anywhere from six to eight hours: a one- to two-hour briefing, two students each flew two hours while the other observed, then a one- to two-hour debrief.

In my first briefing, our instructor, who knew we were little airplane pilots, said in a heavy southern drawl, “Now you boys, don’t be spooked; she flies just like a big old Cub.”

Connie
Just a 137,500-pound Cub…

I thought to myself, “Well, I never flew a 137,500-pound Cub!”

But, know what? It really did. Quite heavy on the controls but (I later learned) so are most T-category airplanes. The Connie had hydraulic control boost, but still had mechanical (cables) control linkages. If you lost hydraulics and went into manual reversion, then it took two guys to wrestle it around!

The airplane, mechanically speaking, was WWII technology. That was to my advantage as that is what we were taught in A&P school. No big surprises, no radical new concepts as with the jets which were still “sci fi” stuff for most of us.

And, as far as flying it, indeed, it was about like any other propeller type airplane, just bigger. It’s like one old gray beard described his check out in the Connie in the ’50s, “They told me what she stalls at and what she glides at, and that was about it.”

There is one thing about the Connie that was quite different: It was most definitely a flight engineer’s airplane. These are some of the controls the F/E had access to, but the pilots had limited or no access to: propeller pitch controls; mixtures; carburetor heat and alcohol; prop alcohol; feather buttons and firewall shutoffs; pressurization controls; hydraulic system controls; electrical system controls, and others that don’t immediately come to mind.

This is why some captains may have made life hell for co-pilots, but rarely ragged on the F/E who, they used to say, “can do something and kill you or not do something and kill you.” It also made for a nice, clean pilot’s panel free of mechanical controls and indicators – very much unlike the Douglas aircraft.

The F/E handled the throttles except on takeoff and landing. On takeoff, the pilot flying would push up the throttles and call for the F/E to “trim throttles” and he would set TO power.

After takeoff the pilot commanded, “49 and 26, auto feather off” (49” hg. mp and 2600 rpm which was METO power in the “G” model). Then it was, “Set climb power” and then, “1200 (or 1400) hp cruise.”

I flew the Connie in its sunset years – ’64 into ’65; the last TWA Connie flight was in 1967. In my time, they were mostly used for short hauls, so a typical day might be ORD-DAY-CMH-PIT-HAR-LGA. We flew them at low altitudes and low power settings to conserve engine life.

I only had one long flight. It was in an L-1049-G; ORD-DEN-OAK-SFO. The airplane was configured as a night coach (the hostesses called it a roach coach). It held 92 smoking, drinking, barfing passengers and stunk beyond belief by the time we reached the West Coast, just about sunrise. The air flow through the cabin was much lower than in the jets.

This was the first time I ever got high enough to have to shift blowers. To shift blowers, the engines had to be reduced to idle, so power was reduced on two symmetrical engines, the blowers shifted, then brought back up to climb or cruise power. This caused the need for a PA announcement in advance to prevent panic in the passenger cabin.

Jeff and Sharon
The author met his future wife while flying: “the only thing I ever stole from TWA.”

Another first was the westbound climb out of DEN. We were cleared to a holding pattern, “climb to xxx feet, when leaving xxx feet, intercept and proceed westbound via V-xx and resume position reports to Center on frequency xxxx.” (There was no enroute radar over the mountains at those altitudes.)

When we got to Oakland, my magnanimous captain allowed as how I might be privileged to fly the “big one” from OAK to SFO – which may have been the busiest 12 minutes in my entire life. Take off on runway 27 and land on runway 28 – I don’t think either airport had east/west parallel runways at that time. Just about enough time to do the before starting, after starting, taxi, before takeoff, after takeoff/climb, cruise, descent, landing, after landing and secure checklists.

If I had it to do over again, I would have just left the gear down. No one would ever have known the difference.

20 Comments

  • Whenever I think about Connie’s I think about the 1649As doing a London-Los Angles schedule blocked at 23:45 non-stop. It’s being reported that Qantas is planning a Sidney-London non-stop, at 20:22 in route. I’ve read they plan initially to fly employees as a test, maybe to see if they can get off the plane unassisted. I wonder if TWA did that in ’57.

    Thanks for the memories.

  • Good stuff Jeff! You were indeed lucky. I’ve read in the “TWA-Howard Hughes’s Airline” book that he chose the Connie for it’s looks over the Douglas designs. TWA obviously used looks as a criteria for hiring stews as well, your wife was beautiful.

  • Good to know you’re also still flying Jeff, I remember enjoying flying with you but can’t recall if it was the Connie or later in the 707s. My favorite memory of the Connie was it’s infamous ‘Walking Gear’, those long gear-legs which allowed it’s vertically curved fuselage and challenged one’s reflexive sensitivity in accomplishing smooth landings!
    Have now been flying 70 years next month, since 1949, and wish you the same good luck!

  • Growing up in Ridgewood NJ in the early 1960’s we were on the flight path of the “Whistling Connies” as they approached either one of the NY airports or maybe Newark. You could hear them coming far away.

    At the time all I wanted to do was fly and our Dads put together Squadron #1 Flying Club of Ridgewood NJ Inc. With a J3 we all learned to fly and I have my license today. Much harder to do today!! One of our instructors flew Connies with TWA. Malcolm Conway was his name…..RIP.

    • I thought I was the only one who remembered Mal Conway. He was in a car accident that caused a memory problem and forced him out of flying. Not one to give up, he developed an interesting training method that was bought by Lufthansa and Lockheed for the L-1011. TWA never accepted his ideas, but did bring him back to line flying.

  • Great story, Jeff, particularly as I am writing this while sitting above the main floor of the Saarinen terminal…my first visit to this building in 18 years, since we closed the JFK base. There is, of course, the “Star of America” parked outside. I am sure we must have flown together on the L-1011, but these days I can’t remember who I flew with last week.

    And your OAK-SFO leg made me chuckle…my first leg as a brand new Convair 240 FO was from Quonset to Providence…9 miles. To say I was on a ski rope would be an understatement…

  • Great stories! I hope some others can add with their memories of the most beautiful airplane ever built. I was ten years old when I took my first airplane ride in 1961, a TWA 1049G from CMH to DAY and return. I was allowed into the cockpit for takeoff, an event that ultimately led to my career as a pilot.

  • One of my greatest satisfactions way back was the honor of having ridden on the graceful Connie a few years after having written a theme on it in high school. Whether or not its baggage compartment was heated, or simply not turned on, we were put into a extended hold pattern arriving Miami. After reaching my aunt’s home, upon opening my suitcase I found my clothing to be nearly wringing wet in need of being hung up to dry. (Those were the days!)

  • Enjoyed reading this! I can still remember my last Connie ride PIT-CVG 1965 ish it went to a 727-31 shortly after that. Loved riding the Connies my favorite plane when I was a kid
    and still my favorite propliner! What was your overall favorite plane you flew at TWA? I liked the 707-131B alot some of those light loaded short hops loved those takeoffs and same for the baby DC-9s! 747 and L-1011 were very cool but didn’t get to ride those as much! I always had a thing for the Convair 880 fast and smokey the EPA would have a fit now!

  • I attended the Academy of Aeronautics (now Vaughn College of Aeronautics) across the parkway from LGA runway 06 in 1961-62. When a TWA Connie departed the racket from those engines caused all classroom work to stop. My wife, as a young girl traveled with her Dad to Ohio. He talked the Captain into letting her sit in his seat enroute so he could take a picture of her in it. Try that today!! When she got up she spilled the Captain’s cup of coffee all over the center console. (Fate Is the Hunter?) We still have the picture. My wife likes to remind me that after more than 50 years in aviation one aircraft I haven’t flown is the Connie – but she has.

  • Hi Jeff. I was the flight engineer on one of your connie first officer flights in 1964. While you and the captain were hobnobbing with the girls in the CMH ramp office, I was walking around the aircraft and climbing on the wing to stick the fuel tanks. Fortunately for me, I only flew the connie for 3 months before going to flight engineer on the 707. From there to 880 first officer and then 880 captain all in 4 years. Retired after 35 years with 9 jet type ratings. By far, my favorite airplane was the 747. TWA was a captain’s airline that flew both domestic and international. Howard Hughes owned TWA when we were hired and he respected his pilots. Thanks for writing about the connie.

  • I had a similar career experience… just a couple years later at United Airlines. During summer 1966, I jumped from Cessna 150 instructor to new hire trainee at UAL, Denver.
    We were given a DC-6 copilot course mixed with the airlines’ Basic Indoctrination… for which we had to demonstrate proficiency (or hit the street). Before long, I got to switch to B-727 Flight Engineer and finish new hire training. In 1968, I revisited the DC-6 as copilot for a short while from DTW, 211 hours, … got high enough (once) for a blower shift, FWA to DEN for a ski club charter… otherwise we flew pretty low, … Michigan cities and Tobacco Road. I don’t remember UAL being so harsh on upgrades. Once past a year probation, it was steady work… in my case, 36 years !

  • Hmm, we still had Connies when I was hired. Classes were rotated between the 707, 727, and Connie. The hiring folks were brutally honest, telling me there was no way a young punk like me could pass the Connie course, so I waited a week and started on the 707. Fortunately, real men like Jeff kept the Connies in the air.

  • In 1974 I was ATC at Fort Benning, GA. An Air National Guard C-121 super Constellation arrived just as I was getting off the midnight shift. It had a destination that was obviously not in the US. I asked where they were continuing on to and they said San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was starting a 6 day break and asked if there was an extra seat. There was! I went home and packed my clothes and a lunch and flew out with them!

  • I found interesting the stories of flying the connie.I was hired by TWA as a A/E {A/P} mechanic in 1956. In 1957 uncle Howard as we called him wanted TWA to be the first airline to fly non stop fr Lax to LON. He had Lockheed build the 1649 connie with this range. It took betweem 22 and 24 hrs for each flt. If winds were to strong on return they would stop in Canada. I worked the night shift, and every night before the flt to LON 1 mech was assigned to each eng [R 3350 turbo compound]. There was a 60 gal oil tank behind eng with a 2 gal bucket size oil filter that had to be serviced, we had to replace all 36 spark plugs on each eng, ck mag timing, sync the fuel injection pumps, sync the eng analyzer generator plus other cks. The hyds worked with 55 gals 5605 red hyd fluid a real challenge. . I found the connies difficult and interesting to work on. What a difference the jets made. I retired fr TWA in 1993 as a A&P crew chief mech with 36 yrs service. I am now 87 yrs old and I have built 2 airplanes. I still enjoy working and flying a/c. I have told my wife of 63 yrs if I don’t come home from the airport ck for me under the instrument panel. Norm ABQ

  • I flew the TWA Connie Sim at the old TWA Jackson flight training center in KCMO in the summer of 1969. I believe it was on the 9th floor of the building in downtown KC? Bill Smith was one of the sim. engineers, at that time, making sure things worked right and were calibrated. I was a Rolla Mo Aeronautical engineering student with a Private Cert. at the time. His son and I could sneak in after 11:00p.m. and get some time on the sims. under his watchful eyes. (don’t tell anybody!)
    Having no instructor, I recall it took the two of us about 2 hours just to get the engines started and ready for takeoff. We used the instructor manuals and checklists.

    At that time, there was a very crude physical scenery model on a moving belt in the basement of the building with TV cameras that projected your position on the old MCI airport. It was a very crude approach and landing visual aid.

    As you might guess it took 3-4 nights before we could successfully land!

    I took many TWA 707 flights (some model 31B with loran, over water) so there is a good chance you hauled my silly little behind somewhere?
    And if so THANK YOU FOR YOUR CAREER and SERVICE TO ALL OF US!

  • Jeff, great reading your account of the great Connie as well as the other memories that the flight deck crew has shared. I hired on to TWA in 65 as a ground agent (Transportation Agent) in IND and we had 049s, 749s, 1049s and 1649s through the station for about two years until the first DC9 appeared. Our station was on the aircraft acceptance route to MCI (I believe it was MCI not MKC where they were headed) so we saw every A/C that TWA acquired in that time. It was great and truly exciting seeing all the new planes! My favorite memory of the 1049G was standing BEHIND the A/C (only once) on startup. My new oil-soaked shirt found the trash can immediately as it was impossible to remove the oil. Great memories! Thanks for sharing.

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