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Connie's Comeback

By Ralph Pettersen
October 2, 2001

A grand old Connie is currently being restored in Arizona by a group of dedicated volunteers from the Dutch Aviodome Museum. Ralph Pettersen visited Avra Valley Airport in August 2001 and reports on the project.

The Dutch National Aviodome Museum recently decided to undertake a very exciting and challenging aircraft restoration project. The aircraft involved is L749A Constellation N749VR, a long time resident of Avra Valley Airport in Marana, Arizona. On August 23, 2001, I traveled to The Constellation Group's headquarters at Avra Valley and visited with Arno van der Holst, Raymond Oostergo and Erling Blom. Arno is the museum's managing director while Raymond is the museum's Manager of Special Projects. Erling, an avionics specialist, is a KLM employee volunteering his time to the Aviodome.

The Aviodome Museum is located at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Holland. Its collection includes over fifty-five aircraft and was visited by 100,000 people last year. Like most aviation museums, most of those involved are volunteers and, at last count, the museum had twenty-four paid employees and over 180 volunteers. The museum has an excellent website, in Dutch, English, German and French that can be accessed at www.aviodome.nl.

The Airplane

I first saw this Constellation in March 1997 when I participated in The Constellation Group's Flying Program at Avra Valley. It was parked on the far end of the ramp and looked rather forlorn.

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For many years, N749VR sat unloved in a far corner
of the Constellation Group's ramp at Avra Valley. 14Mar97
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen


I was told that it was a sistership to the MATS Connie and was owned by an organization named the Dutch Constellation Society that planned to restore it. Since that time, I had visited Avra Valley on numerous occasions and noticed little or no progress being made. It wasn't until my latest visit in late March of this year that Frank Lang, The Constellation Group's chief pilot, told me the airplane was going to be restored and flown to Holland in October. Needless to say, I didn't believe him!

The aircraft, c/n 2604, was one of a group of nine short-fuselage C-121A's and one C-121B built for the USAF in 1948. It was assigned military serial number 48-0612 and entered service with the Military Airlift Command in 1949. Based at Westover AFB, Massachusetts, it was used during the Berlin Airlift to shuttle high priority passengers between the US and Europe. In 1950, along with a number of other C-121A/B's, it was modified as a VIP transport and re-designated a VC-121A. It was based in Wiesbaden, Germany during the 1960's where it flew VIP missions before being retired from active service in 1967 with 14,541 hours. It then spent a number of years parked at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson before being sold to Christler Flying Service in 1970 as N9465. The aircraft was converted for agricultural spraying by the installation of two chemical tanks in the cabin, and spray nozzles on the wings. Christler used the aircraft until 1979 when she was sold to Beaver Air Spray, Inc and registered C-GXKR. Conifair Aviation of Quebec, Canada bought the airplane a few months later and, along with two of her ex-USAF sister C-121A's, it was used in the war against budworms in the woods of eastern Canada. Conifair flew her, as aircraft #2, until 1988 when she was stored at Mont Joli, Quebec and offered for sale for $200,000 with a total of 15,600 hours. Vern Raburn, of The Constellation Group, bought her in the spring of 1993 as a spares airplane for the MATS Connie, N494TW. The Dutch Constellation Society purchased the aircraft from Vern in November 1993 and Frank Lang and a flight crew from The Constellation Group ferried it from Mont Joli to Avra Valley on September 9-12, 1994. Since arriving at Avra Valley, she has not flown.


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What a beautiful sight....a Connie in flight!
Photo © Jérôme Krier



Interesting to note is that the Curtis electric propellers installed on this airplane were worth more than the airframe at the time it was flown to Avra Valley. Immediately upon arrival, the propellers were removed and shipped back to Canada for use by the Forest Industries Flying Tankers on their Martin Mars fire fighting flying boats, based at Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The Mars uses the same propeller blade on its four bladed propellers. Very few Connies had Curtis electric propellers installed and it is often said that when the few remaining spare serviceable blades are exhausted, the MATS Connie will end her flying days.

Money Problems Beleaguer The Dutch Constellation Society

Almost immediately after N749VR arrived in Tucson, the Dutch Constellation Society started experiencing financial problems. One of the R3350 engines was sold to The Constellation Group to raise money for parking fees and rent. For almost seven years the airplane sat at Avra Valley with yearly visits from the Society to perform minimal preventive maintenance. By the end of 2000, the Society realized that they were going to need help with their endeavor and contacted Arno van der Holst of the Aviodome. At this point, there were three options open to the Aviodome. (1) Decline the project, at which time the aircraft would have been sold for parts and scrapped; (2) Disassemble the airplane and ship it to Holland via surface transportation; or (3) Restore the aircraft to airworthy condition and fly it to Holland.

Enter The Dutch Aviodome Museum

Arno had visited Avra Valley four years ago on an unrelated trip. He made a cursory inspection of the airplane and felt it was not a good candidate for restoration. However after a closer technical inspection by Marc Westenberg in January 2001 and, after a meeting with representatives of the Dutch Constellation Society, he decided to return to Tucson and assess the feasibility of restoring the airplane for a flight to Holland. A team from the Aviodome arrived on March 9th and got right to work. The team found the airplane to be in much better condition than thought before. There was minimal corrosion and the #2 and #4 engines were successfully run. In addition, the hydraulic, fuel and electrical systems were found to be in good working order. At the end of two weeks, the team gave a thumbs-up to the project and the project was officially kicked off.

The airplane couldn't have been parked in a better location. Avra Valley Airport is home to The Constellation Group and its maintenance facility. Between JR Kern, Tim Coons and the remaining technical staff, there are many years of radial engine experience and, more important, expertise with the L749A Constellation. The Aviodome wisely decided to utilize this expertise for the project.

I visited Avra Valley a few days after the team departed in March and, with the exception of a test prop installed on the #1 engine, everything looked much the same as it had been during my previous visits. Since March, six additional teams have been dispatched to Avra Valley and the transformation of N749VR has been amazing.


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The funny looking propeller on the #1 engine is
used for engine testing. 24Mar01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



Additional Teams Arrive

The second team arrived on May 4th and work continued on engines #1 and #4 resulting in successful engine test runs. The three rudders were removed for recovering and control cables were inspected and replaced. The cabin flooring was removed and work began on fabricating plywood replacements. The wiring and fuel systems were inspected and necessary repairs made. After enduring somewhat less than ideal working conditions, with temperatures in the 100*F+ range, the team returned to Holland on May 19th.

The third team arrived in early June. The cabin floor was completed and all cabin windows, which were severely crazed, were removed. The fire bottle system was removed for repair and initial landing gear retraction tests were performed. The wing bolts were inspected, fuel and air hoses were inspected and replaced, and the arduous job of stripping the many layers of paint was begun. In addition, Tim Coons began the process of inspecting, assembling and balancing the Curtis Electric props. Tim, a Constellation Group mechanic, learned this skill in Canada a few years ago and the #1 prop was successfully installed the week of June 12th. A high-pressure cleaner was procured to speed up the paint stripping operation.

Team number four arrived on June 18th and volunteers continued the task of stripping paint while the technical staff concentrated on the engines and propellers. The "long" nose was removed and replaced with a "short" nose, which had been borrowed from the French Musee de L'Air at Le Bourget. Work continued on the engines and propellers and the #1 engine was test run with its new prop. A significant milestone is reached when an engine borrowed from the Constellation Group was installed in the empty #3 position. The fire bottle system was installed and successfully tested and refurbished instruments were installed. The airplane was beginning to look different and the team sensed success was within their grasp.

Group number five arrived the first week of July and continued with the work started by previous groups. Work on the R3350's continued and the final gear swing was successfully performed. The center cockpit and cabin windows arrived and installation began. Paint stripping continued and the brakes received much needed attention. The delicate task of propeller assembly and balancing continued slowly. The cockpit floorboards are removed and cleaned along with the careful cleaning of cockpit windows. The three rudders, which were sent out for recovering, were received and were ready for installation. Radios were checked and
the restored glareshield was replaced.


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Much work has been done in the cockpit. 23Aug01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen


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Much work still needs to be done in the cabin
when the airplane returns to Holland. 23Aug01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



The sixth group arrived in late July and joined the Constellation Group's mechanics, who had continued working on the airplane during the absence of the Dutch volunteers. Propeller assembly, balancing and painting operations continued. Props were installed on engines #2 and #3 and the wing leading edges were cleaned and painted black to simulate the original deicing boots. The team also painted the roof of the aircraft white again. Additional engine work was completed and engines #1 and #4 were test run. The installation of cabin windows was completed.


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Wright R3350's power the Connie. 23Aug01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



The seventh group of Aviodome workers arrived on August 10th and work continued on completing the remaining propeller assembly for engine #4. During x-ray testing, one blade was found to have a crack, which necessitated the use of a spare blade. Propeller blades are normally retained as a matched set for the life of a propeller but, due to the scarcity of propeller sets, this could not be done and a spare blade was used. This significantly increases the difficulty of assembling and balancing the propeller and the group was very lucky to have the expertise of Tim. Work continued on cleaning and polishing the airplane and replacement of the main and nose wheel tires began. Its interesting to note that after years of not being available, tires for the Constellation were found at Desser Tires, a large aircraft tire distributor. Arno, who was part of the seventh group estimates that 90% of the work has been completed and the airplane should be ready for its ferry flight in late September or early October. Their two weeks completed, Arno and Raymond left Avra Valley for Holland on Saturday August 25th. Raymond will return in about a week and will remain to supervise work and make the flight back to Holland.


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The "after picture". Compare this with the
"before picture" taken in 1997. 23Aug01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen


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One pretty airplane! The Aviodome volunteers
have performed a remarkable tranformation!
Photo © James Richard Covington, Jr



Completion and the Flight to Holland

The eighth group arrived on August 29th. What needs to be completed? Rudders need to be installed along with installation of the tailcone. The fourth propeller needs to be installed and all engines and propellers must be test run for a final time. Cockpit seating, an antenna and a few remaining instruments and radios need to be installed. Once these tasks have been completed, the aircraft will be ready for operational testing which includes high-speed taxi and flight-testing. The successful outcome of these tests, along with the properly completed paperwork will result in the issuance of a US Airworthiness Certificate from the FAA. Already in work is the application for a new registration number, N749NL.

I asked Tim Coons what he thought about the project. Tim was part of the group the retrieved N749VR from Mont Joli and flew her back to Avra Valley in 1994. He said she is a good performer and overall an excellent airframe. Tim and JR Kern, The Constellation Group's maintenance chief will most likely fly as flight engineers on the flight to Holland. Rounding out the crew will be Dutch engineers Marc Westenberg and Dennis Kovacs, co-pilot Henk de Waard and project leader Raymond Oostergo. The current planned route will take about eight days and include stops in Kansas City, Bangor, Keflavik, possibly Duxford and then onto Lelystad where she will be presented to the Dutch people. After spending a day in Lelystad, the airplane will be flown to the Aviodome Museum in Schiphol for completion of the restoration.

The work being performed at Avra Valley is focused almost exclusively on making the airplane airworthy for the flight to Holland. Once it arrives at Schiphol, KLM will remove the temporary markings and paint the aircraft in late 1940's KLM markings. It will be moved to the museum's hangar for display and the Aviodome's volunteers and craftsmen will concentrate on restoring the aircraft's interior fittings and furnishings. This will be a significant task since the aircraft's cabin is totally stripped and the staff will be starting from scratch.

The current plan is to maintain the US registration and airworthiness certification due to the restrictive and cumbersome requirements of JAR 145. While Arno says there are no plans to fly the airplane once it arrives in Schiphol, that possibility will exist as long as she maintains her US registration and airworthiness certificate!

Sisterships

Its interesting to note that, of the nine C-121A's (48-0609 through 48-0617) and one C-121B (48-0608) built for the Air Force in 1948, seven are still in existence. All of the survivors owe their existence to their suitability for spraying operations or having been transferred to museums shortly after retirement in the mid-1960's.

  • 48-0608 - The only C-121B, which had no cargo door. Named "Dewdrop" in anticipation of Thomas Dewey's election to president. Derelict at Ryan Field, Tucson, AZ as N608AS, for many years. Parts used to restore Columbine II, 48-0610, to flying condition. Rumors suggest it's scrapping is imminent.


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    A long-time resident of Ryan Field is rumored to
    be slated for scrapping in the near future. 24Mar01
    Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



  • 48-0609 - Currently flying, as N494TW, for The Constellation Group based out of Avra Valley Airport, Tucson, AZ


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    One gorgeous airplane highlighted in the early
    morning sunlight at Avra Valley. 14Mar97
    Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



  • 48-0610 - "Columbine II" Currently stored in flying condition, as N9463, in Santa Fe, NM. Owner, Harry Oliver, reported rejected a $1.3M offer for this airplane in October 1998.

  • 48-0611 - Derelict at Santo Domingo, as HI-393. The Constellation Group has used this airplane for spares to keep their airplane airworthy.

  • 48-0612 - Currently being restored by the Dutch Aviodome at Avra Valley, as N749VR/N749NL.


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    Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



  • 48-0613 - "Bataan" Currently on display, fully restored, at Planes of Fame Museum in Valle, AZ .


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    Another remarkable restoration at The Planes
    of Fame Museum in Valle, AZ. 28Feb99
    Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



  • 48-0614 - "Columbine" Currently on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, AZ


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    General Dwight Eisenhower's transport in
    the early 1950's. 11Nov00
    Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



  • 48-0615 - Crashed in October 1981 while operating for Argo SA as HI-328.

  • 48-0616 - Destroyed after a forced landing in the Sudan desert in July 1957 while operating with Ethiopian Airlines as EI-T-35.

  • 48-0617 - Destroyed after an emergency landing in Quebec, Canada in June 1979 while being operated by Beaver Air Spray as C-GXKS.


Aviodome Future Projects?

The Aviodome operates the only currently flying DC-2 aircraft in the world. Arno and his staff are looking for suitable ex-KLM Boeing 747 and DC-8-50 series aircraft to add to the museum's collection. If anyone has such an aircraft they might want to donate, contact Arno via the museum's webpage at www.aviodome.nl. I'm sure he would be most interested in talking to you.

Connie Heaven

When I visited The Constellation Group's headquarters in March of this year, there were three Constellation aircraft parked on their ramp. This had to have been the greatest concentration of Connies in one location in many years. The MATS Connie, N494TW, is currently on tour of the US, which left two Connies parked during my August visit. In addition to N749VR, the Super Constellation Flyers Association L1049B, registered N105CF is currently undergoing restoration at Avra Valley. It is scheduled for completion in summer 2002 when the aircraft will be flown to a new home in Switzerland. This ex-US Navy airplane, flown by Aerocago in the early 1990's, had been stored for a number of years in Santo Domingo as HI-583CT. After completion of the restoration, the Association plans on flying the airplane on the airshow circuit in Europe. Additional information about this project can be found of the group's webpage on www.superconstellation.ch.


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The paint stripping process had begun shorty
after arrival at Avra Valley from Santo Domingo. 24Mar01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen


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The paint stripping process almost completed
after five months of hard work. 24Aug01
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



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As layers of paint are removed old identities are
revealed. This airplane's Navy heritage and previous
life as N2144Z have been uncovered.
Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen



I'd like to thank Arno van der Holst, Raymond Oostergo, Mark Oostergo and Erling Brom of the Aviodome and Tim Coons of The Constellation Group for their kind assistance in preparing this article.

Addendum

During high performance testing the week of September 11th, a serious problem occurred in the number four engine. The #10 cylinder drive rod broke and caused serious damage to the engine. The Aviodome is currently looking for a replacement engine and the ferry flight to the Netherlands has been postponed until next year.

Written by
Ralph Pettersen

Ralph Pettersen, a true lover of old piston engined airliners, has been photographing and writing about them since the mid-1960's. In addition to being a regular contributor to Propliner Magazine, his other passion is flying his 1966 Beechcraft Debonair which he has flow throughout the US. While waiting the win the lottery, he continues to support these passions as executive for an engineering services company. Editor's note - Ralph is the first non-staff Airliners.Net member to be published twice on this site. If Connies are your thing, please read his other article, regarding his flying experiences on a similar Constellation!

9 User Comments:
Username: Monocleman [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-02 23:57:43 and read 32300 times.

Great article, Ralph! I'm sorry to hear about the cylinder malfunction. Hopefully they can get it flying again ASAP.

-Will

Username: Sccutler [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-03 04:46:17 and read 32287 times.

Exceptionally well-done chronicle. Makes me- and, I'll bet, many others- wish I could be there and help. Good luck to the team.

Username: AndyEastMids [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-03 08:00:40 and read 32278 times.

Its great to know there are people around who really care about these grand old ladies of the skies! Long may they prosper - the Connies, and the people who care about them and look after them.

Excellent Ralph! :)

Andy

Username: Paulc [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-03 10:38:27 and read 32266 times.

Great article and wonderful project - being involved in a major restoration project (Catalina flying boat) i can appreciate the size of the task and the problems experienced.

Username: Nicolaki [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-03 15:27:10 and read 32257 times.

That Connie is such a beautiful bird!

Username: Round_Engine [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-05 19:40:59 and read 32183 times.

Thanks for the good words.....they are appreciated! I will be visiting Arizona next week and will try to get to Avra Valley for some pictures of the "almost completed" project.
Ralph Pettersen

Username: Tristar2000 [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-07 07:43:38 and read 32155 times.

Great article,

I grew up in Mont-Joli, Quebec seeing this particular connie fly along with some of her sisters, and also DC-4s and DC-6s. These airplanes, in the Conifair colours, sprayed forests here in eastern Canada against budworms. From my home, you could always tell when a Conifair plane was leaving, because the sound was so particular compared to turboprops or jets commuting at the airport. I sure miss their powerfull and beautiful roar.

One of the Constellations was sold to John Travolta. On the other hand, this one was grounded a few years, being parked near the airport's 2 remaining WWII hangars. It was moved from now and then, and exposed during airshows. You can see part of her right wing along with engines number 3 and 4 here facing a USAF C-141B at the Mont-Joli 1993 airshow.



During the summer of 1994, a team came along to get her back in flying condition, there was first of all a problem with one engine that had to be solved, but I don't recall the exact nature of that snag.

My father worked at the airport so I had the opportunity to board the plane for a visit and meet the people working on it. Later, I was in the control tower to see the plane takeoff for the first time of the decade, quite a sight, although only later did I realize what a magical moment I had witnessed.

Over the course of the next few weeks, she flew a couple of times over the town, before finally leaving. I still have media TV footage of the plane leaving, although I did not witness her final departure from YYY.

Well, that's my story... I hope she gets to Amsterdam where I will be visiting her pretty soon.

Best regards to Connie lovers,
Steven

Username: Tristar2000 [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-07 07:51:06 and read 32153 times.

For some reason, the link did not appear in the previous article.

In any case, the web address is:

http://www.ville.mont-joli.qc.ca/images/touph20b.jpg

Regards,
Steven

Username: D-AQUI [User Info]
Posted 2001-10-23 13:35:59 and read 32032 times.

I wish you all the luck to keep the ultimate piston airliner flying. I adore those who put all their efforts into preserving the heritage of those big thundering kites.
Splendid article!
Thank you.

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