Grand circle route
Back in the day, Qantas crews referred to their long-haul Super Constellations as ‘the best three-engined airliners in the world’.
The complicated, 18 cylinder turbo-compound Wright R-3350-972-TC18DA ‘Duplex Cyclone’ engines arrayed along the wings paid for their incredible 3,250 HP output (each) with a propensity to failure. In fact, Qantas had spare engines stored at every stop along its Kangaroo Route from Sydney, Australia to London, England – and was constantly ferrying more. They needed them.
Incidentally, the route typically involved some 65 hours of flying time with stops at Darwin, Singapore (overnight), Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo (overnight) and Tripoli. Return tickets cost around £600, or 130 weeks of average income. Today, Sydney-siders can get to London and back in a third of the flight time, and pay less than one fortieth of the real cost.
(I’m sure you can suggest some comparable fractions around legroom, elbow room and cabin crew attention!)
The power of volunteers
This particular aircraft is as much a testament to the power of volunteers as any Wright engines though. She is the flagship of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS), based in Wollongong, NSW, and a real stalwart of the Australian airshow circuit. (The title photo comes from Warbirds Downunder 2011, at Temora Aviation Museum.)
Built as a C-121C transport (cn #4176) for the USAAF she was delivered to the 1608th Military Air Transport Wing at Charleston, South Carolina in October 1955, as serial 54-0157. She later served with the Mississippi ANG, West Virginia ANG and Pennsylvania ANG before being retired to Davis-Monthan AFB in 1977.
HARS volunteers found the derelict aircraft in 1990 with, after 9 years bereft of care, maintenance or even closure, a substantial population of birds and ‘white dielectric material’. The ambitious restoration took five years, 16,000 hours and $800,00 – but on February 3rd, 1996, the graceful propliner touched down in Sydney, NSW after a trouble-free 39.5 hours’ flight time across the Pacific Ocean.
At first glance, she looks like a 1950s Qantas Super Constellation but, aside from winged kangaroo logos on the tail fins, the livery is only a tribute. The airline titling actually reads ‘Connie’ and the aircraft’s official name is a very fitting ‘Southern Preservation’. But still, everyone just calls her ‘Connie’.
The first and the last
One authentic touch is the VH-EAG registration, which was originally (as far as I know) applied to the very first Qantas L-1049 Super Constellation, cn 4539. It first flew from Lockheed Burbank on March 18th, 1954 and was flown into Sydney by a Qantas crew on April 15th that year to enter revenue service. She carried her last paying passengers for the airline in April 1963 before being sold to Boeing/Airmotive Inc for parts, with 21,844 flight hours on the clock.
As well as being the first Super Constellation to join Qantas, she was the last to leave. The airframe was scrapped in the US in 1965.
And last again
Shortly after, Qantas assigned the same storied registration to a new Boeing 707-338C ‘V-Jet’, cn 19627-707. (This was no nod to history though; the jet was simply the 7th in a block of 10 Boeing 707-338s (cn 19621 – 19630) ordered in the mid-1960s). The jetliner first flew from Renton on April 30th, 1968 and arrived in Sydney on May 18th, where it was dubbed ‘City of Hobart’ and put to work.
Renamed ‘Alice Springs’ in February 1974, the aircraft was used to evacuate cyclone survivors from Darwin in December 1974, and flew several ‘final 707’ services for Qantas during March 1979. After ferrying passengers stranded by the national air traffic controllers’ strike from Sydney to Melbourne on March 26th, 1979, she flew Qantas’ last-ever 707 revenue service on the return leg, with just four passengers aboard.
Her airline service ended after 38,013 flight hours and 14,498 cycles.
She was sold to the RAAF and officially handed over on April 7th, 1979, becoming VIP transport A20-627 with No.33 Squadron based at RAAF Richmond. After a further 12,175 hours flying for the RAAF she was retired on February 21st, 2001 and used for parts before being scrapped at Richmond in December 2009.
Somewhat fittingly, her cockpit section was donated to HARS for preservation.
So, after that grand circle, this month’s header image is a good analogue for airscape’s current status. Despite past hiccups, it feels like all four engines are turning smoothly on bringing history into the present… something I believe is always relevant and important.
Along with writing the occasional post here, I’ve been at the South Australian Aviation Museum this week photographing their latest completed restoration – a 1966 replica of Clyde Cessna’s Bleriot XI ‘Silver Wing’, in which he taught himself to fly during 1911.
As I wrote for an article on the project that will appear in The Flying Machine:
“The replica draws together several key threads of aviation history… A Bleriot XI is widely considered the first aircraft to fly in the state; and was certainly the world’s first successful production aircraft – the Cessna of its day. That draws a direct line of descent to the dominance of Cessna designs in the modern GA fleet, connecting the ingenuity of our region’s major Cessna dealers from 1966 with the ingenious (and persistent) Kansas farmer who saw the vast potential of aviation as far back as 1911…”
It’s amazing to see the simple airframe sharing space with a Comanche, Spitfire, Fokker F-27, C-47/Dakota, Canberra and F-111C. There’s a Gypsy Moth and John Johanson’s globe-circling RV-4 back there as well.
The Super Constellation I started with sits at an important juncture in all this remarkable progress. The L-049 that preceded it was one of the first post-war airliners, and helped set the template for global air travel as we know it today.
So, one way or another, all of these aircraft broke seemingly impossible boundaries of their times.
It makes me wonder whether their admirers and pilots ever worried about the future of aviation, as we’re forced to today.
But that’s probably a subject for another post…
Connie history from Historical Aircraft Restoration Society.