The Odyssey of the Lost Super Connie

So in my last post I mentioned that I have a strange relationship with aviation – that even at the tender age of seven years old I knew a lot more about airplanes – specifically airliners – than I really ought to have at that age.

And of course going hand in hand with that was the fact that I loved airplanes growing up – my favorite toys were my toy and model airliners. Even weirder was the fact that I liked to draw flight deck panels as a kid that were surprisingly accurate, considering I had only seen them on TV.

Well, all of that of course became the foundation for a lifelong love of aviation, and in particular a fascination for airliners. I have taken flight lessons and completed ground school, though unfortunately to date I have never had the cash to complete my flight training for a Private Pilot’s License. It’s been so long now anyway I’d really just need to start over if I ever got back into it.

Which is really too bad in a way. Because when I took flight lessons, the instructor got a little upset with me at one point, when he explained that we were going to slip the airplane into a practice holding pattern over a farm field, and I then brought the airplane into formation over the edge of the field with perfect coordination of the yoke and the rudder pedals, before he’d even finished speaking. A lot of my lessons went like that – including landing at Stockton Metro with a United Airlines prop flight behind me! No pressure here……

“Look, this course and introductory price are not really intended for experienced pilots – you told me you had never flown an airplane, but you very obviously have.”

I swore that I hadn’t, other than under his instruction.

Well regardless, I now have contented myself with thousands of hours of home computer flight simulation in Microsoft Flight Simulator X (awesome graphics!) and perhaps calming the occasional nervous passenger whenever I have occasion to take a commercial flight somewhere, saying, “Nothing to worry about sir – the Boeing 737 has the highest safety record of any commercial jet. You are on a very safe airplane.” I really should at least get an extra bag of in-flight cookies for that, I think.

Maybe I really was an airline pilot in another life, who knows?

Or maybe there is a slightly more mundane, but nonetheless unlikely explanation.

The other day I caught an old episode of the original Twilight Zone, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” A Boeing 707 Captain finds himself in a jet that is speeding up beyond what is possible, going through a sound barrier of some sort, and jumping around in time over Manhattan Island. Sorry for the spoiler there, but come on – the episode originally aired in 1961, if you haven’t seen it by now, it’s not my fault. Anyway, so the captain keeps bringing the jet down to altitudes that for a Boeing 707 should be reserved only for short final (landing) – presumably to see where – and when – the plane is. First they are in prehistoric times with a dinosaur just below the plane, then they are over the 1939 World’s Fair. (We will leave the glaring scientific holes in this episode’s plot alone for now, since that’s not really the point I am making here. Heh.)

A real airliner would never be flying that low for no reason – we are talking 100 feet or so above the ground. Just wouldn’t happen. Crop dusters, sure – that happened all the time – I remember one time when the wheel of a crop duster (our house was in the middle of 200 acres of farm fields) clipped our TV antenna on top of the house, and we didn’t have TV for a week.

At the end of the episode, the narrator says, “So if some moment, any moment, you hear the sound of jet engines flying atop the overcast, engines that sound searching and lost, engines that sound desperate, shoot up a flare, or do something – that would be Global 33 trying to get home – from the Twilight Zone.”

May, 1977. School was almost out for the year. I was 8 years old, going on 9. It was a warm, muggy, day, with low clouds and a slight haze in the air from the farmers burning weeds in the fields.

The school bus would pick us up each morning and drop us off each afternoon on the highway in front of our house, rather than going down the dirt road to our house. This was because the dirt road was owned by Burlington Northern – the railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway between the highway and the dirt road – and they didn’t want the liability of a loaded school bus on their property. Dumb. So each day, twice a day, we made our way through the borrow pit and over the railroad tracks to the dirt road and finally to our house (or vice versa) – about a distance of 200 feet. (This got even more interesting in the winter.)

That May afternoon, as my brother (he would have been 11) and I traversed this no man’s land between the “bus stop” and the house, we first heard the low rumble of an airplane engine. Actually, multiple engines, it sounded like, and the note was way too low to be a crop duster. It sounded big. It sounded a lot like what I imagined a World War II bomber might sound like. The engines were quite loud now, but we saw nothing.

And then it broke out of the clouds at an impossibly low elevation – a huge airliner no more than 100 feet over our property. It was a prop, – four screaming prop engines and three tail fins (technically called vertical stabilizers). Red stripes along the center of the fuselage, and the unmistakable words above the stripes – Trans World Airlines. Nose down, then level, then climbing – the captain went for gusto at full throttle as he pulled her out of the dive. As she passed overhead and began climbing up over the Blockplant (see previous posts for more about the Blockplant) she was at her lowest perhaps only 50 feet off the ground. I actually thought the thing was going to crash right into our house. The plane climbed back up into the clouds, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared.

No, I don’t think it was Global Flight 33 or any other lost flight out of time, but it is almost enough to make you wonder……..

In point of fact, I know exactly what happened. I now know (as an aviation and airline enthusiast) that what I saw was a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation, and it has become one of my favorite airplanes of all time. Long since retired from airline service (even then), this was one of the airplanes used as a tanker to combat forest fires, out of the US Forest Service firefighters air base in Greybull, Wyoming, about 40 miles from my hometown. They were probably returning from a mission in the Bighorns, which would take them over my town, saw the smoke from the farmers doing controlled burns of their fields (which got out of hand ALL the time) and like Global 33, decided to dip down close to the ground and investigate. I do think he got a bit lower than he meant to, as evidenced by the way he pulled up sharply and then pushed the screaming engines to the max less than 100 feet off the ground, dangerous in any aircraft, let alone an early airliner.

The Lockheed Super Constellation is in my opinion a beautiful airplane. But don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself – this one looks exactly like the plane I saw that afternoon decades ago:

 

Image

The Super Constellation, or “Super Connie” as it was often referred to, was an important airplane in airline history because it opened up transcontinental travel for paying passengers, something that was problematic until then, as the Douglas DC-3 and DC-4s didn’t have the range for long transcontinental flights. The Super Connie did, and it opened up air travel to Europe, South America, even Australia for the members of the public who could afford it. At one point in the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower used three different Super Constellations, including one as Air Force One.

Not very many people can say that a Super Constellation has buzzed their house, but on one late spring afternoon of my childhood, one did, and it was an experience that I never forgot, and an experience, most likely the formative experience, that made me fall in love with aviation, and airliners, for the rest of my life.

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