Super Constellation: The Star of Switzerland
Taking a flight-deck ride on a rare survivor from the days when airline travel was exciting, adventurous and glamorous - and the aircraft itself was an object d’art
Through the decades, most airliners have been plain winged tubes, optimised for cramming in the highest number of paying passengers. I can recall only four that actually have aesthetic appeal. Reversing through time they are the Boeing 747-8, the BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde, the Lockheed Super Constellation and the de Havilland Albatross. Examined closely, these airframes have several similarities: they use four engines, they fly on shapely wings, and they have sinuous fuselages. To my eye, each has its beauty, but the most magnificent of the lot is the curvaceous and sonorous Super Constellation.
Sadly, those wooden Albatrosses are long gone and all Concordes were grounded a decade ago. Boeing hasn’t sold as many ‘dash eight’ jets as it should, and there are only two Super Connies left airborne (coincidentally production-line sister-ships) one in Switzerland and the other in Australia ? although there remain seven other ‘possibles’. But I prophesy that both these lovely Lockheeds will still be flying many years hence because they are universally admired for their splendid appearance and melodious sound.
What jet airliner has true style? Certainly not the bustling Boeings, dawdling Airbuses or skinny Embraers crowding today’s terminals. Perhaps my old love, the Boeing 747-400 has a kind of stately majesty, although honestly few groundlings would glance twice at one passing above.
Once upon a time, shortly after WWII, flying was exciting and thrilling, adventurous and glamorous, regrettably in a way it never will be again. Transcontinental and trans-oceanic flight were doubly so. In those distant times there was but a single passenger status; First Class ? the fares ensured that. In the nineteen fifties one dressed up for a flight, behaved politely and was treated respectfully. And if one flew overseas, the chances were it would be in a Super Constellation.
Somewhat later, in the early ’sixties, today’s 22,000-hour journalist was a gauche Twickenham teenager, keen on aeroplanes and rushing home from school each evening to stand tiptoed on his bedroom windowsill for a view over the slate roofs opposite, wistfully watching airliners approaching London Airport’s Runway 27 left. Among the shiny new jets were a very few remaining Boeing Stratocruisers, the occasional Avro York, the more common but equally venerable Douglas DC-6s and DC-7s and plenty of dinky Dakotas. The biggest and most attractive of all were Lockheed’s sinuous Super Constellations and Starliners, often sporting tip-tanks for extra range, and occasionally with one propeller feathered, for by then they were far from young and generally hard-worked, usually on freighting or charter duties.
That youngster wasn’t dreaming of exotic faraway places, only of being inside one of those wonderful things. Today that former Twickenham teenager, now a retired airline pilot who subsequently visited 238 faraway places, fulfils his lifetime ambition. He gets to fly in one of those iconic airliners, the Breitling L-1049F Super Constellation.
And there she is, standing tall and majestic outside Farnborough’s TAG business terminal, her classical art deco shape resplendent in recently new but perfectly period white and royal blue colours, and towering over the brash new business jets respectfully aligned in the background.
Some restored aeroplanes have their aluminium polished to a glassy thinness verging on transparency, but HB-RSC is not like that. Her unpainted skin is worn and scuffed and patinated to a dull sheen rather than a high gloss, exactly like those airliners of my youth. The Star of Switzerland is an honest, elderly, high-hours, working aeroplane, absolutely serviceable, mechanically tip-top, but the exact opposite of what American hot-rodders would call ‘a no-go show boat’. Her venerable airframe displays all the ripples, scratches, dents and scars of a lifetime plying the world’s airways and beating through all climates, her cowling undersides coated with dull but perfectly aerodynamic oil streaks while the wings’ upper surfaces are lined by matt black, engine caringly over-rich exhaust stains. There are thirty of us passengers, all invitees, and the aeroplane’s iconic status is obvious as we crowd out to the apron. Cameras, phones and tablets are raised in homage for photographs. Boarding is through the rear left door, where we find a sparsely furnished cabin with many fewer seats (34) than its volume could reasonably hold. I am invited to take my place in the front row, comfortably near the cockpit.
The entire operation is conducted super-professionally, despite this aircraft not having a public transport C of A. It is operated under Swiss ‘Historic’ certification, which is very like our Permits to Fly. Passengers are only carried as guests of one of the major sponsors, among whom are Breitling (watches and majority sponsorship), Total (fuel) and SR Technics (maintenance) or by virtue of being members of the Super Constellation Flyers Association (SCFA).
To fly in it, you merely join the association and pay a fee. Approx 3,000 supporter members contribute €100 per year apiece (€40 for under-eighteens) to qualify for flights, airshow visits and souvenir discounts. These subscriptions help fund annual maintenance costs. Members’ flights cost from €260 a time, depending on duration.
Our pilots today are current Airbus A340 captain Ron de Jong and SCFA operations manager (and retired 747 captain) Ernst Frei, with former BA Concorde captain Roger Mills as back-up. The flight engineers are newcomer (but veteran engineer) Markus Aerne and his trainer Rolfe Harlacher. In the cabin our hosts are chief flight attendant Thomas Hoffmann and fervent Connie enthusiast and current Swiss stewardess Mireille Haag.
Once aboard I am struck by a haunting aroma, similar to that last smelled on the DC-3 Dakota featured in January 1995’s Pilot ? but what exactly is in this blend? There’s inevitably a background of avgas from the capacious 25,000 litre tanks, with perhaps a tinge of exhaust fumes; also a hint of hydraulic fluid, for this was the first really big, fast airliner, and therefore the first with power-assisted flying controls in all axes. But there is a stronger overlay; what is that?
It wasn’t until after our flight, when walking around the outside and standing below one of the engines that it dawned on me; hot oil! For despite its hydraulics, oil is this aeroplane’s true lifeblood. Each nacelle holds a whopping 200 litres of the stuff, quite sufficient for a new engine’s transatlantic crossing. But as piston engines age, they burn progressively more lubricant, so there is also a 270-litre common reservoir with a selector enabling more to be fed to any powerplant if necessary. Rolfe explains that many of the feathered propellers I saw in my youth may not have been from engine failure, but simply from having run out of oil. In those latter days oil consumption could be more of a limiting factor than fuel consumption, especially with the auxiliary tip-tanks then prevalent. As he said, “We carry one full ton of oil, although we don’t expect to use it all.”
Immense amounts of power were coerced from these giant, last-generation reciprocating engines, with huge masses flailing around inside and combustion temperatures close to the tolerance of the alloys then in use. So it is vital they are treated sympathetically and with respect. It is generally accepted that this generation of airliners were not so much pilots’ aeroplanes; rather they belonged to the flight engineers ? a hugely knowledgeable and capable group of professionals who often began their careers building or maintaining these very airframes and powerplants, so they knew precisely how they worked, how to care for them, and how not to abuse them.
Markus is just such a man, having formerly spent decades working on electrical plant gas turbines and then on all of Swissair’s big jets. Today he leads the pilots through the pre-start checks, conducting the familiar challenge-and-response litany. After that’s complete, he turns to his own wide and complex instrument panel on the right for the protracted routine of starting our engines. Below this magnificent array of gauges, lights and switches he has a complete set of throttles, mixtures and rpm (propeller pitch) levers plus those all-important, red emergency feathering buttons. One instrument unfamiliar in modern aircraft is the BMEP (Brake Mean Effective Power) gauge ? roughly equivalent to a turboprop’s torquemeter, and the main indicator of each engine’s output.
The flight engineer not only controls the engines, their lubrication and synchronisation, but the fuel, electrics, pressurisation, heating, hydraulics, fire detection and suppression, airframe de-icing and of course everything else on board this aeroplane. The pilots just fly and navigate it. There are an electrical generator and a 1,650psi hydraulic pump on every engine. The primary hydraulics boost all the flying controls, while the secondary system powers the wheels, flaps, brakes and steering. This particular Connie is no longer pressurised and its heater has been removed, so the overhead ducts now direct streams of cooling air on to the passengers.
In a modern jet, engine starting is easy. You merely lift the four fuel levers, sequentially twist the overhead start switches to autostart and watch it all happen to the accompaniment of a rising background whine. Things are very different with big radials. In the heyday of piston airliners a captain might offer his first officer the chance to fly a sector if he could but start all four engines without making one backfire. This gives some idea of the care needed.
I can’t remember the procedure in detail, but it includes opening the fuel cocks, switching on the pumps and then setting, one-at-a-time the throttle, propeller and mixture lever of each engine, priming with its electrical pump while motoring it with the powerful starter, and only switching on the magnetos once twelve blades of rotation have been achieved. Then, in the traditional order, three, four, two, one, and amid wonderful, airframe-enveloping billows of swirling blue/grey smoke and the occasional flash of flame, cylinder by three-litre cylinder each engine catches, stumbles, rumbles and runs while the aircraft begins to come alive, throbbing increasingly strongly to the slow, 800rpm heartbeat of eventually no fewer than 72 drumming pistons. You don’t only hear this, but you feel it pulsing and throbbing through the floor, as the whole airframe rumbles into life and those giant propellers thrum in the morning air.
Finally our engines are all running and warming and the after-start checklist is complete, so Ernst gets clearance and we sedately move forward. As we murmer clockwise around Farnborough’s perimeter track, I notice a repeated shrill, near ultra-sonic brake squeal I remember so well from the ’sixties. It takes me right back to my boyhood.
Cleared on to the runway we stop and Ron sets the brakes. What’s happening now, I ponder? Of course, these are piston engines not turbines, so we have to conduct the time-consuming process of a run-up, just as we would in a lightplane but with much more complexity and four times over. This is done by increasing power on two engines at a time in symmetrical pairs. I watch and Rolfe explains as yet another complex, two-man routine takes place, with Markus adjusting the power, checking propeller pitch-change, emergency feathering and unfeathering and rpm, temperature, pressure and bmep variations at his station, while Ron reaches up and alternately switches off and on the magnetos from the overhead panel.
WALKING MAIN GEAR LEGS
As the first two engines’ revs increase our airframe jolts forward several inches, immediately followed by a second identical jerk. I smile; this is caused by the Connie’s renowned ‘walking’ main gear legs. These are articulated at their tops, and cushioned by strong, five-ton springs, so that they tilt forwards slightly in flight the better to absorb touchdown drag forces. Finally, all checks complete, Rolfe shuts the cockpit’s outer door on the fuselage’s right side.
Modern turbofans have Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) so the pilots simply ‘stand up the thrust levers’ to increase their rpm a bit and then press the TOGA (Take-Off and Go-Around) button and steer as the engines quickly, smoothly and unerringly whisk up to max thrust and no more.
There’s no such thing as FADEC here. Ron calls for “Full power”, so Markus slowly and cautiously eases the four throttles forwards, carefully monitoring a dozen or more gauges to ensure he doesn’t exceed the boost, rpm or bmep limits and checking that fuel and oil pressures and engine temperatures remain acceptable.
Then comes another sound I’ve not heard for fifty years, but nevertheless recognise instantly: the basso profundo concerto of four Wright R-3350s at high power and thrashing the air with their fifteen-foot propellers. Not absolute full power you understand, not any more, because these engines are virtually irreplaceable, their original ultra-high octane 115/145 fuel is no longer available, and they would be highly stressed at full throttle.
Nowadays something closer to METO (Maximum Except Take Off) power is used: ‘just’ fifty inches of boost (using ‘low blower’ and retarded ignition) at 2,800rpm in fully rich, to keep down combustion temperatures, rather than the original 59.5 inches and 2,900rpm which produced a massive 3,250 horsepower apiece. Now they deliver around 2,880 horsepower but it’s quite enough, and in the dusk or dark you see flickering flames streaming from the exhausts. You only get that in jets on a very bad night!
Our acceleration is instantaneous and surprisingly vigorous. Ron is at first steering with his hand wheel on the left sidewall, and then with his feet as we gather speed. This Super Connie’s maximum take-off weight used to be 135,000 pounds (sixty tons) but it is now limited to just 110,000lb by insurance requirements. Today, at our local flight weight, the calculated V1 is 95 knots, with a V2 of 107kt. Unlike jets, it has no specific rotation speed; Ron simply lifts the aeroplane off the runway when it feels right and accelerates as quickly as possible to V2. In reality this all happens naturally and pretty well immediately so we gently ease into a stately climb.
Once we are safely airborne Ernst retracts our landing gear. When all three legs are locked up, he can raise the flaps. Then Ron calls for “Climb power” and Markus gently reduces boosts and revs, carefully ensuring all propellers are turning at precisely the same rpm to minimise the harmonic beating noise that can be so annoying to both occupants and spectators. To aid him his panel includes a triple prop synchrophaser. At a thousand feet Ron levels off and starts a gentle left turn. As the cylinder head temperatures reduce, Markus can close the cowl flaps and adjust the mixtures, and then shut the oil cooler doors. A flight engineer’s work is never done.
We had to wait for the cloudbase to rise to 1,000 feet before departure, because despite having the normal IFR instrumentation, this airliner is currently approved only for VFR flight, and regardless of dual GPSs it is operated strictly by visual navigation, so all three pilots now lean forward to peer through the seven shallow windscreen panels for conflicting traffic. We cross the Hog’s Back at little more than the 500-foot legal minimum, the green landscape unreeling rapidly below as we transit just under a pervasive grey sheet of orographic cloud dragged down by that ridge, setting off southwards for the coast and sunshine we know exist beyond Midhurst VOR.
This is familiar territory to me, and I realise we’re heading directly for our village. I’ve viewed our home from a thousand feet innumerable times, but rarely at 220 knots, and never before framed by the lustrous cowlings and flashing airscrews of a Super Constellation’s Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones. We must look and sound magnificent from the pub’s garden!
WONDERFUL WAY TO GO SIGHTSEEING
After the South Downs we turn to fly across Goodwood airfield, and then east along the coast to Brighton and beyond to Beachy Head; familiar territory to Roger and myself, but novel to our Swiss hosts. This is a wonderful way to go sightseeing. The passengers move around inside, crowding our old-fashioned square cabin windows to photograph the view: wings, nacelles, engines, sea, coastline ? everything. Back on the flight-deck Markus’s work continues. These engines can’t be left to their own devices for hours like a Trent or GE90, they must be monitored and cosseted to obtain the longest possible life, and it was ever thus with turbo-compounds.
Every hour comprehensive readings should be taken and recorded, not only of the many gauges and dials, but from the unique oscilloscope set into the flight engineer’s table. As well as adjusting rpm, manifold pressure and mixture, these engines have variable ignition timing, which can be advanced for optimum fuel economy. And those 144 spark plugs must be watched because, as with any piston aero-engine, a mag-drop grounds the aeroplane. This oscilloscope is read in conjunction with a booklet illustrating possible problems, the green trace compared with pages of diagnostics so that any ignition snag can be rectified immediately upon arrival. Fortunately a Connie’s tulip-petal cowlings allow relatively easy access to the hot engines (unlike some contemporaries’ complicated cowls) and it was claimed that a complete powerplant change took little more than half an hour!
Sightseeing complete, we return to Farnborough. The passengers strap back into their seats and Markus reads the approach checks. The Connie’s flap lever doesn’t have detents like modern ones, so they can be set to any angle, but the gauge reads up, take off, approach, 80% and landing. Because these are broad, twelve-segment, area-increasing Fowler flaps, the first few degrees take many seconds to run as they initially move backwards, not deflecting downwards until the full area has been achieved. Approach speeds range between 100 and 104 knots, and of course with our light load today we’re near the minimum.
Turning final I glance out of the window. In direct sunlight our old Connie’s gently nodding nacelles bob and weave almost imperceptibly to the bumps and jolts of low-level convection as this majestic airliner floats grumbling and snuffling down the glidepath, snout-down and tail-high, like a hound on the scent, with an occasional muffled popping from the engines after a power reduction. I am only slightly disappointed that none of our propellers is stationary and feathered for old times’ sake.
Unlike modern jets, which fly their approach five or more degrees nose-up, the Connie’s attitude is several degrees nose-down, but it has that long, stalky nose-leg. The panoramic windscreens are shallow, although the pilots sit close to them, and with such a nose-down attitude they get a reasonable view. Furthermore, the cockpit is a full 8.5 metres above the surface normally, and significantly more after flaring, so accurate judgement requires constant practice.
A jetliner’s pilot simply increases his attitude by three degrees to level off from an ILS glideslope and perhaps one more to account for any minimal speed reduction, but the Connie pilot must rotate his nose through ten degrees or more to flare and hold off for a proper mainwheels-first touchdown. And he doesn’t have fully powered elevators, merely some hydraulic assistance, so he needs both hands for the task. And that robs him of the ability to adjust the throttles or even wind back the big black trim wheel.
So Ron calls for, “Slow cut” and gradually heaves the wheel back towards his chest. Markus gently closes and then releases the throttles, the engines rumble into submission, and our stately lady relinquishes her grasp on the air, settling to the ground with a jolt from those articulated main legs. As the nosewheel subsides and she begins to slow, Markus stretches forward to pull up the four red reverse levers. Now the engines begin accelerating again, but this time to a tremendous burbling and scuffling from the propellers, which have twisted into negative pitch to retard our forty-ton bulk. Finally, as our speed drops to a jog we feel the twin jerks of our main gear legs returning to their normal angle, the engines subside, and their murmur is overlaid once more by that intermittent high-pitched brake squeal.
Watching a Super Constellation in flight is one of aviation’s great sights, but actually to fly in one is the experience of a lifetime. All you need to do is join the association!