Truth, often stranger than fiction...

David Baker wrote me in April 2006 with an unbelievable story, but one I know to be the truth...

"For what it's worth, I'll relate a true story about this amazing airplane. Circa 1970, a company operating at William J. Fox Field in Lancaster, California was involved in rebuilding Lockheed Constellations. The Company was called "California Airmotive", and the key to their business was buying worn-out Connies, disassembling them, and using them for parts to refurbish newer, low-time/lower-cycled airplanes.

When the basic ferry condition was attained, they would ask the FAA for a ferry permit to fly the planes to Van Nuys airport for final preparations and painting. One fine day, a C.A. crew hopped aboard a Connie for a flight to Van Nuys. They performed the standard, preflight/runup checks, and took off on runway 24. Not long afterward, the engines all quit, and the plane glided over some powerlines, and landed safely in a plowed farm field. The embarrassed crew could not figure out why no one checked the tanks before boarding the plane, but the real problem was what to do with it. Some suggested it be disassembled and carted back to Fox Field. Others planned a restaurant right where it sat!

However, California Airmotive found a pilot who would fly the plane out of the field. Mind you, this was a plowed field, with furrows, grass, a powerline on the far end, and powerlines on the near end. Only 2000 feet were usable, and at the end of that distance stood the farmer's house. My dad hauled us kids out to see this momentous event. As we arrived, the plane was accelerating down the field, and we thought we were too late... Just as it approached the far end, it decelerated, and taxied back toward the starting point and shut down.

We were among about 200 people who watched this dishevelled, short, foreign sounding man march back and forth shouting orders to the ground crew. His demeanor was a little odd, and we all secretly believed he was going to botch the attempted takeoff. His copilot was a sergeant stationed at Edwards AFB, who had just received his Commercial pilot license. He was not in any way familiar with the plane, but he had the job (for 5,000 dollars), of reading the airspeed indicator. That was all he had to do to earn that money!

The pilot, it turned out, was an old Luftwaffe transport pilot, who had a type-rating for Connies he flew for Lufthansa. As I described, he was short, and poorly dressed in a tattered old suit, and his balding pate was the final touch to this pathetic looking figure who barked orders to the crew, and made his preflight checks. He boarded the Lockheed via a ladder as his copilot stared blankly from the right seat at the crowd. With all four engines started, the plane shook, belched smoke, and strained at the bit to take flight. As our wide-eyed witnesses watched with great anticipation, the engines began roaring out the sound of great power being applied. A huge dust cloud blew eastward as the pilot applied the throttles to max BMEP. The old bird rattled and swayed as the final mag and prop checks were completed.

Just then, it began to move, painfully slow at first, but it gathered momentum in short order. We cheered the crew, and wished them well as the plane lurched down the furrowed runway. My friend and I raced to the cloud of dirt roiling up in the wake of the giant airliner, and we each yelled in horror "He's not gonna make it!" All we saw was dirt flying, and the sound of four screaming radial engines. Suddenly, the shape of the Connie lifted from the ground, to the great relief of our applauding contingent. Less than 1800 feet of that terribly unfit surface was needed to accelerate the old bird into the air!!

There are photos of this event in the archives of the local papers, but most of the Connie pilots I met don't believe a word of this story. Anyway, I do share your admiration for what has to be the most aesthetically pleasing airplane ever built."
Sincerely,
David Baker


From Peter J. Marson's book on the Lockheed Constellation Series (Air-Britain, 1982), the following on California Airmotive Corporation:
Formed by Mr. Allen Paulson, former Flight Engineer on Trans World Connies. He left to form hos own company, buying first aircraft engines in 1951, and then his first aircraft for resale in 1955, stripping the aircraft for parts and scrapping the rest, or remaking one good aircraft for resale out of several.
His company, the California Airmotive Corp., became one of the largest dealers in second-hand aircraft (particularly second-hand airliners) in the world. At one time he had 35 Constellations of various models, 22 DC-6/7 and 4 other airliners in storage at Fox Field (Lancaster, California), in 1970/71, not to mention other aircraft at other airfields such as Burbank!
A subsidiary company during the early 1960s was West Coast Airmotive Corporation. Allen Paulson bought out the Pacific Airmotive Corp. at Burbank and started converting various types of passenger transport to freighters. Several Connies were rebuilt by Paulson's company and converted to freighter aircraft.
California Airmotive was renamed American Jet Industries in 1973 and with the takeover of Grumman's light and executive aircraft manufacturing divisions on 12Oct79, became the Gulfstream American Corporation.

It would be interesting to know the identity of the Lockheed Constellation in question and the crew concerned.


 

In June 2006 I received following email from Stefan Bailis -
"I heard about this one! I heard it firsthand from the flight engineer who flew it into the farm field: the well-known Connie flight engineer, Ralph Dominguez!
Unfortunately he told me the tale about 20 years ago and I'm forgetting the details now...
I recall that the FAA had insisted the plane had to have the landing gear pins installed, so that the gear could not be retracted. It wasn't a case of insufficient fuel on board but something else--I wish I could remember!
At any rate, the drag of the gear exceeded the power available, forcing the landing in the field. Ralph now lives in Mexico.
Ralph, incidentally, was flight engineer on another "impossible" take-off: the take-off of General MacArthur's former Connie out of Alabama for its new home in Arizona (via Texas). They had only 2000 feet of runway but managed to get off in under 1800 feet!"
Thanks Stef!

David Baker responded in Sep. 2006
"I am wondering how the "landing gear drag" would exceed the power available? Fox Field is only 2.347 feet above sea level, and in that era, 115/145 Aviation Fuel was still in use (we even used it in our T-34, but it would invariably foul the plugs), so the 'power available' would have been sufficient for a normal takeoff/climb... All planes are designed to fly with the landing gear extended, as it would be during any normal takeoff, and during landing approaches/go-arounds/and pattern work. In addition, the FAA would not approve a ferry flight--or even an experimental flight--if the conditions were not suitable for the aircraft to climb etc.
There were, according to sources, several aircraft engines onboard, along with various other parts, but the plane was not overloaded.
What we heard was that the tanks were almost dry, and that all the engines quit prior to the plane landing on the farm field. A possible rumor developed that a wild animal (rodent?) jumped out of one fuel tank as they uncapped it... but that was only a rumor."
Thanks Dave!

Stef replied to this:
"Dave is right: any transport category plane will fly with the gear down, max. power, and with an engine failure and at maximum take-off weight.
But it only has to have a positive climb -- a bare 50fpm! That is called First Segment Climb. In Second Segment Climb, the gear is up but the prop is windmilling (unless it has autofeathered) and the plane has to climb at a considerably faster rate (an odd formula--see FAR 25 or the old CAR 4b) and be able to clear all obstacles by 50 feet.
Then there is a Third Segment (prop feathered) and Fourth Segment (METO power)...
The gear on a Connie is powered by the Secondary Hydraulic System, itself powered by hydraulic pumps on #3 and #4 engine. Even if it fails there is power available from the Primary Hydraulic System (#1 and #2 engine), which can only be accessed through the Hydraulic Cross-Over switch on teh F/E upper instrument panel. So, normally, you can get the gear up one way or another. In the case of the incident cited, the gear was locked in place by gear pins per the FAA's stipulation. V2 on an L-1049H at MGTOW is not that high: 125 knots, if memory serves correctly. In the case cited, they were very light, so V2 would have been much lower.
Oh, incidentally, as you might surmise, I flew Connies. I got to fly the last few in Miami as co-pilot and flight engineer, 1979-1980. Also, I was F/E on the delivery flight of AMSA's first Super Connie HI-515 (N88879 for the ferry flight), 1988. Most of my time was in the DC-6 and DC-7 series."

 


Links:
My page on Surviving Connies
My page on background info Lockheed Constellation

External links:
Lockheed Constellation Survivors, by Ralph Pettersen
Connies' Place
, Frank Sanger's website about the Lockheed Constellation


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Last updated 26.8.2006