A mystery take off by a Lockheed Constellation, ca 1970

Dave Baker wrote me with the following story, which is indeed very entertaining but I am also intrigued by the question of the indetity of this plane involved and what became of it...

"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."

David Baker

Dave wrote me again in April 2006, with additional details:

I've got some information on the copilot. He was a student at Barnes Aviation, located at Fox Field. His instructor, a man nicknamed "Dutch" Meyerholtz, was at the site of the takeoff. His amusement at the site of his student sitting stolidly in the right seat of that Constellation was shared among the many pilots and lay people who journeyed out to watch the event. Dutch was my instructor at one time, and I'm sure he's with the airlines by now, or perhaps even retired. Bill Barnes died in a crash a while back (He was even more of a character than his mother (Florence "Pancho" Barnes), but his wife, Shuling, is still running the show out there.

She may remember the episode.
The old manager of Fox Field is probably expired by now, or at least close to it. The new manager may know where some archives of the incident are stored.

'Hope this helps!


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Created: 20-5-06 Updated: 21-5-06