Decades before the National Air and Space Museum acquired its Lockheed Super Constellation in 1988, the airplane traveled the world from the Caribbean to India, serving with a number of U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard units. The Museum's Super Connie, USAF serial number 54-177, began its career with the 1608th Air Transport Wing at Charleston Air Force Base in 1956. Shortly thereafter it participated in the Hungarian airlift, carrying refugees from eastern Europe to the United States. On April 19, 1967, the Museum's C-121C was transferred to the West Virginia Air National Guard based at Martinsburg, West Virginia, the unit whose insignia it will bear when it goes on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
We asked former crewmembers from the West Virginia Air National Guard to reminisce about their time with this storied airplane.
Master Sergeant Daniel Kesecker, Flight Engineer, 1958 - 1976
The Super Constellation was Eisenhower's private plane—that was his Air Force One, so you know it was a very good aircraft. Slick looking. A good flight was whenever we were doing the [NASA] Gemini program. The ships would pick up the astronauts and the [capsules], but they had all these radar sites and we maintained them. It was quite interesting. It felt like you were accomplishing something, helping out.
I had a lot of good memories and a lot of good trips. One example: We came into McGuire Air Force Base, left at midnight, and the pilot and the co-pilot put the airplane on autopilot and started playing cards. The navigator had set the course, and everything was running fine. After a while the pilot said, "There's something wrong, the moon shouldn't be there. Get a hold of that navigator!" We got the navigator to re-check everything, and it turns out the magnetic compass on the wingtip went bad, and we were doing a circle. I don't know how many circles we made; we had to do a lot of recalculating. We had about 15 or 20 minutes worth of fuel left when we landed. It was funny afterwards.
Lieutenant Colonel Carolyn Guiney Donegan, Flight Nurse, 1964 - 1992
Most of our missions started at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, because that was the hub, at that time, of the military airlift command. Our air guard unit was responsible for moving patients from Scott Air Force Base to the military hospital closest to their homes. We would arrive at the hospital and get a roster of the patients. The patients were loaded onto a bus and then onto a flight line. You'd take off, and we would end up with a half-hour to take care of patient medications, oxygen. Then you were going back down to the next stop. In those days you were stopping four or five times in an eight-hour period to load and unload patients. Those days were very hectic. On longer overseas flights, you had more opportunity for patient care since you would have four or five hours in the air to take care of them like you would in a hospital. That was a little better than the up-and-down flights.
It truly was a team effort. We had an absolutely fabulous flight crew. Of course the loadmasters and crew chiefs didn't know anything about patient care, but they absolutely wanted to know what you needed: Were there altitude restrictions, and things like that. Big [factors] in medical evacuations were the weather and aircraft maintenance. You could get patients there and find out that it would take two hours before the aircraft could take off.
Passengers would share their meals with patients. That was always really special. If you had a patient who was getting shocky, the loadmasters would help you. They would put parachute packs under limbs or to raise a patient's feet up. Those fellows were very adept at rigging up special things for you. They would also help us rig up restroom facilities. In the C-121 we did have latrines, but the patients sometimes couldn't walk to them, and we would rig up curtains around litters to make them as comfortable as possible.
I thought the Connie was great. We had a good galley where we could fix meals. It was a good airplane. In the C-130, there weren't any restrooms. Initially they put a bucket in the back of the airplane. They eventually put Sanipots in the airplanes.