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.
In a period of one year, 1966, our ANG unit flew 5 million patient miles. It was a privilege to be able to do it. As a young flight nurse, being responsible for sick and wounded, it was a fearsome responsibility. In my youth, being naíve, I embraced that, but a successful medical evacuation doesn't happen alone.
Master Sergeant Bobbie McBee, Loadmaster, 1958 - 1991
My job as loadmaster concerned the weight and balance of the airplane. When you loaded it, you had to make sure the balance worked out right, make sure the center of gravity was correct. The Connie was built for commercial use, so the cargo had to be man-handled, packages that two or three people could carry into the aircraft and stack. As loadmaster I'd sit there with a clipboard and a piece of paper—you'd have support people carrying packages that weigh 50 pounds, 100 pounds, 150 pounds—we'd haul around 10,000 pounds. I'd have to add it all up. You'd be in Panama, it'd be 110 degrees, you're inside that hot airplane, and you'd be sitting down there writing figures and trying to total them up. The job of the loadmaster is like… think of two kids on a seesaw. If you have one kid that weighs 150 pounds, the other weighs 50, it won't balance so good.
I remember we hauled two loads into Vietnam. We got there and the troops were complaining that half our load was Kool-Aid. They said, "Why couldn't you at least haul us some beer?"
Later on, when they started coming out with jets, new people weren't used to the old piston-engine planes. The airplane would sit overnight, and a lot of the oil would drain down to the bottom of the cylinders. And when you start that thing up—I remember one time we were someplace in Europe, and the tower called, "You all on fire? You need assistance?" You could hardly see the airplane for the smoke. They weren't used to seeing an old airplane like that.
Senior Master Sergeant Bob DeVore, Crew Chief, 1961 - 1995
The Crew Chief is assigned to one aircraft, and he's responsible for the maintenance pre-flight inspection. That's prior to turning it over to the flight crew, which does its own pre-flight inspection. You repair items essential to the flight, such as tires or leaks. If there's a discrepancy in your inspection, you repair it. You do engine work; you build up tires, put them back on the aircraft, service the aircraft with fuel and oil, clean it, and wash it periodically. Also, with the Connie, you rearrange the seating. We hauled cargo and passengers, and you'd place or remove the seats in the aircraft. Every 100 hours of flight time you'd have a post-flight inspection. This was a scheduled inspection based on the number of flying hours. You'd go over the airframe, and this inspection would take us five days. You'd repair what was necessary, engines, whatever was needed.
I remember one 100-hour inspection that we did. It was during a snowstorm, it snowed all night long. We had huts that we put on the engines to protect them a little bit, and we also used ground heaters. In doing that, a lot of the snow started melting off of the wings, but not the tail. We had maybe a foot of snow that night. Pretty soon we noticed that the nose gear was pretty high off the ground, and the strut was extended. Next thing you know the airplane was sitting on its tail, with its nose off the ground. We put heavy, inflatable rubberized bags under the wings and fuselage. We cleaned the snow off the tail, and gradually let the air out of the bags, just gradually let the airplane down. The props were slightly damaged, and we had to change them. Other than that, there wasn't any serious damage.
Chief Master Sergeant James S. Roberts, Chief Flight Engineer, 1956 - 1989
Chief flight engineer was the best job that the Air Force had to offer an enlisted man like myself. The C-121 was one of the very few airplanes that the Air Force had where the pilot didn't start the engines. The flight engineer started the engines, did all of the engine work. We managed the engines and the fuel. The pilot would line up on the runway, and say max power, you'd pooch the throttles forward, and hold the throttles forward to get him off the ground, and set the climb power, and the cruise power, and he didn't touch the throttles at all until he landed. Just prior to touchdown, he took over control of the throttle.
We had three flights to Vietnam a month out of Martinsburg, and I went on one a quarter. I would pick up a load at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas—maybe Christmas trees, or a whole load of soap; anything but perishable stuff. We'd fly to Travis AFB, to Hawaii, to Kwajalein Island. They'd park us on a ramp in Kwajalein, and our wingtip would swing out over the lagoon and we'd go out on the wingtip and jump off and swim awhile. That was nice after nine hours of flying.
Once I was coming from Panama back to the U.S. coastline. It's called the defense line. When you approach the defense line, the pilot transmits an air report over the airways to the FA Control Station. We were a little late getting the report out, probably 15 minutes late, and four jets intercepted us. And we're sitting there, floating along in the Connie at 15,000 to 16,000 feet. A jet came up, right across our nose. And there were three more, just waiting up there. And they came up and pulled around, and they got on the phone and started hollering at us to call the Florida center, get on the phone, and get us the code numbers. Finally they moseyed off.