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By Lou Washington

If you love airplanes, you probably have a personal favorite. For some, the love affair might be based on performance such as the Mach 3+ SR-71. For others, the attachment may be the result of a particularly successful war record like that of the P-51 Mustang or Spitfire.

One Beautiful Airplane

For pure beauty of design I have to go with the Lockheed Constellation, especially the stretched, Super G, variant. The plane looks like it’s in motion even when it is standing still. The fuselage has a stunning aerodynamically curved shape; the trademark triple tail gives this bird an unmistakable silhouette. The huge wings, typically equipped with wingtip mounted range extending fuel tanks gracefully offset the four huge 18 cylinder Wright R-335-DA3 radial compound supercharged engines.

Lockheed designed the Constellation in response to a concept and rough design from Howard Hughes. The design team for this fantastic aircraft included none other than the famed Kelly Johnson. Johnson was one of the driving forces behind Lockheed’s skunk-works. This was where the U2, the SR-71 and other highly classified aircraft were born. The vision for the Constellation was long range, high capacity and high speed.

It achieved all three objectives. At maximum capacity the Connie could accommodate 109 passengers. The plane had a cruising speed of 340 MPH and a top end of 377 MPH. The maximum range for the Constellation was 5,400 miles making it truly a transcontinental, transoceanic airliner. Lockheed produced these magnificent aircraft until 1958.

The Connie was the last of a breed. The long range airliners, powered by propeller driven engines, were being pushed out of the way by the much faster, more economical and smoother riding pure jets. The De Havilland Comet, the Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8 and the Convair 880 captured the imagination of the flying public and ultimately made the prop driven birds obsolete. But, during most of the decade of the ‘50s, the Connie still reigned as queen of the sky.

Connie Comes to Columbia

I will always remember the first time I saw one these magnificent airplanes firsthand. I was only eight years old, but the experience left me with a lifelong love of airplanes and flying.

TWA Super G Constellation

At about 10:30 pm on the evening of Wednesday, April 22, 1959, TWA flight 265 lifted off from the airport in St Louis and headed west on the final leg of the Miami to Kansas City flight. Flight 265 was under the command of Captain Ernest Feazel. Initially, everything was working perfectly and the airplane experienced no problems.

At 11:03pm, Captain Feazel notified the Columbia Missouri airport FAA facility that the airplane was experiencing some trouble. The aircraft had developed a condition known as runaway prop on the number one engine located on the outside position of the port or left wing.

The Constellation was powered by four 3,250 HP engines. These were probably the most complicated internal combustion engines ever developed. The propellers used on these engines featured variable pitch control which enabled each propeller blade to turn on its long axis to adjust the angle of attack between the blade and the air.

Imagine a canoe paddle; pulling the paddle through the water with the wide portion of the paddle facing the direction you pull it is considerably more effective then turning the paddle so it slices through the water like a knife. On the airliner, this effect is used to maximize power delivered by the engine and to facilitate acceleration, braking and even thrust reversal in some cases. It also allows the prop to self adjust its pitch to keep the aircraft in power trim.

The runaway prop condition essentially meant that the number one engine was running out of control with the propeller angle pitched in a manner that created significant drag and delivered no thrust. Normally, a pilot would “feather” the engine involved and continue on with three engines.

Captain Feazel attempted to complete this procedure but, the engine did not respond. There was a very real danger that the engine would overheat causing the propeller shaft to fail which in turn would likely result in the engine blowing apart.  The end result would have been catastrophic.

At 11:14pm Captain Feazel notified the airport that he would need to land the plane. He declared an emergency, requested fire equipment and emergency personnel be made ready. At 11:17pm the captain advised that he was making his final turn and would be landing from the north shortly.

Before we continue the story let me tell you a bit about the airport that served Columbia Missouri in 1959.

Columbia Municipal Airport had two runways. One ran north and south and the other east and west. The north/south runway was the longer of the two and it ran out to a little over 4,000 feet. The east/west runway was shorter, running about 3,300 feet and intersecting the north/south runway at the south end. The main hanger and “terminal” was located near the intersection.

The two runways were composed of an asphalt or macadam surface. They were rated to accommodate aircraft with maximum landing weights of 27,000 lbs. Typically the largest airplane you would see at this airport would be the DC-3 Ozark Airlines aircraft serving Columbia with flights to St Louis, Kansas City and other communities in the vicinity.

The Lockheed Super G Constellation on final approach to Columbia Municipal that evening carried a crew of six people and 35 passengers. Adding fuel, mail, freight and luggage brought the gross landing weight for the Connie up to about 100,000 pounds. Typically, this plane would comfortably use a 5,000 to 8,000 foot runway in regular service.

One has to imagine that Captain Feazel had a lot on his mind that evening as the Connie approached the north runway threshold at four times the designed landing weight and half the runway he needed.

Witnesses report that the landing was executed to perfection. The plane came in low and slow, the Connie has a 100 MPH stall speed so slow is a relative term in this context.

Once the plane touched down, the brakes on the main gear locked. The aircraft skidded down the runway; the right wheel truck momentarily skidded off the runway digging up ground before re-attaining the runway surface. The tires on the left wheel truck exploded and the wheels began to dig into the surface of the soft asphalt.

As the plane crossed the intersection of the east/west runway, it spun around a full 180 degrees where it finally came to a full halt facing the direction from which it landed. Flight 265 was safely on the ground with less than 300 feet of runway to spare.

Unfortunately, the shredded tires, the blown number one engine, the locked brakes all added up to a major repair headache for TWA. Initially, there was little to be done because the plane could not be moved. As it set in the middle of the two runways, it slowly sank into the asphalt. A team was dispatched by TWA to Columbia along with a new engine to install and to get the bird ready for a short flight to the TWA Maintenance facility in Kansas City.

The passengers were carried to Kansas City by bus along with the flight crew.

The next day, while the repairs were in process, my dad took me to the airport to see the big bird that had dropped in during the previous night. Naturally, this was big news in our little city and many citizens headed to the airport to see the huge airplane. I stood there with my dad looking across the tarmac at this beautiful airplane. It was simply spectacular. I remember thinking that I wanted the plane to “get well” so it could fly again. I’ve been a plane nut ever since.

The rest of the story of flight 265 is boring by comparison with the first act but no less remarkable. The engineers dispatched to fix the plane, under the management of TWA Maintenance Foreman, H. C. Herschel managed to install new brakes, wheels, tires and a new engine in a single day. That is a remarkable feat to accomplish “in the field” if you will. The scarred runway was patched up and people began to think about the departure.

A special flight crew was brought in with a “test pilot” in command. All freight, luggage, excess fuel and other unnecessary weight was removed from the Connie. Again, the short runway presented a challenge. Fully loaded, a Super G required about 6,000 feet of clear runway.

My understanding is the plane was literally backed up as far as possible onto the runway threshold to provide the pilot with as much room as possible for the take off roll. The engines were powered up, the brakes set, the flaps deployed and most likely a short prayer uttered as the throttles were advanced to maximum power.

Then, the brakes were released and the Connie bid Columbia a noisy farewell. She lifted off and banked to the west toward her home in Kansas City.

At that point I couldn’t wait for my first ride in an airplane. I was hooked.

A Few Closing Notes

Much of this story is told from my own personal memory.  I would like to cite a couple of sources for their contributions which were essential for much of the detail used in this piece.

The Missouri State Historical Society maintains digitized newspaper archives in the Ellis Library at the University of Missouri. I was able to gather many of the hard facts in the piece from the contemporary articles published by the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Columbia Missourian. One advantage to living in the shadow of the world’s first and oldest journalism school is the availability of abundant and accurate reporting of events.

I would like to thank both newspapers and the society for their hospitality during my research.

The Columbia Municipal Airport has long since closed and been replaced by a newer facility. The old airport site is now the home to a large public park. Portions of the old runway still remain intact and function as somewhat enormous parking lots for patrons using the various ball fields and shelter houses available in the park.

The following photos show the airport in it’s current state as a park.

Looking south on main runway

This photo shows some of the remaining pavement from the original main runway. This was taken from the north end, looking south, roughly where the runway threshold as located.

This round-a-bout marks the center of the intersection of the two runways

This round-a-bout is located where the Connie finally came to rest after her 4,000 foot skid on landing.

Restored airport beacon light from Columbia Municipal

This beacon is “original” airport equipment restored to “like new” condition. Growing up in Columbia in the 1950s and 60s, the light from this beacon was visible after dark all over the city. It would complete a 360 degree sweep roughly once per minute.

Columbia Municipal Airport Main Hanger

The city Parks and Recreation Department uses the remaining main hanger build for storage and as a maintenance shed. Faded airport lettering is still visible at the top of the building.

The photo of the Super G Constellation is courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives. There are no known copyright restrictions on that photo.

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