Engine malfunction grounds last airworthy Lockheed Constellation

Maintenance checks are supposed to uncover mechanical issues on the ground before they become emergencies in the air, so in that respect the recent engine run up of the Airline History Museum’s Lockheed Constellation was a success. The aircraft, known as “The Star of America,” is the only airworthy Constellation left and the star attraction at the Kansas City, Mo., museum. During a routine check last month, one of the four engines caught fire and failed.

The triple-tailed Connie was one of the last ones built. It rolled off the assembly line in Burbank in the late 1950s and became a cargo aircraft. In the 1960s it was used to ferry supplies and people to Vietnam. This was followed by a stint as an agricultural aircraft in Canada, followed by retirement to the desert in Mesa, Ariz.

In 1986 the aircraft was rescued out of the Arizona desert and over the years has been painstakingly restored as an airliner from the days when travel was glamorous. The model L-1049G is painted in TWA markings.

There was no indication that there would be a problem with the number three engine prior to start up, notes Foe Geldersma, president of the museum. Although the Wright R-3350 has a reputation in some circles for being cantankerous, the crew was not expecting it to belch flaming oil.

“This was routine maintenance,” he explains. “If you have not run these engines within 96 hours, you have to pre-oil them, which is a pain and takes time. To get around this, we start up all four engines and let them run for a bit.”

Geldersma, who is a retired airline pilot, was at the controls at the flight engineer’s station during the run up. The procedure calls for the engines to be started and allowed to warm up and then each engine is run up and the propellers cycled as if preparing for a flight.

“I checked engines number one and four first, which are the outboard engines and they were fine, then I checked the inboards,” he explained. “That’s when the number three engine failed. It began spewing flaming oil out of the exhaust stacks.”

The engine fire extinguisher bottles were activated and the crew used an external fire extinguisher to put out the puddles of burning oil on the ramp. No one was injured, but the airplane suffered some damage.

“There was some damage to the engine nacelle, which we are in the process of repairing,” said Geldersma. “The engine was removed, of course, and we packed up it up and shipped it to Sun Valley, Calif., where it will be overhauled. The facility there is one of very few that can do the work on the Wright R-3350. The engine was one of the last ones built.”

At this point they can’t say for sure why the engine failed.

“Once it is torn down and overhauled, we will know,” he said, adding that the job should take about four months and cost about $120,000, which is a lot for the not-for-profit museum.

“We’re accepting donations,” he said. “All the board members chipped in $1,000 each and other people have committed lesser amounts. It doesn’t make a difference if someone chips in $10, $100 or $500 — it all helps.”

Early end to show season

Returning the Connie to airworthy status is key, he noted, because it is a major fundraiser for the museum. The red and white grand lady of the air makes the air show circuit and is a very popular attraction at Oshkosh. The airplane has also been in several movies, including last year’s smash “The Aviator.” Much of the museum’s revenue is generated from visits to air shows and the people who pay $3 to tour the Connie.

“We have a spare engine and there was some discussion of putting it on the airplane, but the board decided against it,” Geldersma explained. “We decided to shut down for the season and get the airplane repaired, and get the engine overhauled. It takes about four months to have an engine overhauled, so it will probably come back to us by the first of the year. Then we will have to install that and do all the checks, and by then we should have the sheet metal repairs to the cowling done.

I am confident that we can get the job done and get the airplane back into the air by spring of next year.”

While they wait for the engine to be repaired, the airplane remains on static display at the museum.

“You can still tour the airplane,” noted Geldersma. The museum, which is open seven days a week, is at Wheeler Downtown Airport (MKC) in an old TWA hangar. In addition to the Connie, it also has a Martin 404 and a DC-3 on display.

“We also have a collection of memorabilia from TWA, such as models of airplanes and pictures of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart from when they worked with TWA way back in the early days,” he said. “We also have pilots and flight attendant uniforms. This is the original hometown of TWA and that has helped us a lot.”

For more information: 816-421-3401 or 800-513-9484. Donations can be sent to: Airline History Museum, 201 Northwest Lou Holland Drive, Kansas City, Mo., 64116.

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