A former U.S. military spy plane parked outside the University of Montana’s Helena College of Technology since 1981 needs a new home.
The college is expanding and wants the plane’s parking space for construction. The retired EC-121, which is a military version of the Lockheed Constellation, flew to Helena 28 years ago for use in aviation maintenance classes. The Air Force adaptation of the Lockheed Constellation taxied now and then, but mostly it has stood idle next to a hangar at the University of Montana’s Helena College of Technology. “It’s pretty much like it was when it came in here in 1981,” said college instructor Karl Kruger. “It’s museum quality.”
The college no longer wants the old Air Force plane, preferring to free its parking space for a construction project. Some of the collectors who have contacted the school envision restoring the plane to airworthiness, if they can get it from the government. The U.S. General Services Administration will handle any transfer in custody of the airplane, which remains government property.
Introduced in the early 1940s, the futuristic Constellation dazzled the aviation world. It was the first airliner to fly nonstop coast-to-coast. Lockheed built the Constellation when TWA owner Howard Hughes wanted a faster, more powerful plane for the airline than anything then available. Lockheed built 856 of them, 330 of which went to the U.S. military, from 1943 to 1958. Some, like the one in Montana, were equipped as surveillance planes during the Cold War, carrying radar in domes on the top and bottom of the fuselage.
The university’s Connie sometimes catches the eyes of people flying into Helena Regional Airport, next to the college, and they’ll ask to see the inside, said instructor Kruger, who has obliged. “If you’ve ever worked on them, you recognize the tail from anywhere,” he said. An old Western Airlines airstair provides access to the plane’s doorway. Inside the aircraft, which has seen duty as a “haunted plane” for a Halloween fundraiser put on by the college aviation club, orange fabric on the seats shows wear, metal bunks still have pads, there’s Morse code radio equipment, and both the galley and the lone restroom appear serviceable, as described by Kruger. The cockpit looks as though a pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer could settle into the seats, buckle up and get to work, he said.
College officials say the plane may be towed to the airport and parked there, temporarily, if a new home isn’t agreed upon by the start of the campus construction project, perhaps as early as this summer.