Memories of Flight

The ups and downs of saving the "Star of America"

by Leigh Elmore

Transcontinental and Western Airlines, or TWA, or Trans World Airlines or just Trans World wasn't born in Kansas City; nor did it die here. But three generations of area residents consider Kansas City to be TWA's hometown. Because it was from Kansas City's Downtown Airport that TWA ruled the commercial skies for 50 years. Establishing its corporate headquarters here, TWA sure grew up in Kansas City.
And while the TWA emblem no longer flies, its legacy as a commercial pioneer will always remain. That is the mission of the National Airline History Museum, which is located in a hangar at Charles Wheeler Airport formerly Downtown Airport.

This Lockheed Super G Constellation is owned by the National Airline History Museum in Kansas City. (photo courtesy the museum)

The centerpiece of the not-for-profit museum's three-plane "fleet" is its prized Lockheed Super G Constellation, model L-1049G. The Constellation, affectionately known as the "Connie" to anyone who ever flew in one, was one of the most recognizable airplanes to ever fly – distinguished by its streamlined extended nose and curvaceous body, four powerful propeller engines and its signature tail section consisting of three upright stabilizers. Museum backers are currently seeking more than $3 million to put their Connie back in the air to stay.

"I fell in love with the Connie when I was a boy growing up in Charleston, W.V., when the first one to fly landed at my hometown airport," said Bob Glover, board member of the National Airline History Museum. "It was the most beautiful airplanes that I had ever seen. I couldn't wait to fly on one."
Glover finally got the chance in 1967 on a flight from Louisville to Kansas City. "And that was shortly before TWA retired them from their fleet," he said, noting that the age of propeller driven airliners was rapidly giving way to the faster jets at that time.

Memories of "hostesses"

Others also have vivid memories of how Connies played big roles in their lives. Willadeen Berglund and the late Pat Waters forged a lifelong friendship as "hostesses" on the Constellation in the late 1940s. Their experiences with TWA took them from coast to coast more times than they could count, brought them into contact with some of the rich and famous and helped create friendships in TWA's destination cities: New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. Waters was hostess on the first Constellation flight to the West Coast out of Kansas City in 1945. In a 2001 interview with Kansas City Magazine Waters recalled that, "we flew to Los Angeles and San Francisco and then back to New York, although most all of TWA's transcontinental flights would stop in Kansas City for refueling."

Berglund remembered encounters with celebrities, most of whom she labeled as "snots." "Paulette Goddard strolled into the plane and coolly let her mink coat fall to the floor behind her for me to pick up," she said. "And Walter Pidgeon wouldn't let me speak to him directly. I had to address his secretary who was seated one foot away. "Nat King Cole, now there was a passenger," she said. "He was one of my favorite singers and as a passenger he was just a delightful man."

It's memories like these that the National Airline History Museum is seeking to preserve. But the museum's most important objective is restoring its prized Constellation, "the queen of the fleet," according to Glover. One of the goals of the museum's recently launched a fund-raising campaign to restore its Connie to the air, so it can re-create the historic inaugural 1944 coast-to-coast flight when a Connie piloted by Howard Hughes along with TWA co-owner Jack Frye made the trip in just under seven hours. Orville Wright was along for the ride – the last flight of his life. It was also the flight that made non-stop coast-to-coast flights seem possible.

Quest to save a Connie

The 26-year journey to revive the Lockheed Constellation residing at a hangar in Kansas City has had its ups and downs. A core of retired TWA employees living in the Kansas City area led the restoration effort. Pilots, flight engineers, mechanics, and flight attendants all came together with goals to find, acquire, and restore a Lockheed Super G Constellation. They found their Connie at Falcon Field in Mesa, AZ under registration number N6937C; this aircraft was one of the last Constellations off Lockheed's assembly lines in 1958, built as a cargo plane for Slick Airways. After many years of use it had been retired to the desert to be nearly forgotten. Having seen better days, this specific aircraft's life of service as a bug sprayer had taken a toll on its exterior giving it a dull, drab worn out look. The Save -A-Connie organization, which evolved into the National Airline History Museum, began restoring this Connie in the desert of Mesa, AZ in 1986. Just nine weeks after starting the transformation of this aircraft, it was ferried to Kansas City all by using compass navigation and following the roads it had once flown over.

The timing of finding this Connie was essential, because had these veterans of the air industry waited any longer it most likely would have been too late to even save its usable life. It was officially donated to the Save-A-Connie Foundation in 1986 and was affectionately nicknamed the "Star of America."
After 18 months in a hangar at the Kansas City Downtown Airport, the Connie emerged, resplendent in all her new glory – history meets modern culture. This Lockheed Constellation was converted to a passenger configuration with the red TWA emblems and she promptly began flying the air show circuit.
"At the shows, crowds 'ooh' and 'ahh' as she gracefully flies over in all her splendor. People everywhere crowd to hear her engines roar like a gently waking lion and see the propellers slowly come to life with a new breath from every turn of the blades. It's no wonder it is now referred to as the 'Star of America'," Glover said.

The "Star of America" has been on television and in movies as well as in several TV commercials. An Arts and Entertainment Network documentary titled "First Flights" narrated by Astronaut Neil Armstrong featured this aircraft. The Connie was also a star character in the motion pictures "Voyager"(1992), "Ace Ventura - When Nature Calls" (1995) starring Jim Carrey, as well as "The Aviator" (2004), the Martin Scorsese film depicting the life of legendary tycoon aviator Howard Hughes who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio.The museum's current goal is to prepare and maintain this aircraft since it was grounded in 2005 after an engine suffered a catastrophic failure. Shooting for a 2014 deadline, the Connie enthusiasts hope to re-create the inaugural flight that Howard Hughes so proudly flew in 1944. "In order to preserve this historic masterpiece, one of only three in existence today, we invite all aviation lovers to join the National Airline History Museum in getting this magnificent bird in the air again," Glover said.

The museum is seeking out corporate sponsors and collecting smaller donations from former Connie pilots and fans of the plane through pilot and aircraft associations. The museum plans to spend around $1 million to make the plane ready for flight. The remaining money would be used to cover the cost of operating the plane. In addition to recreating the 1944 flight, the museum plans to spend a couple months beforehand stopping in different cities in the western U.S. and then touring cities in the eastern half of the county afterward. The crew that accompanies the plane will talk about the history of the airlines and commercial aviation aircraft. For more information about the fund-raising campaign go to the website: www.flightoftheconnie.org. The National Airline History Museum is located at 201 NW Lou Holland Dr., Kansas City, MO., 64116 at Charles Wheeler Airport.

 

The CAF keeps history in flight

A Piper HE-1 (photo by John McCullagh)

The Commemorative Air Force is dedicated to preserving historic military aircraft

For lovers of vintage military aircraft the Commemorative Air rce provides an organization to play out their passions – in the air and on the ground. And the members of the CAF love to show off their antique flying treasures. Locally, they call themselves "The Ghost Squadron." Collecting, restoring and flying vintage historical aircraft for more than half a century, the Commemorative Air Force ranks as one of the largest private air forces in the world. The CAF is dedicated to honoring American military aviation through flight, exhibition and remembrance.
A not-for-profit educational association, the CAF has approximately 9,000 members nationwide and a fleet of 156 airplanes distributed throughout the country to 74 wing units located in 27 states for care and operation. Inspired by the dedication and courage of those who built and flew the early aircraft, thousands of men and women have recognized the importance of delivering this message of history to future generations. "We tell the stories, we fly the airplanes, we keep the spirit of excitement and hope alive today," said Jack McCale, Heart of America Wing Leader.

A Fairchild PT-19 (photo by John McCullagh)

The Heart of America Wing of the Commemorative Air Force is located at the old Olathe Naval Air Station (now New Century AirCenter), commissioned in 1942 as the primary training facility for naval pilots during World War II. "Today, the CAF lives and works where aviation history was made. Our fully-restored airplanes take off, fly and land where their counterparts did in the 1940s," said McCale.
The Heart of America Wing has as members a group of men and women of diverse ages and backgrounds, but all sharing a dedication to preserving U.S. military aviation history. The membership includes a number of veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. "The dedication and hard work of our members allows us to maintain our planes in excellent flying condition and to build our museum, develop educational programs, and maintain an active presence in the community," McCale said

The group meets the third Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. for a short business meeting and scheduled presentation or speaker followed by lunch. Members of the public are welcome. Additional information about upcoming speakers and activities at the CAF hangar can be found on the website, kcghostsquadron.squarespace.com. CAF pilots are available to let the public experience the thrill of open cockpit flight. "Fly in our Fairchild PT-19 or our PT-13 Stearman and take a step back in time to an earlier era in aviation," said McCale. Ride prices start at $100. Passengers must be 18 years of age or older to ride in CAF owned aircraft. Rides may be scheduled in advance. Seventy-five percent of the ride donation is tax deductible. For more information call the CAF hotline at 913-907-7902 or email to HOACAFinfo@yahoo.com. Tours of the CAF Hangar and Museum are available for individuals and groups. To schedule a tour, call 913-907-7902 or email.

 

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com