AIRCRAFT HISTORY FILE: C-121A N749NL (2604)
By (© ) Michael Prophet
Updated: Oct.29th, 2002
During 1947 Lockheed Aircraft Corp. was experiencing one of its darkest periods. Due to increased competition from it rival Douglas, and sluggish sales for the civil 749 model, Lockheed even considered closing down the production line. Then, on the 10th of February 1948, a life saving order was awarded to Lockheed to built 9 C-121A and 1 C-121B cargo-configured Constellations for the Air Force. This $11,425,000 dollar contract (W33-038 AC-20017) was a gift from heaven for the Constellation productionline.
Based on the 749 model, these new aircraft would receive a new type designation: C-121A. They were modified by having reinforced floors and a large aft cargo door. The interiors could be quickly arranged to suit various missions, cargo carrying, passengers, or litter. These C-121As were to be powered by four 2,500-hp Wright Cyclone R-3350 BD1s radial engines. A distinct new feature was the all-new nose modification (radome) which housed the new APS-10 radar.
Constellation "2604" was delivered to the USAF MATS Atlantic division on 18th January 1949 as a C-121A model, similar to a 749-79-38 version. With tail number '48-612' she was the fourth aircraft built in this limited production run.
C-121A '48-612' in early MATS markings. Note: short nose, prop spinners and polished metal scheme.
Photo was first published in NAVAL FIGHTERS NO:8 - C121 Constellation - by Steve Ginter 1983.
Her initial assignment was flying in support of the Berlin Airlift (Operation Vittles), between Westover AFB, MA and Frankfurt Rhein-Main airport.
On 25 July 1950 she was reassigned to the 1254th ATS at Washington and incorporated into the Special Air Missions (SAM) activities replacing the elderly Douglas C-54 Skymaster. The interior was modified at MAAMA (Middletown Air Material Area) and LASI (Lockheed Air Service International) with elaborate and customized interiors. Bare steel floors were covered with heavy carpeting, and executive compartments with comfortable seating arrangements replaced the rows of bucket type seats. With these modifications the type designation was changed into VC-121A. 6 Constellations were modified and served as the backbone of the SAM fleet flying high-ranking officers and VIPs to all corners of the world.
48-0612 is seen here in silver and white colourscheme, including "Military Air Transport Serivice (MATS)"-titles on fuselage and tailfin. There are additional "U.S. Air Force"-titles and the MATS "globe logo"( right of the USAF "stars and bars"). The noseradome has changed, probably due added weatherradar equipment and the spinners have been removed. (Photo: Jan Boon collection).
48-0612 is seen here at Wiesbaden, Germany. "Military Air Transport Service"-titles on the upper fuselage have been altered to read "United States Air Force" and the noseradome received a paintjob. The MATS "globe logo"has been removed and the tailnumber now reads 0-80612 (0 for "obsolete", indivating an age factor...) (Photo: collection Giesbert Oskam)
48-0612 at Tulln Air Base, near Vienna,Austria. This air base was the main air base for the American Forces in Austria 1945 to 1955. This photo clearly depicts some VIP transport.
Photo: collection Hubert Prigl.
Jack Edmonds has history of Tulln Air Base detailed on his website: http://home.earthlink.net/~tullnab/
Constellation "612" served with SAM at Washington National Airport and later on at Andrew AFB until 14 December 1962. As new Boeing VC-137A jet transports were beginning to replace the Constellations in the 1254th, "612" was reassigned to the Special Missions activities of USAFE at Wiesbaden, Germany for staff transport duties between US and NATO bases within Europe. She served there with the 710st Air base Wing in company with '48-615' until her retirement. On the 26th October 1967 she was flown to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona for storage at the MASDC desert site.
....received her first civil registration N9465. Note the modification on the nose, which is now much longer.
During an annual auction on the 5th of May 1970 she was sold as surplus to Christler Flying Service Inc, based at Thermopolis, WY and received her first civil registration N9465 on the 10th July that same year.
Christler, a DC-3 sprayer operator, purchased a total of 5 C-121A Constellations. After modification she was used for agricultural spraying. The modifications, done by Desert Air at Tucson, involved stripping her luxurious interior. Two 2800 US gallons chemical tanks were placed inside the empty cabin, connected with two pipes and spray nozzles on both wings.
N9465 at San Juan; photo © Stephen Piercey (Collection Ron Mak)
She was seen stored at San Juan International Airport, Puerto Rico, after spraying season between October 1977 until September 1978. She retained her white top fuselage but now sporting a thick red cheat line across the full length of her fuselage. The reason for this out of place storage remains a mystery!
Christler Flying Service operated N9465 until 1979. On the 18th April 1979 she was sold to Les Arrosages Castor/Beaver Air Spray Inc based at St.Mathias, Quebec, Canada. Beaver Air Spray purchased 3 C-121A from Christler for spraying operations in Quebec.
The photo shows C-GXKR at Conifair's base Mt.Joli, Quebec. Photo by Rene Dannies (http://www.airlines-airliners.de/)
During January 1980 C-GXKR (Tanker #2) was painted in Conifair Aviation colors and flew on behalf of Beaver Air Spray. With a fleet of three Constellations, Conifair flew in the war against budworms in the woods of eastern Canada on behalf of the Ministere Des Terres et Forets (Dept. of Land and Forest). One of the aircraft (Tanker #3) crashed during the summer of 1979 at a freak landing accident at Riviere du loup, Quebec. C-GXKR would continue to fly on the budworm-spraying contract between 1980 to 1985. Eventually Conifair replaced the Connie with the rugged Douglas DC-4s and DC-6s. Soon after Conifair ceased their activities and retired their piston fleet. After several years of storage at Mont Joli, Canada C-GXKR was offered for sale (1988) with a total of 15.600 flying hours at a price of US $200.000,- dollars (including $40.000 dollars worth of spare parts, manuals and one spare R3350 engine.) Sistership C-GXKO (2601) Tanker #1 eventually ended up in Arizona and she now flies the US airshow circuits as N494TW: the MATS Connie.
Probably not the best of conditions to store an aircraft in..! (Photo by Peter van Oostrum, via Ron Mak).
After extended negotiations, the Constellation Group Holland (Stichting Constellation Club Nederland - SCCN), which was formed during March 1988, was able to acquire an option on the Connie. Failing to sell the Connie to the Dutch, Conifair found two buyers and sold the aircraft to the Constellation Group USA based in Scottsdale, AZ during August 1993.
The original plan was to use 2604 as a source of parts for the MATS Connie operation. The Curtiss Electric propellers were sold to Forest Industries Flying Tankers, Ltd (FIFT) a fire bomber outfit based on Vancouver Island, BC. FIFT operates the Martin Mars flying boats and the Martin Mars uses the same propellers as the C-121A Connie. Part of the deal was that the MATS group would make 2604 flyable and deliver it to Avra Valley. The Dutch SCCN quickly reacted and managed to acquire the Connie and a deal was made on the 17 November 1993, to purchase it without the props.
A year later September 9, 1994, the Connie now registered as N749VR, was ferried from Mont Joli via Presque Isle (Maine), Dayton (Ohio), Ft.Smith (Arkansas) and finally landed at Avra Valley Airport Tucson on the 12th September: a journey of almost 4000 km's. The following week Flying tankers collected their props!
N749VR is shown here without props in Conifair livery (though the name has been erased) and with the longer nose.
The props have been removed and so has engine #3 ! Photo by Rene Dannies (http://www.airlines-airliners.de/ )
At Avra Valley she would remain stored for another 8 years. Unable to fulfill the projects' ultimate goal of restoring to full airworthy condition, the SCCN teamed up with the Dutch National Aviation Museum Aviodome and the Connie was donated to the museum, with only one demand: a complete restoration and transport to Holland. On 3rd October 2001 she received an Experimental certificate with new registration N749NL.
[While restoration was completed to the point of test flights at Amsterdam IAP and a vintage KLM livery was applied, the Connie made it as far as the Aviodrome's homebase Lelystad where it was reduced to a grounded museum exhibit (current at the time of this update, 05Nov2016).]
Technical info and data researched from The Lockheed Constellation Series - An Air Britain Publication 1982 by P.J.Marson
'The propeller issue'
While all parts of the C-121A Constellation is rare, the hollow paddle blade Curtiss-Electric C632S (or C634S) fully feathering reversible propellers are the rarest. There are several reasons for this rarity. First is the fact that Hamilton Standard Hydromatic 33E60 three bladed constant speed propeller won the battle for market share against Curtiss-Wright, so there just weren't as many Curtiss blades manufactured. As a result of an odd twist of fate, in the early 1950s, due to an improper inspection procedure, Air France and BOAC both lost Connies when a Curtiss Wright prop flung a blade off the hub. This panicked many Connie operators, who then rushed to convert to Hamilton Standard props. The USAF, due to budget constraints, did not make the conversion. So most Connies ended their careers with the hydraulic operated Hamilton Standard blades. Today it would be possible to convert the C-121A to Hamilton props, but it would be very expensive. Estimates were $150,000 dollars (quote from MATS group back in 1994).
At the moment the only other operator that uses the same propellers are the Martin Mars Flying Tankers from Canada. The Martin Mars uses a 4 bladed prop assembly. Because of the rarity, prices off these blades are exceptionally high!
Co-incidentally spares are difficult to find. Several C-121A's still survive today. Perhaps C-121A N9463 (stored Santa Fé,NM), N422NA ('Planes of Fame Museum' Grand Canyon), "48-614" (Pima Air Museum Arizona) can provide for some spare blades?
(With thanks to The Constellation Group and their November 1994 issue of Connie Chronicles's membership magazine)
Vintage advertisement for KLM Royal Dutch
To Connie's Comeback
The Connie as Budworm sprayer by Stephen Piercey, reprinted with permission of Propliner magazine
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Created: 11-10-02 Updated: 05-11-2016