Super Connie plane: Rebirth of an Australian legend

The Lockheed Super Constellation is a beautiful aircraft — a classic US model from the 1950s that’s all smooth curves and powerful propellers leading out to an elegant triple tail fin.

So it’s little wonder that, even when one particular “Super Connie” was left to rot in a muddy field in Southeast Asia for 25 years, that wasn’t the end of the story.

Exposed to the tropical sun and rain in a corner of Manila International Airport, where its previous owners abandoned it after getting embroiled in a protracted legal battle, this sleek, beautiful, plane was likely destined for the scrapheap.

That’s when a bunch of Australian enthusiasts stepped in.

Besides being the last long-haul piston-engined airliner to dominate the skies before the advent of the jet era, the Lockheed Super Constellation has a special place in the history of Australia’s flag carrier airline, Qantas, and, by extension, of Australian aviation.

The “Super Connie” was the first aircraft to feature Qantas’ famous kangaroo livery, a direct reference to the key “Kangaroo Route” linking Australia to the UK.

In fact, this aircraft was key to making the Qantas brand known well beyond its Australian homeland, bringing it to Asia, Europe and America.

It was also Qantas’ first pressurized aircraft and the first to have female cabin crew on board.

No wonder then, that when airport authorities in the Philippines decided to put the Super Connie up for auction, it got the attention of the Qantas Founders Museum, operated by the Qantas Foundation Memorial.

Restoring Super Connie to its former glory

It’s one thing to bid successfully for a rusting airframe.

But the next challenge for the Qantas Founders Museum team was to move the Super Connie from Manila to Longreach, Queensland, where the museum is located, then have it restored for public display.

The money needed?

Some AUD 755,000 (US $545,000): a significant amount for the museum, a not-for-profit organization that aims to preserve and divulge the history of Qantas, one of the oldest airlines in the world.

Funds had to be found somewhere.

The Qantas Foundation Memorial contributed AUD 455,000 (half coming from the airline’s annual support fund, the rest from its own funds. The remaining money came from government-sponsored tourism promotion programs.

The Super Connie is expected to become a major attraction at the Qantas Founders Museum.

By drawing additional visitors, the Super Connie will be contributing to the economy of Longreach and this off-the-beaten-path corner of Western Queensland.

However, although the restored Super Connie has been given a late 1950s Qantas look, this particular airframe never flew for the Australian airline.

Built in 1953 for the US Navy, for over two decades it fulfilled several roles with the US military, including a 14-year stint (from 1959 to 1973) assigned to the Pacific Missile Range in California.

In 1973 it was flown to the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC) at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the Department of Defense put it up for sale.

It was then acquired by Northern Peninsula Fisheries. This firm planned to use the aircraft during the Alaskan fish-hauling season. However, issues with its certification for civilian use meant it remained idle at Arlington Municipal Airport, in Washington state, until 1987.

It was then transferred to an Alaskan firm, World Fish and Agriculture Inc., that sent it all the way to the archipelago of Palau, in the Western Pacific.

There it was expected to run a twice-weekly fresh tuna airlift service to Nagoya, Japan. However, this was not to be. The cargo capacity proved to be inadequate, a problem compounded by the non-availability of the right type of fuel at the Nagoya airport.

A legal battle arising from contractual issues saw the aircraft being impounded in Manila in 1988, and led the owners to abandon the aircraft there. In 2007, it was finally struck off the US register.

In 1988, Qantas received an unsuccessful proposal to fly the Super Connie, emblazoned in its livery, to Australia for the Bicentennial Air Show at Richmond RAAF Base in New South Wales.

However, legal proceedings prevented the aircraft from being moved to Australia on this much earlier occasion.

Fast forward to 2015 and a team of volunteers from the Qantas Founders Museum and Qantas Foundation Memorial are on site in the Philippines ready to start the laborious Super Connie recovery process.

The long way to Queensland

First thing to do was to get it out of the mud.

Layer upon layer of silt had buried the aircraft’s undercarriage. It had to be dug out and new wheels brought in from the US for the aircraft to be rolled to firmer ground by the Qantas Engineering Aircraft Recovery Team.

The aircraft had then to be dismantled in its major components — fuselage, tail, wings, engines, landing gears. — and customized steel frames made to fit each of them. These were then moved to a storage location, a process in which Cebu Pacific Airlines collaborated, until they could be shipped by sea to Australia.

This was not to be until a year later. Several low loaders moving in convoy transported the components to the port of Manila. Here another firm, International Container Terminal Services, lent a hand, offering free space for the steel frames to be completed and for the various parts to be prepared for the upcoming sea journey.

In May 2017 they finally arrived in Townsville, Australia, on board the ship BBC Maine.

Once the Super Connie was at its final destination, the aptly named Longreach, the proper restoration began.

Between December 2017 and February 2018, a team of Qantas metalwork specialists and Qantas Founders Museum volunteers prepared the aircraft surfaces, grinding out areas of corrosion, trimming damaged sections and applying repair patches.

They left the Super Connie ready for Quick Strip Dustless Blasting Services, a specialized team from Cairns that would strip and repaint the aircraft by sections. To do this, they built a structure to enclose the disassembled aircraft.

This involved the removal of all residual paint and corrosion through wet glass bead blasting, followed by body filling to restore the body surface of the aircraft. A primer and top coat of paint was then applied in order to protect the surfaces from corrosion.

Extensive research went into creating the final look of the aircraft, with new livery drawings created from Qantas’ fragile tracing-paper originals.

The decision was made to paint it to resemble a historical Qantas Super Constellation, VH-EAM “Southern Spray.”

The final steps were to reassemble the Super Constellation: a task that was completed by a team of, mostly retired, aircraft engineers and volunteers, as well as applying the final lick of paint.

The Super Connie will then be ready to join other iconic Qantas aircraft on display, such as a Boeing 747, a Boeing 707, a Douglas DC-3 and a Catalina flying boat.

The Super Constellation will offer visitors a glimpse of an important period in the history of commercial aviation, the 1950s.

In these days just before the jet age, the first pressurized, long-haul airliners were already anticipating the sort of transcontinental travel that would take off in the years to come.