Book review by Ian Debenham OAM
Australian aficionados of old aeroplanes will be very aware of the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society’s (HARS) Lockheed Constellation VH-EAG, ‘Southern Preservation’, and its flights at various air shows here. At the time of writing this, it is the only flying Constellation in the world. Perhaps rather boldly, I venture to suggest that a large proportion of those aficionados would only have a bare understanding of the means by which the aircraft was rescued from the Davis-Monthan aircraft ‘boneyard’ in Tucson, Arizona and returned to flight at the Pima Air and Space Museum to contribute to their ultimate pleasure and as a mnemonic of the visible history of world, and Australian, flight. The background story of the rescue of Connie, as she is known colloquially, is worth knowing – to show what true devotion to a cause by a group of selfless people can achieve. I know the story because I was there, being a former licenced aircraft maintenance engineer, one of the restoration crew members who travelled to Tucson and worked in the desert heat to bring Connie back to life. Also, one of the HARS team who travelled to Tucson was Gary Squire, the author of the book under review. He is an aficionado of aircraft with a particular fondness for the Constellation, not an aircraft engineer but an architectural draftsman, and a dab hand with graphics and their application to aircraft: specifically, the Connie, amongst his other admirable attributes. One of these attributes is his gift for clear writing of the book of the rescue, restoration and flight to Australia of Connie. It is a well-written tribute to his involvement in that process and to the involvement of the other crew members who achieved the goal that they undertook in spite of the heat and the tribulations of the aviation bureaucracy, both Australian and American, that had to be accommodated.
The accuracy of the narrative is unsurpassed. I would, however, mention in passing that his account of the obtaining of the correct ‘carnation red’ colour for Connie needs a minor correction (p.86). Perhaps, as the supplier of the information to Gary I was not clear, and I must take responsibility for the need for correction. It is not a major problem, but accuracy, I feel, is necessary for the sake of history. The ‘carnation red’ colour was required by the Powerhouse Museum for the accurate restoration of its c.1914 wheat wagon – not, as Gary wrote, a colour used on NSW railway rolling stock.
In his first chapter Gary introduces himself to the reader, accounting for his own attachment to the Constellation and its place in a changing transport world where the modes of transport, in his opinion, became sterile and bland to the eye and steam propulsion of locomotives and ferries gave way to diesel power which took away the vibrancy of an apparent mechanical life that only the steam reciprocating engines could provide. The propellers of the commercial aircraft gave way to those powered by gas turbines and the means of aircraft propulsion lost its appearance of dynamism and life to be replaced by the heat haze of the engines’ exhausts. For those born before this transition something had been lost to the irrevocable march of technology. For those born after the transition, the diesel and turbine powered forms may have their own attraction, but they will come to understand, one hopes, the reason that their fathers or grandfathers have a desire to relive the excitement they feel for the transport of their earlier era.
Through his aviation history contacts Gary has been able to record the long history of the desire to preserve a Constellation for display in Australia. He has logically linked the desire, in 1980, to preserve a Constellation in Australia with the imminent destruction of the last remaining ex-Qantas L1049 in Kuwait. The people who took up the challenge of acquiring one of the last remaining Constellations that could either be returned to airworthiness or transported to Australia in pieces, reconstructed and displayed at some venue had the problem of the lack of a display venue. The thinking seems to have been ‘let us get one here and then that will foster the ongoing support and infrastructure’. In 1980 the nomination of a display venue was a difficult challenge as the aviation museums in Australia were, with exceptions of military aviation museums, all amateur-based and funding came mostly from the pockets of the preservation group members and, in some cases, from small government grants and, perhaps, local sponsorships. The State Government Museums with a technological component in their collection mandate generally had aviation as a part of the whole but they were limited in their aspirations primarily by display space and storage. In 1988 the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences had large enough space to display P.G. Taylor’s PB2B2 Catalina ‘Frigate Bird II’ through the renovation of the Ultimo Powerhouse building but the acquisition of a Constellation would have been out of the question. It was only in 1986 that the possibility of a national aviation museum came to the fore. Work to acquire a Constellation was continued by enthusiast Ron Cuskelly into 1988 and Gary dutifully records all the possibilities explored by Ron and his untiring efforts to garner official support. Even the Australian bicentenary did not move the mountain to produce a result although the earlier Federal Government decision to develop a national aviation museum in Victoria, albeit ultimately unrealised, would play a role in the acquisition of Connie. Into this bleak picture came, in mid 1990, a small Sydney based group with Bob De La Hunty at the forefront with their acquisition of a Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune in Tahiti, restoring it to flight and flying it to Australia in 1989. This aircraft was fitted with the same type of engines, Wright 3350s, as the Constellation and Bob and his friends considered that the skills existed to restore to flight and bring a Constellation to Australia. After all, the Constellation was basically a four-engine Neptune. From this point Gary continues his narrative covering the process of assessing a derelict Constellation languishing in the Davis-Monthan yard in Tucson, Arizona, the means by which it was acquired, restored, flown to Australia and came into the ownership of HARS.
As Gary points out in his introduction, the most important factor in his story was the human involvement. Without the devotion and sacrifice of those involved in the five-year process from assessment of the aircraft to its arrival in Australia the result would not have been achieved. He focusses on this human element throughout his narrative and the end result is the tribute to the endeavours of those involved.
The book contains photographs of Connie pre-restoration, the assessment crew and some of the crews who restored the aircraft to flight as well as artist’s illustration of Connie in its various liveries, a map of the trans-Pacific flight and copies of some of the official documentation relevant to Connie’s airworthiness.
Being an insider, Gary has been privileged to have had access to information not available to others and his book will stand as the ‘official’ history of ‘bringing Connie home’.
Ian Debenham OAM