Flight in HB-RSC

A memorable flight aboard Super Constellation HB-RSC
from Sion to Basel in August 2008

The train had taken us through one of the longest tunnels in the Alps and a little bit later we arrived at Sion airport (LSGS) on a taxi that covered the distance to the airport in just a few minutes. On the train we had already met today’s PIC (pilot in command) captain Ernst Frei who had joined the same train from Zurich.

Sion is located in one of the long transversal valleys in Switzerland which is aptly called ‘Valais’ and which opens to the Lake of Geneva basin in western Switzerland.

Our flight path, however, was planned to take us across the Alps and between the towering peaks reaching up to 15’000 feet and then across the Swiss plateau back to Basel (LFSB). Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport has been chosen the home-base of  HB-RSC, the lone survivor of scores of C-121s built for the U.S.A.F. and belonging to the Super Constellation Flyers Association which had it painted in a smart Breitling livery.

C-121 HB-RSC coming into land to Sion the previous day, Zoggavia Collection

Soon after our arrival in Sion we noticed that the weather was about to change. When we had got on the train in Basel a flawless blue sky had promised us a beautiful and challenge free flight. Now the mountaintops were already enwrapped in towering cumulus clouds although the valley itself was still clear of them. But the frowns on Captain Ernst Frei’s forehead were telling us that he didn’t like the situation too much. In fact, he had already done a number of phone calls with the met-office at Zurich and Geneva and now asked the passengers to hurry to the plane as we would have to take off as quickly as possible. Although this Super Connie is fully equipped with instruments and its flight crew IFR rated the aircraft is only certified for VFR flights and therefore a route had to be chosen where we could remain out of clouds at all times.

The tanks of HB-RSC had been filled with some 10’000 litres of AVGAS the day before and the payload of the passengers was therefore almost negligible. The crew went through the check-list in a matter of routine way, with First Officer (F/O) René Schreiber assisting Ernst Frei and Flight Engineer (F/E) Carlos Gomez giving instructions to a new Swiss trainee in the F/E

Soon all four engines had sprang to life and belched out their clouds of smoke when the familiar sight of licking flames coming out of the exhaust pipes reassured crew and passengers that everything was working fine.

We taxied to the holding point of runway 26 where the crew went duly through the engine run-up procedure and told the tower that we were ready for take off. One last time the screeching sound of the brakes was heard when the aircraft lined up and stood still for a moment.

Then Captain Frey eased the throttles forward and the F/E brought them in line with the required take off performance. The Connie shuddered as more than 10’000 h.p. were eager to be unleashed to pull the aircraft forward along the 2000 meter runway. Then the brakes were released and slowly but steadily the Connie accelerated pounding over the runway. It wasn’t much more than after 1’000 meters when the Captain - or was it the First Officer ? - rotated the aircraft gently and we left the ground almost imperceptibly. As usual the gear was retracted only reluctantly in case an engine failure would make an immediate landing necessary. Everything seemed to be going fine. But then all of a sudden one of the passengers sitting just abreast the engines on the right side yelled out “Fire! Engine is on fire!” But his voice was almost subdued by the roar of the engines still working at near take off power. And indeed there were flames coming out of the cowling of engine number three that were reaching over the wings for quite as much as 6 to 8 feet! Those flames were not a familiar sight and not to be confused with the licking flames from the exhaust pipes that may also spread over the leading edge for a fraction of second. The passenger yelled again at the top of his voice and now the crew seemed to take notice. Astonishingly there was no fire alarm in the cockpit where everything looked alright. Carlos Gomez quickly left his position to go up to the wildly gesticulating passenger and saw - nothing. The flames luckily had died down when the power setting was adjusted to climb performance. Later, after landing at Basel, Carlos Gomez speculated on there being a fissure in one of the fuel lines which under boost pressure would leak out some fuel over the hot cylinders and thus cause its ignition.

Meanwhile we had reached Martigny where a distinct bent takes the valley’s course into a northwesterly direction and eventually opens up into the Lake of Geneva. The cloud base was still pretty high but there were isolated showers and embedded storms over the mountains and the sky didn’t seem to clear up over the lake. Soon we were over Montreux with its beautiful old castle of Chillon sitting on the northern shore of the lake. From there the Savoyards had once reigned over western Switzerland. We were now heading west towards the Jura - a chain of mountains bordering to France. Our original flight path had long been abandoned and the crew was now eagerly watching out for a brighter hole in the frighteningly dark clouds.

With the help of Geneva radar a precipitation-free gap was found near La Dole where we could cross over the chain of mountains and in this way circumnavigate what had developed into a veritable squall line since the early afternoon.Soon we found ourselves over French territory which looked very sparsely populated. For the last 20 minutes or so we had been flying almost in the opposite direction to reach our destination. Now the Connie was lined up with a northeasterly course which would bring us back to Basel. The air was as smooth as the water of an early morning pond. The cloud base gradually became higher the more we had distanced ourselves from the mountainous area which formed the western border of Switzerland with France. When after another fifteen or so minutes we flew over the Ajoie, the first sunbeams kissed the wings of our Connie and hailed us back from an excursion into the dark cloudy caves of the unknown.

Descent was initiated and landing at Basel was imminent. Basel approach gave us radar vectors helping the crew to line up with its principal runway 16 and in just a few minutes more the broad Upper Rhine Valley came into sight. Soon the gear was lowered and the flaps set first at 15, then 30 and lastly at 50 degrees so as to slow down the aircraft for landing. At this time the power setting had to be increased one last time to overcome the drag produced by both flaps and gears extended. The Connie was now flying with a distinct nose-down attitude and soon after we had crossed over the threshold captain Frei idled the engines and flared the aircraft for a smooth touchdown.After a flight of one hour and 15’ we had safely landed and then were taxiing to the  Swiss hangar, where the aircraft would remain for another couple of weeks before flown one last time that year to Nancy for crew training. It then would be ferried back to its winter home at the former R.C.A.F. base at Lahr in Germany.

Unfortunately in 2010 no flights could be operated due to corrosion found that was hidden in the wings and which had to be treated. It is only to be hoped that HB-RSC will again be seen flying in 2011 to be the star at many an air show and carry that kind of adventure seeking passenger that doesn’t panic even if some flames should inadvertently cross by his window.  Peter F. Peyer

Photos Peter F. Peyer Collection.

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