Four-engine fun

Published 10:57 am Saturday, August 9, 2014

by James D. Howell

I’ve started my training at Patuxant River NAS. This base supports the Navy’s test pilot program as well as fleet training for other aircraft. The Navy has changed its policies for aircraft familiarization in recent years. The advent of flight simulators has decreased the cost and shortened the cycle for fleet pilots.

It’s a lot less expensive to utilize land based simulators and instructors than send an untrained pilot to an operational squadron and rely on time and equipment availability. I’ll arrive at my duty station fully checked out on the aircraft, needing to learn tactical procedures. I perform a modified check-in to the base; I know I will not be permanent.

The Lockheed Super Constellation was designed and built at the request of Howard Hughes, associated with Trans World Airlines. It has four R3350 engines that churn out 3000 horsepower each and is pressurized. It’s designed with a flight engineer’s position to monitor engine, electrical and hydraulic systems. The engineer is the see-all, know-all person about the physical plant equipment. Other crew members include electricians, radiomen, and technical support personnel for whatever mission is required.

Ground school is extensive for this aircraft. Originally it was designed for civilian passenger use, and the Navy has modified the airframe and electrical systems to support two powerful radars, one for horizontal searching and one for vertical searching, along with specialized electronic surveillance and communications.

This aircraft has multiple uses. In the far north, it is used as a part of the first line of defense against invasive aircraft; in fleet exercises it is used as a command and communications center. My future squadron will use it to locate, penetrate and track hurricanes in conjunction with the National Hurricane Center.

Ground school includes charting aircraft performance in different circumstances with published research data, done at the time of construction. We can look at all kinds of graphs, for projected airspeeds, rates of climb and operations with different gross weights.

Somewhere in the performance data section, we learn that if the military version takes off at maximum gross weight and loses one engine, the aircraft has a negative climb rate. That’s a nice way of saying that the plane will not maintain altitude with an engine failure at max gross weight. Very different from the civilian version. Added to that, we will, in all likelihood, sometimes be taking off over maximum recommended weights. It’s a wakeup call.

The fun part of this particular school is the flight simulator. It’s a new experience for me, and I am dazzled at what can be practiced in a real time environment.

We can simulate any number of engine failure scenarios, from takeoff to cruise. We can work our way through engine fires and hydraulic malfunctions. This aircraft is an electrical nightmare with all its generators and distribution systems for on board electronics and communications. I think the generating capacity can handle a small town, if necessary. There’s no way I can learn it all. I’ll have to rely on the specialists.

I practice electronic navigation and instrument approaches. This is the first aircraft that I’ve flown that has a full civilian instrument landing system on board. This aircraft has worldwide capability.

I move on to the flying practice part and it’s something of a slowdown from the fury of the simulator. We practice the required number of approaches and landings for qualification.

We do a selection of emergencies for practice, nowhere near the number we learned in the simulator. It seems a little anti-climactic, but it’s good to feel the controls and experience the joy of flying in a new machine.

Easter weekend during training I drive south to the farm to visit my family. An Easter egg hunt is planned for whatever relatives and children are available. It turns out to be a bright sunny day, with many relatives and their children dressed in their Sunday best. Although it has been a family event for several years, it’s the first for me and I really enjoy the chatter and clatter of a large family gathering.

A visit to the church of my youth, in Hunterdale, is a part of the Sunday schedule. It’s pleasant to say hello to childhood friend’s faces that grow less familiar with the passing of time.

What is very familiar is the genuine smiles and warm greetings from people who know and have known my family for a few generations. They seem to have aged somewhat; I don’t know how that happened.

Late Sunday afternoon, I retrace my route back to Patuxant River and a different life. At moments during the pressures of my chosen profession, I will remember the children’s laughter, and will smile the knowing smile of contentment.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at