A mystery for a cold winter night

Lockheed Constellations reach for the sky one last time

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he story starts almost 75 years ago. It begins before the Internet, cell phones, and color TV. The family radio was the centerpiece of home entertainment and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president, but America was not yet involved in the war in Europe or Asia.

Howard Hughes ( an early 20th century version of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs) announced a plan to build a sleek, giant, four-engine aircraft that would be able to travel at high-speed from coast to coast without stopping or refueling. The Lockheed Constellation was born.

Lockheed_L-1649_Constellation_TWA-680

The “Connie” was to be the flagship for Hughes’  business, Trans World Airline. Hughes knew it would make his airline the dominant company in a burgeoning industry.  It wouldn’t hurt that it would also make him even wealthier.

Lockheed produced the plane throughout the war years and continued manufacturing them until 1956. In its final iteration, Lockheed built just 44 L-1649A Starliners.

The sleek ships, with a wingspan of 150 feet and rotary engines that generated 3,400 horsepower, could travel at 300 m.p.h. and had an operating ceiling of almost 30,000 feet. They were popular,  comfortable to ride in, but lacked the jet engines that were fast becoming the norm for the airlines.

Today, only four of these planes still exist and two of them are in Maine. One rests on a tired airframe in front of the hanger built solely for their restoration.

ConnieBWFrom the 1950s and the Eisenhower years fast forward three decades. In the mid 1980s Miami Vice was the rage, Reagan was still in office and his wife, Nancy, was trying to convince the youth of the land to “just say no” to drugs. It wasn’t working. Studio 54 was the place to be in New York City and drugs were moving north to the United States in record amounts.

The people who ferried the product to the dealers and distributors were paid boatloads of cash for each successful trip. For many, the lure of quick money was tempting.

Enter Maurice Roundy, an enthusiastic figure in the Maine aviation community who had a lifelong passion for all things related to aircraft and wanted to start a small, regional airline. But that required funding and a lot of it.

In 1983 Roundy and several others flew from Portland to Fort Lauderdale and from there, part of the group continued on in a small, twin-engine plane to Columbia and then back to Dannelly Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  According to court records, the plane was loaded with 710 pounds of cocaine.

News reports at the time, suggested the cocaine had a street value of $200 million, but both the pilot and copilot were arrested when the plane landed and the drugs were confiscated. Roundy himself was not at the airport, but he too was arrested within days.

Out on bail and awaiting trial, Roundy located and purchased three of the remaining Super Constellations. He wanted to make them part of his airline or use them as part of the air show circuit. Despite his court troubles, he managed to get two of the planes to the Auburn-Lewiston airport and parked them at the northern end of the field on the edge of his personal property.

For years, commercial and general aviation pilots flying in an out of the airport were greeted by the sight of these two famous planes. They never moved.

Roundy was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison, but a year before his conviction, he transferred many his assets (which included the planes) to his wife, Jane Theberge.

This is where it gets muddy again. During his time in prison, the planes just sat. Plans were made for their restoration, but there was always some issue – not enough money, missing parts, and acquiring an FAA license to fly and show them. There were obstacles for sure. With no other real choice, Roundy filed for bankruptcy in October 2005.

During filing, according to the U. S. Attorney’s Office, Roundy claimed to have “sold the three Lockheed L1649A Super Constellation airplanes that he owned to a purchaser in Florida for $20,000 and he had no Purchase Agreement for the transaction.”

The courts investigated and found that just one month before filing for bankruptcy, Roundy sold the planes and had a “Aircraft Purchase Agreement” for $500,000. The agreement specified he was to be paid $50,000 in biannual payments, and to date he had received $75,000.

“Roundy concealed the Agreement and the payments from the from his bankruptcy trustee and creditors,” the FBI alleged.

He was indicted for bankruptcy fraud and the planes were seized. He faced more jail time.  In May 2011 he was convicted and sentenced to two years of imprisonment to be followed by three years of supervised release. For Roundy, a 66-year-old convicted drug smuggler, this was the end of his dream.

The planes and any other assets were finally sold at a public auction in March 2011 for $748,000 to Lufthansa Technik AG, a division of Lufthansa airlines. The German aviation company was interested in taking the parts from the three planes and restoring one of the aircraft to flying condition.

Airplane - 4

The company built a hangar for the project at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airpark, assigned engineers and workers to the Airplane - 5project, and have spent countless hours and working to complete a flying aircraft. To date they have functioning engines, and are working at locations throughout the world to manufacture the parts needed to complete they’re close.

According to rumors, speculations, and visits to the hangar, the restoration may be finished sometime this year. For those interested in seeing one of the planes, there is a fuselage parked on the tarmac just outside their hangar. There are no engines, sections of the tail missing, and the forward end of the nose section is gone, but it’s still an impressive site.

It may not be a Maine secret for much longer.

 

 

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David Arenstam

David Arenstam has spent all of his adult life by the shores of the Saco river. After starting and running his own data-processing and software firm, Arenstam has found his passion and voice teaching and writing. He is a faculty member at Thornton Academy, has a regular newspaper column, and is working on a graduate degree in journalism.
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