PNA Connie Tales: Pacific Northern Airlines and the Lockheed Constellation
By Timothy Smith, Originally posted in 1999, latest revision in 2020
PNA “Connie” Tales
Part of the “How to Get to Kodiak” series of articles
(One of the first five articles posted in 1999!)
Top: the original PNA logo from a baggage sticker, and artwork from a PNA post card, bot from the early 1950’s. Bottom: a “Connie” in a later paint scheme from an airline photo collector on eBay, and the last PNA logo, from the late 1950’s until its demise.
Pacific Northern Airlines and the Lockheed Constellation
This article was first posted in 1999, when Tanignak.com began. Much of the text is the same, but I have greatly expanded the photos and included airline memorabilia where available. The article, “Runways to Remember 1” from 2011 has even more photos and memorabilia, commemorating the old NHB designation for the main Kodiak airport.
Pacific Northern Airlines had been serving Alaska since the 1930’s when they began
using Lockheed Constellations in the mid-
The original text relates a simulated Connie flight, as well as stories from former PNA employees, interspersed with photos and memorabilia. –Timothy Smith, 2/2020
Above: A photo from the Chaffin and Ameigh book Alaska’s Kodiak Island, published in 1962, shows a lovely Constellation with Barometer Mountain in the background at NHB (“Nice Hungry Bears”) in Kodiak. Used with permission of the Chaffin Estate.
Below: a poem I wrote shortly after my very last flight on a Connie, in May of 1967.
Connie’s the queen of old Flight Sixteen,
Though we fear this is oft a misnomer,
For whenever we spy a cloud in the sky,
Where is she? —She’s “Holding in Homer!”
From wing tip to tip, this beautiful ship
In design is most clean and pure.
We give it the gun and rise toward the sun.
Will we make it? We’re never quite sure!
With billows of smoke the silence is broke
As the plane begins to vibrate.
As the props blast a gale
Thru the tri-
And we’re only a half-
—T. L. Smith, 1967
Introduction: Miles of Water!
When you live on an island separated by miles of water from the nearest mainland
port, and when the water that surrounds your home can be some of the roughest in
the world, you develop a hearty appreciation for long-
A Constellation graphic and a PNA route map from the late 1950’s.
The cities listed (roughly south to north) are Portland, Seattle, Annette, Ketchican, Juneau, Kodiak, Yakutat, Cordova, King Salmon, Illiamna, Homer, Kenai, and Anchorage. In the heyday of Kodiak Island salmon canneries, there were direct flights from Seattle spring through fall.
The “Connie” – Here and Gone
By the late 1950’s (when I first experienced airline flight) the Lockheed Constellation
was the mainstay of a remarkable company known as Pacific Northern Airlines. The
“Connie” and PNA were Kodiak’s bridge to Outside — the “Lower 48.” The memorable
aircraft were an essential element of the culture of Alaska from the early 1950’s
until the late 60’s. By then business decisions merged PNA with Western Airlines.
Pacific Northern Airlines, “The Alaska Flag Line”, was absorbed into Western Airlines,
“The Only Way to Fly.” Local wags, who had affectionately christened PNA as “Practically
No Airline” and (due to Kodiak’s notorious weather) “Practically Never Arrives,”
were left with “Worster Nowlines.” These jokes hid a deep affection for PNA which
continues to this day, and former employees still refer to the firm as being more
like a family than an employer. Western Airlines swiftly replaced the venerable “Connies”
with Lockheed Electra turboprops, which had their own fan club among some pilots
and fliers. Pilots said it handled almost like a fighter, reports Phil Smith, Jr.,
who adds that pilots called it “the last fun airliner.” Alas, Electras did not remain
on the scene long enough to enter local lore like the “Connies” had done. After
a few months, the Electras were phased out, replaced by Boeing 720-
Right: Two of the last PNA brochures, featuring Boeing jets, both from the mid-
Below: A Lockheed “Electra” parked at the Kodiak terminal in 1969.
The plane never grabbed my imagination like the old “Connies” did, but was by all
accounts a remarkable craft, remaining in military service for decades as the P3
Orion sub chaser. It was soon replaced by 720-
Loyd “Woody” Woodward, Former PNA Pilot, Remembers:
The Connie was one of the safest aircraft to ever fly over Alaskan airspace. In all the years Pacific Northern Airlines flew them across Alaska, no fatal crashes occurred due to mechanical or structural failure, and the one fatal crash on Mount Gilbert was later thought to be caused by navigational error in bad weather. The Connie was deserving of its legendary status; both documented and apocryphal tales of its awesome resilience abounded. Loyd “Woody” Woodward, a retired PNA and Western Airlines pilot from Seattle, served graciously as technical consultant to this article. He stated, “the Connies always took care of me. We had a mechanic on duty in Kodiak and Juneau, but depended on the reliability of the old Connie at the smaller stops along the route (King Salmon, Homer, Cordova, etc.).”
Right: “Woody” Woodward, former PNA Constellation pilot, among his World War II memorabilia in this 1992 photo.
Mr. Woodward contributed stories and memorabilia, and served as fact-
“Woody” Woodward’s Story Continues
Woody Woodward began his commercial airline career after World War II. He was a PNA
pilot, flying mostly the DC-
Mr. Woodward described one unfortunate incident aboard a PNA Connie: “In the late
winter of 1960 we were flying a night trip from Anchorage to Seattle. We had reached
our cruising altitude of 21,000 feet and were reporting over our checkpoint at Middleton
Island when a slightly agitated stewardess reported a possible tragedy in the making
at the rear of the plane. A passenger had shot himself while in the men’s lavatory.
I directed the co-
As I was taking his pulse, and trying to look very professional, he handed me a suicide note and mumbled an apology for disrupting the flight! Guess the Good Lord was looking out for our sick passenger. The chief Flight Surgeon for the (Elmendorf) Air Force base at Anchorage was on board and he had his medical bag with him. I returned to the cockpit and spent the next thirty minutes of the flight back to Anchorage relaying messages between the Flight Surgeon and medical personnel on the ground. This story did have a happy ending. The medics had the patient in the operating room for twelve hours. He spent the next six weeks recuperating and, believe it or not, flew south to Seattle on a PNA Connie a few days after he got out of the hospital!”
The changes in airline regulations (indeed, the whole aviation industry) have been drastic since the Connie graced Alaskan airspace. Woody notes that “In those days there were no restrictions as to carrying firearms on board an aircraft. During hunting season we often had enough weapons on board to outfit a small army. Times do change!” In reality the above shooting incident was more serious than his narrative would indicate. The suicidal passenger had used a .357 magnum pistol with deadly firepower, but had only loaded it with .38 wad cutter loads. When the bullet exited the victim’s body, it had lost enough velocity that it didn’t penetrate the skin of the aircraft, where it might have caused a sudden loss of cabin pressure, precipitating an even worse tragedy. Or maybe the old Connie was too tough to shoot? (Continued below…)
A memo and a letter from the Woodward collection document the story he relates below.
Mr. Woodward Relates the Story from the Above Letters
On another flight, in 1967, at the twilight of the Connie’s illustrious career in
Alaska, Woody Woodward was in command of Flight 16, Anchorage to Kodiak. As they
passed over Ushagat Island, he spotted four fires (in that rain-
The original 1999 version of this article began with a graphic asking for people to share their stories. This new logo features a 1966 photo that my Dad took as a “Connie” took off from Anchorage, and a shot taken through the tiny restroom porthole of a “Connie,” taken by bush pilot Steve Harvey. To share your “Connie” tales, please email me at Tanignak@aol.com
Recollections of Other PNA Employees and Passengers
In the twenty-
Norm Israelson, of Anchorage, wrote me with several interesting stories, and I have included two of them here. His way of storytelling prevents me from attempting any editing. I just couldn’t improve on them. Here he shares one incident from his first day as ground crew in Yakutat:
My first day on the job at Pacific Northern Airlines at Yakutat, Alaska I received my briefing on do's and don’ts. The staff consisted of the station manager and me and a part time ramper (if he showed up sober). All three of us had to unload and load the L749 Connie and its “speed pak.” My briefing was “Don't walk into the props, and if you hear the teletype dinging, its important, bring the message to me right away!” I brought a farm wagon of baggage and freight into the terminal and was returning to the aircraft when I heard the teletype “dinging.” I was really upset at the message on the printer and took it right to the manager who was busy unloading the speed pak. He looked at it and crumbled it up and tossed it. I couldn't believe he could be so callous and had about made up my mind to seek other employment. The message read:
PN 720 CR ARR JNU PLAN SKED SEA
To old hands that meant: “PNA flight 720 reservations are closed on arrival at Juneau, plan scheduled arrival at Seattle.” To me with one day experience under my belt it said: “PNA flight 720 crashed on arrival in Juneau and plane skidded into the sea.” Fortunately, the manager caught me after the flight and explained some codes and other airline lingo, so I stayed another 28 years!
The “speed pak” described above is the boat-
Above: Two Norm Israelson photos. Top: a rare color photo of a “Connie” on approach with wheels down, and below: a “Connie” on the snowy tarmac at Kenai airport.
Another incident related by Norm Israelson involved training (or lack thereof) of the ground crew, this time at Kenai. Once again, I found it unnecessary to edit or condense:
While working at Kenai for PNA it was a constant ordeal keeping ramp employees at the lousy wages we paid. Consequently, we didn't waste a whole lot of time on non essential training. I recall one such employee, his first name was Milton but I forget his last. He said he was from Iowa and he was in Alaska to make his fortune. It was one of those days where no one showed up and it was just him and I on the ramp. Things went sort of OK until it became time to start up the L749 Connie. I told him to stand by the nose wheel and in, sequence, do the following as I hand signaled him: 1. Shut down the GPU (Ground Power Unit) 2. Pull the nose wheel chocks. 3: Unplug the power cord to the aircraft and coil it on the GPU cart. 4. Get on the tug and pull the GPU clear of aircraft. 5. Remove the main gear wheel chocks. 6. Stand by for further signals from me.
The Connie was a pretty intimidating monster at that close range, and as the first engine started I could see the blood drain from Milton’s face. He cringed as the other three engines started and stood there staring at the huge Pratt & Whitney radials roaring in his face. I think before that day he had never been around a bigger machine than a John Deere farm tractor. When I got the all clear from the cockpit, I signaled Milton to pull the chocks. He turned around several times, forgot all I had told him, jumped on the tug and pulled the still running, still plugged in GPU away. There was a huge flash of voltage as the cord tore loose, and a bunch of “What the hells going on?” from the cockpit.
By then Milton was nowhere in sight. I checked for damage, found nothing serious, and told the cockpit to standby. I pulled the nose wheel chocks, ran around and removed the main gear chocks, ran back to the nose gear and head phones, unplugged them and signaled the flight out. I then went looking for Milton with fire in my eye. By the cargo shed I found the tug and Ground Power Unit. They were both still running, and the aircraft cord was strung out behind them. Milton was nowhere to be found. He never did come back, even to collect his pay, but I am pretty sure he headed straight back to Iowa, and not by air either I’ll bet!
James Flood of Anchorage relates some of the challenges of keeping the by then well-
Two incidents come to mind, both minor but interesting, one was on takeoff from Cordova. We had a false fire warning light on one of the engines that delayed us a few hours while it was fixed and the other was out of Cordova about halfway to Anchorage I had a window seat on the right side forward near the #3 engine (inboard starboard side). It was leaking oil, and I was watching oil ripple out of the nacelle and run back down the wing. I figured that was not good. Pretty soon the engine was shut down and the prop was feathered, and we flew on to Anchorage. All the fire trucks were out and positioned along side the runway, in case we crashed I guess.
The pilot made a routine landing, and we left the aircraft on those rickety mobile air stairs that were used in those days. Interesting side to that story was that PNA put us up at the Hilton for the evening, as I had missed the connection on to Homer. On the flight, I had befriended a young lady who was on her way to Homer as well. The desk clerk at the Hilton asked if we wanted a king size bed or queen, because he thought we were married. (However) she quickly pointed out that we were not married!
Axel Anaruk of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, remembers the advent of jet travel and the passing of the Constellations:
I remember as a boy flying Connies between SEA and ANC a couple of times, and then recall the disappointment of having to fly jets after PNA first acquired the 720B models. As a high school graduate in 1967, my dream graduation present was a round trip flight to Anchorage on a Connie in PNA colors before they were fully retired. I got that wish, and recall the flight to this day.
Somewhere around here, I still have a coated spark plug (can't recall what they were really called, but spark plug is the right idea) from one of the old “Connies,” that my Dad brought home for me after the final “Connie” was retired.
Below: My own experience was not quite as dramatic as Axel’s graduation gift, but I was also able to fly to Seattle on a Constellation in the summer of 1967 The little poem at the beginning of this article was my affectionate response to the passing of those venerable, memorable aircraft. Luckily, I stuffed my copy of the ticket in a box, which I uncovered almost 40 years later. After my Dad passed away, I discovered a canceled check covering my first flight on a Connie in 1957. So the the montages below document my first and last last “Connie” flight. The color photo source is unknown.
Right: my Dad’s shot of the last “Connie” flight we ever took, plus a scan of that last ticket, dated May, 1967.
Round trip between Kodiak (NHB, now ADQ) and SEA (“Sea-
Left: The canceled check documents the Smith family’s (NHB to SEA) flight from Larsen
Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island to Mount Vernon Washington. The photo (source
unknown) shows a “Connie” in the 1950’s paint scheme on the wet tarmac at SEA-
We spent the winter of 1957-
Like Axel Anaruk, I found myself deeply affected by the passing of the venerable “Connies”. But Charlie Feuchter, a commercial airlines pilot, relates that a “Connie” flight actually changed his life:
My father, originally a Chicago & Southern mechanic, went to Delta C&S in their merger. The “Connies” which C&S brought to the merger were sold to PNA. I had the great pleasure of flying to Juneau on a delivery flight from Atlanta with my mother and sister to visit with my Dad, who had flown up on the original delivery to teach ground school to PNA mechanics. That started my love affair with aviation, which led to a pilot career with Braniff, Modern Air, and Piedmont/USAir.
I certainly can’t match Charlie’s life story, although my youthful experiences with the Grumman Goose, Lockheed Constellation, and a certain boat called the Evangel prompted me years later to start this web site and become a “web author.”
In spite of fascinating stories such as these, the era of PNA and the “Connies” was one of those times that do not seem all that memorable or remarkable until they have passed. When the Lockheed Constellations faded into history, much of the charm and personality of air travel in and out of Alaska went with them. The journey was a story in itself, unlike the frequently faceless sameness of today’s air travel. When a person embarked on a flight from Stateside to Kodiak in the 1950’s, there was still a distinct sense that you were going from the known to the unknown, from the citified and predictable to the wild and untamed. When the city lights of Seattle and Victoria passed from view, you might as well have been going to the moon. For those born and raised in Alaska, however, a “Connie” flight meant either a trip Outside (like Dorothy stepping into Oz) or a comforting flight back to the familiar surroundings of home. In either case, the plane flight could be as memorable an adventure as whatever awaited you when you landed. My combined memories of Connie flights are recounted below the photo.
Right: Passengers boarding a “Connie” in Kodiak, 1962.
The author is the medium-
A Flight from Kodiak to Seattle in the 1950’s
To bring this article to a close, I will recreate as accurately as I can the experiences of a small boy on a Pacific Northern Airlines Constellation. Come along on a typical PNA flight from Kodiak to Seattle in the late 1950’s and we’ll see if we can catch some of the elusive ambiance, across the years and miles. As we board the Constellation, up long, shaky aluminum steps bolted to the bed of a pickup truck, the unmistakable smell of stale cigarette smoke, vague engine fumes and pungent germicide spray greets our noses. It reeks, but it beats the stench of the Greyhound that you once took to Portland.
We take our seats on faded, saggy upholstery, which still sports the TWA logo of
the plane’s previous owner. We hope that PNA has saved that money and invested it
in good mechanics. After we belt ourselves in, adjusting the knuckle-
The Connie taxis away from the terminal and turns toward the end of the runway, at the foot of Barometer Mountain. Then, with its elegant triune tail practically across the base road, the captain revs up all four engines to fifty percent of max power, for a routine but unnerving magneto check. Besides, it’s always better to catch a problem before committing 107,000 pounds of gross weight to the sky. It is as though the Connie is a huge songbird that has to go through its scales a couple of times before taking flight.
From the passengers’ perspective, we have all noise and no go, and everything shudders.
The actual takeoff is smoother by far, with the exception of the massive thrust that
shoves everyone back into their seat cushions. In the words of one former “Connie”
mechanic, they take off like a “scared rat.” Snow-
As the sleek, humpbacked fuselage and distinctive three-
It is finally dinnertime. We retrieve our heavy, solid tray tables from the pouch in front of us and struggle briefly to get the sharp prongs to line up with the small holes in the armrest. Thus prepared, we wait while the stewardesses (yes, that’s the operative word in the 1950’s) clatter and crash around for awhile in the constantly rattling closet of a galley. At last, trays with misshapen covered plates and metal silverware wrapped in genuine PNA linen napkins are laid before us, and although our nostrils can’t identify the aroma, we dig in; travel invariably makes one hungry.
Uncovering one of the plates reveals lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes and annoyingly
orange French dressing. The larger lid hides a mysterious, meatlike creation smothered
in viscous brown gravy. “Salisbury steak,” someone remarks, optimistically. A super
hard dinner roll comes deluxe with a pat of real Washington Darigold butter. A final
container reveals a too-
The rattle of silverware and trays and the smell of cool, wet, lemony Handi-
Five and a half hours being what they are, the time comes when I must go and visit
the lavatory. Sitting in the cramped, dimly-
As the plane circles above the bright lights of Seattle, we dismiss all such nonsense,
settling snugly in our seats while the loud thud of the extending landing gear reminds
us that we will soon be on land again. After the plane wearily groans to a stop,
Original text written in 1999, stories and photos from PNA employees added in 2011, latest rebuild February, 2020
Above: A Lockheed Constellation with Pacific Northern Airlines markings flies over
Seattle in the mid-
Thousands of people got to Alaska via PNA “Connies” that departed from Seattle between the years of 1955 and 1967. Our family made four round trips, NHB — SEA.
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