San Juan Isla Verde - International Airport

Connie Capital

On the morning of August the 13th 1985, I boarded a Lufthansa B747 flight from Frankfurt International Airport for 9 hours (plus) flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Several months before this morning I had read that a Dominican freight company called ‘Aerochago SA’ was operating a lone L-749A Constellation between Santo Domingo and San Juan airport. According to the upsetting article it was the ‘last’ operational Connie in the world. Realizing that this could be my last and only opportunity to see a Connie in action, I made plans to visit this tropical Island.
As we were lining up for landing at Isla Verde International Airport, I could see the wet runway in front of us; perhaps it was not the right time to visit due to the hurricane season. To my surprise the Aerochago Connie HI-422 (c/n 2667) was parked at the edge of the loading ramp, next to a fleet of operational cargo DC-3’s. After dealing with the local customs agents I stowed my suitcase in one of the airport lockers and walked towards the cargo area…..the home of the Caribbean freighters. As I left the cool air-conditioned terminal and walked across to the rundown freight sheds…I broke out in a huge sweat. The jet lag and the tropical heat were taking its toll on me. But the sight of the worlds only operational Lockheed Constellation proved to be irresistible and I continued to Aerochago modest cargo office.

During the early 1980’s San Juan ‘Isla Verde’ Airport was a Propliner paradise. Several companies operated cargo flight; these were ‘Four Star Aviation’ with a fleet of DC-3’s, Air Haiti Curtis C-46’s, Trans Air Link Douglas DC-6s, Borinquen DC-3s and Aerochago SA with single Convair 240 and an L-749A Lockheed Constellation.

Aerochago HI-422 Connie, which was initially built for TWA, was parked on the outer edge of the cargo ramp. There she stood, cargo doors open, fuel truck under her wings and black oil dripping from all her engines Wright R3350 engines. Freight pallets lay scattered across the dirty ramp as she was being loaded for her return flight back to Santo Domingo. I walked into the cluttered freight shed and managed to speak to one of the Puerto Rican loading chiefs. I asked if I could go out on the ramp and photograph the Connie. Despite my very poor knowledge of the Spanish language he understood my intentions. I also asked him if he new when the Connie was going to leave. There was no scheduled departure time…usually they leave when the loading was finished. But she was expected back around 12 noon the next day. Aerochago was flying on a regular basis and this was good news for me!

After taking my first pictures and not knowing when the HI-422 was going to leave I decided to spend the first night at Airport Hotel, located above the main terminal. They offered me some airline discount. I got a room for $33 dollars, instead of $40, overlooking the main apron and cargo ramp. Later that evening I heard the roar of four Wright R3350 engines at full power, when HI-422 took off from runway 08-26 and disappeared in the night sky.

I woke up early the next day, suffering from major jet-lag; I decided to check out the cargo ramp. Early mornings in the tropics are the best time to walk about, when there is still a cool breeze. The cargo ramp was filled with the several hard working Douglas DC-3’s. I noted the ‘Southern Flyers’ N595C, N45860, N310K, ‘Borinquen’ N27PR, N28PR, ‘Air Puerto Rico’ N29PR, Air British Virgin (BVI) Islands N5117X, N4471J, Aero Virgin Islands N28346 and N100SD.

At the time it was still possible to fly on scheduled passengers DC-3 flights from San Juan International airport. Aero Virgin and Air BVI flew regular passenger DC-3 flight to the neighboring Virgin Islands and on the main Island.

Additionally flights onboard scheduled Executive Air two Herons N600PR and N601PR was also possible. Another way to travel was flying onboard one of the Virgin Island Seaplane Shuttle (VISS) Grumman G73 Flying boats. VISS schedule provided for several flights between St Thomas and Puerto Rico.
At around noon, I ventured towards the edge of the cargo ramp adjacent to runway-10, which overlooked the approach end of runway 10. In the far distance the San Juan skyline dominated the horizon. 20 minutes later I saw the distinctive shape of a Constellation appearing from the clouds on short final track. Aerochago Connie HI-422 was almost on time I thought. Nose down and flaps at full down position she slowly crossed the runway threshold. She touched down smoothly and rolled down the full length of the runway.
Then I ran around through the dilapidated freight hanger and asked if I could get a better photo position on the ramp. No problem and not a moment to soon, as HI-422 was now taxing back to her familiar oil soaked parking spot.

With the outer engines turned off, she swung around in order to taxi up to the cargo ramp. She slowed down, then the inboard engine where revved up to make the sharp turn.

The main gear brakes where squeaking as the Connie turned around and I felt the prop wash from the big propellers in my face. What a sight it was and one that I will never forget!

For a moment she kept her engines running, providing hydraulic power to open the aft cargo door. Perhaps also to cool down her oil soaked Wright R3350 engines. I was overjoyed by the scene.

Then the engines silenced! Some minutes later the crew and a few passengers climbed down the aft cargo ladder. I stayed around to soak up the atmosphere and got close with the Connie. The Connie was not going anywhere, she would need to be unloaded and then prepared for her flight back to Las Americas International airport.

That evening I checked in at the Green Isle Inn motel at Isla Verde and stayed for the following night. This was a pleasant motel (not to big) and a nice place to stay near the Isla Verde beach which is a 30 minutes walk from the airport. The next day I purchased a ticket on an Aero Virgin Islands scheduled DC-3 flight to St Thomas Virgin Islands…but that’s another story.

San Juan Isla Verde International
HI-442 B707-399C 19767 Dominicana
HI-292 C-118A 44594 Dominicana Carga
HI-422 L-749A 2667 Aerochago
TI-LRQ B727-212 21946 Lacsa
XA-MEJ B727-264 22411 Mexicana
HH-AHA C-46C 26496 Air Haiti
HH-CSA C-46C Air Mar Freight System
HH-CSB C-46C Air MarFreight System
N284AT B727-22 19151 America Trans Air
N211FE B727-252F 22933 Federal Express
N904WA DC-10-10 46930 Arrow air
N8973U DC-8-62 46085 Arrow air
N728DA L-1011-385 1173 Delta
N329EA L-1011-385 1085 Eastern
N316EA L-1011-385 1037 Eastern
N220EA A300B4-103 124 Eastern
N59SC DC-3C 12332 Southern Flyer
N45860 DC-3C 12528 Southern Flyer
N310K DC-3C 4843 Southern Flyer
N27PR DC-3C 11776 Borinquen
N28PR DC-3-6202A 6323 Borinquen
N29PR DC-3-357 3278 Air Puerto Rico
N5117X DC-3C 6054 Air BVI
N4471J DC-3C 6187 Air BVI
N28346 DC-3C 6259 Aero Virgin Island Airways
N100SD DC-3 12853
N10DW C-47A-25 13643
N600PR DH-Heron Executive Air
N601PR DH-Heron Executive Air
N2974 G-73 Mallard Virgin Island Seaplane Shuttle

Further noted but not logged are: ALM-Avianca-Lufthansa-Iberia-Crown Air and Air Panama