The Connie Continues to Fascinate
By Larry Hilliard


Much of the July 2009 issue of Aviation History magazine is devoted to what it refers to as the “Beautiful Beast: Lockheed’s sleek, speedy, flame-spitting Constellation.”  Aviator/author Stephan Wilkinson offers what might be some little-known facts and observations about the famed “Connie.” 

I’ve focused on a few of the more noteworthy.

     “The Lockheed Constellation may be the object of more misinformation and fables than any other airliner ever built.
    Howard Hughes designed it.  No. He designed Jane Russell’s cantilever bra, but he only specified the range and speed
    parameters he wanted for the new TWA transport.

     “The Constellation’s fuselage is shaped like an airfoil to add lift.  No. It curves upward at the rear to raise the triple
     tail out of the prop wash and slightly downward at the front so the nose gear strut didn’t have to be impossibly long.
    Lockheed decided that the airplane’s admittedly large propellers needed even more ground clearance than did Douglas
    or Boeing on their competing transports, which resulted in the Connie’s long, spindly gear legs.

     “It was known as “the world’s best tri-motor” because it had so many engine failures that it often flew on three. No. 
     Boeing 377 Stratocruisers with its “corncob” (R4360) engines had far more failures in airline service. Many airline
     pilots flew the Connie for years without ever feathering an engine.

     “In fact, Connie engines on the L-1049H and later L-1649 were the source of some amusement (or terror, depending
     on one’s anxiety level) for passengers. Because of exhaust constriction, turbo compound engines spouted long tails of
     flame from the exhaust pipes, particularly at night. 

     “Much has been made in some Constellation histories of Howard Hughes being a whack job, a crazy man, a weirdo. 
    This is an exaggeration.  True, he’d had his bell rung numerous times in bad crashes in the late 1920s and mid-‘30s
    resulting in neurological damage that led to a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  No one in those days knew about

  “The ultimate Constellation is popularly considered to be the Model 1649A. TWA called Jetstreams.  It was the largest American piston airliner ever produced and the fastest by far at long-range cruise power settings.  But, it was a failure.  Only 44 were ever manufactured, including Lockheed’s own prototype.  It was the company’s only unprofitable series in the Constellation evolution.”
OCD.  If anything, it made Hughes a detail-oriented perfectionist.

    “Everyone is familiar with the now-famous west-to-east transcontinental record flight of the Connie in April 1944 by
    Hughes and TWA President Jack Frye delivering the ship to Air Corps General Hap Arnold.  Author Wilkinson adds a
    couple little-known facts.  He says that in spite of physical disabilities, Hughes was sharp enough to borrow the
    number-two prototype Constellation, a C-69 owned by the U.S. Army Air Forces, and quickly repainted it in TWA
    colors prior to the historic flight. Aviation history hardly ever mentions two distinguished passengers on that flight:
    Lockheed designer Kelly “Skunk Works“ Johnson and actress Ava Gardner, Hughes’ then-girlfriend. Whether on that
    flight or another test flight, Kelly Johnson never developed any admiration for Hughes’ piloting skills. ‘He dammed
   near killed us both,’ Johnson once admitted.

    “On the return leg back to Burbank from Washington – and in a typically brilliant piece of public relations – Hughes
     stopped at Wright Field, outside Dayton, Ohio (today Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) and picked up Orville Wright
    for what would be Orville’s last-ever flight. Orville had been the pilot on the first true powered flight in history, and
    now was given the chance to handle the controls of an airplane that, four decades later, represented some of the most
    advance technology available to civil aviation.

  “ The Constellation was arguably more successful as a military airplane than it ever was as an airliner.  The Army Air
   Corps, later to become the U.S. Air Force and the Navy bought and used 40 per cent of all Constellations ever
   manufactured.
The following are still a few more Connie hidden treasures:

  1. When it first flew, the L-049 Connie was faster than Japan’s then-feared Mitsubishi Zero in WWII.
  2. Lockheed proposed the Constellation as a long-range bomber, designated as the XB-30. However, the Army Air Corps went with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.  
  3. The first airplane ever to use the call sign “Air Force One” was a Constellation.  It was President Dwight Eisenhower’s official airplane, Columbine II.
  4. One of the most unusual airline Constellations was Cubana Airlines’ flying nightclub, Tropicana Express, which was outfitted with a dance floor and carried a band from the Tropicana Club in Havana.  It made the flight from Miami  to Havana every Thursday evening.
  5. The longest-duration airline flight ever made was flown by an L-1649A – 23 hours and 20 minutes between San Francisco and London in October 1957.  Obviously, jets have flown farther nonstop, but none has spent as much time in the air unrefueled. 

One final reflection:  A surprising number of Connies were converted into restaurants, cocktail lounges, discos and nightclubs. What would Orville Wright have thought of that?

A Side Note:

The same issue (July 2009) of  Aviation History has an interesting story about Lufthansa spending several million dollars to restore a 1649A Jetstream Connie.  They bought three 1649s for $745,000 aiming to cannibalize two to the benefit of one fully restored flying aircraft.

Ironically, the one airframe that will become the final restored airborne aircraft was formally a TWA Jetstream 1649A, tail number N7316C (or referred to as 16 Charlie).  Two of the three Connies are in the restoration process at Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Maine.  The third never made it out of Florida after two failed ferry attempts.

Much of the work on 16 Charlie is not being done by volunteers but by U.S. technicians at BizJet International, a repair station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a facility owned by Lufthansa.  An engine overhaul shop in Idaho is handling the engines restoration.  In fact, Lufthansa’s restorers are building the Connie’s complete modern cockpit in a mockup in Hamburg, Germany at Lufthansa’s Technik, location of the airline’s maintenance arm.  When completed, the cockpit will be detached and shipped to the U.S. for installation in the actual airplane.

Observers wonder whether Lufthansa might have undertaken a project far bigger than it imagined.  Lufthansa believes they can complete the job in two or three years while others think it will take more than five … and a million dollars?  Some say tens of millions. (LLH)

Larry Hilliard (1959 – 1988), served in Public Relations/Corporate Communications at MKC, CHI and NYC, and led coordination of the all-TWA volunteer group’s restoration of TWA’s Star of Switzerland currently on display at the Pima Air Museum, Tucson. That same Kansas City-based team also served as the heart of the volunteer group involved in restoration of Northrop Alpha NC-11Y for the Smithsonian Institution.