A piece of American history preserved by Germans

An airworthy example of the ultimate piston-powered airliner will survive, thanks to the efforts of our German friends. The most advanced version of the most beautiful passenger airliner ever built, the Lockheed Constellation L-1649, is being restored to airworthy condition in Maine by a coalition of organizations connected with Lufthansa German Airlines. As an aviation buff, I am grateful for this effort.

L-049

L-049 (the first Constellation) public domain image (hat tip: Wikimedia)

The original Constellation model, the L-049 was commissioned in the late 1930s by Trans World Airlines, then under the control of Howard Hughes, as a pressurized transcontinental airliner. The distinctive triple vertical stabilizer (tail) reportedly was the result of a specification that the airplane could fit into the existing maintenance hangars TWA had at the Kansas City Municipal Airport, which were servicing its fleet of DC-3s. By having three shorter stabilizers, the need for a taller tail fin was obviated. Aviation legend Kelly Johnson, the father of the Lockheed "skunk works" design facility for secret aircraft like the U-2, was involved in the design effort. The Constellation used a scaled-up version of the the wing on the P-38 Lightning fighter, also designed and built in Burbank by the genius Kelly Johnson.

When the United States entered World War II, the airliners being readied for TWA were commandeered for military use, so the airplane did not enter commercial service until after the war. But in mid 1944, Howard Hughes was allowed to pilot one of his Connies from Burbank Airport (where the planes were built) to Washington, DC, nonstop, making headlines as the first airliner able to accomplish such a feat, and setting up TWA and Lockheed for a glorious postwar future. The plane took almost 7 hours to make the trip, but that was a new record. The plane traveled 330 miles per hour. No airliner ever before had been able to attempt a nonstop coast-to-coast flight.

A high performance airplane, the Connie was perhaps not as easy or economical to build and service as some of its postwar rivals produced by Douglas Aircraft, the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7. The Douglas models outsold the Connie equivalent models.  But the Constellation remained the most beautiful airliner, with its elegantly curving fuselage and high landing gears (necessary to accommodate the giant props mounted on it Curtis-Wright engines). Those powerful engines also reportedly needed more service and had more incidents of trouble than the engines used on Douglas airframes.

As the jet age neared, Lockheed foolishly updated the Constellation to higher performance in speed and range. The 1649 variant, called the "Starliner", debuted in the skies only a year or two before the Boeing 707 made long range "high speed" prop airliners obsolete. For a brief period, the Starliner was the queen of the skies, and TWA took full advantage. It called the plane the "Jetsream" based on its ability to cruise high and ride the jetstream winds (when they were in its favor - i.e., eastbound). Of course, in a westbound direction, the winds run against the airplane. In fact the record set by TWA flying nonstop from London to San Francisco, staying aloft for 23 hours and 19 minutes, covering over 5300 miles against serious headwinds, still stands as the longest time spent aloft by a commercial airliner in history, without a fueling stop, at an average speed of 230 miles per hour.

Only 44 Starliners were ever produced. TWA's decision to spend so much money on an airplane soon to be obsolete began its decline from a position as the glamorous  "Airline of the Stars" to utlimate bankruptcy and absorption into American Airlines. Hughes insisted on ordering the Convair 880, a smaller jetliner than the 707 or DC-8, but a faster plane. These aircraft also proved a financial drag on TWA, due to high operating costs and lower passenger capacity and delivery issues. But they, too, were beautiful and high performance airliners. I flew on them every chance I got in the 1960s. The 880 and its sister the 990 led to the demise of their maker, Convair.

Another customer for the Starliner was Deutsche Lufthansa. You can see some copyrighted images of the Starliner in Lufthansa livery here. Thus it was that Lufthansa Technik, the aircraft maintenance subsidiary of Lufthansa (a widely-respected firm that performs technical services for many airlines) became interested in purchasing three airframes housed at the Lewiston-Auburn Airport in Maine, where they had been brought by aviation enthusiast Maurice Roundy.  The three airframes were bought last year by the Germans, and just this week, a newly-constructed hangar was opened, purpose-built to house the restoration of one Starliner, cannibalizing parts from the other two birds, in order to produce an airworthy plane.

I have visited surviving Constellations at a number of air museums and storage facilities. One of two Constellations used by President Eisenhower as Air Force One is on display and open to the public at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. You can board the airplane and get a sense of what aircraft interiors were like at the height of the prop age (claustrophobic compared to today's jets -- even in the Presidential fleet). In the same hnagar, you can visit the DC-6 aircraft used by Harry Truman, and comapre the two rival propeller-driven airliners of the 1940s and 50s.

In our rush to develop the next technology, we often lose sight of the achievements of the past. The Lockheed Constellation's ultimate version merits preservation as a landmark in the history of travel. I am thankful that Germans have stepped up to the plate to preserve this ultimate example of a remarkable airliner.
An airworthy example of the ultimate piston-powered airliner will survive, thanks to the efforts of our German friends. The most advanced version of the most beautiful passenger airliner ever built, the Lockheed Constellation L-1649, is being restored to airworthy condition in Maine by a coalition of organizations connected with Lufthansa German Airlines. As an aviation buff, I am grateful for this effort.

L-049

L-049 (the first Constellation) public domain image (hat tip: Wikimedia)

The original Constellation model, the L-049 was commissioned in the late 1930s by Trans World Airlines, then under the control of Howard Hughes, as a pressurized transcontinental airliner. The distinctive triple vertical stabilizer (tail) reportedly was the result of a specification that the airplane could fit into the existing maintenance hangars TWA had at the Kansas City Municipal Airport, which were servicing its fleet of DC-3s. By having three shorter stabilizers, the need for a taller tail fin was obviated. Aviation legend Kelly Johnson, the father of the Lockheed "skunk works" design facility for secret aircraft like the U-2, was involved in the design effort. The Constellation used a scaled-up version of the the wing on the P-38 Lightning fighter, also designed and built in Burbank by the genius Kelly Johnson.

When the United States entered World War II, the airliners being readied for TWA were commandeered for military use, so the airplane did not enter commercial service until after the war. But in mid 1944, Howard Hughes was allowed to pilot one of his Connies from Burbank Airport (where the planes were built) to Washington, DC, nonstop, making headlines as the first airliner able to accomplish such a feat, and setting up TWA and Lockheed for a glorious postwar future. The plane took almost 7 hours to make the trip, but that was a new record. The plane traveled 330 miles per hour. No airliner ever before had been able to attempt a nonstop coast-to-coast flight.

A high performance airplane, the Connie was perhaps not as easy or economical to build and service as some of its postwar rivals produced by Douglas Aircraft, the DC-4, DC-6 and DC-7. The Douglas models outsold the Connie equivalent models.  But the Constellation remained the most beautiful airliner, with its elegantly curving fuselage and high landing gears (necessary to accommodate the giant props mounted on it Curtis-Wright engines). Those powerful engines also reportedly needed more service and had more incidents of trouble than the engines used on Douglas airframes.

As the jet age neared, Lockheed foolishly updated the Constellation to higher performance in speed and range. The 1649 variant, called the "Starliner", debuted in the skies only a year or two before the Boeing 707 made long range "high speed" prop airliners obsolete. For a brief period, the Starliner was the queen of the skies, and TWA took full advantage. It called the plane the "Jetsream" based on its ability to cruise high and ride the jetstream winds (when they were in its favor - i.e., eastbound). Of course, in a westbound direction, the winds run against the airplane. In fact the record set by TWA flying nonstop from London to San Francisco, staying aloft for 23 hours and 19 minutes, covering over 5300 miles against serious headwinds, still stands as the longest time spent aloft by a commercial airliner in history, without a fueling stop, at an average speed of 230 miles per hour.

Only 44 Starliners were ever produced. TWA's decision to spend so much money on an airplane soon to be obsolete began its decline from a position as the glamorous  "Airline of the Stars" to utlimate bankruptcy and absorption into American Airlines. Hughes insisted on ordering the Convair 880, a smaller jetliner than the 707 or DC-8, but a faster plane. These aircraft also proved a financial drag on TWA, due to high operating costs and lower passenger capacity and delivery issues. But they, too, were beautiful and high performance airliners. I flew on them every chance I got in the 1960s. The 880 and its sister the 990 led to the demise of their maker, Convair.

Another customer for the Starliner was Deutsche Lufthansa. You can see some copyrighted images of the Starliner in Lufthansa livery here. Thus it was that Lufthansa Technik, the aircraft maintenance subsidiary of Lufthansa (a widely-respected firm that performs technical services for many airlines) became interested in purchasing three airframes housed at the Lewiston-Auburn Airport in Maine, where they had been brought by aviation enthusiast Maurice Roundy.  The three airframes were bought last year by the Germans, and just this week, a newly-constructed hangar was opened, purpose-built to house the restoration of one Starliner, cannibalizing parts from the other two birds, in order to produce an airworthy plane.

I have visited surviving Constellations at a number of air museums and storage facilities. One of two Constellations used by President Eisenhower as Air Force One is on display and open to the public at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. You can board the airplane and get a sense of what aircraft interiors were like at the height of the prop age (claustrophobic compared to today's jets -- even in the Presidential fleet). In the same hnagar, you can visit the DC-6 aircraft used by Harry Truman, and comapre the two rival propeller-driven airliners of the 1940s and 50s.

In our rush to develop the next technology, we often lose sight of the achievements of the past. The Lockheed Constellation's ultimate version merits preservation as a landmark in the history of travel. I am thankful that Germans have stepped up to the plate to preserve this ultimate example of a remarkable airliner.