|A USAF C-69, the military version of the Constellation|
|Role||Airliner and transport|
|First flight||January 9, 1943|
|Introduction||1943 with USAAF|
1945 with TWA
|Retired||1990s, airline service|
|Status||In very limited service|
|Developed from||L-044 Excalibur|
L-1049 Super Constellation
EC-121 Warning Star
|Developed into||Lockheed XB-30 (Unbuilt)|
The Lockheed Constellation ("Connie") is a propeller-driven, four-engined airliner built by Lockheed Corporation starting in 1943. The Constellation series was the first pressurized-cabin civil airliner series to go into widespread use. Its pressurized cabin enabled commercial passengers to fly well above most bad weather for the first time, thus significantly improving the general safety and ease of air travel.
Several different models of the Constellation series were produced, although they all featured the distinctive triple-tail and dolphin-shaped fuselage. Most were powered by four 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones. In total, 856 were produced between 1943 and 1958 at Lockheed's plant in Burbank, California, and used as both a civil airliner and as a military and civilian cargo transport. Among their famous uses was during the Berlin and the Biafran airlifts. Three served as the presidential aircraft for Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of which is featured at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Lockheed had been working on the L-044 Excalibur, a four-engined, pressurized airliner, since 1937. In 1939, Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA), at the instigation of major stockholder Howard Hughes, requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner with a range of 3,500 mi (5,600 km)—well beyond the capabilities of the Excalibur design. TWA's requirements led to the L-049 Constellation, designed by Lockheed engineers, including Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard. Willis Hawkins, another Lockheed engineer, maintains that the Excalibur program was purely a cover for the Constellation.
The Constellation's wing design was close to that of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, differing mostly in size. The triple tail allowed the aircraft to fit into existing hangars, while features included hydraulically boosted controls and a deicing system used on wing and tail leading edges. The aircraft had a maximum speed over 375 mph (600 km/h), faster than that of a Japanese Zero fighter, a cruise speed of 340 mph (550 km/h), and a service ceiling of 24,000 ft (7,300 m).
According to Anthony Sampson in Empires of the Sky, Lockheed may have undertaken the intricate design, but Hughes' intercession in the design process drove the concept, shape, capabilities, appearance, and ethos. These rumors were discredited by Johnson. Howard Hughes and Jack Frye confirmed that the rumors were false in a letter dated November 1941.
With the onset of World War II, the TWA aircraft entering production were converted to an order for C-69 Constellation military transport aircraft, with 202 aircraft intended for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). The first prototype (civil registration NX25600) flew on January 9, 1943, a short ferry hop from Burbank to Muroc Field for testing. Edmund T. "Eddie" Allen, on loan from Boeing, flew left seat, with Lockheed's own Milo Burcham as copilot. Rudy Thoren and Kelly Johnson were also aboard.
Lockheed proposed the model L-249 as a long-range bomber. It received the military designation XB-30, but the aircraft was not developed. A plan for a very long-range troop transport, the C-69B (L-349, ordered by Pan Am in 1940 as the L-149), was cancelled. A single C-69C (L-549), a 43-seat VIP transport, was built in 1945 at the Lockheed-Burbank plant.
The C-69 was mostly used as a high-speed, long-distance troop transport during the war. In total, 22 C-69s were completed before the end of hostilities, but not all of these entered military service. The USAAF cancelled the remainder of the order in 1945. Some aircraft remained in USAF service into the 1960s, serving as passenger ferries for the airline that relocated military personnel, wearing the livery of the Military Air Transport Service. At least one of these airplanes had rear-facing passenger seats.
After World War II, the Constellation came into its own as a fast civilian airliner. Aircraft already in production for the USAAF as C-69 transports were finished as civilian airliners, with TWA receiving the first on 1 October 1945. TWA's first transatlantic proving flight departed Washington, D.C., on December 3, 1945, arriving in Paris on December 4 via Gander and Shannon.
TWA transatlantic service started on February 6, 1946, with a New York-Paris flight in a Constellation. On June 17, 1947, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) opened the first-ever scheduled round-the-world service with their L-749 Clipper America. The famous flight "Pan Am 1" operated until 1982.
As the first pressurized airliner in widespread use, the Constellation helped establish affordable and comfortable air travel. Operators of Constellations included TWA, Eastern Air Lines, Pan Am, Air France, BOAC, KLM, Qantas, Lufthansa, Iberia Airlines, Panair do Brasil, TAP Portugal, Trans-Canada Air Lines (later renamed Air Canada), Aer Lingus, VARIG, Cubana de Aviación, Línea Aeropostal Venezolana, and Avianca, the national airline of Colombia.
Sleek and powerful, Constellations set many records. On April 17, 1944, the second production C-69, piloted by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye, flew from Burbank, California, to Washington, D.C., in 6 hours and 57 minutes (about 2,300 miles (3,700 km) at an average 331 miles per hour (533 km/h)). On the return trip, the aircraft stopped at Wright Field in Ohio to give Orville Wright his last flight, more than 40 years after his historic first flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He commented that the Constellation's wingspan was longer than the distance of his first flight.
On September 29, 1957, a TWA L-1649A flew from Los Angeles to London in 18 hours and 32 minutes—about 5,420 miles (8,720 km) at 292 miles per hour (470 km/h). The L-1649A holds the record for the longest-duration, nonstop passenger flight aboard a piston-powered airliner. On TWA's first London-to-San Francisco flight on October 1–2, 1957, the aircraft stayed aloft for 23 hours and 19 minutes (about 5,350 miles (8,610 km) at 229 miles per hour (369 km/h)).
Jet airliners such as the de Havilland Comet, Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, Convair 880, and Sud Aviation Caravelle rendered the Constellation obsolete. The first routes lost to jets were the long overseas routes, but Constellations continued to fly domestic routes. The last scheduled passenger flight of a Constellation in the lower 48 states was made by a TWA L749 on May 11, 1967, from Philadelphia to Kansas City, Missouri; the last scheduled passenger flight in North America was by Western Airlines' N86525 in Alaska, Anchorage to Yakutat to Juneau on 26 November 1968.
Constellations carried freight in later years, and were used on backup sections of Eastern Airlines' shuttle service between New York, Washington, and Boston until 1968. Propeller airliners were used on overnight freight runs into the 1990s, as their low speed was not an impediment. An Eastern Air Lines Connie holds the record for a New York–to–Washington flight from take off to touchdown in just over 30 minutes. The record was set prior to speed restrictions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) below 10,000 feet (3,000 m).
One of the reasons for the elegant appearance of the aircraft was the dolphin-shaped fuselage shape, a continuously variable profile with no two bulkheads the same shape, which was expensive to build. Manufacturers have subsequently favored tube-shaped fuselages for subsequent airliner designs, as the cylindrical cross-section design is more resistant to pressurization changes and cheaper to build.
After ending Constellation production, Lockheed chose not to develop a first-generation jetliner, sticking to its military business and production of the turboprop Lockheed L-188 Electra. Lockheed did not build a large passenger aircraft again until its L-1011 Tristar debuted in 1972. While a technological marvel, the L-1011 was a commercial failure, and Lockheed left the commercial airliner business permanently in 1983.
Main article: List of Lockheed Constellation variants
The initial military versions carried the Lockheed designation of L-049; as World War II came to a close, some were completed as civilian L-049 Constellations followed by the L-149 (L-049 modified to carry more fuel tanks).
The first purpose-built passenger Constellations were the more powerful L-649 and L-749 (which had more fuel in the outer wings),[page needed] L-849 (an unbuilt model to use the R-3350 turbo-compound engines adopted for the L-1049 ), L-949 (an unbuilt, high-density seating-cum-freighter type, what would come to be called a "combi aircraft").
These were followed by the L-1049 Super Constellation (with longer fuselage), L-1149 (proposal to use Allison turbine engines) and L-1249 (similar to L-1149, built as R7V-2/YC-121F), L-1449 (unbuilt proposal for L1049G, stretched 55 in (140 cm), with new wing and turbines) and L-1549 (unbuilt project to stretch L-1449 95 in (240 cm)).
The final civilian variant was the L-1649 Starliner (all new wing and L1049G fuselage).
Military versions included the C-69 and C-121 for the Army Air Forces/Air Force and the R7O R7V-1 (L-1049B) EC-121 WV-1 (L-749A) WV-2 (L-1049B) (widely known as the Willie Victor) and many variant EC-121 designations for the Navy.
See also: List of Lockheed Constellation operators
After TWA's initial order was filled following World War II, customers rapidly accumulated, with over 800 aircraft built. In military service, the U.S. Navy and Air Force operated the EC-121 Warning Star variant until 1978, nearly 40 years after work on the L-049 began. Cubana de Aviación was the first airline in Latin America to operate Super Constellations.
Data from Great Aircraft of the World and Quest for Performance
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era
Editor’s Note: Bob Buck was one of Air Facts’ most popular writers in the 1950s and 60s, beloved for his first-hand accounts of the changing airline world… In our latest trip through the Air Facts archives, we fly from Los Angeles to London via the polar route, as told from the left seat of a Connie.