Happy Friday and welcome back to the 3DB where today I want to reprint an updated article from a couple of years ago that told the story of the Lockheed Constellation. I had a lot of interest the last time this article was presented so hopefully everyone enjoys a repeat performance.
The Connie that was not the commercial success it should have been, in terms of numbers produced and profitability, but remains a legendary airplane for most aviators and is loved by aviation enthusiast around the world; however, first let’s look at a few myths about the Connie:
1. The Connie was designed by Howard Hughes – Yes or No? No, but he did give Lockheed the specifications and the performance parameters. The airplane was designed by Lockheed’s chief research engineer Kelly Johnson and his team.
2. The Constellation’s fuselage is shaped like an airfoil to add lift – Yes or No? 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 nosegear 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.
3. It was known as the world’s best trimotor because of the many engine failures that forced the crew to continue on three – Yes or No? No, the Boeing 377 Stratocruisers had far more failures in airline service.
4.The Constellation was the first pressurized airliner – Yes or No? No, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the first pressurized airliner.
5. The Constellation was the first tricycle-gear airliner – Yes or No? No, the Douglas DC-4 was.
6. There were pressurization problems/airframe failures that resulted in people being sucked out – Yes or No? Yes, this one is true. The first occurrence was a navigator trying to determine his flights position when the astrodome, that is the small glass bubble on top of the early airliners that navigators would use for their sextants, separated from the airplane and took him with it, and the second was an Air France passenger that was lost when a passenger window failed and explosive decompression occurred taking her as a victim. However, there was a pressurization problem, that did not result in the loss of life. The Constellation passenger got glued to a toilet seat when cabin pressurization failed, and this occurred when the valve that emptied the toilet into the unpressurized reservoir failed on one airline flight, and the poor lady who happened to be in the blue room at the time, became the cork that maintained cabin pressure. She was freed from her predicament when the crew depressurized the airplane.
Now that we have talked about a few of the myths, and there are many more, let see how Lockheed records the beginnings:
In 1939, the top brass of the Lockheed Corporation, president Robert Gross, chief engineer Hall Hibbard, and chief research engineer Kelly Johnson, scheduled a key meeting with a VIP, a man with deep pockets who had recently shown an interest in buying not just one, or a handful of new planes, but a fleet of them.
The customer’s request had been ambitious. He hoped to hire Lockheed to design a revolutionary aircraft capable of comfortably shuttling 20 passengers and 6,000 pounds of cargo across the United States, offering commercial aviation’s first coast-to-coast, non-stop service.
But the Lockheed team had come to express even grander ambitions. “They wanted to build the company’s first large transport, one that would carry more people farther and faster than ever before and economically enough, to broaden the acceptance of flying as an alternative to train, ship and automobile,” said Johnson.
In the years to come, the plane would be named the Constellation—Connie for short—and be flown by airlines around the world, as well as the U.S. military over the ensuing three decades. Eventually, it would be remembered as an enduring symbol, the epitome of grace in propeller-driven aircraft. But at that moment in 1939 in Los Angeles, the Lockheed Corporation was focused on winning over one customer and one customer only. His name was Howard Hughes.
When the Constellation was conceived, Lockheed was not a player in the air transport business. The company made some large single-engine airliners based on the Vega, as well as the Lockheed 10, 12 and 14 twins, all of which were blown away by the ubiquitous Douglas DC-3. Douglas, the industry leader, was already at work on its own four-engine, triple-tail design, the DC-4E. Boeing had a substantial background in large four-engine transports—the huge 314 Pan Am Clipper flying boats and the 307 Stratoliner under development—and even Martin and Sikorsky had more experience with big multi-motors, with their own four-engine flying boats.
Lockheed was developing the P-38 Lightning and the Hudson patrol bomber, a military refinement of the Model 14, when company officials decided they needed to get in on the mini-boom in domestic airline travel that took place in the mid- to late 1930s. The obvious answer was a four-engine 14, and Lockheed called it the Model 44 Excalibur. No thanks, the airlines said—not big enough, not fast enough, not enough of a leap forward.
So in the summer of 1939, Lockheed began on its own to develop the Model 49 Excalibur A, soon to be designated the L-049 Constellation. It had the iconic fishy fuselage shape; a scaled-up P-38 wing; nacelles intended to hold four of the most awesome power plants of the time, Wright R-3350 supercharged twin-row radials; and an array of Fowler flaps borrowed directly from the Lockheed 14. The flaps were as precedential at the time as a 747’s array of fully extended flaps would be in the 1960s: 10 complex slotted sections on the wings plus a pair of center-section flaps under the fuselage.
An early Constellation proposal had the big radials cooled by reverse flow: cooling air went in via leading-edge wing scoops, blew through the engines from rear to front and exited between each engine’s prop spinner and the cowling ring. It looked cool, no pun, with bullet-shaped nacelle/spinner units that resembled the turboprop designs of the 1950s, but it turned out there was no significant cooling-drag reduction.
Another Lockheed brainstorm was a canard Constellation, a tail-first design. Not surprisingly, the airlines were entirely unreceptive to such a radical airframe. But in any case, the L-049 was going nowhere. The winds of war were beginning to blow, and airline traffic was down. Douglas gave up on its DC-4E project—a complex and expensive-to-build prototype that had little to do with the actual DC-4/C-54 that would follow—and sold the plane to the Japanese. It would soon re-emerge briefly as the basis of the Nakajima G5N, Japan’s only long-range, four-engine bomber of World War II, an airplane that was built but never used.
It looked like the second iteration of Lockheed’s four-engine transport wouldn’t get off the drawing board either, but along came Howard Hughes with a secret order for 40 airliners, if Lockheed could meet his performance requirements. Hughes wanted to get a jump on his competition—mainly United and American—and not only demanded that the project remain quiet but stipulated that no other transcontinental airline be allowed to buy a Constellation for two years after Hughes’ TWA put them into service. American Airlines was so infuriated by being shut out that they vowed to never again buy a Lockheed airliner. Their pique lasted only until Lockheed’s next airliner, the turboprop Electra, was proposed in 1954 and American, after reconsidering their position, ordered 40 the following year.
Now a little bit about the man named Hughes. Howard Hughes has been portrayed as a crazed perfectionist and while there is some truth to this consider the following:
Much is made in some Constellation histories of Howard Hughes being a whack job, a crazy man, a weirdo. This is an exaggeration. The multimillionaire aviator’s true goofiness began with his addiction to painkillers as the result of the injuries he suffered while crash-landing the prototype Hughes XF-11 four-engine reconnaissance plane in July 1946. But he’d had his bell rung twice before in bad crashes during the late 1920s and mid-’30s, and they may well have done neurological damage that led to a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nobody knew what OCD was in those days, but if anything, it made Hughes a detail-oriented perfectionist.
In fact, Hughes was sharp enough to borrow the number-two prototype Constellation, a C-69 owned by the U.S. Army Air Forces, and he quickly repainted it in TWA colors and used it to set a west-to-east transcontinental record in April 1944 from Burbank, Calif., to over Washington National in six hours and 58 minutes. His co-pilot was Jack Frye, TWA’s president, and Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson was along for the ride. (So was actress Ava Gardner, Howard’s girlfriend at the time.) Whether on this trip, or another test flight, Johnson never developed any admiration for Hughes’ piloting skills. “He damned near killed us both,” Johnson once admitted.
On the return leg back to Burbank, Hughes stopped at Wright Field, outside Dayton, Ohio, today Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and in a typically brilliant piece of PR, picked up Orville Wright for Wright’s last-ever flight. Orville had been the pilot on the first true powered flight in history, and now he was given the right-seat chance to handle the controls of an airplane that, four decades later, represented some of the most advanced technology available to civil aviation at the time. (at this early point in the Connie’s life a 313-mph cruise, 2,850-mile range, 8,800 horsepower, hydraulically boosted controls and cabin pressurization was high tech and cutting edge)
The ultimate Constellation is popularly considered to be the Model 1649A, though the Starliner (which is what Lockheed named it) was in fact a new design, with an entirely different, far longer wing than the true Constellation/Super Constellation line had. Oddly, the new straight-taper, high-aspect-ratio wing had not a modern laminar-flow airfoil but a thin NACA airfoil like the one on Boeing’s B-17s and 314 Clipper flying boats. The Starliner (TWA called theirs Jetstreams, perhaps to suggest it had something in common with the already-proliferating Boeing 707) was the largest American piston airliner ever produced and the fastest by far at long-range cruise power settings, but it was a failure. Just 44 were manufactured, including Lockheed’s own prototype. It was the company’s only unprofitable series in the Constellation/C-121/Starliner evolution.
By 1961, even the newest Constellations were beginning to move to second-tier airlines and then to the likes of Royal Air Burundi, Slick Airways, Flying Tiger, Pakistan International and Britair East Africa. Because many Connies were low-time airframes when they were retired by the big airlines in favor of 707s and DC-8s, they were particularly desirable to a variety of users. Many Constellations became freighters, crop sprayers, travel club ships, charter birds, fire-bombers and smugglers. One was even specially equipped to airdrop bundles of marijuana and was openly tested in Arizona with hay bales, after being given a dispensation by the FAA for “agricultural flights.” The Rolling Stones used an ex-Eastern 749 for part of their famous 1972 U.S. tour emblazoned with big tongue-and-lips which was the Stones logo.
That is it for this week except to mention that I did write an eight part series on TWA a few years ago, should you have an interest, and I have a video of the Connie from the 1950s below. Have a good weekend, take care, and enjoy some time away from work/aviation. Life is short and at age 68 I speak from experience – there is never enough time for all that we think we need to do.
September 13, 2019