Widely used passenger plane of the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1939, Howard Hughes, always an aviation nut and then in charge of the companies that became TWA, spoke with the Lockheed corporation and commissioned a long-range aeroplane for commercial use, to be designed and produced out of sight of the competition. Of course, being the year that it was, a little war soon intervened and Lockheed's services were required a bit more urgently by the military. The hush-hush project's cover was blown as Uncle Sam decided that he wanted in on it and adopted the project.
Even though Hughes was the last to get it, what Lockheed designed was pretty much what he had asked them to. And the price tag was better since the
United States government conveniently poured a lot of wartime cash into Lockheed's design department--cash that was put to good use as far as Hughes
was concerned. The first prototype flew in January 1943 and twenty aircraft, designated the C-69 transport, were soon delivered to the Air Force. Hughes and Lockheed had a lot of development costs and all the company testing paid for, had the aircraft tried in the
field, and even got back some inventory at production cost. Talk about a bargain. After the end of the war the model was named the Constellation and
put on the market as a civilian airliner. TWA and PanAm were the first airlines to use it. Hughes would rather PanAm hadn't known about it at all
but then he was getting a right old deal in exchange for the blown secrecy.
What was so remarkable about the "Connie" in that day and age was its appearance and functionality. The Lockheed L-049 Constellation had it all. It
had a sleek design with a porpoise-shaped fuselage that makes it look snappy even by modern standards, tapered wings and an impressive
triple-rudder tail assembly. It was capable of flying high and Hughes' basic requirement--the capability of transatlantic travel, was not only
met but the route was also well-mapped by the Air Force by the time TWA made its first transatlantic Constellation flight in 1946. Even before that, a
Constellation painted in TWA's colours had shattered the coast-to-coast record before being delivered to the Air Force.
Indeed, its four 2200 horsepower Wright Cyclones took it high, with a ceiling of 18000 feet, and far, up to 3000 miles in distance, and its
maximum speed was a tidy 295 knots. Its roomy, pressurised cabin had space for 44 passengers, and up to sixty if you packed them in like they do
today. With a wingspan of 123' (37.5m) and a nose to tail length of 95' (29m) it was no giant but was nonetheless a shiny big bird that could get you
from here to there pretty reliably. People loved it. And even if it couldn't fly from New York to Paris nonstop, it could still cross the pond by
making the jump between Gander and Shannon.
The Constellation helped TWA's market share soar as transatlantic travel, uhm, took off like never before and the plane did pretty well between the east and west coasts of the United States. Air France, Lufthansa, and BOAC all bought their own Constellations. After 221 aircraft were built, the Connie was joined by the L-1049 Super Constellation, which could fly nonstop from New York to Los Angeles, in 1951 and that's more or less the measure of the range of an aircraft. The Super Constellation was followed by the Starliner and the whole series remained in service until jet passenger planes became the norm. The US Air Force decommissioned its last Constellation, then designated the C-121, of which many variants existed, in 1978. Until 1970 a C-121J was also the transport vehicle for the Blue Angels. Several Constellations remained in service for local cargo hauls and crop dusting well into the 1980s.
Constellations were used on all continents for civilian and military purposes alike, and retired or converted craft can be found everywhere from
India to Bolivia to Morocco. Perhaps half a dozen Connies are still flying, operated by enthusiasts in the United States and Europe.
- L-049: The original Constellation as described above.
- L-649: An improved version, more strictly tailored to civilian use, that could accommodate up to 81 passengers.
- L-749: The 649 equipped with extra tanks for a longer range.
- L-1049A: Named the Super Constellation, this aircraft was 5.60m (18'4") longer than the L-749 and sported 2700HP engines as well as additional fuel capacity that increased its range to 4600 miles.
- L-1049B: The above model as used by the military.
- L-1049C: This model introduced the turbo-compound engine to the line. Complicated and powerful 3250HP Wright engines prone to cutting out and
catching fire gave this model the nickname "the world's best three-engined aircraft."
- L-1049D: Pretty much the same aircraft, designed for civilian cargo transport.
- L-1049G: The "Super G" was a passenger liner with more powerful engines that seated up to 95 passengers. 99 were produced.
- L-1049H: 53 of these were delivered between September 1956 and November 1958, just before the introduction of jet passsenger planes and the end of
the propeller era in long-haul commercial air transport.
- L-1649A: Known as the Starliner, this model was slightly longer and had a larger wingspan than the previous one. With a range of 6300 miles, it
was meant to be used for non-stop transatlantic traffic but by then the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8 were taking over the market. Under pressure from the new jets, the Starliner flopped commercially and only 43 were delivered. You can pick one up for USD 250,000.
United States Military
- C-69: The Constellation's original designation as a military transport.
- PO-1W: Proof of concept Constellation equipped with an early warning system. See EC-121.
- R7V-1: Initial US Navy designation for the L-1049B. Saw service in, among other places, Antarctica before being redesignated
C-121J. One of them became a fixture and visitor attraction at McMurdo base after crash-landing there, and will probably stay there to puzzle
archaeologists in the distant future.
- C-121: The Air Force designation for the Super Constellation.
- RC-121: Original designation for the EC-121.
- EC-121 Warning Star: The US Air Force's Super Constellations equipped with radar. These were deployed in Vietnam and an EC-121 was the first
aircraft to successfully act as a command and control post in a combat operation. Many variants of this were made... alphabetically they reached the
- WV-2: US Navy equivalent of the EC-121
- WX-2E: US Navy designation, later changed to EC-121L. Precursor to the E-3 Sentry. This model introduced the radar dome that became a fixture
on AWACS craft.
- VC-121: VIP carrier used for luxury transport. The VC-121E was used as a presidential aircraft. President Eisenhower's
two Constellations were the first planes to use Air Force One as a call sign when he was on board.