Archive: The Lockheed Constellation

When the Lockheed Constellation made its first non stop flight commercial flight across the United States, on February 15, 1946, it carried a fleet of stars including Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, and Gene Tierney. In a little over eight and a half hours, rendered shorter and sweeter by the generous provision of champagne, the Hollywood elite inaugurated a new era of modern aviation. In the same month, both TWA and Pan Am began transatlantic service: Washington to Paris in under fifteen hours.

A half century after its maiden flight--in January of 1943--the Constellation is still recalled as the most beautiful airliner of its day. Aviation elegance embodied, it was featured in film and ad, carrying the jet set before jets arrived. Its body was always compared to dolphin or swan, while its face wore the eager intelligence of a setter.

There was a harmony to its four engines--to ear as well as to eye--and to the three guitar pick shaped stabilizers, set together on its tail like musical notes on a staff. "The engines swelled to a deep, melodic rumble like the sustained roll of a battery of tympani," wrote aviation historian Roger Bilstein.

It was the first airliner to bring us modern comforts. Airlines emphasized its quiet, smooth ride. With pressurized fuselage, it was able to cruise at 20,000 feet--still the common passenger craft altitude--"above-weather," as the airline ads had it. It stood high and proud on its tricycle landing gear. To board it meant making a stately procession up stairs to level floor--a contrast to the slope produced by taildraggers such as the DC-3.

The Connie's shape was an inspiration to designers in the late Forties and the Fifties. While Walter Dorwin Teague waxed eloquent about the shape of the DC-3 horizontal stabilizer as a representative curve for the modern age, the Connie's long S-curve was to be at least as influential. Beloved of Harley Earl, and applied to Cadillac or Buick, it was a shape as mannered, even melodramatic, as the cabriole leg of a Chippendale cabinet. If the DC-3 was the Bogart of aviation--tough and versatile--the Connie was Cary Grant, who years after he first rode it co-starred with the airplane in North By Northwest.

With a speed of nearly 300 miles an hour and a range of 1500 miles, the Connie marked the beginning of modern commercial aviation as we know it. Not even the jet would make so great a difference. The Connie ruled the air in 1950, when passengers miles traveled by air for the first time exceeded those by Pullman. Non-stop flights across continent and ocean meant that wings supplanted rail and ocean liner. But the Connie stood for elegance as well as efficiency in travel.

From its beginnings, the Lockheed Constellation was wrapped in stardom. Howard Hughes, the new owner of TWA and aviation buff, came to Lockheed asking for the fastest, longest legged airliner possible. The plans were secretly to Hughes in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Revisions were discussed at the millionaire's mansion in Hancock Park.

Legend even attributed the design of the airplane to Hughes himself, a myth he did little to discourage. In fact, the shape originated with top Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson and chief engineer Hall Hibbard, working in collaboration with six wind tunnels. Johnson had pondered more exotic configurations such as an airliner with a second, forward wing or canard. But Johnson, who would shape the P-80 and F-104 fighters and the SR-71 Blackbird, finally turned back for the Constellation to his most successful creation, the twin boomed P-38 fighter, of which some 10,000 were eventually produced. He enlarged the Lighting's wing for the Connie and adopted the shape of its rear fins--the inspiration for Harley Earl's Cadillac tail finsfor the tail. For more efficient pressurization, the fuselage was nearly circular in section.

Johnson was fanatic about maintaining the airplane's sleekness for speed and grace. He insisted that a tiny tab for electrically grounding the parked plane fold away for flight. But he also endorsed the "Speedpack," a luggage pod that would have detached for more rapid distribution of the bags to passengers, even though its bulge cut twelve miles an hour from the Connie's speed.

First Raymond Loewy, then Henry Dreyfuss, created interiors for the Connie. Loewy had been called in early in the airplane's development, after Hughes rejected the work of Lockheed's staff.

"Get Raymond Loewy," he told his staff; the job had to be done immediately. Loewy canceled a trip to Studebaker, another client, on short notice, only to be stood up twice by Hughes. When he finally got in, the interview was a sentence long: "Do it like this," Hughes said, holding up a picture of earlier TWA interior.

Loewy's work for the TWA version of the Connie was overshadowed by that of Henry Dreyfuss for Lockheed, but for years afterwards Loewy displayed a photograph of a Constellation prominently in his office. Loewy said his designs were aiming at reassuring still fearful fliers. By the time Dreyfuss went to work, decorating the Super for KLM and Air France, the emphasis was on comfort--small tables and lamps in first class, and in the main cabin, dividers colors and soft indirect lighting. To remove the sense of being in a long tube--an airliner, Dreyfuss said, was nothing but a "big pickle"--he used walnut panels, conveying a homey sense of rooms beyond.

Howard Hughes flew early test flights. Testing the stall speed on early test flights, he once ended up with the Connie aimed into a ninety degree cso the airspeed indicator read zero. Risking his job and his company's contract, Johnson seized the controls.

In 1944, Hughes returned to the pilot's seat to set a transcontintental speed record. Plowing through a thunderstorm near Denver, he still made it from Los Angeles to Washington in 6 hours, 57 minutes and 51 seconds. While the aircraft was being tested near Dayton, engineers brought Orville Wright aboard; it was the last plane he would fly. Photographs show him looking shrunken and baffled in its cockpit surrounded by gauges and dials.

Lockheed completed work on the Connie at its Burbank factory, now operating under a wartime tent of camouflage designed by experts from the Walt Disney studios so the facility, seen from above, bore the image of a suburban housing tract. The Connie was immediately drafted into the military as the C-69. It looked good in olive drab, which laid out its shapes visually without the distractions of reflectance or airline paint schemes, and it served the war effort well: by 1945, it carried 44 per cent of military cargo .

When war ended, the Constellation was immediately ready for commercial service. Beginning with converted military models, TWA and Pan Am led the way in adopting the plane, each ordering forty copies. Eastern soon made the Connie the flagship of its "Silver Network" of routes. Lockheed rode high on the success. Time put the plane and Lockheed boss Robert Gross on its cover early in 1946. Imputing the esthetic of the airplane to it producer, Time reported that Gross lived in a pink stucco house in Bel Air, full of modern art by Modigliani, Kandinsky, Klee, and Braque in which, the newsmagazine's correspondent ventured, "he finds the same elements of composition . . . that he finds in clean, functional plane design."

But a series of fires and other problems marred the plane's first civilian years and in 1946 it was grounded for a time. Later, a Plexiglas bubble used for navigational sightings blew out, sucking a hapless navigator into the slipstream. Such problems were reminders that commercial aviation was only slowing turning into a routine and dependable form of transportation.

The airplane was not a total commercial success either. TWA failed to take advantage of the Constellation's capability and most flights across the country stopped en route. Either out of a belief that passengers would not tolerate so much time aloft or, Kelly Johnson believed, in a shortsighted resistance to work rules that required a second crew for flights of longer than nine hours .

Compared to the less exciting straight lined fuselage of the DC-6, the complex geometries that gave the Constellation its grace also made it harder to "stretch." But by 1950, Lockheed did manage to extend the fuselage eighteen feet--an expansion that dramatized the visual theme of the plane's length--and replaced the original engines with more powerful Wright 3350 engines modified from those on the B-29 bomber to produce the Super Constellation.

In May 1953, Harper's Bazaar dedicated a special feature to "Constellation Blue" a high, sky blue, keynoting luggage, clothing and cosmetics. Dreyfuss interiors were shown and a Super Connie in flight. Thanks to KLM and Air France, the magazine trumpeted, London was suddenly just ten hours away.

It was the peak of the Constellation's chicness. Faced with competition from the DC-6 and DC-7, Lockheed tried unsuccessfully to outfit the Super with turboprops. The airplane got a completely new wing in its last incarnation, but by 1957, it was too late: the jets had arrived.

A few Connies still fly. When Ike kept his campaign promise to "go to Korea," he did so on a Constellation. Its successor, the Columbine III became his Air Force One. That plane ended up an Arizona bone yard, supplying spare parts to a fleet of aerial sprayers run by Christler Flying Service, in Thermopolis, Wyoming. But in 1989, Connie buffs at Christler restored the Columbine to flying status. They now take it on tour to airshows around the country and are attempting to raise funds to completely restore the interior. In Kansas City, a group of former TWA employees banded together to keep another Super flying under the colors of the Save-A-Connie Association. The Pima County Air Museum, not far from the bone yards where aircraft sit in the Arizona desert awaiting resale or consignment to the aluminum smelter, has preserved a prime early Connie.

Veteran Connies still ply freight routes between Miami and South American airports, battered trucks of the aerial backroads. Today, Pan Am is gone, TWA is ailing and romance is in short supply in the commercial skies. But the spirit of the airplane lives on most recognizably in films and ads that showed thoroughly modern women, tending to resemble Audrey Hepburn, embarking for Europe in pillbox hats.

In a TWA travel poster, there is another image: suffused with the full optimistic light of the Fifties, huge saguaros rise beneath a sky of Arizona blue, in which, depicted from an impossible but flattering angle, a Constellation rides distant and beckoning.

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