It’s interesting how products reflect their times. With that said, the Lockheed Constellation is a true testament to that beautiful era of early commercial aviation, back when the idea of flying from country to country was a privilege only available to those of extreme wealth and influence. This aircraft, with its mixture of style and performance, really did symbolise the glamour era of aviation in what could be described as its days of innocence, long before it became mass-market as it is today.
To trace the Constellation, you need to go back to before World War II, when Lockheed tinkered with the idea of a four-engine, pressurised airliner known as the L-044 Excalibur. Designed in 1937, the project was given further incentive by way of Trans World Airlines and its major stockholder, aviator and businessman, Howard Hughes. The request was for a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner that could fly a range of 3,500 miles, which far exceeded that of the proposed Excalibur. With this, Lockheed reworked the concept before unveiling their brainchild, the L-049 Constellation, designed by Lockheed engineers Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard.
However, just as the Constellation project was getting started, the world decided to go to war, which, honestly, was the best thing that could’ve happened for the aircraft’s development. During those 6 years of mutual hatred and wanton destruction, more technological development was made than at any other point in human history, ranging from shell casings, new forms of medicine, improved cars and the atomic bomb. In the world of aviation, a demand to create more capable fighters and bombers led to advances that would change the face of air travel forever, and Lockheed were quick to pick up on this. Most of the aircraft’s design traits can be owed to the mighty Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter, a high speed attack aircraft that would become a true hero of the skies above the Pacific and the European Theatre. The wing design is of particular note, being essentially the same only larger. The aircraft also featured triple tails so as to fit in low-roof hangars of the time, the kind that had originally been built for tiny biplanes. Powered by four Wright R-3350-DA3 Turbo Compound 18-cylinder supercharged radial engines producing 3,250hp each, the aircraft could reach a top speed of 375mph, faster than the Japanese A6M5 Zero fighter. It could also attain a cruising altitude of 24,000ft, far higher than any other
aircraft of the time.
While most developments that went into the advanced structure of the aircraft could be owed to World War II, it also stunted its immediate ability to work in commercial aviation. The aircraft made its first flight on January 9th, 1943, two years after the United States entered the conflict. As such, the Constellation’s immediate line of work was as a transport aircraft, designated the C-69. Plans were also put forward to design a long-range bomber based off of the aircraft’s design known as the L-249, as well as a long-range troop transport to compliment the C-47 Skytrain, the L-349. 22 of these aircraft were constructed by the time the war ended in 1945, but by this time some of the aircraft had entered military service. None were lost during this period of hostilities, though the first two Constellation aircraft to be lost were both C-69’s, but these occurred immediately after the war and with no fatalities.
Once the war had wrapped up, the Constellation was able to start its function as a commercial airliner. Production of C-69’s was quickly converted back to civilian operation, and the first aircraft was delivered to Trans World Airlines on October 1st, 1945, flying its first revenue earning service from Washington DC to Paris on December 3rd the same year. This, however, wasn’t before the Constellation had rounded up several records, including the fastest flight across the mainland United States, flown by Howard Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye on April 17th, 1944. The flight departed Burbank in California and flew to Washington DC in just under 7 hours at an average speed of 331mph, which is quick even by today’s standards.
The ability for the Constellation to marry pressurisation with style, comfort and reliability meant that the aircraft was taken up by pretty much every major airline in the world. 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, and Línea Aeropostal Venezolana.
The aircraft also gave rise to several derivative versions, including the Super Constellation (extended fuselage), the Starliner (extended fuselage with new wing design), and several military versions such as the C-121 transport plane and the EC-121 Warning Star AWACS aircraft. C-121’s had the distinction of being the personal transport of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and were dubbed Columbine I, II and III. They later continued their role once he had become President of the United States, essentially making them Air Force One, though they weren’t specifically designated as such due to there being multiple aircraft assigned to presidential duty, including Douglas C-54 Skymaster’s. These aircraft would continue their prestigious operation until their replacement by the Boeing 707 based VC-137C SAM 26000 in 1962 under the Kennedy Administration.
In all, 856 aircraft were built by the time production came to a close in 1958, but this seemed timely considering that this was immediately before the world of aviation was changed yet again. The launch of the de Havilland Comet in 1949, the world’s first passenger jet airliner, began a development programme for all major aircraft manufacturers to build competitors. Though hindered by the metal fatigue issues which resulted in multiple fatal crashes, the Jet Age was upon us, and by 1960 every major aircraft builder had created their own pioneering international jet, be it the Boeing 707, the Vickers VC10, the Douglas DC-8 or the Convair 880. Lockheed, however, opted not to replace the Constellation with a pioneer jet aircraft in the 1950’s, instead turning its attention to military aircraft, while its only passenger product would be the L-188 Electra turboprop powered airliner, a spiritual replacement for the Constellation. The company wouldn’t return to mainstream jet aviation until the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar of 1972, which had the unfortunate distinction of being a commercial failure and forcing the company to remove itself from commercial aviation permanently in 1983.
Regardless, even if Lockheed had opted to continue building the Constellation, the aircraft wasn’t an easy thing to build, due largely to the unique nature of its shape. No
two sections of the fuselage were identical, unlike the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 which shared the same cross-section to allow for mass-production. As such, the Constellation was incredibly expensive to build, and the tube-shaped fuselage adopted by modern jets also allowed for greater resistance against pressurisation changes.
Still, the Constellation remained a popular aircraft once production had ended, though their work was quickly demoted from frontline international services to internal US operations, with the Boeing 707 and DC-8 now being the flagship. By the early-1970’s, the advent of the Boeing 727, the Douglas DC-9 and the Hawker-Siddeley Trident saw an end to the Constellation in the fleets of major airlines, and a majority were scrapped by 1980. These, however, were the ones to actually survive this long.
The Lockheed Constellation and its derivatives have something of a horrendous safety record, but not due to the aircraft being badly built. Most incidents were caused by pilot error, poor maintenance, fuel starvation, military shootdown or mid-air collision. In total, the Constellation and its variants have been involved in 105 accidents resulting in the deaths of 2,280 people both aboard and on the ground.
Some of the more notable disasters include the 1960 New York Air Disaster, where a TWA Lockheed Super Constellation collided over New York City with a Douglas DC-8-11 of United Airlines, causing both aircraft to crash down into the city streets, resulting in 134 deaths, including 6 casualties on the ground.
The worst accident involving the Lockheed Constellation however was August 14th, 1958, when KLM Flight 607-E from Amsterdam to New York, via Shannon in Ireland and
Gander in Canada, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 110 miles northwest of Ireland, killing all 99 aboard. The crash has never truly been determined due largely to a lack of evidence, though a mechanical error has often been suspected.
Today, there are rumours that some Constellations may still be earning money in Africa, but most airworthy versions are the result of enthusiasts and museums. In all, 42 of these aircraft survive in varying conditions, most being static displays although up to 15 aircraft are airworthy.
The Lockheed Constellation is perhaps the most beautiful propeller powered airliner ever to grace the skies, its unique shape, its streamlined profile, its wonderful charm and the its ability to grace the skies with such a plumb that even today is unmatched by its modern equivalents. It truly holds a place in history as one of the greatest aircraft ever built, and while its professional career was stunted somewhat by the rise of jet aviation, it retains a huge fanbase that continue to cosset and care for these wonderful planes so that future generations can see what those early days of air travel were like.