Arguably the most graceful and beautiful airliner ever built, the Lockheed Constellation celebrated its 60th birthday this year. Conceived by Howard Hughes in the late 1930’s, the Constellation represented the ultimate in airline performance and luxury during the 1950’s with 856 being built for commercial and military customers. Quickly displaced from frontline service by jet airliners in the 1960’s, there are at least fifty-five “survivors” of the mass scrappings of the 1960’s and 70’s, with four still flying regularly on the airshow circuit.
January 9, 2003 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the first flight of the Lockheed Constellation. On Saturday January 9, 1943 the Constellation prototype, NX25600 (c/n 1961), made a fifty-eight minute flight from Burbank, California to Muroc Field, California and an aeronautical classic was born. NX25600, painted in USAAF camouflage, was the first of 856 Constellations and Super Constellations built by the Lockheed Corporation. While no examples are in commercial or military service today, about fifty-five aircraft survive with four flying on a regular basis.
While the USAAF originally ordered 260 C-69’s, the military version of the Constellation, only fourteen entered service and these were quickly declared surplus and sold to the airlines in 1946 and 1947. At the end of World War II, Lockheed also had seven undelivered C-69’s in various states of production. These were quickly converted to civilian L049’s and sold to the airlines giving Lockheed a year head start on Douglas. A civilian type certificate for the Constellation was awarded on December 11, 1945 and commercial operations were inaugurated by Pan American on February 3, 1946 between New York and Bermuda. TWA followed three days later with Constellation service on their New York to Paris route.
Production continued until 1958 with larger and more capable versions being developed with the ultimate Constellation, the L1649A Starliner, entering service with TWA in May 1957. The final aircraft delivered, L1049H N6937C, went to Slick Airways on September 17, 1959. Four major versions were produced.
The advent of the jet airliner meant early retirement for many Constellations. By the mid-1960’s, most had been replaced and mass scrappings were underway in places like Kansas City, Missouri, Lancaster, California and Miami, Florida. TWA made its last Constellation passenger flight from JFK, New York to St. Louis, Missouri in May 1967 using L749A N6020C. Eastern Airlines followed shortly after, in February 1968, when it retired its fleet on the famous Air Shuttle route. After retirement from mainline service, numerous aircraft were converted to freighters, some went to travel clubs and many went to second tier operators. By the early 1990’s only a few remained in commercial service flying freight for Dominican operators in and out of Miami, Florida. These aircraft were, for the most part, surplus military aircraft that had been bought cheap at Davis Monthan AFB. This too came to an end when the FAA prohibited operations into the United States by these operators in 1993 due to flight safety concerns.
- C-69/L049 Series Constellation – 88 aircraft delivered including fourteen C-69’s for the USAAF
- L649/L749 Series Constellation – 145 aircraft delivered including ten C-121A/B’s (USAF) and two WV-1’s (US Navy
- L1049 Series Super Constellations – 579 aircraft delivered including 320 for the USAF (C-121, EC-121 and RC-121) and US Navy (R7V-1 and WV-2)
- L1649A Series Starliners – 44 aircraft delivered
While the final Constellation flight is hopefully many years in the future, final military and commercial operations have been religiously recorded by Constellation enthusiasts.
About the time the Constellations were fading from commercial operation, they began appearing on the airshow circuit. While numerous two and four engine airliners had been restored by museums for static display, no one had ever restored a four-engine airliner to airworthiness for display on the airshow circuit. The first group to do so was Kansas City based Save-A-Connie, who rescued L1049H N6937C from the desert and flew her to Kansas City in July 1986. The group, consisting of many ex-TWA employees, overhauled the aircraft in 1987-1988 and she was formally dedicated on July 9, 1988. The group has continued restoration of the aircraft and today she is in pristine condition and flies regularly on the US airshow circuit.
- The final passenger service was flown by Aerovias Nacionales Quisqueyana on January 19, 1978 using two Constellations, L749A HI-207 and L049 HI-270. The flights were from Santo Domingo to San Juan and it’s ironic to note that the last flight was made using the oldest Constellation type, a L049.
- The final U.S. military operation was flown by NC-121K BuN 141292 on June 11, 1982 at NAS Key West, Florida. Two weeks later, on June 25, 1982 this aircraft was flown to the Florence Air and Missile Museum in Florence, South Carolina
- The final military operation was flown by Indian Air Force L1049G BG-579 on March 31, 1984. The Indian military was forced to retire its Constellations when Air India would no longer perform maintenance on them due to the lack of spare parts.
- The final commercial freight operation was flown in 1993. Dominican operators Aerochaga and AMSA were forced to suspend operations that year due to an FAA ban on Dominican registered propliners in the US.
The second Constellation to join the airshow circuit was Vern Raburn’s “MATS Connie”, C121A N494TW. This aircraft is an ex-USAF VIP transport, which was converted to a sprayer in the early 1970’s. An interesting note on this aircraft is that she was owned by the actor John Travolta for a short time during the mid-1980’s. Vern purchased her in 1987 and restored her to flying condition. She made her debut at the 1992 Oshkosh airshow and thrilled the crowd by performing a close formation fly-by with Save-A-Connie’s L1049H. The crowd loved it but the FAA made sure it didn’t happen again! The aircraft is based out of the Constellation Group’s Avra Valley headquarters and tours the country from March through November.
The third active Super Connie is the Constellation Historical Society’s (CHS) ex-C-121C Super Constellation N73544, which is based at Camarillo, California. She was restored from 1992 to 1994 and made her first appearance at the NAS Point Mugu airshow in September 1994. Although grounded for a period of time, she is airworthy again and has made appearances at a number of west coast airshows in 2003. Enthusiasts in Europe can look forward to seeing her perform at European airshows beginning in 2004. The Swiss based Super Constellation Flyers Association (SCFA) has reached agreement with the CHS to lease the aircraft for five years and bring her to Europe. If everything goes as planned, after five years of lease operations, the SCFA will become the proud owner of this beautiful aircraft.
Australia’s Historical Aviation Restoration Society (HARS) probably gets the award for the messiest restoration effort. Their aircraft, ex-C-121C VH-EAG, had the distinction of being the last Constellation in storage at Davis Monthan AFB. The truth is that no scrap dealer wanted the airplane because the interior was covered with several inches of bird droppings. The Australians moved the aircraft across the road to the Pima Air and Space Museum and in April 1994, after eighteen months of work, flew her to Tucson International Airport for further restoration. Two years later on January 24, 1996 she departed Tucson on an epic journey to Sydney, Australia, where she arrived on February 3rd. The aircraft is an active participant on the Australian airshow circuit and is based in Sydney, Australia.
While these four aircraft are the only ones flown regularly, during the past five years a number of Connies have been made airworthy and made at least one flight. For many years, ex-C-121A N749VR, sat forlornly on the Constellation Group’s ramp at Avra Valley. It had been purchased by Vern Rayburn in 1993, as a source of spares for the MATS Connie, and was ferried to Avra Valley in September 1994. She was sold to the Dutch Constellation Association in 1995, a group that planned on restoring it for a flight to The Netherlands. Nothing much happened with the restoration until the Dutch Aviodome Museum became involved in early 2001. This group joined forces with the Constellation Group’s mechanics and eighteen months later, in September 2002, the airplane was re-registered N749NL and successfully ferried to The Netherlands. While currently sporting an early 1950’s KLM colorscheme, she is grounded due to the lack of suitable Curtis electric propellers. The propellers used for the ferry flight are owned by the Constellation Group and were returned to Arizona shortly after completion of the flight. The museum, so far, has been unsuccessful in locating suitable replacements and is now exploring other options in its effort to return this airplane to the sky.
Another former USAF ex-C-121A, N9463 is probably the most famous of the “non-museum” survivors. It is owned by Harry Oliver and Mel Christler and was Dwight Eisenhower’s first presidential Constellation, “Columbine 2”. Used by Mel as a source of spares for his four Constellation sprayers, it was in derelict condition when he found out its “pedigree” in 1980. Mel joined forces with Harry in late 1989 and, using parts from sister ship C-121B N608AS, restored her to flying condition and flew her to a number of airshows in 1990 and 1991. After flying only once since 1991, it was made airworthy and flown to the Constellation Group’s headquarters at Avra Valley on May 4, 2003.
Super Connie N105CF was last flown by Aerochaga in 1993 and stored at Santo Domingo from 1993 to June 2000, when the Swiss based Super Constellation Flyers Association (SCFA) purchased her. The aircraft was made airworthy and flown to Opa Locka, Florida in November 2000 with the intention of completing the restoration at the Constellation Group’s facility in Avra Valley, Arizona. After additional work at Opa Locka, the airplane completed the ferry flight to Arizona, arriving on January 7, 2001. The group’s intention was to complete the restoration in Arizona, obtain an FAA “standard” airworthiness certificate, and base the airplane in Europe where it would provide rides at airshows. This was done, with great success, by the MATS Connie in 1998, and it seemed like a great idea at the time. September 11th happened, the FAA became much stricter about following the “letter of the law” and after the Dutch experience with N749NL it became obvious that the FAA would only grant N105CF an “experimental” certificate, which would not allow the carriage of passengers. After considerable resources had been expended, the Swiss group abandoned the effort in August 2002. In June 2003, the SCFA reached agreement with the Camarillo, California based Constellation Historical Society for the lease/purchase of their C-121C N73544. With this turn of events, the fate of N105CF is uncertain, at best.
Maurice Roundy has single handedly saved three L1649A Starliner Constellations from being scrapped. His Maine Coast Airways currently owns L1649A’s N7316C, N8083H and N974R. While the first two have been safely stored adjacent to Maurice’s home at the Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Maine since the mid-1980’s, the third had been slowly deteriorating at the airport in Sanford, Florida. Parked at Sanford since arriving via an emergency landing in September 1988 very few people, other than Maurice, ever thought it would fly again. In early 2000 Maurice began restoring the airplane with the help of a handful of volunteers. Again, the skeptics underestimated Maurice but in October 2001, it made the short flight to Kermit Week’s Fantasy of Flight museum in Polk, Florida where it is on loan for five years.
The restoration of old Connies in past few years has picked up considerable momentum. A number of organizations have begun restoration projects involving long neglected aircraft. The most exciting of these efforts is Maurice’s plan to get L1649A N7316C flying again on the airshow circuit. Maurice had hoped to get both 16C and N8083H flying but the plan now is to restore 83H for static display adjacent to his house at Auburn-Lewiston Airport. For almost thirty years, ex-Capitol Airways L1049E N1005C sat atop a restaurant in Penndel, Pennsylvania. In 1996 the site was bought by Amoco Oil and the airplane donated to the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover AFB in Delaware. In October 1997, the aircraft was moved from Pennsylvania to Dover AFB by road and reassembled in July 2003. The restoration should be completed in about two years and, when completed, she will be painted in USAF colors to represent a C-121C transport.
The Brazilian Wings of a Dream Museum in Sao Carlos, Brazil recently rescued L049 N86533 from an uncertain future. For twenty-five years she had been on display at a park in Asuncion, Paraguay in deteriorating condition. The aircraft was disassembled and, after a thirty-day road trip, arrived in Sao Carlos on December 13, 2000. Now reassembled and back on her feet again, the museum plans on painting the aircraft in 1950’s era Panair do Brazil colors. Possibly the most surprising news of the year was the impending restoration of L1049H HI-542CT, long abandoned at Aguadilla-Borinquen Airport, Puerto Rico after being damaged by a runaway DC-4 in February 1992. The aircraft has been moved from its long-time parking space in early 2003 and recent photos from Puerto Rico seem to indicate that its restoration has begun.
These are exciting times for the Constellation enthusiast. With many projects underway the emphasis has changed from scrapping aircraft to restoring aircraft. While we will continue to lose an aircraft occasionally to the scrap man, many more are being saved by dedicated individuals and groups. My hat goes off to these folks.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: George Gayuski, Günter Grondstein, William W. Sierra, Alexandre Avrane, J. Roger Bentley, Stephen Piercey, Andy Martin, Hans Werner Klein, Graham Robson, Bill Blanchard, Antti Hyvärinen, Raymond Oostergo, TAM Museum, Jose A. Rafols, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 8 February 2004------Updated 16 March 2004----