The Lockheed Constellation – The Plane That Changed The World

The Lockheed Constellation was a groundbreaking aircraft in so many ways. It put the otherwise small player Lockheed on the commercial aviation map and played an important role in WWII as well. Aside of its unique design and attractive curves, the Connie brought us something which has proved invaluable in the development of long haul, comfortable flying, and that’s the ability to fly at high altitudes, thanks to its pressurized cabin.

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How the Lockheed Constellation changed aviation forever. Photo: Wikimedia

Call me Connie

The development of the Constellation served to put Lockheed Martin on the map. A pretty small player in the aviation business, focusing on a few larger single-engine planes, Lockheed were vastly overshadowed by industry leader Douglas. Their DC-3 was leading the twin-engine market, and Douglas was already working on a four-engine aircraft, the DC-4E.

Lockheed touted their four-engine version of the Model 14 as an answer to civil aviation’s needs, but airlines demanded something bigger, faster and more of a stride forward than what they were offering. Then they met Howard Hughes.

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TWA wanted something new, and Lockheed delivered. Photo: Wikimedia

In 1939, Hughes had recently taken a majority stake in Trans World Airlines (TWA) and was looking for a company that could build him an aircraft that would give him the jump on United and American. The deals were done in secret, with a caveat that no other airline would be allowed to purchase the Lockheed developed airplane until TWA had 35 of them.

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This was to be the turning point for Lockheed, in the development of what would soon be named the Lockheed Constellation, or Connie for short.

Why was the Constellation so groundbreaking?

To fulfill Hughes requirements for something really outstanding, Lockheed had to be different. This meant bringing to aviation a number of innovations not previously seen on passenger planes. The Constellation would have the first hydraulically boosted power controls, would be faster than the majority of WWII fighter jets and would feature a pressurized cabin to allow the plane to fly above most of the weather disturbances.

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The pressurized cabin allowed it to fly further and higher than ever before. Photo: Wikimedia

There was one other aircraft that brought with it a pressurized cabin, and that was the Boeing 307. However, when it returned to commercial service after the war, its pressurization systems were disabled. For many years following introduction with TWA in 1949, Connie was the only passenger aircraft that offered the pressurization needed to fly at high altitudes.

But bringing such new technology to pass wasn’t always easy, or safe. During the first two years of operation, two people were sucked out of the Connie in flight, and there are numerous tales of people becoming glued to the toilet when pressurization failed. But passengers continued to board Connie.

TWA Constellation
A TWA Constellation in front of their hotel. Photo: Wikimedia

The first coast to coast commercial flights

Connie brought with her a series of firsts. As the first commercial aircraft to fly above 12,500 feet, it took passengers out of the ‘air sickness’ zone where the weather was more active. Settling into the jetstream at 20,000 feet plus was not only more comfortable for passengers, but also less fuel-intensive, enabling the Constellation to operate the first nonstop coast to coast US commercial flights.

Iberia super constellation
A Super Constellation in Iberia livery. Photo: Wikimedia

At the height of her popularity, airlines all over the world operated the Constellation. More than 800 aircraft were built in total, with operators including Pan Am, Air France, BOAC, KLM, Qantas, Lufthansa and TAP Portugal.

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A Lufthansa Super Constellation. Photo: Wikimedia

It wasn’t until the development of jet airliners such as the de Havilland Comet, the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 that the Connie began to slip from popularity. Unable to compete with the speed and economics of jet engines, the world’s first pressurized aircraft was rendered obsolete. Although Constellations remained in service as freight airliners and military aircraft for many years to come, the last model rolled off the production line in 1959, and by 1980 all but a handful had been retired.

Vital statistics

As the very first of the passenger variants, the L649 and the L-749 were more powerful and had more fuel in the wings than the original World War II L-049. Later came the longer L-1049 Super Constellation and the L-1649 Starliner, with an all-new wing. Let’s see how the four line up against each other.

 L-649L-749L-1049L-1649
Crew56 – 845
Capacity60 – 8160 – 8147 – 10699
Length95’3”97’4”113’7”116’2”
Wingspan123’123’123’150’
MTOW94,000lb107,000lb120,000lb156,104lb
Speed327 mph345 mph304 mph290 mph
Range2,290 – 3,995 mi2,600 – 4,995 mi5,150 mi4,940 – 6,180 mi

 

As the development of the Constellation moved forwards, the aircraft got larger and generally slower. However, range improvements and massive jumps in the MTOW made the larger variants popular with airlines. Both the L-1049 Super Constellation and the L-1649 Starliner were instrumental in the development of the transatlantic market, used by carriers on both sides of the pond to make connections between the continents.

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An L-749 in the UK. Photo: Wikimedia

Today, most of the Constellations still in existence can be found in aviation museums around the world. Some have even been turned into restaurants or cocktail lounges, including one ex-KLM plane which is now in New Orleans adorning the Crash Landing Bar.

Crash landing bar and nightclub
A former Connie at the Crash Landing bar and nightclub, New Orleans. Photo: Chris Protopapas via Flickr

The iconic design and graceful curves of the Constellation will always hold a special place in the hearts of avgeeks around the globe. And for modern travelers, we can thank Lockheed for bringing us pressurized cabins, allowing ‘smooth sailing’ on our journeys, at least most of the time.

2 comments
  1. The writer calls this aircraft a jet airliner ! Also, the speeds quoted above lag way behind any WW2 fighter jets, which don’t appear till 1944 anyway…

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