Wow: Lufthansa Spent $160m On Restoring A Vintage Plane That Never Flew

It is always great to see a historic aircraft return to the skies. Lufthansa tried this with a 1950s Lockheed ‘Super Star’ Constellation aircraft in 2007. Unfortunately, restoration work was canceled in 2019, and the aircraft is now stored in Bremen after $160 million was spent on the project. This article takes a look at the details – and the cost.

Lufthansa Super Star
A Lockheed Starliner, known with Lufthansa as Super Star. Photo: Lufthansa

Purchasing and restoring a Lockheed Starliner

The aircraft in question is a Lockheed L-1649 Starliner, part of the Lockheed Constellation series of aircraft. The Starliner was the last model of the series to be built, entering service in 1957, and they were all retired by the early 1980s.

Only 44 aircraft were built, and many of these were scrapped following retirement. A few survived, and Lufthansa acquired three of these in 2007. They had been parked next to Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport in Maine for around 20 years and were sold as part of a bankruptcy auction.

TWA Lockheed Starliner
TWA was the largest operator of the Lockheed Starliner. Photo: NACA via Wikimedia

A restoration project began, based at Auburn airport. This involved teams of contracted specialist engineers, up to 300, according to some reports. Many parts of the restoration were subcontracted to other companies.

Ralph Pettersen, who runs the Constellation news and restoration website has written several updates on the restoration project, based on visits to the site. In a 2016 update, he notes that four of the engines had been overhauled and test run, a purchased glass cockpit installed, the landing gear had been rebuilt, and the septum (providing the seal between the fuselage and the wing) had been fitted.

Crew were even being trained for the aircraft. Pettersen observes:

“The four pilots and three flight engineers chosen to fly the Starliner, continue their training. Since the Starliner and Super Constellation share the same type rating, crews have been training on the HARS and SCFA Super Constellations to maintain their proficiency and retain their type ratings.”

Suspending restoration in 2018

The restoration project was stopped in 2018, however, and the plane was shipped to Germany in 2019. It is now stored, in parts, in a hangar at Bremen airport, according to Pettersen.

Another aircraft that Lufthansa bought was sold to the TWA Hotel at New York JFK, where it has been on display and used as a cocktail bar since 2019.

TWA hotel
A second Constellation aircraft is now as JFK as part of the TWA Hotel. Photo: Jag9889 via Wikimedia

It is not the only vintage plane stored at Bremen. Lufthansa also restored and operated a heritage Junkers Ju 52 aircraft until 2018. This was also put into storage from 2019, pending a decision about its future. Most likely, it will end up on display or in a museum, along with the Constellation.

Lufthansa Junkers 52
Lufthansa restored and flew a Junkers Ju 52 until 2018. Photo: Lufthansa

An expensive restoration project

At the time, cost overrun was blamed for the cancellation of the restoration project, but Lufthansa did not give figures. In May 2020, it was reported by news portal aeroTELEGRAPH that the project had cost Lufthansa €150 million ($162 million).

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr announced this during questions at the group’s AGM. He also noted that donors provided much of this. He is quoted by aeroTELEGRAPH explaining:

“The total cost of the project from 2007 to 2019, after we finished the project and brought the plane back to Bremen, amount to 150 million euros.”

But Ralph Pettersen thinks the total cost could be higher. He is quoted by WGME, a CBS affiliate in Maine, explaining his view of the project. He said:

“Everything had to be better than new, which meant that the airplane’s structure and skin was just about totally replaced. I read reports that 90% of the sheet metal had been replaced, and upwards of 75% of the structure had been replaced. They basically replaced the entire wing structure and skin.”

The ‘Super Star’ with Lufthansa

If Lufthansa had succeeded in returning the aircraft to service, it would be the first of the 44 Starliner aircraft to fly again. Trans World Airlines, Air France, and Lufthansa were the main operators of the Lockheed Starliner, and they all replaced them with Boeing 707 aircraft in the early 1960s.

Lufthansa Lockheed Super Constellation
Lufthansa operated both Lockheed Super Constellation and Starliner aircraft. Photo: Lufthansa

Lufthansa was the last airline to purchase the Starliner, purchasing four aircraft in 1957. It marketed them under the name ‘Super Stars’ rather than Starliner (TWA did the same, naming their Starliners as Jetstreams.) With Lufthansa, they operated on non-stop transatlantic passenger services, including between Hamburg and Burbank, and between New York and Frankfurt. After passenger services switched to the 707, two were converters to freighters before being retired in 1966.

Have you seen any of the Lufthansa heritage aircraft before they moved to storage? What do you think their future will be? Let us know in the comments.