Lockheed’s Graceful Constellation
The Constellation was a pre-World War II airliner design begun by Lockheed Corporation in 1937. In 1939, Transcontinental and Western Airlines (later known as just TWA) showed interest in a long ranged transport with a modest amount of seating. A few aviation luminaries were involved with the early work… Howard Hughes was a major TWA stockholder and Kelly Johnson was one of the aircraft’s designers. The L-049 was the initial version.
As World War II interrupted the airliner’s development, it also took over many orders for civilian aircraft that were adapted to military service. The L-049 design was soon christened the C-69 Constellation. The “Connie’s” first flight occurred on January 9, 1943, after 202 airframes were ordered. Bomber and various transport versions were envisioned, but only the high-speed transport variant was ever built. In all, only 22 C-69s were produced, with the remainder of the order cancelled in 1945.
After World War II ended, the TWA Constellations were delivered and the airline’s first trans-Atlantic proving flight occurred in December, 1945, with 2 en route stops between Washington DC and Paris. With enhancements like pressurization and more efficient and powerful engines, the new airliner was produced as the L-649 and L-749. TWA was soon joined by US carrier Pan Am on the America to Europe runs. Flag carriers around the world ordered the Connie too.
Lockheed wasn’t the only plane maker which made airliners, and the Douglas Company’s DC-6A and –B versions were larger than the L-749. In response to this, Lockheed made hundreds of modifications (large and small) to the -749 and came up with a larger variant, the L-1049 Super Constellation. Use of the turbo-compound Pratt and Whitney R-3350 engine gave the L-1049C version a big improvement over the DC-6B too. To make it a true non-stop trans Atlantic aircraft, the L-1079G was produced, with more fuel and refined engines. TWA called theirs the “super G” and the name stuck.
The ultimate Constellation was the L-1649A Starliner. Only 44 were ever produced, but the design’s new wings and engine combination allowed for nonstop flight between California and Europe. In October 1957, a TWA L-1649A stayed aloft for just over 23 hours on a flight between London and San Francisco!
Until the advent of pure jet airliners, the Constellations and Douglas DC-6 and later DC-7 propliners carried the main trans-Atlantic passenger load, flying that traffic from the 1940s through early 1960s. Freighter versions were produced too, with improved capabilities which mirrored the passenger versions. Around 500 civilian versions of the Constellation were built out of 856 total airframes.
Orders for military versions totaled around 350 airframes. Only 22 C-69 transports were accepted, sources state that early engine issued limited the C-69’s acceptance. As the improved L-749A became a commercial success, military orders were inked in 1948. Both the new U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy procured Constellations, initial USAF versions were known as the C-121A. The Navy ordered PO-1W airborne radar warning planes. C-121s served in the Berlin Airlift and became the VIP airplane of choice from Generals and presidents.
The larger L-1049 Super Constellation became the Navy’s R7O (later R7V) transports and WV-2 radar pickets. The military branch would operate slightly over 200 of these through the 1960s. The USAF ordered more than 100 aircraft (mostly radar-equipped early warning versions), and received some used Navy aircraft later on in their life. The Air Force took part of their Airborne Early Warning (AEW) mission to Vietnam in 1965, and remained active there throughout the war.
New designs of civil and military Constellations provided the option for turboprop power plants, but the speed afforded by pure jet transports made the turboprop unattractive at the time, and only a quartet of L-1249A/R7V-2/YC-121F transports were ever manufactured.
After retirement in the 1970s, many C-121s were sent to storage at the MASDC “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, in Arizona. Many of these aircraft, along with retired passenger Super Connies, became freight haulers round the world. The Indian Navy utilized an L-1049 for Air Sea Rescue duties until 1983 as the last military Constellation in service, and in 1993 the final civilian freight flight of a L-1049 Super Constellation from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. occurred.