Published in August 2016 issue

By Jon Proctor

Howard Hughes often gets credit for designing the graceful Lockheed Constellation. While he did propose specifications for the aircraft, it was the manufacturer’s Robert Gross, along with aerodynamicists Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson and Hal Hibbard, who actually brought the airplane from concept to final design.

Yet Hughes was the driving force behind this elegant-looking, triple-tailed airliner. His dream of flying nonstop across America is said to have germinated on January 19, 1937, when the aviator broke his own previous transcontinental speed record, flying his H-1 Racer from Burbank to Newark in 7 hours, 28 minutes, 27 seconds.

Barely two years later, in July 1939, the Model 49 Constellation was on the drawing board as a 44-passenger, six-crew transcontinental airliner. It was to be a replacement for the five Boeing 307 Stratoliners that entered TWA service in 1940.

Seating 33 passengers and featuring Pullman-size sleeping berths, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner (not to be confused with the later 377 Stratocruiser model) was the first airliner equipped with a pressurized cabin. However, without sufficient range to cross the country in a single hop, the ‘Strats’ had to make intermediate stops.

Hughes wanted a 44-passenger pressurized airliner capable of making a transcontinental non-stop flight within eight hours, which meant an average speed of 312mph for the 2,500- mile California-to-New York segment. Assured that the Constellation could do the job, he ordered nine of the aircraft for TWA on July 10, 1939, insisting that the contract be kept secret until the first prototype had flown.

By mid-1940, the order had been increased to 40 aircraft, resulting in an $18-million deal. The contract included exclusive rights to the first delivery positions off the assembly line, giving TWA a two-to-three-year monopoly over its competitors. At the time, it was the largest commercial aircraft order in history and was personally financed by Hughes.

The Constellation’s distinctive appearance was also functional, with a fuselage resembling an airfoil. Its cross-section was a perfect circle, designed for the strength needed for cabin pressurization, and the triple-tail design allowed for use of existing hangar space and facilitated better engine-out control. Except for fabric rudders, the airplane was an all-metal design.

World War II resulted in the conscription of TWA’s Stratoliners to the military, with DC-3s taking over on the airline’s scheduled services. During wartime, all new airliner production was halted by government order, but Lockheed continued building the prototype Connie, to be designated the C-69, as a proposed troop carrier for the military. Progress was slow and it did not fly until January 9, 1943. A second prototype took to the air in August of that year and joined the flight-test program.

Secretly crafting a grand publicity event, Howard Hughes cleverly negotiated rights to buy the first airplane, destined for the military, which was to be used on shakedown flights. He then turned around and immediately sold the aircraft to the government at cost. The Connie, with military registration 43-10310, was handed over to TWA at Las Vegas, Nevada, (for favorable tax treatment) on April 16, 1944. It was then ferried back to Burbank.

Early the following morning, with Hughes himself and TWA president Jack Frye at the controls, the Constellation left California with 17 people aboard and flew non-stop to Washington, DC, in the record time of 6 hours, 57 minutes, 51 seconds, shattering Hughes’ earlier record by 30 minutes.

The airline’s public relations department set up an elaborate arrival ceremony at Washington National Airport, hastily constructing two sets of wooden boarding steps for the large aircraft. Among the bevy of political and military leaders on hand at National Airport was General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, there to accept the Connie on behalf of the Army Air Force.

Hughes took full advantage of the publicity opportunity by having Lockheed apply TWA markings to the Connie in Burbank. General Arnold knew nothing about this until the gleaming airliner taxied up in front of the Washington terminal building. Reportedly, the General was furious to see red airline colors instead of military markings, but it was too late; so he graciously posed for the ceremonial handover. Rubbing salt into the wound, Hughes hosted an in-town TWA reception for more than 2,000 guests.

The Constellation remained at Washington for a few days, carrying dignitaries on scenic flights. Then, with appropriate military markings applied, it ferried to Dayton, Ohio’s Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) for official handover to the government. On April 26, Orville Wright, the first person to complete a heavier-than-air flight, was given a ride and the opportunity to briefly handle the Connie’s controls from the co-Pilot seat.

The airplane stayed with the military and was later repurchased by Lockheed for use as a test aircraft. It never went back to TWA.

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Regular TWA Constellation service began on February 5, 1946, with the inaugural flight operating from Washington and New York to Paris via Gander and Shannon. Pilots were restricted by government regulation to eight hours of flying time during a single duty period; so, to cross the Atlantic in compliance with this rule, double crews were assigned. However, the added cost of extra crewmembers on domestic flights was considered too high. The original Connie models would have required load restrictions in order to make an eastbound nonstop transcontinental flight in eight hours, while there was little or no chance to do so westbound against prevailing winds. So, despite the airplane’s basic ability to span the country in a single hop (at least eastbound), 25-minute ‘fuel stops’ were listed, which were utilized for the required crew changes as well.

There were a few exceptions. On February 3, 1946, Model 049 Constellation (the civilian designation of the C-69) Star of California carried 44 news correspondents non-stop from Burbank to New York La Guardia Airport in 7 hours, 27 minutes with TWA President Jack Frye in the left seat.

Scheduled domestic Connie service began 12 days later, on February 15. Star of California, commanded by Howard Hughes, flew the same segment non-stop in 8 hours, 38 minutes, which was 1 hour, 7 minutes under the 9 hours, 45 minutes ‘scheduled’ time, which allowed for a stop en route. Among the Hollywood celebrities aboard Hughes’ inaugural non-stop were Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell, Edward G Robinson, Myrna Loy, and Tyrone Power.

Another non-stop was completed on February 3, 1948, under unusual circumstances. Flight 12 normally operated from Los Angeles to New York via Kansas City and Chicago. But when both Midwest cities were socked in by a snowstorm, dispatchers were able to clear a non-stop trip across the country, thanks to a forecast of strong easterly winds that produced a flight plan of less than eight hours. The Connie lifted off from California at 1800 and landed at La Guardia Airport 6 hours, 39 minutes later, setting yet another record and generating significant publicity for the airline.

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It would be another five years before regularly scheduled transcontinental non-stops began—yet another TWA first. On October 19, 1953, Lockheed Model 1049 Super Constellation, Star of the Rhine, departed from Los Angeles, landing at New York-Idlewild on a scheduled 7-hour, 55-minute flight that actually took 8 hours, 17 minutes. The new service, complete with extra-fare sleeping berths, beat American Airlines’ marginally faster Douglas DC-7s to the punch by just one month. With the eighthour rule in effect, TWA’s service was offered eastbound only; the scheduled 30-minute stop at Chicago on the westbound trip continued to permit a crew change.

Early in 1954, government restrictions were lifted to make transcontinental nonstop flights in excess of eight hours ‘legal’. TWA and its Pilots reached an agreement on excess on-duty overtime, and westbound non-stop flights began in June.

Faster 1049-G ‘Super G’ Connies entered TWA service in April 1955. In September, the type became the first in the United States to offer dual First Class and Coach service, with transcontinental non-stop low-fare flights.

The ultimate Constellations, the Lockheed 1649A Starliners, began flying coast-to-coast non-stop for TWA in May 1957. Called Jetstreams by the airline, these ultra-long-haul airplanes were designed for overseas routes but also provided the most luxurious accommodation of the day on transcon non-stops.

However, their competitive advantage was short-lived. Within two years, Boeing 707s cut travel time in half and piston-powered airliners quickly became obsolete.

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After more than three decades controlling TWA, Howard Hughes was forced to relinquish his voting rights to 78% of the airline’s stock, turning the power over to a three-man trusteeship on December 31, 1960. The change provided much-needed financing for the purchase of jets, which, in turn, spelled the gradual disposal of TWA’s propliners, including the world’s largest Constellation fleet.