THE LOCKHEED CONSTELLATION, THE AIRLINER THAT SAVED AN AIRLINE….Or at least that was the plan
The Constellation has been referred to as the epitome of piston liners. A fast high flying beauty distinguished from ordinary aircraft by its height, length, and sensuously curved fuselage. When first introduced to the public in 1944 the airliner electrified the flying industry with its good looks, long-range, speed, and comfort. Its creators were themselves high flying colorful characters. TWA president Jack Frye, an aviation pioneer who set transcontinental speed records and maverick movie producer- multimillionaire and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes (the Aviator).
FLYING ON EMPTY.
In a career that ranged from stunt pilot to airline president, Jack Frye built TWA into one of the nation’s major airlines that is until the depression of 1930 when the bottom fell out of the airline business. In the cutthroat competition that followed, TWA lost ground to competitors American and United airlines with their better route systems. What he needed was a DC 3 beater AKA the Douglas DC 3, the flying standard of the day.
Frye, a burly 6’3 Texan, with a reputation for thinking big planned to outfly the competition by new aircraft incorporating the speed of a fighter plane, the comfortable ride of a Pullman car, and enough range to fly non-stop coast to coast. Passengers could cross the country in seven hours as opposed to fifteen-hour hop and refueling stops of the competition’s slower Douglas DC 3’s
A pressurized cabin was the key to flying comfort, without it, planes were limited to a ceiling of 12,500 feet where the weather was more active. Frye knew all about pressurization. Equipped With a bottle of Oxygen and his Texas bravado he explored the stratosphere in search of better flying conditions (see sidebar). He found them, along with the jet stream above 25,000 feet where the ride was smooth and fast. The new airliner, with a pressurized cabin, would fly at 20,000 plus feet ‘above the weather leaving the competition’s un-pressurized DC 3’s, bouncing around in the low hanging clouds of the ‘air sick zone’.
Jack Frye ‘The Flying President’ could outfly most of TWA’s skilled crews.
With speed, range, and comfort, the new Constellation would turn TWA into a formidable competitor; and with exclusive rights to production, his competitors could only watch as passengers flocked to an airliner they could only dream of owning.
All he needed was money and a leap of faith on the part of the TWA Board of Directors. He received neither and with his turn around plan rejected the beleaguered airline president turned to an unusual source to fund TWA’s new airplane.
The Constellation project was an expensive bet with long odds. Frye found his risk-taker in Howard Hughes, playboy, aviation enthusiast, and eccentric millionaire with the instincts of a riverboat gambler and a bottomless pit of money to play with.
At first, Frye proposed selling a few of TWA’s routes to raise capital. Hughes wanted more.” Why don’t I just buy TWA” countered Hughes. “We never thought of that,” answered Frye. “TWA would cost a lot of money.” “I’ve got the money” replied Hughes. (Troubled Skies TA Heppenheimer p 111)
With a new owner on board, the TWA technical team started developing the plane’s specifications. Working with Hughes took some adjustment – he did not fit the typical owner’s mold. When Frye’s assistant in technical affairs, Tommy Tomlinson first met the new owner he couldn’t believe his eyes. Hughes looked like a tramp with long hair and dirty fingernails. “Do I really have to put up with this guy?’ Tomlinson asked Frye. “Tommy, he owns the airline” replied Frye. 
Hughes had no formal training in aeronautical engineering. Yet he was a brilliant inquirer with an inquisitive mind that turned out fresh and often inspired ideas. Hughes and Frye made an unlikely team. Both loved to fly and were accomplished pilots although their flight deck manners were distinctively different. Hughes flew barefoot “to get a better feel of the plane’; Frye flew chomping on one of his trademark cigars. What they had in common were creative minds uncluttered by fear and conventional wisdom.
CREATING THE STAR OF THE SKIES.
In 1939, the Hughes/Frye team met with the top brass of the Lockheed Corporation—president Robert Gross, chief engineer Hal Hibbard, and chief research engineer Kelly Johnson.
The TWA job had a potential order of 40 planes and was Lockheed’s ticket into the major leagues of aircraft builders. “Up to that time we were sort of ‘small-time guys,’ said Hibbard, but when we got to the Constellation we had to be ‘big-time guys. We had to be right and we had to be good.” 
GETTING IT RIGHT
The engineering team broke the model of traditional aircraft design with a plane that stood tall when compared to other aircraft, its height gave the unusually long props sufficient ground clearance. A tripletail provided additional stability and was placed high enough to clear the prop wash. From the tail, the fuselage sloped downward in a graceful curvature. The plane’s large propellers required long landing gears for safe clearance. To keep the forward gear from being too long.
Kelly Johnson gave the forward fuselage a slight downward curvature. For speed, the Lockheed engineers attached a pair of wings modeled after the twin-engine P-38 fighter.
Not only did it look good but it was technically a revolutionary plane. The Constellation included the first hydraulically boosted power controls, aviation’s equivalent of power steering. At a max speed of 350 mph It was faster than most World War II fighters. Finally, it would feature a pressurized cabin for 44 passengers flying above 90 percent of weather disturbances. 
Hughes insisted that the first 35 planes were reserved for TWA which gave the airline exclusive use of the fastest, most comfortable transport available. To protect his investment He insisted on complete secrecy some of which bordered on the absurd such as park bench meetings, and strange code names i.e. ‘god’ for Hughes and ‘Jesus Christ’ for Frye.
If all went well Hughes and Frye held a winning hand, the ‘ secret weapon’ would be airborne by 1941 leaving the competition’s DC 3’s in Connie’s prop wash for two years, enough time for TWA to regain lost passengers.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor The Army Air Force started drafting Constellations right off the assembly line; TWA’s ‘secret weapon’ suddenly became public knowledge. Pictures appeared in the leading newspapers electrifying the industry.
Hughes was not about to let his new plane slip into olive drab Army oblivion. The ‘Connie’ was no ordinary airplane and Hughes orchestrated a marketing stunt to show it off. He made plans with the Army to deliver one of their new Constellations
from California to Washington D.C. leaving out a couple of key points not shared with the military, First came the rebranding, the olive drab Army colors were stripped off, replaced by the TWA logo and red and black markings. Next Hughes turned the routine delivery flight into a media event with a record-breaking cross country flight that pushed the new plane to the limit.
On the flight, Frye and Hughes split the captain’s duties exchanging pilot copilot seats halfway across the country. On April 17, 1944, Hughes landed in Washington, the time; a record-breaking six hours, 57 minutes, and 51 seconds. The flight made front-page news, with the New York Times calling it an outline of the ship of things to come in air transportation. Finally, before turning the keys over to the Army Air Corp, Hughes arranged VIP demo flights, much to the annoyance of Army brass.
THE REST OF THE STORY
- Renamed C -69 the Army inherited an airliner not quite ready for prime time. Engine problems and 486 different modifications curtailed production. At one point, the problems were so numerous that the Army directed that the plane not be flown outside the United States until they were convinced of their safety.
- The war gave the competition time to catch up. The A new improved Douglas DC 4 was in the works, with a speed of 280 mph, a stretchered fuselage, and improved range; finally, a pressurized cabin completed the catch-up. An even better DC 6 was in the works.
- TWA took delivery of 10 Constellation in Late 1945 and immediately began stealing the show. Pouring on the power Jack Frye crossed the country at close to top speed reaching La Guardia friends and piloted a similar flight. Passengers loved the plane’s good looks as compared to the tube/pickle shape of a DC 4 and 6 or the blunt nose and chubby fuselage of the Boeing Stratocruiser
- TWA no longer had a route problem. The company picked up lucrative international routes. The ‘Constellation advantage ‘allowed TWA to displace Pan Am as the dominant carrier on the North Atlantic routes. Paris flights started in February 1946. Fast for its day the Constellation took it 15 to 16 hours for those pioneering flights to Paris with refueling stops in Gander Newfoundland and Shannon Ireland. None of it deterred passengers who were willing to pay $711 for a round trip ticket ($9,240 in 2016 $) and with traffic jumping at 15 % a year TWA’s no longer had a route problem, it had a Hughes problem.
- Jack Frye had his share of problems including a pilot’s strike that nearly drove the airline to extinction, the temporary grounding of the Constellation fleet, a post-war recession and the startup cost of international routes. Hughes fired Frye in 1947
- As for the Constellation, it and Lockheed thrived. The Constellation became the favorite of international airlines and the military. New super versions were introduced extending capacity, speed, and distance. The last Lockheed Constellation was delivered in 1959. Of the 856 built few remain airworthy today.
Over time, the Connie stature as one of the most graceful aircraft of all time intensified as evidenced by the number of Connie’s found in aviation museums from Kansas City to Brazil and Europe. A restored Constellation sits in front of the former TWA terminal (now a hotel) at JFK airport in New York
 Robert Sterling, an informal history of TWA
 Lockheed Martin web site
 Lockheed Martin web site
 Lockheed Martin web site
On the 28th March 1958 at approx 21.20 hours local my mother and I landed on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores on board a KLM Super G Constellation en route to the island of Faial, where my Dad was working for the Western Union Telegraph Cable Station in Horta.
I was 3 at the time and was about to spend 10 wonderful years living in the Azores.
Whilst I don’t recall the KLM flight I do remember flying on a TWA Super Constellation (Super G Jetstream) Flt 904 out of Santa Maria in September 1960. My memories are of the thundering engines, the morning sunshine coming through the cabin windows, the green cabin partition curtain swaying slightly during the flight and as I was wearing short trousers complaining to my mother about the prickly seats!
My 1st (and only round trip) on a TWA Lockheed Constellation was when I was 9 years old in the summer of 1949. My dad was the station manager for old Northeast Airlines at New Bedford, Ma. (He began his career with NEA in 1939 at BOS Logan Airport.) My parents and I flew out of New Bedford on a NEA Douglas DC3 to LaGuardia in NY.
Then we hopped on a TWA Constellation out of NY to LAX with an intermediate stop in STL. As a 9 yr old kid, this was quite an experience for me. I always though of the ‘Connie’ as one of the most beautiful airplanes…then and even now, it stands out with that high stance, curved fuselage and tri-tail.
Dad worked for NEA until 1973 when NEA was merged with Delta. He was then with Delta until 1978 when he retired after 39 years with NEA and Delta. During those earlier years during the 1940’s to 1960’s, my dad’s sister’s husband was a pilot for American Airlines. They were the ones who we were visiting in 1949 when we flew out to LAX on TWA.
Hi Paul.THERE IS A VARIETY OF SOURCES. LET ME KNOW 22HAT PICTURES YOU NEED PERMISSIONS.
Hi: I’m publishing a Noir/Detective novel in 2020 called The Connie. I’d like to use some of the Pan Am / Lockheed Constellation ads and photographs featured in this website. Do you know who I should contact re. copyrights?
Regards, Paul Fox
It was the early 60’s and my uncle took me to the Amarillo, Texas airport to see President Kennedy. He had flown in on a Constellation and the thing I remember most was the plane, not the president. Funny the things that impress an 8 year old the most.
My first ride on an airplane occurred in June 1961 as a 10-year-old, on a TWA Super G Connie from Columbus to Dayton Ohio. The flight was a through stop from New York and there were hardly any other passengers onboard. The captain asked me if I wanted to come to the cockpit and although initially a bit anxious, my mother encouraged me to take advantage of the offer. I actually stood and hung onto the cockpit seats during takeoff.
The experience so impressed me that it eventually led me to a 40-year career as a professional pilot.
I have a photo of my father Max R Currie and what appears to be rest of the crew that worked on a constellation. The plane has a clear nose and I assume it was the first or one of the first aircraft built. There is a P-38 in the background with the tail number of 3235. Can anyone tell me anything more about the photo>
Thanks for sharing some Constellation memories. I also remember that red glow in the night, the roar of the engines, the cabin vibrations. You knew you were flying.
TWA night flight O’Hare to Port Columbus, mid to late 1962. this connie may have been lightly loaded, not many other passengers. short takeoff roll, climbing out at a steep angle that i had never experienced before. i am sitting just behind the left wing in the window seat. a few feet away, long translucent blue streamers of flame spout from cherry red exhaust stacks. climbing out, we begin a slow turn to the right, i crane my neck and see the millions of lights below. then, as we settle onto our easterly course the wing comes down to level and a huge black void appears to the north. this, i slowly realize must be lake michigan. i have flown in many airliners both piston and jet but this was by far the absolute best takeoff ever.