Shrouded in scaffolding and stripped to her rivets, the “Super Star” is barely recognizable as an airplane, let alone one of the last most glamorous ever built.
Yet here, away from public view in a sealed-up hangar on a far corner of a municipal airport in Maine, a project of unprecedented scale and expense is under way to re-engineer this Lockheed Super Constellation 1649A so it can fly again.
Commissioned by Howard Hughes, the Constellation was the last and greatest of the long-range piston-powered aircraft unceremoniously supplanted by the passenger jet.
With its distinctive “S”-curved fuselage and triple tail, the Super Connie “represented the absolute zenith” of piston-driven airliners, wrangling 3,400 horsepower out of each of its 3,350-cubic-inch Curtis-Wright 18-cylinder, twin-row radial R-3350 engines, says Ralph Petterson, an engineer and aviation author and an aficionado of the plane. “That was phenomenal.”
And it was nothing compared to what awaited pampered passengers inside. On luxury runs across the North Atlantic, they relaxed in onboard lounges, ate gourmet food in separate dining cabins, and dozed in railroad-style sleeper seats.
“This was the age when flying was an experience and there was romance involved,” Petterson says. “People weren’t crammed into these aircraft. They drank the finest wines. They ate meals cooked on board from scratch. Now you get a bag of peanuts and a soda if you’re lucky.”
But the Constellation’s debut as an elegant passenger carrier was postponed by World War II, when it was dressed in fatigues and pressed into service as a military cargo plane. And then, after only 44 of the ultimate Super Constellation passenger versions had been built, it was edged out in the 1950s by the faster jet.
In the decades since, the “Mona Lisa of the Skies” has hauled cheap vacation charter groups, oil workers, and even livestock before being scavenged for components and abandoned to the elements at far-flung airports.
That is, until Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung, or DLBS, a nonprofit arm of the German airline Lufthansa, bought three of the last remaining four of them at auction in 2008 and set about transforming the “Super Star” to its original condition, using the other two for parts.
While many vintage military aircraft and some passenger planes have been refurbished—including a 1936 Junkers JU-52 also rebuilt by DLBS—none have been this complicated.
“These planes had been sitting outdoors for 25 years or more. There’s a lot of corrosion,” says Gene Richardson, president of Maine Aero Services, where hundreds of tiny parts, each with paper identifying tags attached, are being photographed, inspected, cleaned and in some cases refabricated. Among other things, 95 percent of the skin of the 95-foot fuselage has had to be replaced.
When the plane is finished—it’s now slated for its first test flights next year, more than four years later than originally scheduled—it will be repainted in 1950s Lufthansa livery, taken to Europe, and, like the Junkers, made available for what an airline spokesman calls “very special flight experiences for passengers, comparable to those in the golden days of aviation.”
That will have come after a re-engineering process as ambitious as it is hidden away. More than 100 engineers and others, some of them retired Lufthansa mechanics who worked on the original Connies, are attached to the $3 million, purpose-built project hangar at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, a former Navy airbase.
A second Constellation sits outside the hangar in the snow, still looking regal despite a missing rudder and empty sockets where its engines once were; it will eventually be given to an as-yet-unnamed aviation museum.
Some of those engines are the among six, each with about 14,000 individual parts, being overhauled in Idaho. Six three-bladed Hamilton Standard propellers—the biggest ever used in civil aviation—are being restored or reproduced in Toronto, the landing gear assemblies in Frankfurt and Hamburg, and the wheels in Akron.
The cost of all of this was originally estimated at $9 million to $12 million, but Petterson, who has been allowed rare access to the project, says he’s told it could reach $60 million. (Lufthansa disputes this, but won’t disclose an amount.)
Since this machine is meant to fly, the paperwork alone is legion. An Alabama engineering company certifies that each part meets specifications. And in a surrender to modern technology, the cockpit instruments are being replaced with glass panel displays, except at the flight engineer’s station, where the old-fashioned gauges will remain.
“They are going all out on this,” says Ray Anderson, owner of Anderson Airmotive in Grangeville Idaho, which is overhauling the engines. “There’s never been anything like it and probably never will be anything like it.”
At Hope Aero in Toronto, a 96-year-old Hamilton Standard retiree is supervising the work on the propellers, that includes ultraviolet checks to find any cracks or defects. The giant propeller assemblies used a complex system to synchronize their rotation so passengers would have the smoothest possible flight.
That was one of the things that made the Constellations not only grand, but part of an era of “quantum leaps” in aviation engineering, Petterson says.
And in luxury. The Connie’s star-studded first flight began with a cocktail party in Los Angeles and ended with nightclub-hopping in Manhattan for VIPs including Cary Grant and Veronica Lake, who feasted in flight on Beluga caviar and baked Alaska washed down with Dom Perignon.
“Everybody that works on this plane is enthusiastic about it,” Richardson says. “They’re just waiting for the day they see it fly—whenever that is. But when it does fly, it’s going to be fun to say, ‘Hey, we worked on that.’”
Image courtesy of Lufthansa