Rebuilding the Mona Lisa of the Skies

Lufthansa Super Star

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

About Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston and a contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine.
This entry was posted in Aerospace & Defense, Connections, Industry News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Rebuilding the Mona Lisa of the Skies

  1. Jimmy Golen says:

    Wow. This is a great article. It is good to know the airline is interested in preserving aviation’s past.

  2. John Price says:

    Lufthansa is not just recreating an amazing airplane, they are recreating a moment in time, a small glimpse back to a way of life and an attitude that is sadly gone from our world today. Thank you for giving that to a world that desperately needs it.

  3. K says:

    Howard Hughes did not design this aircraft. Hughes laid out the specifications of what the aircraft needed to do with regards to speed, range, and passenger comforts. The author needs to check his research material.

    Lockheed had been working on the L-044 Excalibur, a four-engined pressurized airliner, since 1937. In 1939 Trans World Airlines, at the instigation of major stockholder Howard Hughes, requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner with 3,500 mi (5,630 km) range[1]—well beyond the capabilities of the Excalibur design. TWA’s requirements led to the L-049 Constellation, designed by Lockheed engineers including Kelly Johnson and Hall Hibbard.

    The Constellation was designed and build at Lockheed Burbank. Author’s should do some research on their subjects before writing articles. I recommend reading the Wikipedia info on the plane.

    • Jon Marcus says:

      Thank you for your comment. The official corporate history of Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) shows that that Hughes commissioned the Constellation exclusively on the condition that the first 35 be sold to the airline of which he was majority owner, TWA. He set the performance specifications and micromanaged the production — demanding the capacities outlined in the Wikipedia article you cite, which were far beyond Lockheed’s original plans — though you are correct that Howard Hughes himself did not literally design the airplane.

    • Jack says:

      Author never claimed Hughes DESIGNED the Constellation – He clearly stated “COMISSIONED”. You need to some more careful reading before posting critical comments.

      Definition of “commissioned” is available at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Commissioned

  4. John Ritter says:

    I got to ride on a united super connie in 1958 from SF to Denver. First class all the way. Suites, dresses, free cigarettes, drinks and a lounge table in the rear. Now we fly the super cattle car.

    • DC says:

      United did not operate the Constellation.

      • John Ritter says:

        Well it was 58 years ago it may have been twa, lots of water has gone under the bridge.. I took the flight no matter who it was

  5. Bill Hodges says:

    When I reported aboard COMNAVAIRPAC in June of ’65, the VADM who headed it, had as hos official aircraft, a Connie.
    Upper half painted in Navy Blue, and the lower half in shiny chrome.
    A very beautiful aircraft!

  6. John McDonald says:

    I flew as a child on a Constellation as a young child in the early ’50s from (I believe) Chicago, IL to Tampa, FL. Arrived in thunderstorm. Found a lot of TWA memorabilia from that trip (Wing Badge, Stickers, etc). Interesting article, had no idea such a regal plan for the time. Was treated well as I recall.

  7. Martin Yeatman says:

    In the early 60’s I was in the Navy and we flew the Connie out of Midway Island. (AEWBARRONPAC) They were fitted out with radar and we flew a barrier between Midway and Alaska.

  8. Art Troutman says:

    I was a design engineer on the Connie, starting in 1951. The Connie in question is a Model 1649, based on a Model 1049G, but with a newly designed wing, much longer and thinner, but a relatively narrow chord, that was slightly tapered. That turned out to be its Waterloo, with greater than forecast torsional ‘twist’. That twist caused the resultant engine thrust axes to rotate upward from designed nominal, enough to reduce combined effective thrust. Unfortunately, that was enough to affect performance, reducing airspeed and effective range and increasing fuel consumption. It was too late to redesign the nacelle-to-wing attachments, especially with the approaching advent of jets. As I recall, the longest non-stop route was TWA’s flights from NYC to Rome, stretched to some 17+ hours flight time! I also worked on design mods for Ike’s “Columbine” and Howard Hughes’ private Super Connie (bailed from TWA’s order). We used Howard’s plane as a testbed to introduce ‘prop synchrophasing’ to the industry [all of the prop blades in the same angular position].

    • LtDan says:

      Wow, Art, what a great experience and memory to have. A beautiful airplane.

  9. Diane West says:

    Outstanding article Jon, thanks for the information!

  10. Rick Scouler says:

    It was 1958 and I was 6 years old when we flew on a Pacific Northern Airlines Connie from Seattle to Anchorage on the “Milk-run” up the Inside Passage. I’ll never forget it.

  11. Nancy Pardo says:

    We appreciate everyone’s comments on this story and we’re glad it’s bringing back such good memories for folks. To clarify, our original story stated that Howard Hughes “designed” the Constellation. By this we meant only that Hughes had significant input into the specifics of the aircraft, not that he designed the aircraft in its entirety. To avoid any further misinterpretation, we changed the word “designed” to “commissioned” in the third paragraph.

  12. What a beautiful aircraft she was. Thanks Lufthansa for the preservation. I only ever flew in one once from Bahrein to London. It was owned by Ace Freighters on charter to the Royal Air Force.

  13. anatoly arutunoff says:

    In ’57 I flew from Havana to Lisbon. 4 of us were given 2 semi-compartments across the aisle from one another; they had 2 seats facing each way, and curtains. A while after takeoff the pilot told us not to be worried, as he was going to throttle back to switch from takeoff fuel to cruising fuel. Never had another experience like that in my 74 years’ worth of flying. It was on Iberia airlines–I think; or Iberia might’ve been what we took from Lisbon to Madrid.

  14. Robert Kauth says:

    I flew in a Connie back to San Francisco fron Chicago in ? 1962 . It was was a nice plane, but slow compared with DC8 jets. I noticed that there was a lot of headroom…. And the overhead storage was too high for the shorter stewardess to reach…. So on their request , I stowed some luggage for them. L

  15. dennis says:

    I’ve visited this project in Maine, unbelievably impressive operation and she’s almost set to join the Junkers Ju52 in the ‘fleet’.

  16. Watched a Connie at Van Nuys airshow around ’98 or ’99 get ready for takeoff at north end of runway at end of show and rt inboard motor caught fire as it started up. Luckily, fire was put out before it did too much damage. The plane was in Navy or MATS colors ,I believe. Had it on video tape along with all kinds of great WWII era props taking off after the show. Too bad 9-11 killed the shows….

  17. I was drafted in Los Angeles, November, 1965 (I am a post-op male-to-female, so no, they didn’t draft a biological female), and they flew us in Constellations, from Los Angeles, CA to Shreveport, LA : destination; Fort Polk. We hit some moderate turbulence en route, and the wing flexion was alarming. Though it was probably not as severe as it seemed at the time, I had an image that the wings were flapping. Our flight was pretty standard, however the other plane came in with two engines disabled (I’ll take flapping wings over engine failure, any day). I would have liked to ride in a Constellation under less stressful circumstances, but I’m glad I got to ride in it, regardless.

  18. James D. Powell says:

    I was transported on one of these planes from Ft. Polk to Ft. Sam Houston in late 1966 when I got out of basic training. I remember the take-off very well. The plane was so heavy with about 90 soldiers and duffel bags I thought it would never lift off from the runway. After what seemed like forever, with the plane straining with all its might, and having traveled a long way down the runway had not taken off. Finally the Stewardess told us all to lift our feet up to lighten the airplane so it could take off. By that time most of us were all so scared we did exactly that. Just then, the plane lifted off from the runway and we took off, but all started laughing at what we had done because we were embarrassed by realizing that “lifting our feet” would not lighten the airplane.

  19. Jim Moats says:

    TWA’s overhaul base was here in Kansas City until it was closed, so there is a lot of interest in all things TWA. A few years ago a group called Save a Connie was formed and they obtained a connie and restored it to flyable condition and painted it in TWA’s colors at the time it was in service. Carl Ichan was head of TWA at the time and refused to let the club use TWA on the plane so it was SAC instead of TWA. I haven’t seen the plane for a long time so I don’t know what happened to the project. It was stationed at the old down town airport. The same group got a Lockheed L1011 to restore and it used to be at the downtown airport too. They also had a 2 motor martin or convair plane as well.

  20. Ron Hill says:

    In the late 1950’s I flew in a Connie from Atlanta to Detroit and since there were four of us, the stewardesses sort of turned over the lounge at the tail over to us for poker, etc.

    A great flight, but it was the first time I was ever in an aircraft that was hit by lightning, which streaked from one wing tip, through the cabin, and out the other wing tip at which time it made a bang as it separated. Made the hair on my arms and head stand up — but no harm was done to anyone.

    I remember a great flight, a super plane, and a great time in the lounge with super stewardesses and good food.

    Bring back the luxuries. I’m tired of peanuts.

  21. In 1961, I was transferred to VW-2 in Patuxent River Maryland, and flew as a Crew Member on a EC-121-K 141293. This was a great Airplane for the Navy, its reliability was Outstanding….We flew the North Atlantic Barrier from Argentia, New Foundland to Keflavik Iceland keeping and eye on Russian Ship Movements……I also Served in NAS Agana Guam, and was assigned to the Typhoon Trackers and was a Mechanic… Our squadron, , VW-1 flew 249 fixes Tracking Typhoons in the Western Pacific, without having to abort one flight , again the reliability of this Plane was put to the ultimate test…Our planes flew in the Eye of Typhoons to obtain Data for Countries that were in the Path of the Typhoon… We also flew cover for airplanes during the Vietnam War, average Flight time was 14-16 hrs …This experience that I got out of being in these type Aircraft was not measureable… I could go on for Hours talking about this Plane, and I would never be able to explain all of the excitement, and how proud I was to be in the WV’s also known as the “”Willie Victors””….We had the last ones mfg 145936,145937,145938. 145939, 145940 and Last but not least 145941………BZ

  22. Lou Reinken says:

    This is the plane that I flew to Vietnam in 1959 from Travis Air Force Base in California, all the seats were facing backwards.

    https://www.icloud.com/photostream/#A35ejO17RLMv2;BE63E125-0006-4737-AE11-05F8ADC7EC38

  23. brimoton says:

    Odd that I came across this article last night. It was 50 years ago to the day that my grandfather was killed on his very first and last airplane ride in a Constellation. Here’s one article I found on it.

    http://www.laketahoenews.net/2014/03/85-died-50-years-ago-worst-tahoe-plane-crash/

    He was traveling with some very prominent businessmen that were going to to expand their chain of grocery stores and he was to be their first regional manger. I’ve been told it was a huge deal at the time and if this hadn’t of happened we’d probably have Monte Marts where we now have Safeway’s and Albertson’s.

    I myself work for Boeing on the 787 and have done work for Lufthansa on their 747-8’s when I was on that program. I love aviation and can’t wait to hear news of this aircraft’s first flight and see some video of it. Who knows, maybe I’ll win the lottery and be able to find my way onto one of it’s flights when it goes into service and make the landing for the man I never met but owe my existence to.

  24. brimoton says:

    Odd that I came across this article last night. It was 50 years ago to the day that my grandfather was killed on his very first and last airplane ride in a Constellation. Here’s one article I found on it.

    http://www.laketahoenews.net/2014/03/85-died-50-years-ago-worst-tahoe-plane-crash/

    He was traveling with some very prominent businessmen that were going to to expand their chain of grocery stores and he was to be their first regional manger. I’ve been told it was a huge deal at the time and if this hadn’t of happened we’d probably have Monte Marts where we now have Safeway’s and Albertson’s.

    I myself work for Boeing on the 787 and have done work for Lufthansa on their 747-8′s when I was on that program. I love aviation and can’t wait to hear news of this aircraft’s first flight and see some video of it. Who knows, maybe I’ll win the lottery and be able to find my way onto one of it’s flights when it goes into service and make the landing for the man I never met but owe my existence to.
    – See more at: http://blogs.ptc.com/wp-comments-post.php#sthash.1DTOdv3H.dpuf

  25. Bruce fitch says:

    I was about 5 year old when my mother and I flew on an Iberia connie from NY to Madrid to visit dad who was working a construction job in Spain. I still have the little postcard sized certificate dated December 11, 1954, signed F Beuloz, El Comandante Jefe de la Aeronave. As I recall, I was invited to the cockpit for a tour and made an honorary junior Capitan. I still remember the elegance of it all.

  26. Smile says:

    The Lockheed Aircraft Constellation was President Eisehhowers’ Air Force One

  27. Great article! When I was a child, I flew several times on flights to Newfoundland Canada and back again. I also had flown on other prop airliners too, but the greatest of them was the Constellation. It was deluxe in every way!

  28. Matt DeNero says:

    Yes, this hearkens back to a romantic, bygone era when a transatlantic flight took 50% longer than it does today, cost a fortune so only the wealthy could afford the flight with its fine wine and gourmet food, and the whole enterprise was very dangerous. Now we have three classes where the highest class enjoys comfort probably exceeding the golden age, and the lowest class offers people of average means the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world in relatively short time and at reasonable price. I’ll take my soda and peanuts.

  29. Jerry Aalfs says:

    While stationed at Otis Air Force Base in 1966-67, we lost two Constellations that were serving as Electronic Survey planes patrolling off the coast of Cape Cod. Another had been previously lost in 1965. The last plane was flown by the wing commander, Colonel Lyle.

  30. Connies were very expensive to make. All those curves talked about in the article mean that no two body panels were alike. By comparison, Boeing and Douglas made most of the fuselage panels identical, meaning cheaper to make.

    I flew across the Atlantic in a Connie. I was 3. One engine failed, and we spent a couple of hours circling over the ocean, dumping fuel to lighted the aircraft, before we could land and get another plane.

  31. Yeah Buddy says:

    When I was a kid, my Dad was in the Air Force. He called the house one day and told my Mom to get us down to the line. A Constellation had made an emergency landing, and was in his hangar. When we got there, we went to Dad’s office and sitting there was John Wayne. He was nice, patted my head, signed an autograph (that I still have today), and later got on his plane and took off.
    A spectacular airplane, and a pretty good memory, too.

  32. Most people are not aware that Howard Hughes resisted using jet aircraft (for his airline TWA) for quite some time. He thought they were not economic to fly, compared with the “Connie” and other aircraft. And according to some business magazines, he was correct. But the government stepped in to give the airlines large contracts to haul mail.

  33. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 14 March 2014 - The Travel Insider

  34. Frank Kelly says:

    In September 1956 I flew on a Qantas “Connie”” reg VH-EAG from Tokyo (Haneda) to Sydey Australia. Shortly after take off the pilot announced that if we looked out the right hand windows we would be able to see Mt.Fuji. I sat looking down until the steward pointed out that I should look up – Mt Fuji is 13,000ft and we were only at 11,000ft at that time. These days a jet would have been at 20,000ft by then.

    Frank Kelly

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