In 1939 Trans World Airlines was becoming a major competitor with Pan American Airlines for the emerging overseas route service. While TWA contracted with Lockheed to develop an aircraft to rival the performance and capacity of the Boeing Stratoliner, a major stockholder of TWA requested Lockheed to build an even greater plane-one which would ultimately define both an airline and an era of aviation.
Though Lockheed had been working on the L-044 Excalibur since 1937, Howard Hughes, the majority stockholder of Trans World, requested Lockheed develop an even more capable aircraft with a forty passenger capacity and a range of 3,500 miles. The new design, the L-049 Constellation, was a radical departure from previous airliners. The tripletail configuration kept the aircraft’s height low enough to fit in existing hangars. The wing layout was similar to another Lockheed plane, the P-38 Lightning. The L-049 featured such innovations as hydraulically boosted controls and a de-icing system used on wing and tail surfaces and mounted tricycle landing gear. The Constellation had an impressive performance for its day, being able to attain a maximum speed of 375 mph. with a cruising speed of 340 mph. – faster than many fighters of the era, with a service ceiling of 24,000 ft.
While intended for use as an airliner, the L-049s which entered service for TWA in January 1943 were quickly converted to military transports with the USAAF ordering 202 aircraft. The military designation, C-69, was used primarily as a long-range troop transport. Though the C-69 was successful in its role, only 22 aircraft were produced during the war. A number remained in service with the USAF into the 1960s, ferrying relocating military personnel. Lockheed even had plans to develop the L-049 as a long-range bomber (XB-30), but the design was never pursued.
Following World War II the Constellation began its heyday. USAAF C-69 transports were completed as civil airliners with TWA accepting its first aircraft in October 1945, initiating its first transatlantic flight from Washington DC to Paris in December of that year. During the late 1940s, the Constellation was upgraded several times to increase fuel capacity and speed. Finally, in early 1951 the Super Constellation was introduced. The Super Connie was extended 18.4 ft. over the L-1049 (L-049). to expand passenger capacity to ninety- two seats with a cruising speed of 305 mph. and a range of 5,150 miles. With auxiliary wing-tip fuel tanks, the Super Constellation could fly non-stop between New York and Los Angeles. Some pilots used to shorter runs began to complain about long days. An early problem with the 1049 Model was excessive exhaust gas flaming-sometimes past the trailing wing edge. Once the exhaust problem was corrected, the Super Connie became a highly successful airliner.
In 1955 the Constellation underwent additional updates. Though still called the Super Constellation, the Model 1649 aircraft was first designated the Super Star Constellation, finally evolving into the Starliner name by Lockheed. The Starliner was the most extensive modification of any Constellation models. The Starliner had features such as fully reclining seats for long flights, a more precise cabin temperature control, and ventilation, as well as state of the art noise insulation. The Starliner had outside improvements which included a longer and narrower wing, nearly doubling the capacity of the original Connie with twice the range at maximum payload-enabling it to reach any major European air hub non-stop from US airports. The Model 1649 also has the distinction of being the fastest piston-engined airliner flown at ranges of over 4,000 miles.
The Constellation served a number of military roles, in addition to a troop transport. In 1948 the USAF placed an order for ten Constellation transport aircraft (C-121). Several of these were deployed in support of the Berlin Airlift later that year. Six of the planes were later reconfigured to VIP transports (VC-121), one of which was used by Dwight Eisenhower as NATO Chief Of Staff. Eisenhower was so impressed with the plane, he named it Columbine. When he became President he was assigned another VC-121, which he named Columbine II. In the early 1950s, the US Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps ordered C-121s mounted with radar domes on top to provide long-range radar for surface ships, as well as surveillance radar for command and control of aircraft. In the early 1960s, EC-121s briefly performed an anti-submarine role for the US Navy.
By the end of the 1950s, the Constellation became an aviation icon. It was in service with more than a dozen airlines, quickly becoming the flagship of Trans World Airlines. The Connie was in service with both the US military and several other government agencies, with duties ranging from tracking smugglers to hurricanes. Though expensive to build due to its tapered fuselage, the Constellation was a graceful aircraft. While being rapidly phased out by the major airlines in 1961 in favor of newer jetliners such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, the Connie was still in use with a number of regional airlines with 856 examples built. Howard Hughes gamble in 1939 had paid off in a big way.