Tuesday, January 31, 2023

John Blackshoe Sends: Serendipity History - More Flying Connies

Lockheed Constellation - C-69 (military version)
Seventh production aircraft, production #1967, AAF #310315 (43-10315), 1945

So, where was I?  Oh, yeah, talking about Connies.  And remember, this is no malarkey.

Previously, I wrote about the USS Constellations, both of them, and alluded to some future possible additions  on this theme.

Fortunately, Sarge dug up a great post he had on the seductive beauty of Lockheed’s L-1049 or C-121 series “Super Constellation” with which some guests have actually had contact or even flight hours.  Really good stuff there.

But, little was said about the somewhat less attractive older and shorter members of the Connie family, with smaller tails, other than that nice (circa 1945-46) photo above of a C-69, USAAF tail number 43-10315, which was one of seven started under contract with Trans World Airlines but completed for the USAAF.  (Lockeed serial number 049-1967.)  Post WW2 she was registered as N90828 and operated by Intercontinental Airways, at one point as RX-123.  Then she went -

  1. to El Al in 1951 as 4X-AKB
  2. then to a Swiss owner as HB-IEB
  3. then to Universal Sky Tours Feb 13, 1962 as G-ARVP. 
She was then Withdrawn From Use (WFU) and broken up in May 1965 at Luton, England.

Besides an intermittent supply of superb historical fiction, Sarge (as part of his free services) also has an awesome list of links on the right side of the page.  Go check them out, this will still be here after you explore those.

Among them is this website where you can track just about every USAF aircraft ever made.  Being all diverse and inclusive, he also has links for U.S. Navy (here) and U.S. Coast Guard (here) aircraft as well. As everyone knows, the Navy provides rides for our misguided children who should always remember, “My Ass Rides In Navy Equipment” so their flying machines are in the Navy list.

In the Beginning

Lockheed’s “Constellation” began in a June 1939 secret meetings with Jack Fry¹, president of Trans World Airlines, and Howard Hughes, who had bought control of TWA and wanted a plane to carry 36 passengers at 300 mph with a range of 3,600 miles with a 13,000 foot ceiling. Lockheed suggested a larger aircraft, with a pressurized cabin for a 25,000 foot ceiling, which eventually became the Constellation. Hughes insisted that none be sold to competing airlines until TWA had received 35 of the planes. And, Hughes personally financed the purchase of the first 40 Constellations for TWA. 

Hughes is remembered as a super rich dude who made a fortune in Las Vegas real estate and as the builder and pilot of the wooden “spruce Goose” the world’s largest flying boat. The Hughes wealth came from engineering and the film industry, which Howard built upon for an even more successful career. He was also an aviation fanatic, earned a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering, set numerous speed records, including several in planes of his own design, and started the Hughes Aircraft Company. In June 1938, Hughes made a flight around the world in just 91 hours setting a new record, flying a Lockheed 14 Super Electra twin engine  transport. This experience was likely the impetus for Hughes to work with Lockheed on his ambitious airline project. The Electra model was redesigned for military use later in 1938, and Britain began buying huge numbers for use by the RAF, taking much of Lockheed’s production capacity, slowing work on the Constellation project, which was to be kept secret from other airlines.

Hughes is a fascinating guy with fame, fortune, huge ambitions and a quirky personality. At various times he dated Joan Crawford, Debra Paget, Billie Dove, Bette Davis, Yvonne De Carlo, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Hedy Lamar, Ginger Rogers, Janet Leigh, and Mamie Van Doren. (Kinda Trumpy in many ways…) You can read all about him here

Design and initial work on the Lockheed L-049 Constellation was plodding along in 1941 when the Wartime Production Board inspected all aircraft plants and the secret Constellation project became known. So, Pan American Airways put in an order for 22 planes. 

But, when WW2 broke out the USAAF commandeered all aircraft production and the Constellation project was very low priority, especially as Lockheed was making the P-38 fighter, which incidentally used the same wing design as the Connie. The 80 Connies ordered were designated for USAF use, although only 15 were ever delivered to the USAAF, and another 7 remained incomplete and were finished post-war for commercial sales, and the remainder all canceled.

The Constellation’s first prototype was finally rolled out in December 1942 with a very successful first flight on January 9, 1943, using a test pilot borrowed from Boeing.


Video of the first test flight (ignore the erroneous caption that this is a C-121, it is the C-69.)

However, despite the successful flight, production languished while attempting to overcome problems using Wright R-3350 engines, which were in short supply due to high priority for assembling B-29 bombers. The prototype was modified to use Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, but soon converted back to the original. Purchased by Hughes after the war, the plane was bought back by Lockheed in 1950 and lengthened by 18 feet and other changes to become the prototype for the L-1049/C-121 “Super Constellation.” In 1952 it became an aerodynamic test bed for the Navy WV-2 (or EC-121) Early Warning configuration. Later the number 4 engine was replaced by an Allison YT-56 turboprop engine in a C-130 nacelle for flight testing, going on to very successful use in the C-130, P-3, E-2. C-2, and Electra aircraft. (Source - Search for 43-10309)

It was not until April 1944 that a second production Constellation was ready. As a publicity stunt, Howard Hughes and TWA President Jack Fry flew that plane (tail number 43-10310 (Lockheed serial no 049-1962), painted in commercial TWA markings, from Burbank to Washington, DC in less than seven hours. Actress Ava Gardner was aboard, ensuring great publicity.²  (Source)

Here are five C-69s at Burbank awaiting completion and delivery circa late 1944 or early 1945.  B-17s and numerous P-38s are in the distance.  (Note the C-69 in the back lacks propellers, and the change from OD paint and blue circle with white star insignia of the prototype above to the late war unpainted aluminum and addition of the white bars to the insignia in this photo.)

Although many “short” Constellations were made circa 1945-1952, there is only one surviving example in the world today, and not airworthy.   It is USAAF C-69 serial number 42-94549, at the Pima Air and Space Museum, on loan from the U.S. Air Force.   It is displayed in TWA colors, as restored by local volunteers.  It was one of the original TWA contract planes, commandeered by the USAAF in WW2 and finally delivered in June 1945, serving until March 1946.  In 1948 it finally entered service with TWA as N90831 "Star of Switzerland.”

As an interesting footnote in aviation history, the first American to fly in powered flight, Orville Wright, made his final flight in the C-69 Constellation piloted by Howard Hughes and Jack Frye on their publicity trip.  While the flight to Washington on 17 April was made with the aircraft in TWA commercial paint, by the time they flew to Dayton on 26 April the aircraft had been repainted with USAAF markings, obviously to improve publicity value when dealing with a military audience. 

“On April 26, during the return trip, the aircraft stopped at Wright Field in Dayton to pick up a very special passenger: Orville Wright.  More than 40 years after his historic first flight, Wright even sat at the controls of the airplane during his final 50-minute flight over Dayton, albeit for just a few brief moments. 

"I guess I ran the whole plane for a minute but I let the machine take care of itself," Wright said of the experience. "I always said airplanes would fly themselves if you left them alone." 

Wright also pointed out that the Constellation’s 123-foot wingspan was longer than the distance of his first flight, which had traveled just 120 feet.” (Source)

A video of Orville Wright’s final flight (6:15) is at the source of this photo -

So, the early “short Constellations” had a bit of a rough start, but their subsequent iterations were indeed beautiful and superbly performing aircraft. They are a tribute to their main advocate, Howard Hughes, and their designer, Clarence Johnson. But, as great as the Constellation planes were, they are way down the list of his aviation achievements. Sounds like a story for another day, when there is time for more sea stories.

John Blackshoe


¹ See more about Frye here.
² Some sources claim that this flight was made by the XC-69 prototype tail number 43-10309 (Lockheed serial no. 049-1961), but the videos of the events clearly show that the tail number is actually 43-10310, a standard C-69 (Lockheed serial no. 049-1962).


  1. I wonder why that Connie at the front of the line has a spinner on the left inboard prop?

  2. I followed the CG numbers and saw some old friends :-)

  3. I remember seeing one at the Boneyard at DM. Beautiful, graceful airplane. Excellent Post JB, keep up the good work!

    1. Hows the ice sitrep? Need anything from sunny south Texas?

    2. It's a bit icy so we're going to stay put unless something SERIOUS happens. We managed to get the Moons of Jupiter in alignment and were able to rent 3 large medical O2 bottles, so we should be good on that front. Power Lines are not sagging so far and the wind is relatively calm. So...So far, so good. As for "Need anything from Sunny South Texas"? Only that "Sunny" part, but thanks.

    3. I have a newly filled, sealed E size cylinder. I was gonna offer it if'n you needed to borrow it. Good on you for managing to lay in a supply. I'm only 120 miles away. Holler if you need something. You've got my Emile. May not be a QRF, but it'll be RF fo' sho'.

  4. When I was a green broadcast engineer, I worked with a recording engineer from Chicago. Old school gentleman. USAF MET officer in the 50's. Designed a couple things in college that we still use today. Brilliant man. He introduced me to the Constellation. We had several conversations about her proclivities and manners. I did not know about her lineage. Very informative. Thank you!

  5. Lots of aerospace goodness in your latest post, JB. Much of it I did not know.

    Love the Connie, no matter how long or short.

  6. I love all those old airplanes including the Connie. My Mother in Law was a TWA stewardess on DC3's out of Kansas City. She was a hottie in her day, I loved that woman.

    Hughes wealth started in the oil patch and he parlayed it into those other things. Had an Uncle that worked for Hughes tool. I believe their rotary drill bit is still in use today. Probably new and improved but back in its day it was a one of a kind and much better than anything else on the market.

    I visited the Princess Hotel Acapulco in high school. That's where Hughes died.

    Bear Claw

  7. Great post! Thanks so much. I particularly like the aerial footage of the Connie against a backdrop of the mountains. The airplane just has a beautiful shape to it. I had several friends who flew them in the USAF - they loved the experience and that was pretty much all they ever spoke about. Like me and the Deuce.

  8. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Ah, more Lockheed Connie goodness! Love it. Dittos on the inherent beauty. Any bird that has both an FE AND a Dittybopper is a GOOD bird!

  9. Thanks for the history lesson!

  10. Beautiful airplanes, my favorite prop airliner. Watched them fly over out of O'Hare when I was a kid.


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