In 1922, the International Astronomical Union moved to clear the night sky of many named constellations. Prior to this move hundreds of constellations existed, many of which were named by their discovering astronomers to honor patrons or celebrate events. There are now 88 recognized constellations in the heavens, none of which - except for the Big Dipper/North Star - I can find anywhere except on a paper map.
Why bring this up? Well, it's kind of interesting because we all experience the stars of the night sky and it's a decent lead in to a short history of one of the aviation industry's pioneering aircraft - the Lockheed Constellation, a.k.a the "Connie."
When I went to the Chanute Air Museum this summer and stepped outside to see the array of airplanes on display, my eyes went right to the Connie. There's just something about its striking tapered profile and triple tail design that makes it stand out. Frankly, it's beautiful - this from someone who thinks ALL airplanes are exceptional and oohs and aahs over every war bird and 747 she sees.
What made the Connie so pioneering was the fact that it was the first pressurized airplane in widespread commercial use. Because it could carry up to 109 passengers (depending on interior configuration), it helped make air travel affordable as well as comfortable. It also featured a de-icing system for wing and tail edges and had hydraulic assist with some controls.
The first Constellation was built in 1943 and the last in 1958. In all, 856 were built; 22 were completed during the WWII years. These were known as C-69s and were used as high-speed military transports.
TWA (Trans World Airlines) flew the first Connie commercially from New York to Paris in 1946. In 1947, Pan American Airways inaugurated the first-ever scheduled around-the-world flight, in a Constellation, numbered "Pan-Am 1."
The airplane set all kinds of records. The one I enjoyed reading about most took place in April 1944 when Howard Hughes and a co-pilot flew a C-69 (the military Connie) from Burbank, Calif. to Washington, D.C. in just under seven hours. On the trip back to Burbank, they stopped at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio to give Orville Wright his last flight. This was about 40 years and six months after the Wright Brothers' first powered flight in December 1903. Mr. Wright is said to have commented that the wingspan of the C-69 was longer than his first flight's duration!
Another record that will stand because it would now be illegal to try and break it is an Eastern Airlines flight from New York to Washington D.C. in just over 30 minutes. Eastern used the Connie in its revolutionary "shuttle" service between those two cities as well as New York to Boston. What made the shuttles so unusual was that no reservations were taken, no seats assigned, patrons paid in cash on board and if a flight was full, another airplane was ready to take the overflow - no long waits. Cost (one way) was $12 to Boston and $14 to D.C., 10% federal tax included! The Connies flew that route from its inauguration in 1961 until 1968 when other, more modern aircraft took over.
The Connie was replaced at Lockheed by production of its Electra L-188. That's the airplane my Dad and I would go out to the old Wold Chamberlain Airport (now Minneapolis-St. Paul International/MSP) to watch take off on Sunday afternoons. "She looks like a homesick angel," he would often say, wonder in his voice as we watched it ascend from take off at an impossible (to us) angle.
Getting back to the Constellation, I've not pulled in any photos because I don't want to risk copyright infringements. However, I did find this great website that has oodles of pictures of various Connies still in the U.S. Very few still fly but even grounded, they're pretty cool. Click here to see the site.
BTW, you may (or may not...) be glad to know that I will NOT be doing a countdown to Christmas. Why heighten the urgency to prep for a season that is already stressful, albeit typically of our own making? Savor this day after Thanksgiving and take the next 26 days one day at a time.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.