The Pan Am Series – Part XXI: The Constellation
11 January 2014 Leave a comment
Around the World in a Constellation
Many who have followed the history of Pan American World Airways during the piston era often associate the airline with the Boeing Stratocruiser, the DC-6B and the DC-7C, aircraft that played starring roles during that time. Often overlooked was the Constellation, which is always associated with Trans World Airlines (TWA). The ubiquity was obvious: when one sees a Stratocruiser or a DC-6B or DC-7C, one thinks of Pan Am; when one sees a Constellation, one thinks of TWA. Yet, the Constellation played an important role in the post-World War II history of Pan Am, not the least, making the first commercial airline flight around the world.
The Lockheed Constellation (“Connie”), built by the Lockheed Corporation, is a piston airliner driven by four 18-cylinder radial Wright R-3350 propeller engines. Between 1943 and 1958, 856 aircraft were produced in numerous models at Lockheed’s Burbank, California facility. The aircraft is distinguished by a triple-tail design and dolphin-shaped fuselage and was used as a civilian airliner and as a military and civilian air transport, and saw service in the Berlin Airlift and the Biafran Airlift. It was the presidential aircraft for U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft, Ron Davies said this about the Constellation:
“British aviation writer Peter Brooks described the Lockheed Constellation as the ‘secret weapon of American air transport.’ The description was almost literally true as it was produced, if not clandestinely, certainly behind locked doors. It was the inspired result of close cooperation between Lockheed’s design staff headed by the redoubtable Kelly Johnson, and the leadership of Howard Hughes, now actively in charge of TWA. Discussions were first held in 1939. TWA ordered nine in 1940, and the ‘Model 049’, as Lockheed engineers always called it, first flew on 9 January 1943. All concerned must have known it was a winner, even if the C-54s (DC-4s) were piling up the hours across the conflict-stricken oceans.
“On 19 April 1944 Hughes and TWA president Jack Frye flew the ‘Connie’ nonstop from Burbank, Lockheed’s plant location in California, to Washington, DC in three minutes less than seven hours, an air journey which normally took between 12 and 14 hours, including stops. The aircraft was immediately handed over to the Government for military use, and Howard Hughes no doubt made a considerable impression on the assembled bureaucratic multitude as he demonstrated it (illegally) in TWA’s colors”.
With the onset of World War II, the TWA aircraft entering production were converted to an order for C-69 Constellation military transport aircraft, with 202 aircraft intended for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). The aircraft was mostly used as a high-speed, long-distance troop transport during the war.
After World War II the Constellation came into its own as a popular, fast, civilian airliner. Aircraft already in production for the USAAF as C-69 transports were converted to civilian airliners, with TWA receiving the first on 1 October 1945. TWA’s first transatlantic proving flight departed Washington, DC, on 3 December 1945, arriving in Paris on 4 December via Gander and Shannon.
Pan American’s involvement with the Constellation came about before World War II and involved none other than Juan Trippe’s rival, Howard Hughes. According to Marylin Bender and Selig Altschul in The Chosen Instrument, during the first winter of transatlantic service with the Boeing 314, flights suffered many delays because of weather conditions and only 56% were completed. There were icy conditions in the Northeast and rough seas around the Azores. Because of the weather conditions in the Northeast, eastbound passengers were ferried south, sometimes as far south as Miami, by train or domestic carrier to pick up their transatlantic Clipper. On the westbound trip, heavy headwinds and swells at Horta in the Azores caused cancellation of many flights. Later, in the summer of 1940, Pan Am received authority to use Bolama, on the coast of Portuguese Guinea, for an alternative route during the winter months. Westbound flights originating in Lisbon flew south to Bolama and then west and north through Belem and Bermuda to its U.S. destination, adding over 4000 miles to the trip.
Pan Am desperately needed a long-range plane, a type of plane the domestic airlines had taken the lead in developing; but none existed that was capable of spanning oceans. According to Bender and Altschul, “Providence, in the person of . . . Howard Hughes bailed Trippe out on his dependence on the flying boat.” Hughes had bought a controlling interest in TWA and spurred Lockheed to build a four-engine high altitude plane for his airline. It was the Model 049 and it was a challenge to the DC-4 Douglas was building for United and American. As TWA was a domestic carrier at the time, Hughes “allowed” Trippe to enter the Lockheed program. Pan Am ordered twenty 049’s and ten long-range versions of the model in June 1940. The latter version had pressurized cabins that allowed for flying over the Atlantic storms. However, with the outbreak of war and before the delivery date in 1942, Lockheed had to assign Pan Am’s contract to the Army, with the promise to deliver the aircraft after the war.
As a sidebar to this story:
During the war four significant events occurred that would change the way international airlines did business. Briefly, and without going into the details, these were: (1) a decision between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill whereby, according to Bender and Altschul, the British were to concentrate on production of fighter planes and small bombers and the Americans were to build large bombers and transport planes; (2) great leaps in technology during the war that resulted in the development of larger airplanes with more efficient engines capable of airlifting supplies and personnel over the oceans and that eventually gave the U.S. a clear advantage in the field of international civil aviation; (3) the Roosevelt Administration in Washington not supporting, according to Bender and Selig, a “monopoly [for Pan American] of the overseas air routes. ‘Juan Trippe cannot have it all'”; and (4) the Chicago Conference of 1944, called because of the U.S advantage in international civil aviation and the concern of other nations over that advantage.
The Chicago Conference provided for the “Freedoms of the Air”, governing overflight and landing and traffic rights; “bilateral agreements”, a mechanism for the exchange of traffic rights between governments; and the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization which would oversee the agreements within the convention having to do with the technical side of international civil aviation. Unfortunately, economic issues, such as frequencies and tariffs, were not resolved largely due to the failure of the British and the Americans to resolve their differences on a variety of economic issues. These were eventually resolved in 1946 in what became known as the “Bermuda Agreement”. One of the most important features of this agreement was the granting of “Fifth Freedom” rights, which in the case of a bilateral agreement between the United States and a foreign country, gave the right of a U.S. airline to pick up traffic in that foreign country and carry it to another foreign country along the airline’s route. For example, in the the Bermuda Agreement a passenger may board Pan Am’s flight 2 at London and travel to Frankfurt (or another destination along its route). This right would prove to be important for Pan American with respect to its round-the-world services.
With the end of hostilities, the aircraft built for service in the war, including the Lockheeds, were turned over to the airlines, including Pan Am. In addition, the U.S. Government, through the Civil Aeronautics Board, awarded international routes to several U.S. domestic airlines, including TWA.
From Ron Davies in Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft:
“Juan Trippe had been accustomed to sponsoring new generations of aircraft, and it must have been quite a shock to his system to see Hughes and TWA not only taking over such leadership, but also receiving extensive international route awards from the Civil Aeronautics Board, enthusiastically supported by the President (Roosevelt), and now challenging the Chosen Instrument, as Pan American was unofficially dubbed, on the lucrative North Atlantic route.
“The first of the Lockheed airliners, with 54 seats in Pan Am’s layout, was delivered on 5 January 1946 and was christened Clipper Mayflower. A second arrived one week later and Pan American opened North Atlantic Constellation service on 14 January 1946. This was a measure of Pan Am’s considerable organizational strength as TWA itself did not start scheduled transatlantic service until 5 February. * * *
“Pan American took delivery of 22 Model 049 Constellations before the end of May 1946. Two went directly to Panair do Brasil, still very much a Pan Am subsidiary and which was the fortunate recipient of eleven more during the 1950s as they retired from the parent company’s routes.
“On 17 June 1947 a Constellation Model 749, an advanced version, one of four delivered to Pan Am, made the first round-the-world airline inaugural flight from New York to San Francisco. * * * Later, with the purchase of American Overseas Airlines (A.O.A), seven more of the 049 model were added for a total Connie fleet of 33.”
This round-the-world flight undoubtedly was the Constellation’s most notable achievement during its service for Pan Am. Clipper America departed on its historic flight from La Guardia Field in New York. After stops in Gander, Shannon, London, Istanbul, Dhahran, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok, Manila, Shanghai, Tokyo, Guam, Wake, Midway and Honolulu, the Clipper arrived in San Francisco on 29 June. As Pan American did not have authority to operate domestic flights in the United States, the Clipper ferried to New York, arriving at La Guardia on 30 June via Chicago to complete the journey. Because of the Fifth Freedom rights granted the United States (and Pan Am) in the Bermuda Agreement, Pan Am was able to carry passengers between countries along its round-the-world routes, provided one of the stops involved a British Commonwealth Country and was on Pan Am’s route.
From Ron Davies:
“The Lockheed 049 Constellation was in a class of its own. It was at least 70 mph faster than the DC-4; it was pressurized – at a higher equivalent altitude than the Boeing 307 had been; it was larger, with 60 seats against the DC-4’s 44 at the same seat pitch; and it had the range to fly the North Atlantic with only one stop. It sent all the Douglas design staff back to the drawing board in a hurry to develop the un-pressurized Four into something bigger and faster and higher-flying. For the path which airlines had beaten to Santa Monica was superseded by one to Burbank, because when TWA put the Constellation into service, it quickly became evident that there were two classes of airline: those with Connies and those without them.”
Pan Am operated the Constellation for about a decade from its first deliveries in 1946. In a 1948 timetable, the airplane was used primarily on the airline’s round-the-world flights (although sharing duty with the DC-4) and on its services across the Atlantic, including Africa. The Constellation was also operated between New York and San Juan. Pan Am’s subsidiary Panair do Brasil, operated the Constellation between Istanbul and Buenos Aires through Europe and Africa. In a 1950 timetable, the Constellation still operated in the around-the-world service, sharing duties with the DC-4 and Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Of note was the Friday westbound trip originating in San Francisco designated “PA1”. The airplane continued to be used on Atlantic services, including Africa, as well as the New York-San Juan rotation. The timetable images below illustrate some of these services:
As the decade of the 1950s progressed, Constellation operations began to fade. In a 1952 timetable, its round-the-world sector was between London and Hong Kong. It’s transatlantic operations were replaced by the DC-6B and the Stratocruiser, although it still operated to southern Europe and Africa. The airplane also experienced an increased presence in Latin America. By 1956, the Constellation was only seen in Central America under the Pan Am livery, as seen in a timetable of that year. By the end of the decade the Pan Am Constellation fleet had been sold to Panair do Brasil, Cubana, Delta and Air France.
As a footnote, the Constellation holds two records for flight duration: On 29 September 1957, a TWA L-1649 Constellation flew from Los Angeles to London in 18 hours and 32 minutes. On its inaugural London to San Francisco flight on 1 October 1957, the aircraft recorded the longest duration non-stop passenger flight, staying aloft for 23 hours and 19 minutes.
For additional information about Pan American World Airways:
The Book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People contains 71 stories written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.
Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People
Also available in a Kindle Edition
For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline.
For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation