What airplane other than the Lockheed "Constellation" could have symbolized the luxury of air transportation in the fifties? And what other route than Paris to New York could have during this time period created so many dreams of prosperity symbolized then by the United States?


Of course, the transatlantic ocean liners leaving Le Havre or Southampton for the North Atlantic crossing were still very much in demand, but the enormous progress of transport aviation was soon to change all that. By airplane, about twenty hours were required to join the Old and the New World, whereas the transatlantic ocean liners took at best four days to reach their pier in Manhattan.


In 1939, the Douglas DC-4 received its airworthiness certificate, and economically, Lockheed could not stay idle regarding the four engines market. Howard Hughes and Jack Frye, two leaders of TWA asked Lockheed to build an aircraft exclusively for their company. Kelly Johnson, the brilliant Lockheed Engineer, soon presented a project, code name "Excalibur".

It was a revolutionary program: a pressurized civilian transport, capable of flying higher and faster than the DC-4, with a cruising speed in excess of 450 kilometers per hour, and transatlantic range capability.


After long development studies, the "Constellation" was ready. It had very unique, elegant, and graceful lines, immediately identifiable, when compared to the more rugged lines of the DC-4, and the derivatives DC-6 and DC-7. Most noticeable were the triple vertical stabilizers and rudders.


Despite discretion (Please remember Clarence Kelly of "skunk works" fame), Pan American would also become interested in the project. The military, after Pearl Harbor (December 7th 1941) also became aware of the possibilities of this aircraft and were influential in its development. In the USAF, the Constellation would be called the C-69 ("C for cargo").


On February 6 1946, a TWA Constellation that had originated in New York, with intermediate stops in Gander (New Foundland), and Shannon (Ireland), landed in Paris, after a flight of less than 20 hours. It was the first commercial Atlantic flight. That same evening, the airplane returned to New York. This flight had open the era of regularly scheduled transatlantic flights. Little by little, the "rich and famous" clientele would abandon the ocean liners for this new mean of intercontinental transportation, which was in harmony with their idea of modern luxury. Most certainly, the gracious line of the Constellation had something to do with it.


In the fifties, even in the United States, the era of mass air transportation was still far from being the norm. The Constellation would rapidly become this symbol of modern luxury in air transportation utilized by many personalities.

After using a Constellation baptized "Columbine" from 1950 to 1952 as commander in chief of the allied forces in Europe, Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, now President of the United states, would make the Constellation VC 121 the presidential aircraft. "Columbine" II and Columbine III would transport the American officials and the foreign dignitaries until 1961.


In its ongoing battle with Douglas for the large four engines commercial transport market, Lockheed would continue to modify the basic Constellation. New and more powerful engines would permit to increase the fuselage length, and the aircraft's payload. The L-1049 Superconstellation was born. The Army placed a priority order for more than three hundred airplanes, thus delaying the entry of the new model with the commercial lines.


The passenger capacity of what was then considered, "a giant aircraft with long legs" makes us smile now a day. In 1954, the standard version offered 59 to 62 seats, whereas the luxury version equipped with sleeping berths accommodated only 48 passengers (which was an indication that the duration of long-range travel still required many hours aloft). With the increase in passengers' demand for air travel, Lockheed proposed a "tourist" version, void of lounges and other frills, which resulted in a capacity of 94 seats.


The ultimate version of the Constellation, the L-1649 "Starliner" was introduced in 1956, and it was considered by many as the most beautiful transport aircraft ever built. Conserving the general lines of its predecessors, the Starliner was fitted with a new completely redesigned wing, having better aerodynamics characteristics and a span of 150 feet. It was also equipped with new engines developing 3400 horsepower, a far cry from the 2200 horsepower of the original Constellation model.


The Starliner was not juste a superb airplane, it was equipped with state of the art instrumentation, and a weather radar which would someday equip the Boeing 707 and other jet transport airplanes.


The Starliner was also the only airplane of its era that could fly the Atlantic regardless of meteorological conditions, but despite its performance and its advanced equipment, it was soon to become history, and the other "prop" airplanes would likewise suffer the same fate. The end of the Starliner era was also going to be a difficult time for the Lockheed engineers regarding the passage into the jet age. Soon, the jetliners would replace the magnificent Connies, and although jet travel would never have the same romance of the prop airplanes, the jets would easily carry twice the passengers at speeds far superior.


At the apogee of the long-range prop airplanes era, the Constellation, which had been chosen by the most prestigious airlines, and greatly participated to the growth of passengers air transportation in the fifties, rapidly surpassed the oceanliners. After the end of the oceanliners era, the Connie would in turn be replaced by another giant of civil aviation: the Boeing 707. The last Starliners built, left the Lockheed factories in 1958; the buyers were TWA and Air France.


© Philippe Ballarini, Aérostories, 2000.


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The Starliner's grace is personified in this picture.

Click!    Document Air France.

1958 - First Lady "Mamie" Eisenhower baptizes the first Boeing 707. The transatlantic Jets would soon replace the prop airplanes.

Click!    Document DITE/USIS.

In the fifties, the first class service aboard a transatlantic Super Constellation.

Click!    Document Lockheed.

Douglas was Lockheed main's rival. The C-54, cargo version of the DC-4 had its hour of glory during the "Berlin airlift" in 1948 - 1949.

Click!   Document Boeing.

The Constellation VC 121 was the predecessor of the "Air Force one".  Document USAF Museum

In 1947, the luxury version of the Constellation was equipped with sleeping berths for long range flights.

Click!   Document Lockheed.

Lockheed, Constellation

Elegance in flight.

Transatlantic voyages: another image showing luxury and modernism. The ocean liner "France" made its maiden voyage in 1960, arriving at a time when the beginning of the end was in sight for this mode of ocean crossing. The four engines prop airplanes, then the four engines jet airplanes reduced the role of the ocean liners to cruise ships.

Document Rapho.

Mostly known for its civilian career, the characteristics of the Constellation became of great interest to the military since its origin. An USAF C-69.

Click!     Document USAF Archive Museum

by Philippe Ballarini

translation: Michel  Léveillard

version française

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