In the Museum: Connie’s Comeback

In the Museum: Connie’s Comeback

Famous today because its greater speed crushed the competition when it entered service after World War II, the Lockheed Constellation later became the first airliner to fly across the country nonstop—in a mere 8 hours, eastbound. Designed in 1939 by Lockheed aerodynamicist Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and engineer Hall Hibbard to specifications laid out by the not-yet-reclusive Howard Hughes, the Constellation, known as the “Connie,” soon became the ultimate in piston-powered transport. “Up to that time we were sort of ‘small-time guys,’” Hibbard said later. “But when we got to the Constellation we had to be ‘bigtime guys’…. We had to be right and we had to be good.” Impressed by the Constellation’s speed, payload, and range—not to mention its distinctive triple-fin tail and dolphin-shaped fuselage—domestic airline companies ordered 89. When Lockheed enlarged the aircraft to accommodate 18 more paying passengers and increase the range even further, the Super Constellation was born.

While the Constellation became famous as an airliner, it first served with distinction in the military. The National Air and Space Museum’s Super Constellation C-121C (the military version of the 1049F) had a long and varied career with the U.S. Air Force and several Air National Guard (ANG) units, remaining in service from 1956 to 1977. The Museum acquired the aircraft in 1988, and immediately stored it at Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. In May 2007, Museum specialists, with help from crews from United Airlines and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, towed the airplane from Dulles to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where crews removed its badly peeling paint and performed a thorough cleaning. The airplane was then moved into a hangar at Dulles for repainting. “She’s a beauty,” says Karl Heinzel, deputy supervisor of the Museum’s restoration division. “When we’re done with her, she’s gonna look like two million bucks.”

The airplane will be restored to its West Virginia ANG specifications—an easy decision, says Robert van der Linden, chair of the Museum’s aeronautics division. “When we restore an airplane, we try to find a representative paint scheme. And some of the folks out at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority happened to have been with the West Virginia ANG, and served on this very airplane.”

The Museum’s C-121C was one of 33 delivered to the U.S. Air Force, which assigned it to the 1608th Air Transport Wing at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina in 1956. The airplane and its crew participated in the Hungarian airlift of 1957, relocating some 10,000 refugees to the United States, an effort that President Dwight Eisenhower later called the greatest humanitarian airlift in history. It began its ANG service in Mississippi in 1962 and five years later was transferred to the West Virginia ANG and the 167th Military Airlift Squadron. Barry Smith, a navigator with the 167th and now an airport duty manager with the airports authority, recalls seeing the Connie stored at Dulles: “She was sitting on jacks, had no tires or propellers. It was heartbreaking to see the old girl like that. It was like seeing your favorite car in the back yard that you hope to restore getting worse and worse.”

While with the 167th, the aircraft flew supplies and personnel to Vietnam—an 88-hour round trip from Martinsburg, West Virginia—at least twice a month. “We could hold 20,000 pounds of cargo,” says Smith. “Anything you could get through the door, we could haul it.” Eventually, the unit’s C-121Cs were replaced by a fleet of C-130 Hercules transports, a transition witnessed by Smith, who served with the ANG until 1996. “Going from the Connie to the C-130 was like going from a Cadillac to a pickup truck,” he says. “The C-130 was a trash-hauler, while the Connie was just plain luxury. She was beautiful.”

The future of the Museum’s Connie looks bright. “Eventually, we hope to refurbish the interior of the aircraft and bring it back to the exact condition it was when it flew for the West Virginia Air National Guard,” says van der Linden. “We’d like to have a display about the history of the Constellation as a whole, and allow people to actually walk through the airplane—something visitors always request.”

The Constellation—much like its predecessor, the DC-3, and its successor, the Boeing 707—was that rare type of airplane that challenges all of the others in its class to catch up. And now that the Constellation is finally in its rightful place at the Udvar-Hazy Center, visitors can pay tribute.

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