Early Development and Military Service
In 1939 billionaire Howard Hughes wanted to purchase of fleet of aircraft that could carry 20 passengers and 6,000 pounds of cargo non-stop across the United States. Lockheed Corporation wanted to build a transport aircraft that, according to Lockheed’s chief research engineer Kelly Johnson, “would carry more people farther and faster than ever before, and economically enough to broaden the acceptance of flying as an alternative to train, ship, and automobile.”[i]
The resulting 1942 design showed good potential as a military transport. The military designated it the C-69 and it made its first test flights in 1943. On the first day of test flights the C-69 took to the air six times. In April 1944 Howard Hughes flew a Constellation from Burbank, California to Washington, D.C. nonstop in 6 hours, 57 minutes, and 51 seconds. On the return trip the Constellation landed and Wright Field and picked up Orville Wright. Orville Wright pointed out the Constellation’s wingspan, 126 feet, was longer than his first flight. This meant an average speed of 331 miles per hour (533 km/h).[ii] By comparison the C-54, which first flew in 1942, had a cruising speed of 207 miles per hour (333 km/h).[iii]
The C-69 entered service with the Air Transport Command in 1944. The first C-69 transatlantic flight took place in August 1945. The flight was from New York to Paris and took 14 hours and 12 minutes.[iv] The first of two C-69 losses occurred on September 18, 1945. A Constellation developed engine problems and had to make a belly landing at Topeka AAF, Kansas.[v] The other C-69, tail number 43-10314, ditched in the Mediterranean Sea. It wasn’t a complete loss since parts of the aircraft were sold to repair other Constellations.[vi] There were no fatalities in these incidents.
[i] Lockheed Martin, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/constellation.html, last accessed 3/24/19.
[ii] Lockheed Martin, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/constellation.html, last accessed 3/24/19.
[iii] Commercial Transport Aircraft, edited by Michael J.H. Taylor, © 1990 by Tri-Service Press Limited.
[iv] History of War, Lockheed C-69 Constellation, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_lockheed_C-69_constellation.html, last accessed 3/28/19.
[v] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19450918-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
[vi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19450918-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
In Civilian Service
The military decided to standardize their transport fleet in favor of the C-54. They sold 12 of the 15 Constellations back to Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA).[i] On February 6, 1946 the first Constellation entered civilian service. The first commercial Constellation loss happened on March 29 at Washington-National Airport in Virginia.[ii] The L-049 “Star of Rome” ran off the runway and struck a concrete transformer house before stopping in a drainage ditch. There were no fatalities.[iii]
On June 18 a Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) L-049 made a belly landing at Willimantic, Connecticut when it had a fire in one of the engines. All 52 on board survived and the aircraft, NC88858, was repaired.[iv] The first fatal Constellation accident occurred on July 11. Mechanical failure caused the cockpit to fill with smoke making it impossible to control. There were no passengers on board but 5 of the 6 crew members died in the crash.[v] The first Constellation passenger fatalities occurred on December 28 at Shannon Airport in Ireland. An error in altimeter indication caused the crash which killed 9, 4 crew and 5 passengers, of the 23 people on board.[vi]
On June 19, 1947, multiple engine problems resulting in an engine fire caused the Constellation “Clipper Eclipse” to crash near Mayadine, Syria. The accident killed 14, 7 crew and 7 passengers, of the 36 people on board.[vii] Gene Roddenberry, later the creator of “Star Trek”, was the Third Officer on the plane. He and the other surviving crew members, purser Anthony Volpe and stewardess[viii] Jane Bray, evacuated the surviving passengers.[ix]
The Lockheed L-649 and L-749 were the first versions of the Constellation built for commercial service. These types received their certificate in March 1947. The L-649 had a payload increase of 1,850 pounds (839 kg) over the L-049. The L-749 had an additional fuel capacity of 1,130 gallons. This made non-stop flights between New York and Paris possible. Air France received the first L-749 in April 1947 and Eastern Air Lines received the first L-649 in May. The Constellation orders slowed and Lockheed considered canceling the project. The USAF ordered ten military versions of the Constellation, the C-121. This kept the Constellation project alive until civilian demand picked up.[x]
Snow on the runway caused the first L-649 crash on January 21, 1948[xi]. The first L-649 crash with a fatality occurred on February 7. An engine malfunction caused a propeller blade to crash through the fuselage and killed the purser. The rest of the 69 crew and passengers survived the crash.[xii]
In June 1948 Soviet Forces closed off all ground routes to West Berlin. Joseph Stalin hoped this would make the West Berlin populace turn away from western democracy and into the arms of the Soviet Union. The western allies responded by supplying West Berlin by an air bridge. This Berlin Airlift was the first major challenge for the newly created United States Air Force (USAF). The Soviet Forces didn’t seriously interfere with the airlift. Joseph Stalin decided not to seriously attempt to close down the air bridge partly because he believed it would fail.[xiii] Civilian and military Constellations were among the aircraft that flew airlift missions. The Berlin Airlift flew over 277,000 flights and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to West Berlin. In May 1949 the Soviet Union admitted defeat and lifted the ground blockade. The Berlin Airlift ended in September 1949.[xiv]
The first major L-749 mishap occurred on January 30, 1949 when a Pan Am Constellation collided with a Cessna 140. The Cessna crashed killing both people on board. The Constellation landed safely with no fatalities.[xv] The first L-749 fatality occurred on June 23 when a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Constellation broke up in flight and killed all 33 people on board.[xvi] Another KLM L-749 crashed into a hill and killed all 45 people on board on July 12.[xvii] On October 28 an Air France L-749 struck the Redondo Mountain in the Azores and killed all 48 people on board. [xviii]
The worst L-749 crash occurred on August 31, 1950 near Wadi Natrun, Egypt. The aircraft had an engine fire and the engine fell off the aircraft. The crew attempted a crash landing at night in the desert. All 55 people on board died in the crash.[xix]
In 1951 Douglas put the DC-6B into service. This aircraft could carry 108 passengers and had a maximum range of 4,720 miles (7,595 km).[xx] Lockheed responded with the L-1049 Super Constellation, which entered service on December 15, 1951. The L-1049 could carry 106 passengers and had a range of 5,150 miles.[xxi]
The first civilian L-1049 crash occurred on September 6, 1953 when a hydraulic failure prevented the landing gear from fully extending. The Super Constellation swerved off the runway and burst into flames. All 32 people on board survived.[xxii] Fuel starvation forced a L-1049 to belly land on August 3, 1954. All 37 on board survived.[xxiii] The first fatal Super Constellation crash occurred on September 5. KLM Flight KL633 crashed during the initial climb out of Shannon Airport, Ireland. The crash killed 28 of the 56 people on board.[xxiv]
On June 20, 1956 an L-1049E-55 disintegrated in mid-air off the coast of New York. All 74 on board perished. The cause of the crash could not be determined with certainty.[xxv] On June 30 a DC-7 and a L-1049-54-80 collided in mid-air.[xxvi] All 128 people on these aircraft died. At the time it was the worst aviation disaster in history. A year later a DC-7 had a ground collision with an L-1049. There were no fatalities but both planes were destroyed.[xxvii]
In 1955 TWA asked Lockheed to develop a version of the Constellation with more range and capacity. Lockheed developed the Lockheed L-1649A Starliner. The Starliner had a range of over 7,000 miles (11,200 kilometers). TWA began Starliner service in June, 1957. Air France and Lufthansa also purchased L-1649s. Lockheed sold 43 L-1649s to civilian companies. The Starliner was destined to be the piston-engine airliner with the greatest range and the last major piston-engine airliner built before jetliners took over the market.[xxviii] The Starliner could carry up to 102 passengers and had a cruising speed of 385 mph (616 km/h).[xxix] On January 8, 1958 Capital released Frank Sinatra’s album “Come Fly With Me”. The Album cover had a Constellation in the background.
On June 1, 1955 Lufthansa flew Super Constellation flights to New York. Lufthansa began flights to South America in August 1956. By August 1958, Lufthansa would each week fly; 15 Super Constellations from Germany to North America, three to South America, and one each to Tehran and Baghdad.
A Lufthansa Super Constellation crashed 20 minutes from Rio de Janeiro, its destination, on January 11, 1959. Only three passengers of the 39 people on board survived. The cause of the crash was not determined but pilot error seemed the probable cause with crew fatigue as a possible contributing factor.[xxx] This was the first accident since Lufthansa was re-established in 1954.
On June 26, 1959 lightning struck a Starliner and the L-1649A exploded killing all 68 people on board.[xxxi] On December 16, 1960 a L-1049 collided with a Douglas DC-8 over Staten Island, New York. The Super Constellation crashed in Staten Island. The DC-8 crashed in Brooklyn. All of the 128 people on the airliners and six people on the ground died.[xxxii] Because of the crash President John F. Kennedy established Project Beacon. The project’s mandate was to “review the country’s aviation facilities and put together a long-range plan for the future of air traffic in the U.S.”. Since then there has been only one other fatal mid-air collision involving two airliners.[xxxiii]
On May 10, 1961 a bomb on the Air France L-1649A “De Grasse” destroyed the aircraft over Algeria. The bomb murdered all 78 people on board.
On July 29, 1961 a Constellation, named Avion Pirata, was smuggling contraband. The Bolivian Air Force sortied two P-51 Mustangs to force the Constellation to land. The P-51s damaged the Constellation. The Constellation went into a dive to evade the fighters. A Mustang crashed killing its pilot, Captain Alberto Peredo Céspedes. The Constellation landed at El Trompillo Airport, Bolivia. Authorities arrested the crew of 5. These crew members disappeared in November. In the ensuing investigation Bolivia arrested 85 soldiers and gave another 130 dishonorable discharges. The plane is now a tourist attraction in Santa Cruz.[xxxiv]
On March 15, 1962 pilot error caused the crash of a Flying Tiger Line L-1049H. One of the seven crew members on this cargo flight died in the crash.[xxxv] The next day a Flying Tiger Line L-1049H, with 107 people on board, disappeared over the Pacific.[xxxvi]
The worst accident involving a L-049 occurred on March 1, 1964. The Constellation pilot attempted a visual landing in adverse weather conditions. The L-049 struck some trees on a ridge of Genoa Peak, California. The crashed killed all 85 people on board.[xxxvii]
A L-1049 had a mid-air collision with a Boeing 707-131B on December 4, 1965. The Boeing 707 landed safely. The Super Constellation crash landed and its pilot and three of the 49 passengers died.[xxxviii] This was the last mid-air collision between two airliners in the United States.
Position disorientation caused another Super Constellation to crash into a mountain on December 15, killing all three on board.[xxxix] The last L-1649A crash occurred in Columbia on December 18, 1966. Pilot error caused the Starliner to crash short of the runway threshold killing 17 of the 59 people on board.[xl]
On June 22, 1967 a L-1049H on a mail flight from Manila to Saigon had a mid-air collision with an USAF RF-4 Phantom II. The Super Constellation crashed and all 7 on board died. The Phantom II crew ejected safely.[xli]
On July 6, 1967 the Nigerian state of Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria. This caused a civil war that lasted until 1970. The starving children with bloated bellies were stark images of the starvation and brutality of the conflict. In 1968 a civilian airlift, commonly known as the Biafran Airlift, began operations. Two Super Constellations were among the aircraft that flew 5,314 missions and delivered 60,000 tons of medical supplies.[xlii] These Constellations lie abandoned at Sao Tomé.
The last fatal crash of a Super Constellation occurred on June 22, 1980. The crash killed retired Lockheed test pilot Herman Richard “Fish” Salmon, who was piloting the plane, another crew member, and one of the five passengers.[xliii]
The last fatal crash of a civilian Constellation occurred on October 26, 1981 when a L-749A crashed off the coast of Saint Croix. The crash killed the three crew members but the two passengers survived.[xliv]
The last major mishap involving a Constellation occurred in Puerto Rico on February 3, 1992. A C-54 suffered hydraulics failure while taxiing and struck a L-1049H Super Constellation. There was no one in the Constellation, which was damaged beyond repair by the resulting fire.[xlv]
[i] History of War, Lockheed C-69 Constellation, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_lockheed_C-69_constellation.html, last accessed 3/28/19.
[ii] Today the Airport is Reagan-National airport. While it is sometimes said to be in Washington, DC it is on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
[iii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19460329-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
[iv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19460618-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
[v] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19460711-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
[vi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19461228-1, last accessed 3/28/19.
[vii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19470619-0, last accessed 3/28/19.
[viii] At the time the terms for “flight attendant” were “steward” for men and “stewardess” for women.
[ix] The Clipper Eclipse, http://www.check-six.com/Crash_Sites/ClipperEclipse-NC88845.htm, last accessed 3/28/19.
[x] GlobalSecurity.org, Lockheed L-49 Constellation, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/l-049.htm, last accessed 3/29/19.
[xi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19480121-0, last accessed 3/29/19.
[xii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19480207-0, last accessed 3/29/19.
[xiii] History was on Stalin’s side. In the winter of 1942/43 the Luftwaffe attempted to supply its troops surrounded in Stalingrad by airlift and failed miserably.
[xiv] AF Pamphlet 50-34 Volume I, April 1, 1990, P51.
[xv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490130-0, last accessed 3/29/19.
[xvi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490623-0, last accessed 3/29/19.
[xvii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490712-1, last accessed 3/30/19.
[xviii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19490712-1, last accessed 3/30/19.
[xix] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19500831-0, last accessed 3/30/19.
[xx] Commercial transport Aircraft, Series Editor Michael J.H. Taylor, © 12990 Tri-Service Press Limited.
[xxi] The actual range of these aircraft depended on the load and amount of fuel they were carrying.
[xxii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19530906-1, last accessed 4/7/19.
[xxiii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19540803-0, last accessed 4/14/2019.
[xxiv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19540905-0, last accessed 4/14/2019.
[xxv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19560620-0, last accessed 4/14/2019.
[xxvi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19560630-1, last accessed 4/14/2019.
[xxvii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19570628-1, last accessed 4/14/2019. The incident occurred on June 28, 1957.
[xxviii] California Classics, The Lockheed L-1649A Starliner, http://calclassic.com/starliner.htm, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxix] Aviastar.org, Lockheed 1649 Starliner, http://www.aviastar.org/air/usa/lok_starliner.php, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxx] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19590111-0, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxxi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19590626-0, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxxii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19601216-0, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxxiii] America’s Worst Disaster: Fatal Collision Over New York City: United 826 and TWA 266, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilFKPhgMGqM, last accessed 5/4/2019.
[xxxiv] 365 Days in Bolivia, The Avion Pirata, April 2 2017, https://365daysinbolivia.blogspot.com/2017/04/april-2-2017-avion-pirata.html, last accessed 4/24/2019.
[xxxv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19620315-0, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xxxvi] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19620316-1, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xxxvii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19640301-1, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xxxviii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19651204-1 , last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xxxix] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19651215-0, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xl] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19661218-0, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xli] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19661218-0, last accessed 4/27/2019. Saigon has since been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
[xlii] The Amazing Biafran Airlift – Heroics in the Sky and on The Ground, July 6, 2018, https://www.concernusa.org/story/amazing-biafran-airlift-heroics-sky-ground/, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xliii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19800622-0, last accessed 4/27/2019.
[xliv] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19811026-0, last accessed 4/27/2019.
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The Constellation retired from airline service in the 1990s. Besides carrying passengers and cargo, legal and illegal, they were also used for crop dusting and as firebombers. Some were converted into restaurants and nightclubs.[i]
The Constellation, affectionately called, the "Connie", fulfilled Kelly Johnson's vision to “carry more people farther and faster than ever before, and economically enough to broaden the acceptance of flying as an alternative to train, ship, and automobile.”[II] The aircraft's distinct design seemed to fit the post-World War II era.
[i] Lockheed Martin, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/constellation.html, last accessed 3/24/19.
[ii] The Legendary Lockheed Constellation by Stephan Wilkinson, Aviation History Magazine, 6/23/2016, https://www.historynet.com/the-legendary-lockheed-constellation.htm, last accessed 4/27/2019.
4x2500 hp (1864 kW)
4x3250 hp (2424 kW)
4x3400 hp (2,535 kW)
Max Cruise Speed
272 mph (437 km/h)
300 mph (483 kmh)
300 mph (483 km/h)
325 mph (522 km/h)
338 mph (544 km/h)
338 mph (544 km/h)
24,100 ft (7,346 m)
24,000 ft (7,315 m)
23,700 ft (7,224 m)
Rate of Climb
1,280 ft/min (390 (m/min)
1,100 ft/min (335 m/min)
1,080 ft/min (329 m/min)
3,977 miles (6,401 km)
5,406 miles (8,701 km)
6,152 miles (9,901 km)
Max T/O Weight
107,000 lbs (48,534 kg)
144,998 lbs (65,770 kg)
160,001 lbs (72,575 kg)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 24, 2020:
Passenger aircraft tend to have a long and extensive history. Their history tells a lot about the world history of the time. Thank you for reading and commenting.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 24, 2020:
The development of the lockhead and its use as a military and civilian passenger plane is interesting. Equally intiresting is the fact that the plane was put to service during my country Nigeria crisis. I happen to be further away from the theatre of operation where hunger and starvation is less.
Robert Sacchi (author) on July 31, 2020:
Thank you for reading and supplying additional information.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 30, 2020:
The Lockheed super constellation G was used by the Indian Navy for surveillance duty until almost 1980. It was a sturdy passenger plane and was used by Air India for decades. It covered the Delhi- Moscow Delhi -London route.
Robert Sacchi (author) on February 22, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Howard Hughes taking Orville Wright on this special flight makes for good publicity. From a historic standpoint it showed how far heavier than air flight came in just a few years. I am still amazed at how quickly we advanced in aerospace.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 22, 2020:
How interesting that Howard Hughes and Orville Wright got to fly on the same plane together. It must have been a thrill for both men. The Berlin airlift was certainly a momentous occasion in history. This post is filled to the brim with good information regarding the Constellation and its many uses throughout its history.
Robert Sacchi (author) on May 06, 2019:
Thank you both for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found the article informative. When an aircraft is used as widely as the Constellation was its story also says something about its times,
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 06, 2019:
I was struck by the diversity of information connected to this history, from Orville Wright flying on one of these to the Constellation's appearance in the background of Sinatra's album "Come Fly with Me" (of course, I had to look it up out of curiosity and there it is!). You are probably the writer on HP who most thoroughly researches and documents their subject! Well done!
Shing Araya from Cebu, Philippines on May 06, 2019:
This is a very informative article, you provided a lot of facts..I like it.
Robert Sacchi (author) on May 05, 2019:
Thank you both for reading and commenting.
Mary Norton - You bring up a good point. Flying is as safe as it is in large part because of the lessons learned by past tragedies.
DreamerMeg - I wonder if there is a record Gene Rodenberry mentioning such an influence. It seems his obvious interest in aerospace and the fact he was flying international flights probably did have some influence on his writings. It could be a "chicken or egg" argument though.
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on May 05, 2019:
Amazing to think that Orville Wright got to see the results of his and his brother's work on planes. I wonder whether Gene Rodenberry's time as a Third Officer influenced his creation of Star Trek?
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 05, 2019:
Seldom do we appreciate the work done for us to fly easily and safely today. Thank you for writing about these various attempts and work done on these planes.