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The Lockheed Constellation in Military Service

In the USAAF

The Lockheed Constellation started as a military transport. The military initially designated it the C-69. The Constellation made its first test flights in 1943. In April 1944 Howard Hughes flew a Constellation from Burbank, California to Washington, D.C. nonstop in 6 hours, 57 minutes, and 51 seconds. The average speed was 331 miles per hour (533 km/h).[i] The C-69 entered service in 1944. In August 1945, in the first C-69 transatlantic flight, a C-69 flew from New York to Paris in 14 hours and 12 minutes.[ii]

On September 18, 1945 the USAAF lost its first two C-69s. One developed engine trouble and crash landed at Topeka AAF, Kansas.[iii] The other C-69 ditched in the Mediterranean Sea.[iv] There were no fatalities in these incidents. The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) decided to standardize their transport fleet with the Douglas C-54 as its long-range transport aircraft. The USAAF declared 12 of the 15 C-69s surplus.[v]

[i] Lockheed Martin,, last accessed 3/24/19.

[ii] History of War, Lockheed C-69 Constellation,, last accessed 5/12/19.

[iii] Aviation,, last accessed 3/28/19.

[iv] Aviation,, last accessed 3/28/19.

[v] History of War, Lockheed C-69 Constellation,, last accessed 5/12/19.

Historic Postwar Involvement

In 1947 Adolf W. Schwimmer established Schwimmer Aviation Company. The company purchased three war surplus Constellations and 10 C-46 Commandos to airlift Jewish refugees into Palestine.[i] These purchases attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). U.S. customs officials limited the export of war surplus aircraft.[ii] The Constellations were among the transport planes in the fledgling Israeli Air Force transport fleet. [iii]

In February 1948 the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) ordered ten Constellations. In November 1948 the 1254th Air Transport Squadron received a VC-121B Constellation. This aircraft was used as a transport for the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force. It was also used as a backup aircraft for President Harry S. Truman. MATS used eight C-121A Constellations to fly on the transatlantic route during the Berlin Airlift. Lockheed Air Service International used the remaining C-121A to support its facilities in Keflavik, Iceland.[iv]

France purchased 6 L-749A Constellations and India purchased 9 L-1049G Super Constellations for their militaries.

[i] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990. P. 8.

[ii] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990. P. 15.

[iii] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen, © 1990. P. 27.

[iv] History of, Lockheed C-121 Constellation,, last accessed 5/1419.

Enter the Super Constellation

When Lockheed came out with the Model 1049 Super Constellation the U.S. Navy and Air Force (USAF) ordered these aircraft under the designations R7V-1 and C-121C respectively. The Super Constellation had a range of 4,600 miles with an endurance of 20 hours. It could carry 20 tons of cargo.[i] This made the C-121 a good candidate for some new military missions.

Ten of the R7V-1s the Navy ordered were delivered to the USAF and were modified into RC-121C airborne early warning aircraft.[ii] The first R7V-1 fatalities occurred on July 7, 1953 when a Super Constellation lost its tail in flight. All six crew members died in the crash.[iii] One of the RC-121Cs ditched into San Pablo Bay, California on February 5, 1954. All on board survived. The USAF subsequently converted the other nine RC-121Cs to TC-121C AEW training aircraft. One of these was later converted to a transport and the others were converted to EC-121Cs electronic reconnaissance aircraft.[iv] Three Super Constellations were converted to JC-121Cs, electronic research aircraft.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential plane was a VC-121E. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower christened it Columbine II. On one flight Columbine II, call sight Air Force 8610, was flying at the same time an Eastern Airlines plane was flying with a call sign “8610”. This almost caused a mid-air collision. After this incident to avoid confusion Air Force aircraft flying the President of the United States would have the call sign “Air Force One”.[v] The “Air Force One” call sign wasn’t made public until the President John F. Kennedy administration. Columbine II was in service for a year then replaced by another VC-121E, Columbine III.[vi] The USAF retired Columbine III in 1966. It is at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. [vii]

On October 30, 1954 a US Navy R7V-1 with 42 people onboard took off from Patuxent River NAS, Maryland. Its destination was Terceira-Lajes Airport, Azores. The Super Constellation disappeared.[viii] This incident became part of the lore of the Bermuda Triangle.

A US Navy WV-2 Super Constellation airborne warning aircraft crashed at Johnsville NAS, Pennsylvania on December 9, 1954 killing all 10 on board.[ix] On January 17, 1955 a C-121J had a double engine failure. A B-29 escorted the stricken Super Constellation but the Superfortress lost visual contact with the C-121. The Super Constellation crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 13 on board.[x] On September 17, 1956 a WV-3 on a weather reconnaissance mission had trouble with all four of its engines and had to ditch in the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Guam. A P2V Neptune spotted the two life rafts and the Coast Guard Cutter Buttonwood rescued all 18 crew members.[xi]

On December 30, 1956 three USAF C-121Cs departed Tripoli, Libya for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. At Dhahran there was fog and the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) was inoperative. One Super Constellation crashed half a mile (1 kilometer) short of the runway. Twelve of the 38 people on board died in the crash.[xii]

On April 17, 1957 an overheated brake and tire caused the left wheel to explode and an engine to fall off of a US Navy WV-2. The Super Constellation made a crash landing at Argentia NAS, Canada. All 24 crew members survived but the crash and fire damaged the aircraft beyond repair.[xiii]

A WV-2 had all four engines fail on December 23, 1957. The aircraft ditched in the Pacific Ocean 25 miles (40 km) from Oahu, Hawaii. The waves topped 14 feet (4 meters) and only four of the 23 crew members survived.[xiv]

On January 14, 1958 a US Navy R7V-1 crashed while practicing instrument landings (IFR). There was a foggy drizzle. All 9 crew members died in the crash. A WV-2 on an airborne radar patrol disappeared 110 miles (176 km) west of Ilha do Corvo, Azores on February 20.[xv] On March 22 the number 2 engine of a USAF RC-121D caught fire. The forced landing damaged the RC-121D beyond repair but the crew of 18 survived.[xvi] On May 14 a US Navy R7V-1 broke up in mid-air killing all five crew members.[xvii] On May 25 a USAF RC-121D was being prepared for a flight when its center fuel tank exploded. Al 15 crew members safely egressed the Super Constellation.[xviii] On October 18 a WV-2 crashed 1,000 feet (300 meters) short of the Argentia NAS runway during a GCA approach killing 11 of the 29 crew members.[xix]

In 1958 Weather Reconnaissance Squadron Four, with six WC-121-N Super Constellations began its aerial hurricane reconnaissance “hurricane hunter” mission.[xx]

A USAF C-121G was practicing touch and go landings when it crashed in a wooded area killing all five crew members on February 28, 1959.[xxi] On March 29 wind shear caused a US Navy WV-2 to make a hard landing at Argentia NAS, Canada. All 21 crew members survived but the Super Constellation was damaged beyond repair.[xxii] On April 2 a WV-2 had an engine failure. The Super Constellation made a hard landing. The starboard wing broke off on impact and the WV-2 flipped over and burned. One crew member died in the incident.[xxiii] Another US Navy R7V-2 was damaged beyond repair at Palmdale Air Force Base, California on July 30. Airmotive purchased the aircraft in May 1960 and broke it up for spare parts.[xxiv]

On January 22, 1961 a US Navy WV-2 hit seawall debris while landing at Midway Island. The Super Constellation cartwheeled and slid into a Crash Crew Truck. The crash killed the three crash crew members and 6 of the 22 aircrew members.[xxv] On March 22 a USAF TC-121C crashed on a test flight killing all 6 crewmembers.[xxvi]

On August 9, 1962 a US Navy WV-2 crashed while landing in a heavy rainstorm. The crash killed 5 of the 19 crewmembers.[xxvii] In November 1962 super-typhoon Karen struck Guam. On December 4, 1963 a USAF C-121G Super Constellation carrying emergency supplies to the island crashed killing 3 of the 8 people on board.[xxviii] On July 11, 1965 two engines failed, one caught fire, on a USAF EC-121H. The Super Constellation broke apart when it ditched in the ocean 100 miles (160 km) from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Three of the 19 crew members survived.[xxix] On November 11, 1966 a USAF EC-121H was on a mission over the Atlantic Ocean when the crew reported they had flames coming out of an engine. The aircraft later crashed into the ocean. All 19 crew members were lost.[xxx] Another USAF EC-121 crashed into the sea after reporting an engine fire on April 25, 1967. Only one of the 16 crew members survived.[xxxi]

In 1965 the USAF deployed EC-121s to Vietnam. The EC-121s functioned as an airborne command post. They gave warning to U.S. aircraft about North Vietnamese aircraft and surface to air missile launches. They also gave information about downed airmen.[xxxii] In 1967 an RC-121 became the first aircraft to provide Airborne Warning and Control to a fighter that resulted in the shooting down of another aircraft.[xxxiii]

On April 15, 1969 a North Korean MiG-17 shot down a US Navy EC-121M over the Sea of Japan about 90 miles (140 Km) off the coast of North Korea. The attack killed the 30 sailors and one marine onboard.[xxxiv] On April 25 a USAF EC-121R landing at Korat AB, Thailand crashed because of wind shear, killing all 18 crewmembers on board.[xxxv] Another USAF EC-121R crash at Korat on September 6 killed four of the 16 crew members and four airmen on the ground.[xxxvi]

On March 16, 1970 a U.S. Navy EC-121K crashed while landing with one engine feathered at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam. The crash killed 23 of the 28 crew members.[xxxvii] On October 8 a U.S. Navy C-121J crashed on the runway at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. All 80 on board survived. The wreckage is still at the airfield.[xxxviii]

On March 15, 1978 the main landing gear of a USAF EC-121T collapsed. The Super Constellation caught fire. The crew and passenger evacuated safely but the aircraft was a write off.[xxxix]

The USAF and U.S. Navy retired all but one of their Super Constellations in 1978. The U.S. Navy kept a specially modified EC-121 in service until 1982.

The last fatality involving a military Super Constellation occurred on April 5, 1990. The pilot attempted an unauthorized three-engine takeoff. Two more engines failed and the aircraft ditched off the Puerto Rican coast. One of the three crew members died in the incident.[xl]

Hurricane Georges destroyed a former military C-121C, operated by Aerochago Airlines, on September 22, 1998. The wind blew a Curtis C-46 into the C-121C HI-548CT.[xli]

[i] Arsenal of Democracy by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman © 1977.

[ii] History of War, Lockheed C-121 Constellation,, last accessed, 5/14/19.

[iii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/12/19.

[iv] History of, Lockheed C-121 Constellation,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[v] Strategic Air, VC – Air Force One,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[vi] Aviation, The History of Air Force One,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[vii] Aviation, The History of Air Force One,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[viii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[ix] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[x] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xiii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xiv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xvi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xvii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xviii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xix] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xx] Navy Hurricane,, last accessed 5/14/19.

[xxi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xxii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19. The term "wind shear" had not yet been coined. Microbursts, and their effects on aircraft, were not yet known.

[xxiii] Aviation Safety,net,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xxiv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/19/19.

[xxv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/23/19.

[xxvi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/23/19.

[xxvii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/23/19.

[xxviii] Aviation,, last accessed 5/23/19.

[xxix] Aviation,, last accessed 5/25/19.

[xxx] Aviation,, last accessed 5/26/2019.

[xxxi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxii] History Channel, EC-121 Warning Star,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxiii] Global Aircraft, C-121 Constellation,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxiv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxv] Aviation,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxvi] Aviation,, last accessed 5/26/19.

[xxxvii] Aviation,, last accessed 6/1/19.

[xxxviii] Aviation,, last accessed 6/1/19.

[xxxix] Aviation,, last accessed 6/2/19.

[xl] Aviation,, last accessed 6/2/19.

[xli] Aviation,, last accessed 6/2/19.

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 July 14, 2019:

Thank you for reading and commenting.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on July 14, 2019:


Very interesting.

Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on June 21, 2019:

You're Welcome!

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 20, 2019:

Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad you found the article informative.

Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on June 20, 2019:

Historic and Informative article! Nicely done Robert!

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 13, 2019:

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

FlourishAnyway - The report in the database doesn't get into specifics on these particular crashes. If the aircraft is overstressed or if there is metal fatigue. These are just two possibilities.

Pamela Oglesby - A lot of crashes are survivable. The ones that kill everyone on board tend to get more publicity.

Liz Westwood - You are right about the many successful flights. Unfortunately with transport type aircraft a routine flight doesn't get headlines. Flying wasn't as safe in the mid-20th century as it is today. It was by the tragedies of those days that aviation is as safe as it is today.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 13, 2019:

This is a very interesting and thorough fact file on the Lockheed Constellation. I had no idea how the 'Airforce One' code for the President's plane came info being.

Reading through the list of accidents, I began to think that this plane was a little accident prone. But would I be right in thinking that the crashes are a small fraction compared to the many successful flights.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 13, 2019:

This is such a long list of air plane diasters and you covered it very thoroughly. I was amazed at how often everyone lived in these crashes as you tend the think of death with a crash.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 13, 2019:

This is very comprehensive research. A couple of questions. How does a plane just lose its tail mid air if you know? Gosh, I’ve never heard of that! Also, what do you think happened to the plane that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle?

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