Lockheed Constellation: Queen of the Skies

TWA hangar with jets and propeller aircraft–the beginning of the “jet age”.

The “famous, fabulous aircraft” I asked you to identify at bottom left was tricky because, in this photo, you could only see the nose and arc of the fuselage of this dolphin-shaped plane! If you had been able to see the entire aircraft with the sensuously curved fuselage, superb streamlining, four huge propeller engines on the wings, and the distinctive triple-tail, you would have no doubt that it was a Lockheed Constellation, for two decades the Queen of the Skies!

The Lockheed Constellation is instantly recognizable for its triple-tail design, dolphin fuselage and four 18-cylinder Wright radial engines. Many people consider the “Connie” the most beautiful airliner of all time. There’s no question the Constellation ruled the skies in the 1940s and 1950s with a top speed of 375 mph and a transcontinental range of more than 3,000 miles. Input for the design came directly from TWA principal shareholder Howard Hughes, who personally set speed records in the airplane. See Hughes in this historic, two minute trailer made when the Constellation broke new speed records flying coast to coast in 1944.

The “Connie” was typically described in well-earned superlatives. With the Super G model of the Connie, TWA was able to offer the first non-stop Los Angeles to New York flights. TWA transatlantic service started on February 6, 1946 with a New York-Paris flight in a Constellation.

airborne Connie

The Constellation series was the first pressurized-cabin civil airliner series to go into widespread use. Built between 1943 and 1958 at Burbank, California. Lockheed built 856 planes in numerous models—all with the same triple-tail design and dolphin-shaped fuselage. Its pressurized cabin enabled large numbers of commercial passengers to fly well above most bad weather for the first time, thus significantly improving the general safety and ease of air travel. During WW II, Constellations were used as troop transports. Later three Constellations served as the presidential aircraft for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

This “air hostess” is in front of a Connie–can you see the unique three fins behind her head? Note the unusual cutout TWA logo on the shoulder of her uniform. This understated, tailored uniform is my favorite! More about this cutout style later.

For almost 22 years the Connie served as the backbone of TWA’s long haul aircraft fleet! A grand total of 156 different Constellations were used, making TWA the largest civilian user ever! TWA’s last passenger flight in the Constellation took place April 1967. For long range operations, the Super G (1954) model of the Constellation could be fitted with extra wingtip tanks increasing the fuel capacity by two-thirds more than the original “Connie” models. The Super G was a popular choice among the airlines with 42 being flown by domestic carriers and 59 by foreign airlines.

TWA Constellation: note the wing tips of the Super G model are equipped with the extra fuel tanks for long haul flights. Quite a picture!

TWA Constellation ad probably late 1940s

My Connie flying time was limited
to our trainee “observation flight” taken in April, 1969. We trainees boarded our “observation flight”, taking off from the downtown airport and circling around the skyline of the city and then the fields of Missouri. Luckily no one became air sick! Unfortunately, we were never had the opportunity to be trained on the safety features of the Constellation.

The three aircraft I do know intimately are the Douglas DC 9, the Boeing 707 and the Boeing 727 and the stretch 727. Those tiny galleys, flimsy jump seats for us, and the long narrow aisles feel like a second home. TWA awarded each flight attendant a “million mile” pin to wear with our uniforms after three years of flying. By 1985, I’d flown at least five million miles, primarily on these three aircraft.

My flying partners, the designation we used to describe our flight attendant co-workers, were generally strong, assertive women. We had to be ready to adapt to emergencies, large and small. Dealing with harried travelers is not an easy job. Our expected flight schedules were often interrupted by “non-routine” events caused by weather, crew shortages, or poor planning on TWA’s part.

1968 TWA flight attendant ad

Yet our employer continued to portray us as “flighty girls” as in this ad! In my eyes, this ad is disrespectful of all the capable women who worked as flight attendants wearing the proscribed uniforms demanded by TWA. Now, it seemed, the PR department had decided to switch to a “girlish” image. Both were images manufactured by the corporation to serve their purposes.

This is the interior of a Constellation portrayed in an ad by Lockheed, circa 1950

I liked working with women in an atmosphere of camaraderie! I liked being able to set my own work schedule! After TWA published their monthly schedule, we would bid according to seniority, on which group of monthly flights we would prefer. We could even chose to “buddy bid” with a friend to work that month on the same group of flights together.

The Connie’s demise came only with the arrival of the Boeing 707 and the Jet Age. I began my career at the dawn of that jet age. The era of the propliner (large, propeller-driven airliners) was going the way of the ocean liner for overseas travel. By 1959 Boeing 707s cut travel time in half and piston-powered airliners quickly became obsolete. Lockheed returned to the drawing board, while Boeing aircraft reigned for a awhile. Remember, too, that the other “Queen of the Skies”, Amelia Earhart, chose the Lockheed “Electra” as her reliable flying partner in all her adventures. Lockheed built the Constellation to fly longer distance than any other aircraft of the era. The distinctive profile of the Constellation remains a legend.

Ask you relatives and friends for stories of their memories or experiences of the Constellation. Then share them with me and I will post them here.

Many thanks to all the volunteers who operate the TWA Museum website for providing much of the rich history I’ve described!
You can visit the TWA Museum in Kansas City MO.
Former employees of TWA, including a number of women I flew with, have created this non-profit museum. The TWA museum occupies the building at 10 Richards Road at the downtown airport–this was TWA’s 1931 headquarters. No longer an upscale headquarters building in 1968, this address was the same spot where I had my “special interview” in the fall of 1968.
Check the website: http://www.twamuseum.com/
“The mission of the TWA Museum is to provide information to the public emphasizing the story, history and importance of the major role TWA played in pioneering commercial aviation. From the birth of airmail to the inception of passenger air travel, to the post-WW II era of global route expansion, TWA led the way for 75 years.”

Search the wide variety of TWA aircraft–now you can find the Constellation, right? Hint, look for the three upright fins on the tail.

Note the extra fuel tanks on the wing tip of this Super Constellation

For further viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyaMTQ2ytWo
Enjoy this less than 2 minute historic trailer made when a Constellation broke new speed records flying coast to coast in 1944. With WW II the Constellations are pressed into service by the US government. After the war, TWA bought a fleet of Connies!

Invest 10 minutes in the video/story of a rescued Connie: https://youtu.be/xRwSKmFoFa8“>

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3 Responses to Lockheed Constellation: Queen of the Skies

  1. Therese Ramsey says:

    Your knowledge of the different kinds of aircraft is fascinating to me. The portrayal of girly flight attendants is so disrespectful for women who were trained to take care of all the passengers in flight and especially in emergencies. Was that supposed to make people want to fly more because it would be so much more fun?!
    I enjoyed reading about your work schedule and getting to fly with a flight buddy. Can’t wait to read more?

    • Paula says:

      I’ve learned a lot in my research for these articles. I did not realize how prevalent turbulent weather was in the low-flying unpressurized cabins. Airplanes are pressurized because the air is very thin at the altitude they fly making breathing difficult. One account I read was that of a flight attendant explaining that the pilots had an oxygen tank in the flight deck to use to aid their own breathing on DC-3s when flying at higher altitudes than usual. Sometimes a pilot would allow flight attendants to breathe some of that oxygen too.

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