When you board a commercial airliner today, you know you’re riding aboard an advanced piece of machinery that keeps you safe and comfortable as it lifts you miles above ground level. Back in the earlier decades of aviation, planes weren’t pressurized and couldn’t fly high enough to avoid storms. A lot of what some travelers take for granted today can be traced back to the Lockheed Constellation. Back in the 1940s, this majestic aircraft was among the first to provide pressurized, high-altitude travel, allowing for coast-to-coast transport. Today, just two of them remain airworthy in the world. I got to see one — Lockheed VC-121A Constellation “Bataan” – and my mind is still blown.
Last month, I scratched another item off of my bucket list when I spent almost a whole week at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023. This event was another record year for the Experimental Aircraft Association with 677,000 attendees, over 10,000 planes, and so many campers that many of us had to sleep in unmarked fields. To say it was epic was an understatement, and not even grueling heat stopped the fun. This year’s headlining aircraft were rare birds, with at least one plane being the very last of its kind that’s still flying.
One aircraft that I was super excited to see was this Lockheed VC-121A Constellation Bataan, and engine troubles meant that it missed out on most of the show, though it appeared just in time to leave the event a couple of days later. I’m glad I caught Bataan, because this is an aircraft that, when seen in person, can nearly take your breath away.
Flying Used To Be Really Rough
The Lockheed Constellation is sometimes called the first pressurized airliner, but that distinction goes to the Model 307 Stratoliner, which took its first flight in 1938 and went into service in 1940.
In the early decades of commercial aviation, pilots flying passengers to their destinations couldn’t cruise high enough to avoid bad weather. Passengers in unpressurized cabins were subject to turbulent, sickening rides, and sometimes routes would be blocked by storms in mountain ranges. As the Smithsonian Magazine writes, early airliners didn’t have flight attendants at first, but rather nurses, and they were there to care for the frequently ill passengers as aircraft rattled about under the clouds. If that wasn’t bad enough, when an aircraft had to climb to clear a mountain, those nurses had to give passengers oxygen bottles.
High-altitude testing had revealed that not only was it possible to fly above the bad weather, but the ride was better up there, too. The question was how to apply it to passenger service. The answer came in the late 1930s when Congress threatened to cancel the contracts for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Transcontinental & Western Air (later Trans World Airlines, or TWA) had already been experimenting with high-altitude flying and Boeing was able to convince TWA and Pan American Airways to convert the aforementioned bomber into a pressurized airliner. The new Model 307 would adopt the wings and tail from the bomber and safety from four engines.
Just 10 Model 307 Stratoliners were built but when those airliners went into World War II, they returned with their pressurization systems disabled. Still, Boeing proved it could work.
A Commercial Aviation Trailblazer
Before the Boeing first took flight, Lockheed was doing its own testing. In 1937, the experimental Lockheed XC-35 became the first pressurized American aircraft and it had the performance to fly 30,000 feet while maintaining a cabin altitude of 12,000 feet.
The course of commercial aviation would change one day in 1939. In the late 1930s, Lockheed was already developing a four-engine airliner, the Lockheed Model 44 Excalibur, but as Aviation History magazine writes, airlines weren’t really interested. Lockheed wasn’t a major player in airliners and the Excalibur was too small, too slow, and not that advanced. Douglas already ate Lockheed’s lunch in the past with its DC-3, an aircraft so iconic today that many are still in service.
Lockheed later began development of the Model 49 Excalibur A, which would later be called the L-049 Constellation. This development featured a fuselage that resembled a fish-like body, scaled-up versions of P-38 Lightning fighter wings, and power from four Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone supercharged radials.
Lockheed played around with ideas like a cooling system that took air scooped in from the leading edges of the wings and pushed it through an engine’s rear to its front. The manufacturer even proposed a design utilizing canards. Eventually, it appeared that even this more radical plane would go nowhere. Air travel was down, war was looming, and even Lockheed’s biggest competitor was canceling its quad-engine airliner project.
Then, the fresh new owner of Transcontinental & Western Air and owner of a 307 Stratoliner approached Lockheed with ideas of his own. From today’s Lockheed Martin:
In 1939, the top brass of the Lockheed Corporation—president Robert Gross, chief engineer Hall Hibbard, and chief research engineer Kelly Johnson—scheduled a key meeting with a VIP, a man with deep pockets who had recently shown an interest in buying not just one or a handful of new planes but a fleet of them. The customer’s request had been ambitious. He hoped to hire Lockheed to design a revolutionary aircraft capable of comfortably shuttling 20 passengers and 6,000 pounds of cargo across the United States, offering commercial aviation’s first coast-to-coast, non-stop service.
But the Lockheed team had come to express even grander ambitions. They wanted to build the company’s first large transport, one that “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,” said Johnson.
In the years to come, the plane would be named the Constellation—Connie for short—and be flown by airlines around the world, as well as the U.S. military over the ensuing three decades. Eventually, it would be remembered as an enduring symbol, the epitome of grace in propeller-driven aircraft. But at that moment in 1939 in Los Angeles, the Lockheed Corporation was focused on winning over one customer and one customer only. His name was Howard Hughes.
Hughes saw the developing airliner as his vehicle to take market share from his competitors. From that point forward, the Constellation’s development would be done in secret. Hughes demanded the aircraft’s development be hidden from the public eye while also securing a deal that granted exclusivity to T&WA until at least 35 aircraft of his order of 40 were delivered. By that time, TWA would have a two-year head start on United and American with the best airliner in the sky. This reportedly angered American Airlines brass enough that the airline promised to never buy another Lockheed product, a commitment American wouldn’t keep.
The Constellation’s maturation created one of the most advanced aircraft of its day. “Connies” benefited from a 313 mph cruise speed, hydraulic-boosted controls, a 2,850-mile range, reversible pitch propellers, electric de-icing, and of course, pressurization. Combine that with 8,800 horsepower thanks to those mighty 18-cylinder radials and Lockheed had created something incredible.
Allegedly, when Hughes saw a mockup of the aircraft’s cabin, he was displeased and hired famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to design the interior.
No Longer A Secret
As America geared up for World War II, the secrecy of the development program was broken, and Lockheed announced the aircraft’s existence. Pan American’s Juan Trippe took advantage of this and placed an order for 40 aircraft for his airline. Lockheed now had orders for 80 aircraft. However, following the attack on Pearl Harbor the Army Air Forces took over Lockheed’s assembly lines and the development of the Constellation. Now designated the C-69, the 80 Constellations originally destined for airline use were requisitioned by the military. The first XC-69 prototype rolled out in December 1942 and took its first flight in January 1943.
One famous story during the C-69’s development involved Howard Hughes borrowing the second C-69 prototype in April 1944. He had the aircraft repainted in TWA colors then flew the Constellation from Burbank, California, to over Washington National in just six hours and 58 minutes, setting a new transcontinental speed record.
On the way back to Burbank, Hughes landed the plane at Wright Field, picking up Orville Wright for the latter’s last-ever flight. It was just over four decades since Wright made the famed flight in the Wright Flyer in 1903, now here he was in the right seat of a transport capable of outrunning some fighters with pressurization and an impressive 8,800 horses on tap. It was a flight that demonstrated how far technology advanced in 41 years.
Unfortunately for the military, the R-3350 engines were difficult to keep alive and were apparently prone to igniting. The C-69s would end up grounded as development continued. Setbacks eventually led to the Army Air Forces favoring the Douglas C-54 Skymaster and abandoning the C-69. In the end, just 22 C-69s would be built for the war effort, and of those, only 13 were delivered. Despite the Constellation being a powerhouse, the Douglas C-54 proved to be reliable and inexpensive, attributes the military tends to be pretty fond of.
After the war, TWA scooped up all of the C-69s it could get from the government, but ironically, it was one of the airline’s competitors to put the Constellation into revenue service first. On February 5, 1946, Pan Am flew a Constellation from New York to Bermuda and right into the history books. TWA, which was supposed to be the original launch customer and the only customer for 35 units, made its first Constellation flight between New York and Paris three days after Pan Am.
As Aviation History magazine notes, the airlines actually got a pretty good deal on these aircraft. Depending on the configuration, a Constellation ran between $685,000 and $720,000, or between $11,505,403 and $12,093,270 in today’s money. Back then, the airlines were able to score surplus Constellations for between $20,000 and $40,000 ($335,924 to $671,848 today).
Today, the Constellation is credited with launching a revolution of more comfortable, faster, and safer air travel. Indeed, Boeing and even Junkers beat Lockheed to pressurization, but as noted before, the handful of Model 307s didn’t get to keep their pressurization systems. That meant for a while, if you didn’t want to puke your guts out on a flight, your only choice was flying in a Connie.
That said, the aircraft weren’t without their problems. The early pressurization system had a couple of failures. One caused a navigator to be blown out of an ejected astrodome and another failure caused an Air France passenger to get blown out of a window. One poor lady got stuck to a Connie’s toilet when the pressurization system failed between the throne and the unpressurized holding tank. From the reporting I’ve read, her butt was more or less the seal keeping the pressurization working.
The Constellation even found great success in the military, from Lockheed Martin:
While only 13 Constellations were built during World War II—Lockheed would be asked, instead, to focus on the P-38—the Army, Air Force, and Navy had recognized the plane’s versatility. By 1948, the Navy was calling in orders for Connies to act as long-range patrol aircraft , nicknamed Po-Boys from the PO-1 designation then in use. In time, Constellations would be used for everything from rescue missions and VIP transports to airborne early warning missions and the mapping of the earth’s magnetic field.
Its area of distinction, however, was clearly airborne command and control and early warning. During the Vietnam War, Connies were flown in elliptical orbit near enemy territory to collect and transmit information on air activity. Constellations were also the first planes to carry rotating radomes, saucer-shaped domes used to protect radar antennas, a technology that is still in use with modern aircraft controlling the skies over the Middle East and with US Customs and Border Protection P-3s running drug interception missions in the Caribbean today.
President Eisenhower was a big fan of the Connie, and his personal presidential plane, the only VC-121E built, was the first to bear the now-recognized moniker “Air Force One” when the president was onboard. All told, the U.S. military bought nearly 40 percent of all the Constellations ever manufactured, using them over nearly three decades, with aircraft serving well into the 1970s.
There would also be some infamous Connie flights. On June 18, 1947, Pan Am Flight 121 departed Karachi, Pakistan bound for Istanbul, Turkey. The aircraft was Lockheed L-049 Constellation Clipper Eclipse. During the flight, one engine suffered a failure, resulting in the remaining three engines getting overworked until they overheated. One of the overheated engines caught fire. The fire damage spread to the aircraft itself, causing the engine to fall and the crew’s inability to maintain altitude. Clipper Eclipse crashed in the Syrian desert, killing 7 crew and 8 passengers. Among the survivors were Captain, Joseph Hart, First Officer Robert McCoy, and Third Officer Gene Roddenberry. Yes, that’s the same Gene Roddenberry who would go on to create Star Trek and name a number of starships Constellation before eventually destroying them.
Despite its faults, the Lockheed Constellation remained popular. The aircraft was developed into an impressively long list of different variants. The L-049 was the original Constellation and it was followed up by the L-649, which featured R-3350 radials making 2,500 HP each. Then came the L-749, which had larger fuel tanks allowing for a 2,600-mile range at maximum payload or 4,995 miles with a maximum fuel load. The L-749 allowed for true coast-to-coast flights. Those are just a few of the aircraft’s many variations.
The Super Constellation
That brings us to the Super Constellation. In 1950, Lockheed purchased the XC-69 Constellation prototype from Hughes Tool Company. Lockheed had long planned on larger versions of the Constellation, but now the company was going to make it a reality.
The XC-69 was stretched by 18 feet and Lockheed added other improvements to the airframe as well. Now called the L-1049 Super Constellation, Lockheed added some 550 improvements including air-conditioning, larger fuel capacity, rectangular windows, larger windshields, as well as improvements to the pressurization and heating systems.
Originally, the XC-69 had a quartet of Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials, which made 2,100 HP each, but these were underpowered. The new aircraft was fitted with R-3350 radials with jet stacks for an extra boost of thrust. Later, Lockheed would take advantage of the Wright R-3350 Turbo Compound radial engine.
Now, these engines are something neat all by themselves. They used a turbine system called Power Recovery Turbines (PRT). In this system, exhaust gases flowed through three turbines which were geared directly through a fluid coupling to the crankshaft. As a result, the engines punched out 3,400 HP each. A side effect of the PRT system was that the engines shot out visible flames, best viewable at night, requiring armor plating.
Before, the Constellation carried at most 81 passengers, but thanks to the stretch, the aircraft could now carry up to 106. Other improvements included strengthened wings and landing gear as well as better soundproofing.
Of the 856 Constellations built between 1943 and 1958, 259 were Super Constellations built for airlines. The military had 320 Super Constellations of its own. And like the Constellation, the Super Constellation had its own huge list of variations. The L-1049C cruised at 304 mph and had a range of up to 5,150 miles. Meanwhile, the final Constellation would be the L-1649, which was powered by the aforementioned 3,400 HP radials, cruised at a slower 290 mph, but boasted an incredible range of up to 6,180 miles, which allowed for non-stop flights between California and Europe.
The Constellation that landed at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2023 is one of two remaining airworthy Connies in the whole world. Before this aircraft was restored, the final two planes were the Breitling Super Constellation and a Super Constellation preserved by the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) in Australia. Breitling retired its Super Constellation, leaving HARS with the only operational Constellation of any kind in the world. Then Bataan was revived, bringing the count back up to two.
Bataan, a C-121A, was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in January 1949 for use in the Military Air Transport Service. As Planes of Fame Air Museum, the aircraft’s previous caretaker, explains, these planes had a pretty big job:
In 1948, the U.S. Air Force ordered from Lockheed ten Model L-749 Constellations and designated them C-121As. The type had a strengthened floor and a large cargo door fitted to the aft fuselage, but could also be fitted with a removable 44-seat passenger cabin, or house 20 stretchers for medical evacuation missions. The ten aircraft (AF serial #s 48-0608 through 0617) were delivered between December 1948 and the first part of 1949 and were based at Westover AFB as part of the Atlantic Division of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).
Within a short time, eight of the aircraft, including Bataan, were involved in the Berlin Airlift, making almost continuous Atlantic crossings delivering cargo to England or Frankfurt, Germany, for onward transport. Their long range was a big factor; the eight flew over 5 million miles during the Airlift.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Airlift, the C-121s were withdrawn from service and flown to Lockheed for conversion to high-speed VIP transports for the U.S. Air Force. The cargo interiors were removed, extra windows were added, and weather radar was fitted to the nose, resulting in the familiar, more pointed nose. The C-121A was the first type in USAF service to be fitted with weather radar. After conversion, the aircraft were assigned to various VIPs. Number 613 became the personal aircraft of General Douglas MacArthur and was used by him during his time as Supreme Commander Allied Powers during the Korean War. He named the aircraft Bataan after a peninsula in the Philippines. Bataan was the last stronghold of MacArthur’s American forces defending the islands against the Japanese in 1942.
Bataan was involved in missions such as General MacArthur’s meeting with President Truman on Wake Island as well as 17 missions during the Korean War. General MacArthur even flew back to San Francisco aboard the Bataan after he was fired by President Truman. In its later roles, Bataan served General Ridgeway and General Clark and would eventually get based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawai’i. In 1966, Bataan joined other C-121As at the boneyard in Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona.
Thankfully, Bataan wouldn’t stay there forever and it was rescued by NASA for the Apollo program, from Planes of Fame:
Re-designated as NASA 422, the airplane was refitted with banks of sophisticated computers, tracking equipment, and communications gear used to calibrate the many air and ground based tracking and communications relay stations around the globe used to keep in constant contact with orbiting spacecraft. In order to fulfill this mission, the aircraft was flown over the Caribbean and Pacific. With the cancellation of the Apollo program in 1970, #422 was sent to the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, AL, for public display.
Bataan’s life since then has been a sedentary one. The Planes of Fame Air Museum acquired the plane, restored it, then Bataan went on display at the museum’s Valle Airport Arizona location from 1995 to 2016. The Air Legends Foundation of San Antonio, Texas acquired the aircraft in 2016 and sent it to Chino, California, to be fully restored by Fighter Rebuilders. In June 2023, the aircraft made its first post-restoration flight.
Bataan was supposed to be at AirVenture on opening day on July 24, but engine troubles left the plane parked just 24 minutes (flying time) away. The aircraft missed most of the show, but the crew was able to get Bataan in on Thursday.
A Majestic Aircraft
I didn’t get to catch the plane’s arrival, but I did catch it during sunset. Words cannot quite describe the feeling of standing in the presence of an aircraft like this. Its fuselage glistened in the setting sun and its profile stood out among the military aircraft in Boeing Plaza that night. Bataan didn’t stick around for too long; it departed AirVenture on Saturday afternoon. To me, that departure was the best one of the year for sure and even better than the airshow that came minutes after Bataan lifted off of the ground.
It’s not often you get to stand under something that is among the last of its kind. Bataan has been all over the world and taken part in major world events. It, along with the Super Constellation preserved by HARS, are 74-year-old examples of living history. If these planes could talk, they would prattle on for years about everything they’ve been through.
I think that’s part of what makes shows like EAA AirVenture really special. These aircraft aren’t just museum pieces, but they’re still running, still flying, and still making crowds go wow. That’s not something you get from looking at a long-dormant vehicle in a museum. These aircraft are also a testament to their caretakers, who have the power, passion, skill, and funding to keep old birds like these still flying.
Bataan’s arrival at AirVenture this year was the first Connie of any kind to land at Wittman since the mid-2000s. Hopefully, this old bird can stay in the sky and continue to wow and inspire people–like yours truly–for years to come.
(Photos: Author, unless otherwise noted)
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