S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe

Lockheed Constellation and TWA

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THE LOCKHEED CONSTELLATION, THE AIRLINER THAT SAVED AN AIRLINE….Or at least that was the plan

The Constellation has been referred to as the epitome of piston liners. A fast high flying beauty distinguished from ordinary aircraft by its sensuous curved fuselage, long legs, and superb streamlining. When first introduced to the public in 1944 the airliner electrified the flying industry with its good looks, long range, speed and comfort.  Its creators were themselves high flying colorful characters. TWA president Jack Frye, an aviation pioneer who set transcontinental speed records flying mail in the thirties and maverick movie producer- multimillionaire and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes (the Aviator).

FLYING ON EMPTY.

twa500 In a career that ranged from stunt pilot and mechanic to airline president Jack Frye built TWA into one of the nation’s major airlines. However, in the mid 1930’s  the  bottom fell out of the airline business, and in the cut throat competition that followed TWA lost ground to competitors American and United airlines with their better route systems.

Frye, a burly 6’3 Texan, with a reputation for thinking big, planned to win back passengers by investing in new aircraft including the development of the future Constellation. In its final design form,  his new airliner incorporated the speed of a fighter plane, the comfortable ride of a Pullman car and enough range to fly non- stop coast to coast. Passengers could cross the country in seven hours as opposed to fifteen hour hop and refueling stops of the  the competition’s slower DC 3’s

American Airline's DC 3 Artist: © Simon Glancey Source: Wings, Wheels and Rail Gallery

American Airline’s DC 3 Artist: © Simon Glancey
Source: Wings, Wheels and Rail Gallery

A pressurized cabin was they key to flying comfort, without it planes were limited to a ceiling of 12,500  feet where the weather was more active. Frye  knew all about pressurization. Equipped With a bottle of Oxygen and his Texas bravado he explored the stratosphere in search of better flying conditions (see sidebar).  He found them, along with the jet stream above 25,000 feet where the ride was smooth and fast. The new airliner, with a pressurized cabin, would fly at  20,000 plus feet ‘above the weather’ leaving  the the competition’s un-pressurized DC 3’s,  bouncing around in the lower ‘air sick zone’.

 

Jack Frye 'The Flying President' could out fly most of TWA's skilled crews. photo courtesy of http://sedonalegendhelenfrye.com/1932.html

Jack Frye ‘The Flying President’ could out fly most of TWA’s skilled crews. photo courtesy of
http://sedonalegendhelenfrye.com/1932.html

With speed, range and comfort, the new Constellation would turn TWA into a formidable competitor; and with exclusive rights to production his competitors could only watch as passengers flocked to a airliner they could only dream of owning.

All he needed was money and a leap of faith on the part of the TWA Board of Directors. He received neither from a conservative myopic board unwilling to bet the farm on a conceptual, expensive air plane. Frye was loosing his dream airliner and control of TWA. 

THE GAMBLER

By Acme Newspictures Howard Hughes 1938 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Acme Newspictures Howard Hughes 1938 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 The battle to build the Constellation was far from over. The beleaguered president circumvented the board in search of an investor willing to place a high risk bet with the potential of a big payoff. He found it in Howard Hughes, aviation enthusiast and eccentric millionaire with the instincts of a riverboat gambler and a bottomless pit of money to play with.

At first, Frye proposed selling a few of TWA’s routes. Hughes wanted more.‘Why don’t I just buy TWA” countered Hughes. “We never thought of that,” answered Frye . “TWA would cost a lot of money.” “I’ve got the money” replied Hughes. (Troubled Skies TA Heppenheimer p 111)

Frye, Hughes and the TWA technical team wasted no time developing the new  plane’s specifications. Working with Hughes took some adjustment – he did not fit the typical owner’s mold.  When Frye’s assistant in technical affairs, Tommy Tomlinson first met the new owner he couldn’t believe his eyes. Hughes looked like a tramp with long hair and dirty fingernails. However he did know what he was talking about and asked the right questions. “Do I really have to put up with this guy?’ Tomlinson asked Frye. “Tommy, he owns the airline” replies Frye. [1]

From the 'Aviator' Jack Frye discusses the Constellation project with Howard Hughes

From the ‘Aviator’ Jack Frye discusses the Constellation project with Howard Hughes (left) Miramax Films

Hughes loved everything about airplanes and engines.  A brilliant inquirer he had no background in aeronautical engineering yet his inquisitive mind turned out ideas that were fresh and often inspired. Both Hughes and Frye loved to fly and were accomplished pilots although their flight deck manners were distinctively different. Hughes flew barefoot “to get a better feel of the plane’; Frye flew chomping on one of his trademark cigars. What they had in common were creative minds uncluttered by fear and the conventional.

CREATING THE STAR OF THE SKIES.

In 1939, the Hughes/Frye team met with top brass of the Lockheed Corporation—president Robert Gross, chief engineer Hall Hibbard, and chief research engineer Kelly Johnson.

The TWA job had a potential order of 40 planes and was their ticket into the major leagues of aircraft builders as described by Hibbard. “Up to that time we were sort of ‘small-time guys,’ but when we got to the Constellation we had to be ‘big time guys’ … We had to be right and we had to be good.” [3]

They broke the mold of traditional aircraft design. The

Lockheed Corporation Constellation model 049

Lockheed Corporation Constellation model 049

Constellation stood tall when compared to other aircraft, the height gave the unusually long props sufficient ground clearance. The triple tail provided additional stability and was placed high enough to clear the prop wash. From the tail, the fuselage sloped downward in a graceful curvature. The plane’s large propellers required long landing gears for safe clearance. To keep the forward gear from being to long, Kelly Johnson gave the fuselage a slight downward curvature. For speed, the Lockheed engineers attached a pair of wings modeled after the twin-engine  P-38 fighter.

Not only did it look good but it was technically a revolutionary plane. The Constellation included the first hydraulically boosted power controls, aviation’s equivalent of power steering. At a max speed of 350 mph It was faster than most World War II fighters. Finally, it would feature a pressurized cabin for 44 passengers flying above 90 percent of weather disturbances. [4]

Hughes was sold and ready to place his bet. How much? ‘I’d say four hundred and fifty thousand a piece” dammedreplied Gross.

“TWA can’t pay for them” drawled Hughes,damnedairline is broke. We can’t take it to the banks, Hell; I guess I’ll have to pay for them myself. Go ahead and build ‘em Bob. Send the bill to Hughes Tool Company.”

The contract came with a major stipulation, secrecy, The first 35 planes were reserved for TWA which gave the airline exclusive two years use of the fastest, most comfortable transport available.  To protect his investment Hughes insisted on complete secrecy some of which bordered on the absurd such as park bench meetings, and strange code names i.e. ‘god’ for Hughes and ‘Jesus Christ’ for Frye.

If all went well Hughes and Frye held the wining hand, the ‘ secret weapon’ would be airborne by 1941 leaving the competition’s DC 3’s in the Connie’s prop wash for two years, enough time for TWA to regain lost passengers and then some.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Things did not go well. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all bets were off. The Army Air Force started drafting Constellations right off the assembly line and TWA’s ‘secret weapon’ suddenly became public knowledge. Pictures appeared in the leading newspapers electrifying the industry. Instead the new Army the new Constellation were flying for the military and what was left of that winning hand would have to wait for war’s end. By the time competition resumed, in 1946, Douglas would be ready with a new improved DC 4.

SHOWTIME

 

Howard Hughes on the Flight deck TWA Constellation (from the L Driscoll collection)

Howard Hughes on the Flight deck TWA Constellation (from the L Driscoll collection)

Hughes was not about to let his new plane slip into olive drab Army oblivion.  The ‘Connie’ was no ordinary airplane and Hughes orchestrated a PR coup to it show off. He made plans with the Army to deliver one of their olive drab colored new planes from California to Washington D.C.  leaving out a couple of key points. First came the rebranding, the olive drab Army colors were stripped off, replaced by TWA markings in red and black. Next Hughes turned the routine delivery flight into a media event with a record breaking cross country flight that pushed the new plane to the limit. Finally, before turning the keys over to the Army Air Corp, Hughes arranged VIP demo flights, much to the annoyance of Army brass.

Inaugural stamo

Inaugural flight mail with Hughes and Frye signatures

Frye and Hughes split the captain’s duties exchanging pilot copilot seats half way across the country. On April 17, 1944, Hughes landed  in Washington, the time; a record breaking six hours, 57 minutes, and 51 seconds. The flight made front page news, with the New York Times calling it an outline of the ship of things to come in air transportation.

THE REST OF THE STORY

  • 3_o_1Renamed C -69 the Army inherited an airliner not quite ready for prime time. Engine problems and 486 different modifications curtailed production. At one point, the problem was so numerous that the Army directed that the plane not be flown outside the United States until they were convinced of their safety.
  • 5004_1The war gave the competition time to catch up. A new improved Douglas DC 4 was in the works, with a speed of 280 mph, a stretchered fuselage and improved range; finally a pressurized cabin completed the catch up. An even better DC 6 was in the works.
  • thjc7lpwe2TWA took delivery of 10 Constellation in Late 1945 and immediately began stealing the show. Pouring on the power Jack Frye crossed the country at close to top speed reaching La Guardia  friends and piloted a similar flight. Passengers loved the plane’s good looks as compared to the tube/pickle shape of a DC 4 and 6 or the blunt nose and chubby fuselage of the Boeing Stratocruiser
  • TWA no longer had a route problem. The company picked up lucrative international routes. The ‘Constellation advantage ‘allowed TWA to displace Pan Am as the dominant carrier on the north Atlantic routes. Paris flights started in February 1946.13630 Fast for its day the Constellation took it 15 to 16 hours for those pioneering flights to Paris with refueling stops in Gander Newfoundland and Shannon Ireland. None of it deterred passengers who were willing to pay $711 for a round trip ticket ($9,240 in 2016 $) and with traffic jumping at 15 % a year TWA’s no longer had a route problem, it had a Hughes problem.
  • Jack Frye had his share of problems including a pilot’s strike that nearly drove the airline to extinction, the temporary grounding of the Constellation fleet, a post war recession and the startup cost of international routes. Hughes fired Frye in 1947
  • thx2bozvx8As for the Constellation, it and Lockheed thrived. The Constellation became the favorite of international airlines and the military. New super versions were introduced extending capacity, speed and distance. The last Lockheed Constellation was delivered in 1959. Of the 856 built few remain airworthy today.
  • c Courtesy of panair_canal_piloto

    c Courtesy of panair_canal_piloto

    Over time, the Connie stature as one of the most graceful aircraft of all time intensified as evidenced by the number of Connie’s found in aviation museums from Kansas City to Brazil and Europe.

 

CLICK ON PIC FOR SLIDE SHOW

TWA served as an outlet for Hughes love of the air and Hollywood glamour. Captains at TWA flew in uniform, the owner flew in a loose shirt, fedora, and occasionally without shoes, a unique Hughes style described as described as an ‘eccentric panache’. In this picture Hughes is in the captain’s seat with Joseph Bartles as copilot. The date is February 15, 1946 and the flight is the domestic inaugural in the Star of California between Los Angeles and New York. On board are Hughes’s friends; Cary Grant, Edward G Robinson, Walter Pidgeon and 33 assorted movie stars. Howard made sure the press noted the 8 hour and 38 minute flying time compare to the 14 to 14 hours required on a United or American Airlines DC 4. His publicity stunts helped propel TWA and the Constellation into a position of leadership. UNLV Libraries

TWA served as an outlet for Hughes love of the air and Hollywood glamour. Captains at TWA flew in uniform, the owner flew in a loose shirt, fedora, and occasionally without shoes, a unique Hughes style described as an ‘eccentric panache’.
In this picture Hughes is in the captain’s seat with Joseph Bartles as copilot. The date is February 15, 1946 and the flight is the domestic inaugural in the Star of California between Los Angeles and New York. On board are Hughes’s friends; Cary Grant, Edward G Robinson, Walter Pidgeon and 33 assorted movie stars. Howard made sure the press noted the 8 hour and 38 minute flying time compare to the 14 to 14 hours required on a United or American Airlines DC 4. His publicity stunts helped propel TWA and the Constellation into a position of leadership.
UNLV Libraries.

 

 

Bibliography

[1] Robert Sterling, an informal history of TWA

[2] http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/100years/stories/constellation.html

[3] Lockheed Martin web site

[4] Lockheed  Martin web site

[1] http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/100years/stories/constellation.html

[2] Lockheed Martin web site

[3] Lockheed  Martin web site

 

 

 

 

 

 

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