The Star of America seen at the Kansas City Downtown Airport preparing for engine runs. Photo: JL Johnson

The Star of America, seen at the Kansas City Downtown Airport preparing for engine runs – Photo: JL Johnson

This is the story of a Connie that no one wanted, a plane that was abandoned and mothballed numerous times throughout its history. While it has had a generally-tragic existence, with just a few bright spots sprinkled in, this is an adventure that continues to unfold. In fact, in 2014, this plane will begin a new chapter as it again returns to the skies.

In 1958, this Lockheed Constellation rolled off the assembly line in Burbank, California – destined straight for storage. It was the beginning of the jet age and suddenly airlines had little interest in these sleek, evolutionary, once record-setting birds. Indeed, even those like this 1049H model, which were built with the intent of easy conversion between freighter and passenger configurations, were a hard sell. The variant was canceled after just over 50 were built, this example being third from last. Prior to completion, the order for this plane was canceled, just the beginning of a tough existence for this elegant flying machine.

In September of 1959 after over a year in storage, it was converted to freighter, sold to Slick Airways, and assigned registration number N6937C (which it has carried ever since). For eleven years the plane ran freight with various carriers before being stored and later abandoned in Miami, FL. In June of 1971, it was seized by the airport for non-payment of fees. After being auctioned off it spent the next four years doing odd jobs, hauling military parts and even horses. Its last commercial use was as a sprayer in Mesa, Arizona, where it was equipped with chemical tanks and large spray booms.

The Constellation sports a triple tail, this was an engineering trick to keep the tail short so it could fit in existing hangars. Photo: JL Johnson

The Constellation sports a triple tail; this was an engineering trick to keep the tail short so it could fit in existing hangars.           Photo: JL Johnson

By 1975, at just age 15 the plane was stored in Mesa, Arizona, never to see commercial service again. The next five years brought hope, however. By this time, most Connies had been recycled and their scarcity attracted the attention of museums. One such museum, the Science Museum of London, England showed interest but a deal couldn’t be reached.

In 1985, a pilot and businessman by the name of Paul Pristo attended a Globe Air Auction in Mesa, where this plane was again on the block. According to National Airline History Museum records, bidding started at $35,000 and went all the way down to $5,000 before the auctioneer finally solicited an offer. Mr. Pristo offered a bid of $4,000 just to get the auction started. There were no other bids that day and suddenly he found himself the owner of a dilapidated, antiquated Constellation.

In 1986 Larry Brown and Dick McMahon founded Save-a-Connie (SAC), a not-for-profit whose mission was to find and restore a Lockheed Constellation. Larry and Dick soon met Paul Pristo, who agreed to sell the plane to SAC if they could restore it to flying condition. For over two months, 15 mechanics put in 3,000 man-hours in the hot Arizona sun to get the bird airworthy for a ferry permit. On July 15, 1986 the Connie was ferried to the Downtown Kansas City Airport (MKC) where it resides today. Mr. Pristo was so impressed with the work and dedication of SAC and its members that he donated the plane and named it the “Star of America.”

At the time the Star of America was the only airworthy non-military Constellation variant in existence and was a popular request at airshows across the US. Over the years it continued to receive upgrades and major overhauls to include a new nose, a new interior, conversation from L1049H to L1049G models, and complimentary TWA livery from the Missouri-based carrier to commemorate the airline’s 75th anniversary. Finally, the plane had a stable owner, a purpose, and the admiration of hundreds of thousands of airshow attendees across the country. Then tragedy struck. On July 20, 2005, engine number two suffered a catastrophic failure which resulted in its grounding.

Engine number two has since been overhauled (twice) and today the plane is close to obtaining re-certification. The wing spar was inspected in 2012 and found to still be in flying condition. The staff of the National Airline History Museum (formally SAC) is working hard to have everything in place for the Star of America to return to the skies in early 2014 in preparation for an event they’ve dubbed “The Flight of the Connie” on April 17, 2014.

Photo: JL Johnson

Photo: JL Johnson

April 17, 2014 is of particular importance because this its the 70th anniversary of the first Constellation’s inaugural cross-country flight. This flight, piloted by Howard Hughes, set a world speed record while traveling from Burbank, California to Washington, DC in just under seven hours, half the time of other planes of the day. Aviation pioneer Orville Wright joined Howard Hughes and Jack Frye on the return flight, observing that the wingspan of the Constellation was longer than his first flight in the Wright Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft.

The Star of America has had a colorful and troublesome past, but its future looks incredibly bright.

SENIOR CORRESPONDENT - LEE'S SUMMIT, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: jl@airlinereporter.com

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25 Comments
Constant Reyerse

I have a particular fondness for the Connie, aside the fact that I too have this as my name. In 1959 was eight years old when my family moved from the Netherlands to America. We flew on KLM and the plane we flew on was a magnificent Constellation. I have loved this airplane ever since, even though I have flown in many other types all the way from Cessna to Bell UH 1 to Boeing CH 47, then just about every airliner in existence (except the Concorde). The Connie will always have a special place in my heart, I still remember sitting at the window seat looking at those engines blazing exhaust at night over the Atlantic in the middle of a storm, it was magnificent. I will remember this flight forever.

Constant, thanks for the story. I was a docent at the NAHM a few years back and it was incredible to hear so many stories like this. The Connie evokes a great deal of emotion and memories. 🙂

Lennon C.

Thank you for the wonderful article on the museum.

Glenn Wilmoth

I am a former TWA avionics mechanic. I remember installing DME and then later on Cockpit Voice Recorders in the Connies. I remember the gasoline heaters worked really well in the winter. I’m still in the airline industry working on flight simulators.

Chuck Rhine

Magnificent aircraft. I was a young boy of 10 flying out of Bangkok Thailand with my family on the way back to the United States via Manila the Philippines. My saw refugees walking across the tarmac with all they owned on their backs. I can never forget the juxtaposition of magnificence I was to experience with the stark sadness of what I saw out the window.

Jim Cochran

Wishing all the best on everything coming together in 2014 to put this beautiful Super Constellation back in the air!

I did notice the article states that April 15, 2014 is the 70th Anniversary of the record flight rather than the actual April 17, 2014 date.

Even if the recreated flight is a lot slower than the 1944 record flight and even if it’s not a non-stop flight it will be an amazing event. Looking forward to hearing about the return to flight of this classic airplane.

Hi Jim, thanks for the comment and catching that typo which I have corrected. I agree this will be an amazing event and look forward to covering it right here 🙂 we have such a great group of readers, thank you for being one!

Howard Leuthen

Back in the early 50s I was a new TWA employee. The air line at that time gave employees a rice on new aircraft entering their service. I got an unforgettable ride from Fairfax apat. to St. Joseph and back. The air craft was brand new.

Incredible! Inaugurals are great, but a plane’s first flight? Now that’s a memory. Thanks for reading, Howard!

WAUITHIER JACK A.

LORSQUE LE SUPER G TROUVA SA VOIE D ADOPTION .. DWIGHT EISENHOWER EN A EU DEUX D ATTRIBUES QU IL BAPTISA ”COLOMBINE ONE and COLOMBINE TWO .. LE GENERAL MAC ARTHUR EN EUT UN AUSSI QU IL BAPTISZA ” BATAAN ” pour TWA ce fut une grande marque de confiance a l epoque .
J ai connu cet appareil etant TWA TRANSPORTATION AGENT /Load control A ORLY
DEPUIS 1955.
(
WAUTHIER Jack.A realisateur du film TWA ” LES AILMES DE LA GLOIRE ”

Je suis reconnaissant pour Google Translate. Enfin, nous pouvons tous parler les uns aux autres avec une certaine compréhension. Oui, en fait, Eisenhower était le premier président à voler. Sa première fois, c’était sur ​​un gué tri-moteur pendant sa campagne présidentielle en 1933. Il semble qu’il aimait l’expérience car il a ordonné deux de ses propres avions une décennie plus tard! 🙂 Merci pour la lecture et pour le commentaire.

WAUITHIER JACK A.

POURQUOI UN TEXTE FRANCAIS SI MAL ELABORE DANS SON CONTEXTE ;;; et presque incomprehensible …

Fred Christiansen

I was 7 or 8 years old when my father took me to the airport in Madras, India (now Chennai). He was picking up a family who’d just flown in from the US. I remember being very impressed. We stayed long enough to watch it taxi out. When the engines started up, what a sound! And the flames that belched out as the engines started. Whew!

Colin Easton

I’m looking forward to seeing this plane flying around America.
My memories are of flying from Dayton, Ohio to Chicago, December 26 1966 on a TWA Connie……. my last piston engined commercial flight.

John Oldfield

My French is a little rusty but I’m pretty sure you have to go back to the Roosevelts to find “le premier président à voler”. There are photos of Teddy flying, although apparently not while in office.

“When President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to the Casablanca Conference in 1943 on board a commercial Boeing 314 Clipper Ship, he became the first U.S. president to fly while in office.” Later he had a purpose built C54 which he used once and was subsequently used by Truman.

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=566

The Connie was the first “official” Air Force one and the first aircraft to carry that designation when the President was aboard. The first Air Force One was a Connie Super G named the Columbine by President Eisenhower. President Eisenhower was the first President to fly regularly on the plane and believe it or not, it was big news in those days (50’s)that the President would fly from one destination to another. Some years later I had the privilage of being a Connie Crew Chief at Otis AFB in Massachusetts with the 551 AEW & Con. Wing. I was Crew Chief on aircraft # 552 which is now on display at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. 552 was an RC-121 and was never converted to the EC-121 configuration. One thing I’ll always remember about the Connie is that it was as beautiful on the ground as it was in the air. Truly, a magnificant flying machine.

Bob Kilian

Dad’s office for several years as a TW navigator. Many flights on the Super G in his logbook. A few under my belt too. A great airplane.

Miles W. Rich

Who writes this stuff? The above L-1049 was not 15 years old in 1975. The last Connies were built in 1958.

Hi Miles. Thanks for the comment. I wrote this. The age was indeed roughly 15. Keep in mind this was one of the last birds off the line and didn’t enter service until over a year in storage.

Rob Young

Nice article – thanks for writing it. Awesome plane! My first memory of flying was in a Connie back in the early 60’s: a USAF MATS aircraft – not sure if it was a 749 or a 1049. I remember the blue lights of the taxiways at night in our refueling stop in the Azores, and the flames exiting the exhaust pipes during takeoff. Awesome!

Bill Bowman

Great article on the old S.A.C. “Super G” Connie. It’s 2015 now, did they ever get it airborne again in 2014? Getting a ride on that “Super G” is very high on my “bucket list”, so if it starts touring again, I hope they continue to do the fam-rides for a charge. Can the TWA Connie be seen or toured through over in KCMO at the museum? Any contact information or “links”? Thanks!

Bill

Hi, Bill. Sorry to tell you the project was unable to secure requisite funding to proceed. The National Airline History Museum continues work on the Connie, but at a snail’s pace. Focus has since changed to restoring Douglas the DC-3 as it is closest to full completion. Less time, less capital to get that job done. The intent is to get the DC-3 in the air, return to the airshow circuit and continue to raise awareness (and funding) to get the Connie back up shortly thereafter. You can follow the projects on airlinehistory.org or @airlinehistory on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

JL Johnson | AirlineReporter and SM contributor for the National Airline History Museum

it looks like the star of America will become a bar for the new TWA hotel at JFK

Butch Watkins

My mom flew for American Flyers out of Ardmore OK on the Connie. My uncle Ken Mc Guire was a mechanic just out of the air force worked for Mr Pigman

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