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.
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.
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.