Connie restoration proceeding

 - August 27, 2009, 7:12 AM

The Lockheed L-1649A Starliner was the queen of the skies in the late 1950s and it might again become a familiar sight aloft, according to officials at Lufthansa Technik. In cooperation with the company’s Tulsa, Okla. subsidiary, BizJet, restoration on one of the 50-year-old propliners is under way at a specially built hangar at Auburn-Lewiston Airport in Maine.

The Starliner, the final iteration of Lockheed’s successful Constellation series, had several operator titles. For Lufthansa, it was the Super Star. TWA knew it as the Jet Stream, and Air France called it the Super Starliner. Whatever the name, the four-engine transport was the last word in long-range airborne luxury in the days before passenger jet travel. Joining Lufthansa’s fleet as flagship starting in 1958, the four Super Stars–out of a total of 44 built–were used on the nonstop transatlantic route until the Boeing 707 superseded them in the mid-1960s. The Super Stars saw the inauguration of Lufthansa’s first-class service. An onboard chef catered to the 32 passengers, who made the nearly 15-hour flight from Hamburg to New York in the comfort of sleeper beds and nearly lie-flat seats.

In recognition of the Super Star’s role in the airline’s more than 80-year history, Lufthansa’s historic flight foundation Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung (DLBS) embarked on the mission to restore an L-1649A to flying status, joining other historic aircraft in the foundation’s fleet such as the Junkers Ju-52/3m and the Dornier Do-27.

The opportunity presented itself when a commercial pilot and Constellation enthusiast in Maine named Maurice Roundy was forced to sell the three L-1649s he had acquired. The airplanes–long since converted to cargo hauling–had sat exposed to the elements for more than 20 years, two of them in Maine, the other in Florida.

On Dec. 17, 2007, LHT purchased all three of Roundy’s Super Stars, along with five containers of spare parts, for $745,000. “We wanted to have one airplane,” August Henningsen, CEO of Lufthansa Technik, told AIN, “but finally we ended up with all three because we needed the engines and all the parts from the other airplanes as well.”

While one of the three aircraft was actually a former member of Lufthansa’s fleet, DLBS selected a retired TWA airplane as the restoration candidate, based on the condition of its airframe. The airplane rolled in to the specially built hangar on November 20.

“We jacked the airplane and took the landing gear off and dismantled all the flaps and the leading edges; all the engine cowlings are down and everything is out and down to the bare metal, so no more cockpit, no nothing. We have a team of 12 local people in Maine who do all the disassembly and cleaning work right now,” said Henningsen.

That local staff is supported on both sides of the Atlantic by LHT technicians, company trainees and even former Constellation pilots and maintenance workers. Various components such as the landing gear, control columns and hydraulic systems have been shipped back to Germany for reconditioning, while LHT’s BizJet subsidiary in Tulsa will restore the empennage and flying surfaces.

Thirteen of the mighty R-3350 Curtiss-Wright turbo-compound engines–from which LHT hopes to produce six working powerplants–went to a piston engine restoration specialist in Idaho. Completion of the first engine is expected next month. “What we are doing right now is inspecting from left to right and from forward to aft the pressure bulkheads and the primary structure of the airplane,” said Henningsen. “We have made the main analysis already, so there are hundreds of repairs but nothing that we would call a show stopper.”

One of the major concerns the restoration team faces is in identifying parts and tracking down their manufacturers. “We have many components in the electrical and hydraulic systems where we still need the documentation from the manufacturers of the past,” Henningsen said. “We have to find out if they still have some documents for overhaul of some of the components that we will keep integrated in the airplane. This is the biggest hurdle right now.”

LHT has received support from Lockheed Martin, whose ancestor company built the aircraft a half century ago, and OEMs such as Hamilton Standard and Goodrich are also providing service for the propellers and de-icing boots, respectively. The restoration team recently celebrated a major step in the reconversion of the aircraft to its original certified condition with the arrival of a set of authentic passenger doors, offered by the South African Airways Museum from its own preserved example.

When complete, the aircraft will have a luxury interior that will invoke its vintage splendor. While the restorers hope to preserve and maintain as much of the original cockpit instrumentation as possible, Henningsen says there will have to be some compromise and modernization so the L-1649 can be approved as a commercial airliner under current regulations. Once the restoration is complete in an anticipated two years, the aircraft will join DLBS’s fleet of flying antiques, and will be used for corporate promotions. It will be based in Hamburg and available for charter.