Lufthansa is spending millions to return a Lockheed L-1649A Starliner—considered the ultimate ‘Connie’—to flying status.
While U.S. airlines demand your spare change if you want a cup of instant coffee, sell everything from pillows to luggage space, rip out the in-flight entertainment and invest in little beyond fuel futures, Lufthansa is spending a considerable amount of money—it won’t say how much—to build up a Lockheed L-1649A Starliner to replicate one that the airline operated only briefly in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Luft hansa is, of course, subsidized by the German government, and Germany made its postwar bones by creating machinist apprentices who could carve a Mercedes 300SL camshaft out of billet with a metal file. Remaking a half-century-old piston-engine airliner is therefore not frivolous but a demonstration of national pride and competence, especially since the job is being done in part by volunteers—Lufthansa employees and retirees. The carrier is also using instructor mechanics who rotate through the project with small groups of apprentices.
Lufthansa has bought three grounded and semi-abandoned Starliners, two in Maine and one in Florida, and is combining the best parts of each to create one fully functional, flying replica of D-ALAN, the Lufthansa registration that once graced one of those three Lockheeds when the German airline originally owned it. Lufthansa called them “Super Stars” when its four Lockheed 1649As flew for the line between 1958 and 1960, and D-ALAN went on to fly cargo for two years for Lufthansa after Boeing 707s replaced it in passenger service.
Call it replication rather than restoration because D-ALAN itself is too far gone to ever fly again and will only contribute components and parts to the project (the British call such a product a “bitsa,” for “bitsa this and bitsa that”), and because the resulting 1649A will have a semiglass cockpit rather than the old steam gauges, a nod to 21st-century safety. This is proving to be a challenge, since a Connie’s cockpit is small compared even to the compact front office of a 747, and Lufthansa will be using much the same switchology and systems that a Boeing has, including digital CRT screens that combine numerous instruments and gauges into single displays.
Lufthansa’s restorers are building the Connie’s complete modern cockpit in a mockup in Hamburg, where Lufthansa Technik, the firm’s maintenance arm, is based. Then every – thing will be detached and shipped to America for installation in the actual airplane. It’s not simply a wiring job, as hydraulic systems and mechanical cables are also involved. Lufthansa volunteers as well as U.S. restorers and technicians started working in Maine last year, and they hope to have the recertified D-ALAN back in Germany by 2010 (that may prove wildly optimistic). There, it will join Lufthansa’s restored Junkers Ju-52/3m in giving joyrides and making PR appearances for the line. Lufthansa also owns a restored Messerschmitt Bf-108 Taifun and Dornier Do-27, the 1950s Helio Courier–like STOL plane.
All three of the 1649As Lufthansa bought for this project were owned by a single “Mr. Starliner” fanatic, Maine commuter-airline and corporate pilot Maurice Roundy. He bought his first Starliner in 1983, acquired a second two years later (the ex-Lufthansa D-ALAN) and a third in 1986 for $1—yes, one dollar—intending to restore and eventually fly at least one of them. Two of the planes were patched up enough to be flown to Auburn, Maine, one all the way from Honduras, where they remained parked next to Roundy’s house near Auburn-Lewiston Air – port until a hangar was built to shelter them last winter. But D-ALAN, reregistered as N974R, never got out of Florida.
On the first attempt to make it to Maine from Fort Lauderdale, D-ALAN flew no farther than West Palm Beach, landing on three engines with one of its two left main tires blown. Next try, five weeks later, got the airplane to Sanford, Fla., about an hour north of PBI, when not one but three engines began going bad. The plane was ultimately ferried to Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, where it’s still parked.
Lufthansa bought all three planes plus a substantial quantity of spares at a bankruptcy auction in Maine, after Roundy had spent half a million on the birds and gotten no – where. Lufthansa’s winning bid: $745,000.50, the 50 cents in case anybody else bid a flat $745,000. Lufthansa also persuaded Lockheed Martin to cough up 11,000 cartons of engineering drawings, blueprints and certification papers, which probably wasn’t all that difficult, since American aerospace companies plowing headlong into the 21st century put little value on junk that’s 60 years old.
It’s true. I remember awhile ago doing re – search at Grumman’s corporate HQ in Bethpage, N.Y., when Grumman Aircraft Engineering had become Grumman Aerospace; today it’s Northrop Grumman. What few fabulous artifacts and documents remained from the glory days of the World War II Grumman Ironworks had been squirreled away by a single industrious retiree-volunteer archivist in a small basement “company museum.”
Coincidentally, one of Roundy’s airplanes sat for seven years at a then-sleepy airport, Stewart Field, in Newburgh, N.Y., about five miles from where I live. N7316C returned on three engines to Stewart in 1976 from carrying cattle to Paris only to find that the company that owned it had literally closed its doors. The Starliner was abandoned and towed to a distant ramp. Those few of us who kept lightplanes at Newburgh eventually no longer even noticed the “Stewart Connie.” Roundy bought it in 1983, planning to turn it into a restaurant in Maine, which, fortunately, never happened, for 16 Charlie, originally a TWA airliner, is the airframe that is today being converted into D-ALAN.
Much of the work on 16 Charlie is being done not by Lufthansa volunteers but by U.S. technicians at BizJet International, a repair station in Tulsa, Okla., that Lufthansa owns, and at an engine overhaul shop in Idaho. The airplane’s control surfaces and vertical and horizontal stabilizers are all in Oklahoma, many being reskinned to eliminate corrosion, and when that work is finished, the reassembled Constellation will be flown to Maine for completion of the cockpit and interior. “It’s more economical for Lufthansa to do it that way,” Maurice Roundy says. “Labor is cheaper in this country than it is in Germany.”
Nine ex-Roundy Curtiss-Wright R-3350s are currently being overhauled in Grangeville, Idaho, by radial engine specialist Ray Anderson, with another four slated to follow, ideally to provide D-ALAN with a baker’s dozen of engines—three complete sets plus a spare—although some of the engines may prove to be unrebuildable.
Roundy wonders whether Lufthansa might have undertaken a project far bigger than it imagined at the outset. “None of their people have any knowledge of the airplane, and there’s a steep learning curve,” he says. “They’re thinking two or three years until they fly the finished airplane back to Germany; I’m thinking more like five.” Costs are mounting despite the economies of Stateside labor. “Lufthansa is spending a lot more than they thought they would.” Millions of dollars? “Oh, easily,” he says. Tens of millions? “Quite possibly.”
Still, that’s something of a bargain: When they were new, 1649A Super Stars cost Lufthansa about $2.5 million apiece, which is roughly $19 million in 2009 dollars.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.