Old planes refurbished to offer taste of luxury
The select handful of guests dressed in evening wear bracketed their gourmet dinners with caviar and baked Alaska and washed them down with 16 cases of chilled Dom Perignon poured smartly by liveried stewards.
They lounged in roomy seats, touched up their makeup in vanity mirrors in the lavishly appointed bathrooms, and chatted while the attentive stewards made up their beds for the night.
That’s what high society looked like in 1946. The highest society, in fact, since this star-studded party was aboard the most lavish commercial passenger airplane ever built: the Lockheed Constellation, “Queen of the Air,” which soared only briefly before speed trumped comfort with the advent of the jet.
A graceful throwback to a time when flying still inspired awe and not frustration, the “Connie” serves as such a contrast to the unremitting inconvenience and discomfort of today’s hollow-tube air travel, it can’t help but make you long for the chance to relive the romantic earlier days of flight.
And now you can.
Intricately restored vintage aircraft, complete with all the elegance and service of a bygone era, fly on at least one scheduled route in Canada, safaris in Africa, sightseeing tours in Australia, and passenger excursions in Europe. And in a sealed-off hangar in Maine, of all places, a European airline is quietly spending millions to restore one of the last remaining Lockheed Super Constellations, with plans to carry passengers in the lavishly refurbished cabin.
“This was the age when flying was an experience and there was romance involved,” says Ralph Petterson, an aviation author and an aficionado of the Constellation. “People weren’t crammed into these aircraft. They drank the finest wines. They ate meals cooked on board from scratch. Now you get a bag of peanuts and a soda if you’re lucky.”
Traveling by air, he says, “has become like riding the bus. It’s not an experience any more. It’s just a means of getting from point A to point B.”
With its sensual curved fuselage, dolphin nose, and triple tail, the Constellation was anything but that. It was one of the highest-flying and most luxurious piston-powered airplanes ever built, designed to meet exacting standards set by the fastidious Howard Hughes.
On its inaugural flight in 1947, it carried Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, William Powell, and other Hollywood stars, with Hughes himself at the yoke, from Los Angeles to a round of smartly dressed, well-lubricated clubbing in New York.
The Connie smashed all kinds of records for getting from point A to point B — or, in its case, from Burbank, Calif., to Washington, D.C., nonstop, in six hours and 57 minutes on April 17, 1944, a time when it normally took 14 hours to fly across the country. And it did so in comfort that seems unimaginable now.
“This is a luxury that would surpass even the most luxurious commercial airliner today,” says Jennifer Byrne, vice president for technical operations in aeronautics at what is today called Lockheed Martin.
It was a swift descent from there. As even greater speed won out over comfort, the Connie was supplanted by much faster jets. Of the grandest version, the Super Constellation, only 44 were ever built, and many later suffered the indignity of hauling freight or cattle, spraying crops, or being left to rust in dusty salvage yards.
One of these sits just outside a 50,000-square-foot high-tech hangar in the municipal airport in Auburn, Maine, still regal despite the fact that there are only sockets where its engines used to be, a missing rudder, and a sheet of plywood unceremoniously covering its door. It’s been sacrificed for parts to help rebuild another plane kept under wraps inside: the “Star of Tigris,” a Super Connie built for TWA in 1957 that is being lavishly restored to its original condition by a nonprofit arm of the German airline Lufthansa, which plans to fly passengers in it on special flights in Europe.
The project, which began in 2007, is four years behind schedule, and the airline won’t say almost anything about it, other than to dispute reports that it’s also so far over budget it could cost $60 million. (The hangar alone cost $3 million, though Lufthansa won’t say how much it’s spending on the plane beyond its earlier projection of $12 million.)
So neglected was the “Star of Tigris” that 95 percent of the skin of the 95-foot fuselage had to be replaced. The landing gear was rebuilt in Hamburg and Frankfurt, the wheels in Ohio, and the three-bladed, 19-foot propellers in Canada with help from a 96-year-old retiree who worked on the originals at the old Hamilton Standard. There are 120 mechanics restoring the plane in Auburn, seven days a week.
“They are going all out on this,” says Ray Anderson, owner of Anderson Airmotive in Grangeville, Idaho, which is overhauling the engines. “There’s never been anything like it and probably never will be anything like it.”
The plane is slated to be rolled out later this year, after which it will be repainted in vintage 1950s Lufthansa colors, taken to Europe, and made available for what an airline spokesman calls “very special flight experiences for passengers, comparable to those in the golden days of aviation.”
There are other ways to relive those golden days in the meantime.
Lufthansa’s Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin Foundation already operates a Junkers Ju52, with 30- to 60-minute passenger flights in the summers for about $250 to $450; vouchers can be ordered through the foundation’s website.
A company in Melbourne called Shortstop runs gourmet dinner flights aboard a DC-3. Guests, who pay about $250 per person, are asked to dress in cocktail attire appropriate to the occasion. Two companies offer flying safaris aboard DC-3s in southern Africa. And at least one airline still flies two DC-3s in regular service: Buffalo Air in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
“We try and re-create the golden days, when passengers were treated like kings, and dressed up, and it was a big deal to go flying,” said Mike Falls, chief pilot at Shortstop, where employees in period costume welcome customers and where Falls himself speaks dreamily about the old plane, “polished and sitting in the evening light.”
On South Africa’s SkyClass Aviation’s DC-3 and DC-4, “passengers get to experience these majestic aircraft with engines purring, oil dripping and smoke bellowing,” said David Cilliers, operations manager, but also “excellence in service from light snacks to five-course meals with champagne and caviar [and] the chance of reliving a bygone era of luxurious classic air travel, flying slower and lower with fantastic views.”
Even older Ford Tri-Motor nine- and 10-passenger planes from the late 1920s tour the country and carry guests at $70 apiece for 20- to 30-minute flights. They’re operated by the Oshkosh, Wis.-based Experimental Aircraft Association. And the Collings Foundation of Stow takes people for rides aboard the world’s last remaining B-24 in a bomber configuration, at $450 for a 30-minute flight; the plane, and its sister B-17 and B-25, barnstorm the country this time of year, but come home to New England each September.
The result? Unlike on commercial jets, “When we land, every single person complains that the flight did not last long enough,” said Roger Jarman, president if the Florida-based Historical Flight Foundation, which operates a 56-year-old Douglas DC-7 that was used as a prop on the short-lived period television drama “Pan Am.’’
Not all of these excursions are smooth sailing. Because they travel at lower altitudes, vintage aircraft are often grounded by weather. They can be quirky; that Historical Flight Foundation DC-7, which occasionally carried passengers to air shows, is now grounded in North Carolina because of mechanical problems.
But a change in FAA regulations could open the way for more flights operated by nonprofit preservation organizations on vintage planes in the United States “to provide a living history flight experience,” as the new rule puts it.
Petterson has already flown on several of them.
“There’s something magical about those airplanes,” he says.