Those who wax nostalgic about the golden age of commercial air travel most probably never experienced what it was like on board the airplanes of that period. However, passengers who are old enough will perhaps remember just how uncomfortable the first commercial propeller planes actually were. A trip across the United States in the 1930s, for example, would often take up to 27 hours to complete, with as much as 14 stops in between for refueling.
Early propeller planes were also deafeningly loud, and were known to shake violently during turbulence. They were also unbearably warm inside, so much so that windows could be opened in mid-flight (not a problem for pressurization then since planes flew low enough), and the first seats used in airline cabins were wicker chairs that were not even bolted to the floor. Needless to say, flying was very dangerous in those days.
The man who changed all that by giving travelers their first taste of luxury in the air was Howard Hughes. And the aircraft that transformed commercial air travel for good was the legendary Lockheed Constellation that Hughes helped develop.
The Connie, as it was fondly referred to, was the fastest, safest, and most comfortable turboprop airplane of its time. It was Hughes who convinced Lockheed to build the revolutionary aircraft for his growing TWA fleet. First revealed in the mid-forties, the Connie was immediately hailed as the “Queen of the Skies.” With its elegantly sloping fuselage and distinctive triple-fin tail, the Constellation and its larger sister, the Super Constellation, are still considered by aviation enthusiasts as the most beautiful airplanes ever built.
The Connie was also groundbreaking: the fastest to fly over the Atlantic, the first to employ pressurization, and—with noise-suppressing technology—the most silent in its day. TWA’s ads heralded these features by touting a new age of luxury travel in the skies. Soon after, no competitor was without its own fleet of Super Constellations.
In all, 856 Connies were built before they were eventually replaced by the first commercial jetliners of Boeing and Douglas.
The restored Lockheed L-1049F Super Constellation—brought to Switzerland by the Breitling watch company and the Super Constellation Flyers Association—is one of the last three remaining in the world. Flying in one gives you a chance to experience luxury travel in an age when only a few could afford to see the world from the air. Above the Alps and Lake Lucerne, the Connie proves that in the current era of the jet plane, propliners like her can still provide passengers a good time. Surely, the engine roar is discernably louder than modern jets and the relatively primitive air pressurization technology can make one feel rather nauseous at times.
But limitations like these are quickly overcome by the aircraft’s sheer gracefulness on and off the tarmac. Indeed, few planes have the ability to generate the same awe and admiration from airfield spectators as the Super Constellation, and, even if obsolete, the Connie will always be remembered for having once changed the standards of commercial aviation.