When Lufthansa Technik officials heard about the impending sale of three of the remaining four Lockheed Super Star Constellation aircraft in the world in 2007, a historic vision came together: Cobble together parts of all three aging Constellations in order to get one back into the air for the first time in decades.
Lufthansa Technik saw the plan as a way for the airline to preserve the engineering and technical advances embodied by the Lockheed L-1649A, while offering passengers a step back in history in one of the last commercial propeller-powered transcontinental airliners created before the jet age took over.
Only 44 of the Super Star Constellations were built.
Though the company knew the project would be a massive undertaking and that it would take years to complete, the initial technical assumptions were underestimated, according to project engineers. There have been numerous hurdles and unforeseen obstacles since the beginning, but the end is finally in sight.
Soon after acquiring the three planes, Lufthansa Technik/North America assembled a team and the Lockheed Super Star Project began a comprehensive plan to check the integrity of the tens of thousands of parts and every facet of the aircraft’s frame. One plane was chosen as the main frame, and parts were taken from the other two planes. But additional parts were often needed.
“It’s not like you can order a replacement part,” said Senior Project Manager Andreas Pakszies on a recent tour of the facility. “Nobody makes them anymore or has them on shelves. And often when you do find one, it is cracked, rusted or does not fit. These aircraft were not built on an assembly line like they are now. Each one fits together a little differently.”
That fact was corroborated by a worker removing parts from the other airframe parked just outside the hangar, who pointed to a hydraulic line, noting that it was not located in the same place as in the technical drawings.
Since the inception of the project, hundreds of skilled technicians from all over the globe have worked on the project, with 70 full-time workers spread among three massive warehouses in and around the Auburn-Lewiston Airport, where two of the Super Star Constellations are located.
A previous owner of the plane had reconfigured it to haul cargo, and had drilled holes, discarded parts and made modifications to serve their needs.
Every part of the frame has been meticulously inspected, documented and organized into 24,000 line items, many containing hundreds of individual parts. Many parts of the airframe have been rebuilt using models from the old parts from other planes, or simply fabricated from plans and certified engineering drawings.
Workers will sometimes have to create a wooden mold for a new part to be custom manufactured on site according to a preceding engineering design.
Every detail of the rebuild follows a master plan that is constantly tweaked but follows a strict protocol. Just the airframe’s system installation created the need for its own warehouse.
“We have currently 12 people working on the installation preparation,” said Pakszies as he stood on a platform overlooking the drab, olive-green plane, which will soon be painted with the aircraft’s original blue and white.
When complete, passengers will be treated to ride that look, feel, sound and smell like they did “back in the day,” according to project engineers.
However, since it will be used commercially, the plane must contain modern avionics and safety measures. In case of emergency, the plane would be evacuated over inflatable slides instead of using a rope like in the old days. The cockpit will look nothing like it did in the original aircraft. Computer screens and modern flight controls will replace dials and switches.
But for the passengers, Lufthansa Technik officials hope, it will be like taking a voyage back to times gone by.