Return of the Super Star
A classic airliner will soon return to the skies as Lufthansa, the German airline, completes the return-to-flight restoration of a Lockheed L-1649A Starliner, the larger, final variant of the triple-tailed Constellation.
When this aircraft is flown – possibly as early as 2017 – it will mark fifty years since this airplane first took to the air. It will also mark the end of a massive restoration effort that, with technical assistance from the Original Equipment Manufacturer, began nearly a decade ago.
First flight of the Starliner came on 10 October 1956 at the Lockheed facility in Burbank, California. Testing with the company-owned aircraft proceeded rapidly and the airliner was issued its type certificate on 19 March 1957. Six weeks later, the Starliner entered service with TWA, which received twenty-nine of the forty-four aircraft built. Air France received ten L-1649As. Lufthansa received the other four.
Had the Starliner been available three years earlier, Lockheed might have made inroads into the dominant market position then held by Douglas for piston-powered airliners. As it turned out, the L-1649A entered service only sixteen months before the jet-powered Boeing 707, and the Starliner was very quickly outnumbered on routes across the Atlantic.
Shortly after Lufthansa received its final L-1649A, the airline announced the inauguration of its Senator First Class service between Germany and New York, in September 1958. Exclusively offered on board what the airline called its Super Star flagships, it was possibly the most luxurious way to cross the North Atlantic on board an airplane.
Comfort was the byword. In addition to what were described as Comforette First Class seats, each of the aircraft had an on-board lounge. Apart from fully reclining seats there were also sleeping berths that folded down from the cabin ceiling during night flights. The Lufthansa Super Star carried a maximum of thirty-two premium passengers all of whom were pampered in an all-First Class cabin.
By the early 1960s, the three airlines started assigning Starliners/Super Stars to lesser routes. The aircraft were then either converted to an all-cargo configuration or were passed on to smaller airlines. Lufthansa operated its Super Stars until 1966. The last three L-1649As, which were being used for long-distance cattle charters, were retired in the mid 1970s.
Following up on its successful restoration of a Junkers Ju-52, Lufthansa decided to bring back a Super Star. In 2007, the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin Foundation (the airline’s aviation-related historical fund) entrusted Lufthansa Technik (the Lufthansa technical branch) with the restoration of one of three L-1649A airframes obtained at auction into airworthy condition. N7316C, originally built for TWA in 1957 (Lockheed company number 1649-1018) was chosen.
In the spring of 2008, Lufthansa Technik established a local team at Auburn, Maine, that assessed the condition of the aircraft and then began dismantling it. All this while N7316C was still parked in the open at one edge of Auburn-Lewiston airport. A restoration hangar was built later that year. Lockheed Martin Aeronautics has been assisting the Lufthansa Technik team since 2009.
Unlike other historical aircraft restorations, Lufthansa is striving for full passenger revenue flight capability. This has been a monumental task due to the age of the aircraft. Recertifying components and meeting strict FAA standards for passenger aircraft (versus airworthiness for only flying the aircraft at airshows) involved many hurdles, including locating old engineering documents; finding replacements for obsolete materials and updating processes; repairing and manufacturing parts; and getting FAA inspector approval for each of the engineering changes.
Funded by Lufthansa, the Lockheed Martin Aviation Safety & Airworthiness, or AS&A, group, located in Marietta, Georgia, was given the task of supporting the Lufthansa project. AS&A has the unique role of supporting legacy aircraft and coordinating Lockheed Martin’s FAA requirements.
The Lockheed facility in Burbank was closed in 1994, so consequently, finding old records is one of the most difficult tasks. Fielding the various Lufthansa information requests sometimes involves playing Indiana Jones to find lost records. Most of the drawings now reside at a third-party storage facility in California, called Iron Mountain.
Very similar to the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starliner/Super Star blueprints are stored among thousands of Lockheed Martin-related boxes kept there.
Finding a specific drawing involves Lockheed Martin engineers combing through dozens of old binders to find the Iron Mountain box number and then getting facility personnel there to find the right box with the right drawing. Once located, the drawings must be carefully unrolled and scanned. These sixty-plus year old documents are very fragile and frequently have deteriorated, making it difficult to get a readable scan: but new technology and repeated practice has made this process much easier. After the documents have been digitized, they begin their electronic journey from California through Georgia and up to Maine.
Technicians at the Lockheed Martin facility in Palmdale, California, have also provided support. The reproduction department there scanned more than 100,000 drawing amendments as well as hundreds of related technical reports and L-1649A manuals. By having this work done near the Iron Mountain facility, expenses are reduced and the hazard of shipping these documents across the country is minimized.
Many of the materials listed on the original Starliner drawings are obsolete or unavailable. In these situations, Lufthansa engineers reach out to utilize Lockheed Martin’s technical expertise.
Company engineers in the Materials and Processes group have a huge knowledge base of substitute materials and are able to guide Lufthansa technicians to modern components, materials, and improved processes. The Lockheed Martin engineers also can tap into a knowledge base of which manufacturers have the material, skills, and certification to provide the materials and components.
Also, the C-130J program and P-3 program have also assisted the Starliner restoration. When Lufthansa needed a main landing gear component redesigned, Lockheed Martin engineers from those programs, were able to model the new part, analyze the structural requirements, and provide the computer model to the manufacturer to fabricate the part. This high level of technical competence allowed Lufthansa to get the engineering change approved through the FAA with minimal project impact.
The Lufthansa Super Star restoration is a huge project – to the level of removing the cargo doors and reinstalling passenger doors, examining every fastener and rivet, and installing a modern cockpit – still has obstacles to overcome on the long journey back into the air. But the aircraft is now coming together and this classic beauty will soon fly again.
Written by Stefan Oestreicher. Stefan is a design engineer in the Aviation Safety & Airworthiness group at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Marietta, Georgia. He has been with the company for eighteen years and has been supporting legacy aircraft since 2008. Prior to joining Lockheed Martin, he was an Air Force aircraft maintenance officer. This is his first feature for Code One.
The Lufthansa Super Star restoration is a huge project. But the aircraft is now coming together and this classic beauty will soon fly again. Here’s how the restoration is going.