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Those fabulous TCA Super Connies

on 22 May 2010.

SuperConnieBy Peter F. Marshall

With the introduction of the Lockheed L-1049, Trans-Canada Air Lines ushered in an era of gracious air travel. By the early 1950s, Trans-Canada Air Lines was losing the competitive race on the prestigious blue-ribbon Trans-Atlantic service to other carriers with more modern equipment.


TCA was hard-pressed to keep up with its North Stars which, although pressurized, were slower (and noisier) than the Douglas DC-6s and Lockheed 749 Constellations used by KLM, Sabena, Air France or the magnificent Boeing Stratocruiser that BOAC flew into Montréal.

Postwar, both Lockheed and Douglas continued to offer derivatives of their basic type to airlines and the military. Just as the Model 049 had been tweaked and stretched, Lockheed decided to offer another iteration of the basic type and the 1049 was the result. The first production 1049 flew on July 14, 1951, and was delivered to Eastern Air Lines in March 1952.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the basic airplane was underpowered and, when the 1049C became available in 1953, the Super Constellation finally began to offer the kind of climb and cruise performance its designers had intended. The primary reason for the improved performance was the switch to Curtiss-Wright turbo-compound engines that upped the cruise speed to more than 300 mph and put Lockheed ahead of Douglas with its DC-6B and the forthcoming DC-7.

But it was a case of the best of worlds and the worst of worlds as the improved airframe provided payload benefits but the turbo-compound engine also became the airplane’s Achilles heel.

The turbo-compounds were complicated engines employing a two-speed gear-driven supercharger and three power-recovery turbines (PRTs) in each engine. Each of the turbines was fed from the manifold exhaust gas of six cylinders and was geared to a single shaft that in turn was hydraulically coupled to the engine crankshaft. While the power-recovery system enabled the turbo-compound engines to achieve higher power (450 hp per engine at takeoff), and lower specific fuel consumption, the system proved to be troublesome and the engine had a lot of teething troubles throughout its service life and was very maintenance-intensive.

The engine’s reputation soon earned the turbo-compound powered Super Constellations the nickname of “the world’s best trimotor” – there were many in-flight engine shutdowns.

TCA chooses Super Constellations

Trans-Canada Air Lines’ future equipment was on the agenda of its board of directors in August 1951. The alternatives were either the Douglas DC-6B or the Lockheed 1049. The final decision was based on resale value and the fact that the R-3350, although more complicated that the R-2800 of the DC-6, was widely used by the military. TCA planners also thought the R-2800 was near the end of its evolutionary cycle and that, overall, the Super Constellation was a more recent development in terms of airframe and engine. Furthermore, the RCAF had placed an order for 35 C-119s, also powered by the R-3350, and it was thought that TCA would be in a position to benefit from their experience.

The final decision was close and, had Douglas been less indifferent to TCA and its requirements, it might well have still won the order. However, despite TCA’s concerns about dealing with Lockheed (based on their experience with the Lodestar), Lockheed mounted a very aggressive sales campaign and promised delivery of the first aircraft by November 1953 and the balance of the order by February 1954. Another feature appreciated by the TCA planners was that Lockheed had paid special attention to the interior furnishings and the 1049C was considered one of the quietest piston-engined airliners of its time.

In late 1952, Lockheed had a short labour strike. It was long enough, however, that TCA was notified that its first airplane would be late. With Lockheed heavily involved in the Korean War, military needs took precedence over the commercial side of the business. TCA was also informed that several of its competitors were ahead of it on the production line. The revised delivery dates called for the first airplane in April 1954 and the balance by September 1954.

The Super Constellation arrives

In fact, Lockheed managed to improve on its delivery schedule, and the first Super Constellation arrived in Montréal on February 26, 1954. Captain George Lothian was in command of the flight. The first airplane was registered CF-TGA and assigned Fleet Number 401.

This particular aircraft was configured as an over-water transport with accommodations for nine first class and 54 tourist passengers. It was one of five 1049Cs ordered by TCA and was the first mixed-class aircraft used by the airline. The intent was to use the new equipment on the transatlantic route from Toronto and Montréal to Prestwick, Scotland, and London Heathrow, England, and for transcontinental services (in all first-class). The aircraft would also be used for some flights to the Caribbean.

In North Atlantic service, the aircraft had three cabins. The forward tourist cabin had four rows of five seats (two left, three right), followed by washrooms, and then the main tourist cabin with seven rows of five seats and one row of four seats. This was followed by a nine-seat first class lounge, the galley and entrance, and aft of the doorway, the first class cabin of nine seats. This added up to a total of 63 passengers.

Initially for domestic service, the aircraft had three cabins with four-abreast first-class seating for 63 passengers (two-abreast seating throughout).

During its time in TCA service, the Super Constellations had seating arrangements varying from 48 (all first class domestic) to 75 (all tourist). Cabin configuration could be changed relatively easily as all seats were mounted on tracks.

In April 1957, the first-class compartments were modified. There was a cabin, aft of tourist and forward of the entry door, with four first-class seats. The aft compartment was modified to hold seven passengers in “deluxe siesta sleeper seats.” The new foam-padded sleeper seats offered a “deep recline” for those wanting to sleep their way across the Atlantic.2

With 54 tourist passengers, the aircraft capacity became 65 seats. One-way fares from Montréal to London were set at $386 for first-class and $436 for the deluxe siesta sleeper seats. Family Plan and off-season fares were introduced and reduced these rates substantially.

As with other TCA aircraft, the interior was planned by Henry Dreyfuss. The ceilings and wall linings were seamless and featured antique maps of the world. Passenger service items, such as oxygen, ventilation, lights and call button were mounted under the overhead baggage rack (a first for TCA).

Along with the introduction of its new flagship, TCA also introduced new uniforms: dark blue for flight crew and flight attendants (then called stewardesses). The flight attendants also had a summer uniform in a shade of sky blue. This was the first major change in uniforms for flight operations since the airline started in 1937.

The other major change was the addition of a new crew member: a flight engineer (F/E) who sat sideways in the cockpit aft of the flight crew. In addition to all of the electrical, cabin pressurization and air-conditioning systems, the F/E controlled the throttles, propeller rpm controls, cowl flaps, supercharger levers, mixtures, feathering buttons, and hydraulics. The F/E also had an ignition analyzer which could individually monitor each of the 36 spark plugs in each engine along with the intake flow. There were two small wide-angle windows, one in the crew door and one on the left side of the cockpit behind the captain’s seat, positioned so that the propellers could be observed by the flight engineer. The pilots also had throttles, and control of the engines could be transferred between the flight crew and the flight engineer.

Crew complement consisted of two pilots, flight engineer and navigator although the navigator position was generally not occupied for domestic flights. There was also a crew rest station adjacent to the navigator’s station and just aft of the flight engineer’s position. Cabin staff generally consisted of three flight attendants.

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Service begins

On May 14, 1954, CF-TGA inaugurated TCA’s new Super Constellation service across the North Atlantic. The routing was Toronto–Montréal–Prestwick–London. As the fleet expanded, the frequency increased from four times weekly to daily flights.

The flights from Toronto to London were scheduled for a flying time of 14:05 (16:05 total) eastbound and 15:10 (18:10 total) westbound. For example, flight 530 departed Toronto at 5:25 p.m. on Mondays and Saturdays, stopped at Montréal at 7:00 p.m., departing an hour later with arrival planned at Prestwick for 11:45 a.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays and London at 2:30 p.m.

Westward flights departed London at 5:25 p.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays with arrival back in Canada at Montréal at 4:20 a.m. and Toronto at 7:00 a.m.

By August 1954, after the fleet had built up to five Super Constellations, Paris and Düsseldorf were added to the European network as a continuation of the London flight.

The tempo built up rapidly so that by the summer of 1956, there were ten flights a week between Montréal and London. Three of these flights originated in Toronto and one each week continued on to Paris and Düsseldorf. Of the ten weekly flights, one included Shannon, Ireland, two stopped at Gander, one at Goose Bay and four at Prestwick. Later Vienna became another European destination.

In the spring of 1958, two new destinations were added: Brussels (en route to Düsseldorf) and Zurich (an extension of the Paris flights). With the arrival of Super G models, Montréal–London nonstop flights became possible with the flight time from Montréal to London scheduled for 10:35 nonstop.

The same year, flights from Vancouver via Winnipeg to London were added. These flights were called the “Hudson Bay Route.” The schedule called for westward flights departing Vancouver on Wednesdays at 9:20 p.m. with arrivals in London the next day at 11:45 p.m. local time.

In the Super Constellation’s heyday, trans-Atlantic flights originated in Cleveland and Halifax, in addition to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montréal.

Another innovation that occurred in 1958 was the introduction of the now common economy class. Most of the trans-Atlantic flights actually offered four classes of service: economy, tourist, first class and deluxe. Fare choices from Vancouver to London were one way economy for $356 and return for $661; tourist for $419 or return for $775; first class for $595 or $1,089 return; and deluxe for $645 or $1,175 return.

But the era of the big piston-engined airliners on the North Atlantic was coming to an end. By late 1960, the aircraft were rapidly being replaced with TCA’s new Douglas DC-8 jets. On December 26, 1960, the last Super Constellation flight departed Vienna. On December 29, the last flight left Düsseldorf and, on December 31, 1960, the very last transatlantic Super Constellation flight flew Zurich–Paris–London–Montréal–Toronto, arriving in Canada on January 1, 1961. From that point on, all transatlantic flights were jet.

Domestic service

Domestically, two flights a day with Super Constellations were inaugurated in September 1954. Westbound to Vancouver, the flights were called Pacific Mercury and eastbound, Atlantic Mercury. Both directions included a Winnipeg stopover.

TCA’s first nonstop flight from Toronto to Vancouver took off from Malton Airport around noon on June 1, 1957. Eight hours, 32 minutes and 3,700 kilometres later, the Super Constellation arrived at Vancouver’s International Airport. TCA’s first trans-continental flight, which took place in 1939, took more than 16 hours to complete and included stops in North Bay, Winnipeg, Regina and Lethbridge.

The Pacific Mercury departed Toronto daily at 3:10 p.m., arrived at Winnipeg at 6:15 and Vancouver at 9:40 p.m.

By 1960, the Super Constellation’s star was definitely in decline. The airplanes were off the transatlantic and transcontinental services and were mainly flying the Southern and Caribbean routes.

Before final retirement, however, there was one last role for the aircraft. Serviceability problems with the Vanguard as it entered service required TCA to retain two Connies on standby at the Toronto and Montréal bases through 1963. They were irreverently referred to as ConGuards and this was the swan song of the triple-finned beauty in TCA service.

Mods and upgrades

The TCA Super Constellation fleet eventually consisted of 14 aircraft of four basic models:

  • Five 1049Cs: CF-TGA to CF-TGE
  • Three 1049Es: CF-TGF to CF-TGH
  • Four 1049Gs: CF-TEU to CF-TEX
  • Two 1049Hs: CF-TEY and CF-TEZ (galley aft of rear entry door and all seating forward)

At one point, in 1958, it was contemplated to increase the fleet substantially. With tourist traffic climbing, and depending on the outcome of bilateral route negotiations, and Canadian Pacific’s application to operate a transcontinental route, TCA had made arrangements with Lockheed to add as many as six additional Super Constellations as a temporary stop gap solution prior to delivery of DC-8s and Vanguards. Presumably, these would have been 1049Hs because CF-TEY and CF-TEZ were the only two of that deal finally delivered.

While with TCA, the early aircraft were progressively modified and upgraded to the Super G standard. The 1049E/01 had a stronger landing gear, permitting a higher takeoff weight, while the 1049G/02 modifications brought the aircraft up to the general Super G configuration. This work was done primarily in late 1957 and into 1958.

Most of the early Super Cs and Es had their wingtips modified to accommodate wingtip tanks. Of TCA’s fleet of 14 Super Constellations, only CF-TGA and ’TGB (plus the written off CF-TGG) and the two 1049Hs were never fitted with the wingtip tanks.

During 1957, the fuselage crown, which had been polished metal, was painted white. Since the late ’fifties, white has become the dominant color for the top of the fuselage for most airlines, one reason being the heat-deflecting effect.

Between April 1958 and July 1959, the whole fleet was further modified, this time with weather radar (CF-TEW and ’TEX were delivered in this configuration from the factory). The Bendix weather radar cost $10,000–$11,000 per unit with airframe modifications and installation adding $15,000 per aircraft to the final cost.

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The end is in sight

TCA’s Super Constellations were for their time the largest and most recognizable airliners in Canada. With their triple tails, swooping porpoise-shaped fuselage and semi-elliptical wings, the airplanes were elegance defined.

Considered at best a stopgap between the North Stars and turbine power, the Super Constellation gave a good account of itself. In 200,000 hours of flight time with the airline, one aircraft was lost and one damaged during the nine years, 1954–1963, that the aircraft were in service.

By 1956, however, the future of the Super Constellation fleet was clear: Four DC-8s were ordered and TCA announced its intention to have an all-turbine fleet by 1961 (eventually 11 of the Conway-powered DC-8 series 40s were ordered). In common with other major airlines, the run down of the piston-engined fleet (DC-3s, North Stars and Super Constellations) was rapid. In TCA’s case, it involved adding to its already large and popular fleet of Viscounts as well as ordering the new Vanguard (see CAHS Journal 43, 4, “The Vickers Vanguard” by Joop Gerritsma, and CAHS Journal 24, 1, “Enter, The Viscount” by Capt George Lothian).

TCA eventually traded CF-TGA to Douglas Aircraft as part-payment for a DC-8 on January 9, 1963, with 19,457 hours on the airframe. Douglas sold it to the aircraft dealer Airmotive Inc. of Burbank, California, and the Connie was stored at Burbank and used for spare parts. By December 1964, the outer wings, tail and engines had been removed. The aircraft was scrapped circa late 1966. Five of the Super Constellations went to Douglas as down-payments on the new jets while two were returned to Lockheed (the Super Hs) and the rest were sold to other operators.


The Vanguard is long gone from service with none retained for display in Canada and only one in the UK. In the meantime, however, several Constellations and Super Constellations have been restored to flying condition in Europe, the US and Australia.

Rising almost literally from the grave, CF-TGE/CF-RNR was put on display near the Constellation Hotel in Toronto. It was the last of the former TCA airplanes. (While located on the airport strip, ’TGE was once the venue for a meeting of the CAHS Board of Directors. At the time it was no longer serving as a cocktail lounge. – Editor)

Though the intended use as a conference centre did not materialize, the aircraft was used as a restaurant and later, after yet another move closer to Lester B. Pearson Airport, as a cocktail lounge. By the early 2000s, however, even that use had ended.

In the meantime, the condition of the airplane became so poor that the Greater Toronto Airport Authority requested it be removed from their property and the aircraft was advertised for sale.

The Toronto Aerospace Museum (TAM) was concerned about the fate of ’TGE and wanted to acquire it for restoration in TCA colours and display at its Downsview facility.

However, the Seattle Museum of Flight (MOF) was the successful buyer, and dismantling began in February 2006 in preparation for yet another restoration. The Toronto museum protested and in late May 2006 the federal government designated the aircraft a unique historic artifact under the Movable Cultural Property Program.

In the end, the MOF received an export permit and, in June 2007, the disassembled Super Constellation arrived by road in Rome, New York. Empire Air Services, at Griffiss Business and Technology Park (formerly Griffiss AFB), was to be responsible for the refurbishment and painting of the aircraft in its original TCA markings.

By October 2007, the airplane was sitting on its own gear and structural repairs continued inside a hangar at Griffiss. After repairs, the aircraft was moved to Seattle in September 2009 where it will be reassembled once again and go on display in the museum’s air park. The plan is to have it located in front of the 747 prototype and to the right of the first Air Force One 707.


1. The “Blue Riband” was a nominal trophy for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a merchant ship. The term continued to be applied to early trans-Atlantic flights for a long time and even crops up occasionally today. World Airline Awards still refers to its Airline of the Year title as a “Blue Riband Airline.”

2. The more things change the more they stay the same: deep reclining sleeper seats are again offered in first-class service aboard most wide-body aircraft today.

The foregoing story is an abridged version of the original article published in the CAHS Journal, 46, 2, pp. 44–55.

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