Sunday, May 19, 2013

Connie gets underway in Secrecy

As early as 1938 before the Stratoliner was delivered, Jack Frye and his engineering group had conceived the idea on a new larger and faster transport plane that was longer-ranged than any other design flying or on the drawing board. He had also spoken sparsely with Howard about this new concept. With the Boeing Stratoliner being very strong, a Boeing trademark, yet too small and slow, Jack Frye knew he needed yet a larger and faster ship to propel his company into the forefront. Hughes the prime stockholder in 1939 began inputting his influence and design details into this new secret transport.

He and Jack Frye met with Lockheed’s Hall Hibbard (left), Bob Gross and Kelly Johnson at his building on 7000 Romaine, Los Angeles. The date was June 22, 1939. Kelly Johnson, the successful and talented Lockheed design engineer with the P-38 Lightning and the L-14 transport thought the Frye/Hughes specifications were too conservative and recommended the Wright 3350 engine be installed, the most powerful in the world at that time.
This according to Johnson (right) would double the payload and a passenger capacity up from 40 to 60. More meetings were held that convinced Lockheed to pressurize the cabin as well. The big question from Hughes finally came upon Bob Gross. “How much are these going to cost me?” Gross replied – “About $450,000 each.” Well TWA can’t pay for them Hughes pouted. They are darn near broke, and the bank won’t pick up the tab. Hell, I guess I’ll have to pay for them myself. Go ahead and build them Bob, send the bills to Hughes Tool Company.”
Hughes agreed to buy 40 planes and in turn Lockheed agreed to give TWA exclusive rights to the first forty planes off the assembly line. It was a $18-million dollar contract, the largest commercial aviation contract ever at that time!
Secrecy of this new project was paramount In Jack Frye’s thinking as well as Hughes in order to gain a new foothold in the commercial airline industry. TWA was about to lose all of their Stratoliner fleet (5 planes) and many of their DC aircraft to the War effort. This included almost 800 employees to support the newly designated airplanes ferrying our troops overseas. Jack was adamant United and American airlines be kept in the dark. They were ready to buy the Douglas DC-4. Jack in agreement with Hughes figured let them go ahead and buy them, then they would spring the Constellation on them and gain a couple years in equipment improvements and revenue.
According to Serling, so great was the desire for secrecy that Hughes refused to have the contract typed up by any Lockheed employee. The typist chosen was none other than Tommy Tomlinson’s wife, a court stenographer by profession. She had come to Los Angeles with Tommy and was summoned from the Biltmore to prepare the formal papers, which specified that Hughes Tool, not TWA was buying the planes.  He even went further and code named himself as “God” and Frye as “Jesus Christ.” Secret was the name of the plane designated as '0-49', later to be called the 'Constellation'.
Lockheed president, Bob Gross
As the new plane was being drawn up, only five people at Lockheed knew about the project. They were Bob Gross, Hal Hibbard, Kelly Johnson, Don Palmer and Paul Deprane. All were instructed not to divulge the secrecy of this program and to tell passer’s by who might have viewed the drawings that it was a concept plane for testing called the Excalibur.
Connie production line at Burbank plant

The photo above is a brand new Lockheed Constellation L-049 being constructed at the Burbank plant, circa 1941. I can’t help but wonder if the two men at the top of the platform are Jack Frye and Howard Hughes on one of their many secret visits to the plant. Could that be a lookout standing at the bottom?


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