KANSAS CITY — The National Airline History Museum is trying to raise $3.2 million to restore its Lockheed Constellation propeller-driven aircraft and recreate multimillionaire aviator Howard Hughes' record-setting cross-country flight in the plane that transformed commercial air travel.
The Kansas City museum's Constellation, or "Connie," is one of only a handful of the 856 that were built and is still airworthy — with a little work. The museum is planning to fly it on April 17, 2014 — the 70th anniversary of the 1944 inaugural flight piloted by Hughes and TWA president and co-founder Jack Frye. The nonstop flight took 6 hours and 58 minutes, cutting the time of previous coast-to-coast flights in half.
"It was a major leap forward, which is why we want to do the flight because it was so significant in the development of the airline industry," said John Roper, the museum's vice president of operations. "It was more than national travel; it ushered in global travel."
The museum will recreate the journey with the aid of a copy of the original flight log, beginning in Burbank, Calif., and ending in Washington, D.C. Along the way, it will pass over the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and the Virginias.
Roper said he hoped that a few celebrities who are aviation enthusiasts would join a volunteer crew of pilots, flight engineers, mechanics and flight attendants.
"What we are really trying to do is by getting the aircraft flying is to bring attention to a time in the airline industry when air travel was much more luxurious and it was elegant affair and there was some romance to flying on the airlines," said Roper, himself a pilot who wants a chance to fly the Connie.
Eventually, the advent of jet airliners made the plane obsolete, and it stopped transporting passengers in the late 1960s. It continued to ferry freight for a while longer. The museum obtained its Constellation in 1986, spent two years restoring it and flew it until 2007, when finances dried up as the economy faltered.
The plane, a Model L-1049H, was one of the last Constellations off Lockheed's assembly lines in 1958. It's painted in TWA colors because the former airline, which once was headquartered in Kansas City, relied so heavily on the plane in its early years.
The museum is seeking out corporate sponsors and collecting smaller donations from former Connie pilots and fans of the plane through pilot and aircraft associations.
Roper said the museum plans to spend about $1 million to make the plane ready for flight. The remaining money would be used to cover the cost of operating the plane. In addition to recreating the 1944 flight, the museum plans to spend a couple months beforehand stopping in different cities in the western U.S. and then touring cities in the eastern half of the country afterward. The crew that accompanies the plane will talk about the history of the airlines and commercial aviation aircraft.
"Hopefully, this is going to be one those things that captures the heart of America a little bit," Roper said. "We definitely intend to have the aircraft be an ambassador to Kansas City and promote the history of the airline industry in Kansas City because TWA started here in Kansas City."