The Lockheed Electra: Killer Airliner
by Stuart Lee
The airline skies of the 1950s were ruled by the top-of-the-line, supercharged radial piston
airliners, the DC-7 and the Super Constellation. And although the big Boeing and Douglas jets were
well on the way, aircraft companies thought the need existed for a large, medium-range jet
prop or turbo prop airliner. And also, this jet-powered jet aircraft, using a standard airliner
design, would serve to psychologically move people into the upcoming age of the jets.
Both Eastern and American were major supporters and backers of this concept. As Douglas
and Boeing were occupied on the development of their DC-8 and 707 respectively, Lockheed
Aircraft, the third major commercial aircraft builder, got the nod for the project.
In early 1959, with great fanfare, Lockheed's new, 4-engine prop-jet, the Electra, went
into service; first on Eastern, then American- followed by Northwest, Braniff, and many
other major carriers world-wide.
The Electra was actually an Electra II, since Lockheed had built an earlier aircraft named
the Electra in the 1930's- a two-engine aircraft that was popular before being overshadowed by the
DC-3. With the new Electra, Lockheed continued its tradition of naming planes after stars
(the symbol of Lockheed, by the way, is a star).
The Electra looked like a "regular airliner," except that the thick prop blades and
the four enormous large engine covers (the nacelles and cowlings) that housed the General
Electric/Allison jet-turbine driver power plants made the wings seem ever smaller and stubbier.
In addition, the fuselage was relatively wide- making it one of the roomiest airliners of its
time. But the Electra's appearance seemed slightly off.
The pilots soon got over the appearance and came to respect the airplane, The Electra had
incredible power. One pilot remarked that "It climbs like a damned fighter plane!"
It was in the evening of September 29, 1959 that six crew members and 28 passengers on
Braniff's flight 542 from Houston to New York, after stopping briefly in Dallas, were relaxing
serenely in their spanking new Electra.
At 11:08 the situation changed
A farmer in the rural town of Buffalo, Texas had just shut off his TV. He noticed that all
the prairie coyotes had started to howl; a very unusual occurrence. Suddenly, the sky outside
his home turned an eerie yellow, then the farmer heard a continuous roar. The farmer and
his wife- without putting on their shoes- ran out to their pasture, where little shards of aluminum
fell on them. They were still dumbfounded when the wife remarked that it was raining.
But it wasn't rain; it was aircraft fuel.
And when the farmer shone a flashlight into a tree, he could see a large chunk of what
had fallen. On the metal were the words; "Fly Braniff."
What had caused this brand-new jet prop to disintegrate over Buffalo, Texas.
This wasn't the first crash of an Electra. On February 5, 1959, An American Airlines Electra
had literally flown into Flushing Bay on final approach to La Guardia's runway 22, killing over
65 people. But, as much as pilots hate to admit it, the crash was attributed to pilot error.
Apparently the pilot conducting the landing got befuddled with his instruments. but the plane didn't
The investigators combing the wreckage of the Braniff Electra noticed something alarming.
The shards of what appeared to be the left wing were found a considerable distance from
the rest of the wreckage.
And the story got worse.
On March 17, 1960, Northwest Airlines flight 710 left Minneapolis-St. Paul on schedule.
It made a scheduled 1/2 hour stop at Chicago and took-off again for the warmth of Miami.
On board were 33 men, 23 women, and one baby riding as passengers, along with six crew
members. At about 1pm, the 63 people were cruising above a cloud layer at 18,000 feet
over Tell City, Indiana.
Then something happened.
Witnesses on the ground heard tearing sounds in the sky. They looked up and saw the thick
fuselage of the Electra emerging from the clouds. The entire right wing was missing, and only
a stub of the left wing remained attached to the Electra.
The airliner seemed to float for a while, defying the laws of gravity. But then it dipped,
diving straight down toward the ground, trailing white smoke and pieces of aircraft. The
63 people entombed in the fuselage struck the muddy ground, vertically, at 618 miles per hour.
All 63 people on board were killed, but there were no bodies- and hardly any aircraft
wreckage! The tremendous velocity of the aircraft caused the Electra to telescope when it
struck the earth. It created a 60 foot deep crater. Rescuers found nothing at the site of
impact larger than a spoon.
But 11,000 feet away, they found the wreckage of the left wing.
This was beyond, alarming. In a period of less than six months, two brand-new Electras
lost their wings and disintegrated with much loss of life. What could have caused this?
Could it have been severe clear-air turbulence (CAT), or was there something drastically wrong
with these airliners.
Calls were made to immediately ground all Electras. The public lost all faith in the airliner.
And the jokes started:
"I'd like a ticket on the Electra to New York!" the passenger reportedly said to the
"We don't sell Electra tickets, we sell chances..." the agent answered, according to the story.
Then there were the Eastern Electra stewardesses who wore phony stewardess wings- with
the wings broken off.
Or National Airlines: "Look Ma, No Wings!" Electra service to Miami.
Noted columnist and train aficionado Lucius Beebe wrote that the Electra was the "flying
Mourning becomes the Electra!" screamed the headline on one newspaper.
The airlines who had Electra fleets were nearly panicking. Meetings were quickly set up
with the FAA, which was at that time headed by the legendary Air Force General, pilot, and aviation
authority, Elwood Quesada- and Najeeb Halaby of the CAB (which was still a separate
organization at the time).
The painful talk of reconstructing the crashed aircraft had just begun; it was too early
to even think of a "probably cause," as airline crash solutions are called. All
indications seemed to show that the Electra was basically safe and air worthy at slow speeds.
And it would have been economically disastrous to ground whole Electra fleets. PSA, for example,
at that time had only four planes in its fleet- all Electras. It was an admittedly risky gamble,
but the Feds allowed the Electras to fly- slowed down to the speed of a Connie or a DC-6.
Still, people balked at getting on these "flying cylinders of death."
Part 2 of this story appears in the next issue.