Lockheed L-188 Electra

by Peter J. Gates


In 1953, a time when major carriers were still operating large fleets of piston engined aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3 / 4 / 6 / 7’s and Lockheed Constellation, the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers were planning for the time when aircraft would be needed to replace these older generation airliners. Capital Airlines of the United States was keenly viewing the British built Vickers Viscount and were seriously contemplating the purchase of this revolutionary British aircraft. The Capital planning staff approached Lockheed with a view to producing what they termed an ‘American Viscount’, in the hope that the business could be kept in their own country.

Lockheed ran some preliminary design studies based on the Capital requirements and also took the time to pass these findings on to several other major U.S. carriers to gauge the market reaction. The results were poor to say the least. Most carriers still failed to appreciate the possibilities of turboprop equipment and as a result the project was shelved.

One of the highlights of 1954 was the first flight of the Boeing 707 prototype N70700, affectionately known as ‘Old Dash Eighty’ on 15th July. Most larger U.S. carriers were already gearing up to introduce the flying public to the joys of jet travel and while the planning staff of most airlines agreed on the jet airliner as the future of the airline industry, few if any, saw the jet as a short haul prospect. With this in mind American airlines approached the U.S. airframe companies late in 1954 with their requirements for a short / medium haul airliner capable of carrying 60 - 70 passengers over an average distance of 700 miles. With the interest of one of the largest carriers in the continental United States showing an interest in a new airliner, several companies including Lockheed set about providing the necessary information. Apart from Capital, American Airlines was the only carrier showing interest in an American built prop-jet aircraft. In the long run however, all of Lockheed’s proposals were rejected. Lockheed has envisaged a high wing aircraft with a speed of 350 m.p.h. The project was given the designation CL-303.

By 1955 American Airlines were once again knocking on Lockheed’s front door with a new proposal. This time a much larger aircraft was required with a range of 2000 miles and the capacity to carry at least 75 passengers. What American was really saying was, ‘Give us an airplane with these specifications and we’ll buy it!’ This certainly aroused the interest of several manufacturers including Convair. Designers at the Convair plant submitted a proposed turboprop aircraft designated the Model 15. Based on the American Airlines needs, the aircraft was to have an overall length of 95 feet, a cruising speed of 330 m.p.h. and a range of 750 miles. Based loosely on the popular Convair 340 type and with a beefed up maximum take-off weight of 67,900 lbs the Model 15 would have been in direct competition with the Viscount 800 series. The Model 15 would have been equipped with either the Rolls-Royce Dart, the Napier Eland or the Allison 501 engine. In the end American chose the Lockheed proposal and the Convair Model 15 project was shelved.

Capital Airlines went on to purchase the Viscount, their first aircraft a type 744 registered N7402, entered service on 15th June 1955, but it is interesting to note that they later ordered five Electras in 1959. Although the Electras were painted in the new Capital livery and flew from the Burbank plant, none were ever delivered due to Capital’s financial problems which led to the merger with United Airlines.

The plans submitted by Lockheed were by far the most interesting to American Airlines. The CL-310 was basically the aircraft they were looking for, a low wing four engined turboprop with a cruising speed of 500 m.p.h. and a range of 1,850 statute miles carrying at least an 18,000 lb payload. The initial idea of a high wing was dismissed by American due to doubts about safety aspects in the event of a wheels-up landing or ditching into the sea. We have seen this high wing design become a world-wide success with the Fokker Friendship airliner. But, as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. The CL-310 looked to be the very aircraft American was seeking, when quite suddenly a new player stepped into the arena.

Eastern Airlines were also acutely aware of the need to expand and provide newer, faster and more economical aircraft to the American public. At this stage the seeds of turboprop power had well and truly taken root after the success of the Viscount, and airlines were beginning to take very seriously this new form of power. One must remember that while the larger jet transports were firmly entrenched in the planner’s mind for long distance services, the short range jet transports, namely the Boeing 727 did not even commence production until the end of 1960! The eastern requirements were for an even larger aircraft and Lockheed once again scaled up the design of the CL-310, renaming it the L-188.

A vital ingredient in the planning of any aircraft is the powerplant. Lockheed had amassed many trouble-free hours of operation with the Alison T56 engine, installed on the C-130 Hercules transport, and from the beginning it was decided that this would be the powerplant for the L-188 project. The design staff at the General Motors plant were keen to ensure the engine, given the civil number of ‘501’, would perform well in the commercial airline arena. With this in mind, a U.S.A.F. YC-131 was fitted with theengine and flown for some 84 days during what was termed ‘Operation Hourglass’. An R7V Constellation was also used to test the powerplant, along with the prototype L1049 which had the number four position retrofitted with the Allison 501. The U.S.N. R7V actually flew 3.300 trouble free hours, truly a testimony to a fine power plant!

American Airlines placed their order for the L-188 on 8th June 1955. The order for 35 aircraft set the ball rolling and although the order book was not exactly bursting at the seam, by September 25th Eastern Airlines placed their order for 40 aircraft. Lockheed was now fully committed to large scale production of the L-188, and late in 1955 the name of ‘Electra’ was given to the aircraft, in honour of the successful pre-war Lockheed transport of the same name. Meanwhile construction of the prototype went ahead at Burbank. In October 1955 Braniff, Western, National and K.L.M. added their names to the order book.

In the course of time further development led to increases in gross weight and payload, and by September 1957 the aircraft had a useful payload of 26,500 lbs. By the time the prototype N1881 first flew on 6th December 1957, Lockheed was already at the advanced stage of producing another variant - the L-188C. This aircraft was specifically designed for the international carriers and featured a planned gross weight of 116,000 lbs.

The first prototype was followed by N1882, the second aircraft, which first flew on 13th February 1958, and the fourth aircraft N1884 on 10th April 1958. Lockheed retained the third prototype for use in static tests before its first flight as N1883 on 19th August 1958. This particular aircraft was later used as the prototype airframe for the P-3 Orion or YP3V-1 as it was known. This aircraft finally made it into the air on 25th November 1959. Although few sales eventuated, the Electra at least had the distinction of flying around the world in simulated airline configuration, with an unblemished record. The fourth prototype was eventually purchased by Cathay Pacific Airways on 1st April 1959 as VR-HFO.

The Electra certainly impressed all those who were fortunate enough to ride in her during the world wide tour. Journalists jumped at the opportunity to sample the delights of prop-jet travel. The British built Viscount had broken all the barriers to turbo-prop travel and the Electra was certainly out to impress the industry leaders with its revolutionary design and performance. The newspapers of the time were filled with tales of normal climb-out with three engines feathered or effortless departures after pouring on full power right at the moment of touch-down. It is interesting that the Electra introduced something that these days we simply take for granted (or choose to ignore) - piped music in the cabin. The Electra was truly a ‘piot’s airplane’ with huge reserves of power and exceptional handling capabilities.To put it loosely it was grossly overpowered with those huge 13ft 6in diameter Aero Products or Hamilton standard paddle type propellers offering immediate surges of thrust just when it was needed the most, and when put to the test it handled like a fighter rather than a passenger transport.

The flight deck was another area the Lockheed designers had spent considerable time and money to develop. Upon entering the flight station one was immediately impressed with the huge work area and well designed instrument panel. The two main windshield panels would probably qualify as the largest of any type airliner in use or development at the time. As the aircraft features the distinctive stubby nose for which it has become well known a 15 degree downward angle of vision was available. The moveable side windows were specifically designed as large as possible to act as emergency exits and the installation of non-skull piecing controls on the overhead panel added to the refinements and general thorough Lockheed planning. It must be remembered that while we take this type of flight deck for granted these days, pilots were used to working in cramped and sometimes badly designed cockpits.

The spacious cabin was due to the unusually large diameter of 136 inches which allowed for various seating configurations, from four-abreast in luxury versions to six-abreast in an all economy configuration. Originally the aircraft was fitted with fuselage mounted speed brakes to assist in descent control but during flight tests the very high drag available from the propellers eliminated their need and thus they were removed. The Electra was turning heads where ever it appeared and had the added advantage of flying some 16 months prior to its nearest rival the British built Vickers Vanguard. The Vanguard had earned the reputation of being a hot and noisy bus-like aircraft which had first flown on 20th January 1959.

The Bristol Britannia was also considered by some to be a major rival for the L188, and during August 1956 a series 100 aircraft departed the United Kingdom on a 24,000 mile tour of the U.S.A. After long delays with icing problems the Britannia entered service with B.O.A.C. (now British Airways) on 1st February 1957. Although a beautiful and well designed aircraft the Britannia failed to make a lasting impression with the U.S. airlines. It’s interesting to note however that Air Canada went on to purchase the Vanguard while Canadian Pacific chose the Britannia in later years.

Eastern Airlines took delivery of their first Electra N5501 on 8th October 1958, with American Airlines accepting their first machine N6101A on 27th November 1958. Although a late starter in the Electra stakes, Eastern Airlines was never-the-less a driving force in the latter stages of its development, and contributed design features and enhancements to Lockheed in an effort to achieve the best possible results from the L-188 design. After a series of strikes by U.S. pilots, the first Eastern Airlines Electra flight took place on 12th January 1959. American Airlines followed with their inaugural service on 23rd January 1959. Other major airlines to order the Electra included K.L.M., Ansett A.N.A., Garuda, Northwest, Braniff and T.A.A. Lockheed now settled down to full scale production, and was turning out on average eight aircraft per month. By the end of 1959 the Burbank plant had delivered at least 100 Electras to happy customers.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific Ocean the Australian domestic carriers were preparing to take delivery of this revolutionary aircraft. Much has been written about the infamous two-airline policy fostered by the Menzies Government. To the average Australian traveller it became both an exasperating nuisance and a source of endless jokes. When one airline’s aircraft had landed, visitors at the airport would immediately scan the skies in the same direction, and sure enough, with minutes a tiny speck would materialise from the distance, to herald the arrival of the rival airline’s service. In most cases the same type of aircraft operated the service.

As an example of the Government in action, T.A.A. were forced under the ‘Airlines Equipment Act’ to lease from Ansett A.N.A. two of their DC-6B aircraft, whilst leasing three of their Vickers Viscount 700 aircraft to Ansett A.N.A.! This severely penalised T.A.A. but was certainly in favour of Ansett A.N.A. which was having great difficulty in competing with T.A.A.’s Viscounts. T.A.A. had been responsible for the introduction of some revolutionary aircraft since its inception, notably the Convair 240’s and of course the Vickers Viscount 700 series.

Trans Australia Airlines, like other world airlines, had been making plans for the introduction of larger and faster aircraft to complement their Viscount fleet, and had in mind the Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle jet airliner as the flagship of their fleet. The aircraft, which was first flown on 27th May 1955 was considered far too large and sophisticated for the Australian market by Ansett A.N.A. The Australian Government agreed and was appalled at the thought of the huge sums of money needed to upgrade airports throughout the country. Ansett A.N.A. on the other hand firmly believed in the Electra as the ideal aircraft for the Australian market. The Australian Government however was again thinking British and directed both companies to order the Viscount 800 series and applied considerable pressure.

At this point in time Qantas Airways entered the picture. They too were in the market for an economical aircraft to operate their Asia and Pacific routes, and after many years of happy association with the Lockheed company and their Constellation series, opted for the Electra. This type of pressure forced T.A.A. into the purchase of the Electra, when the Government did an about-face based on the Qantas orders.

To this day there are many airline staff who still have a bitter taste in their mouth over the Government’s decision.

Ansett A.N.A. placed an order for their first Electra on 9th December 1958 and the aircraft VH-RMA was delivered on 27th February 1959. The first T.A.A. Electra VH-TLA ‘John Eyre’ was delivered on 15th June 1959. It is interesting to note that both T.A.A. and Ansett A.N.A. later purchased the Viscount 800 series to supplement their growing prop-jet fleets. Once in service the spacious interior of the Electra became a firm favourite with the Australian air traveller. The airlines spent large sums of money advertising the speed and reliability of the ‘Giant of the Jet Age’. The Electra combined with the Viscount and Fokker Friendship became the backbone of Australia’s airlines. Throughout the country both T.A.A. and Ansett A.N.A. threw open the aircraft to public inspection, and on the 25th February a bright-eyed boy received the thrill of his young life when he boarded VH-RMB at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm Airport and found himself seated in the captain’s seat of this huge aircraft. It was a thrill I’ll never forget!

Qantas took delivery of their first L-188C VH-ECA on 30th October 1959. While the Australian carriers were busily placing their new aircraft into service, a sinister series of events was taking place in the U.S.A., which would change forever the destiny of the Lockheed Electra.

On 29th september 1959 the Braniff L-188A N9705C crashed outside Buffalo, Texas, with the loss of 35 lives. The fact that the wreckage was spread over a wide area indicated an in-flight break-up. The cause however was a complete mystery. The American F.A.A. conducted an investigation but was unable to pinpoint the cause and so the accident was about to be shelved when on 17th March 1960 a Northwest Electra N121US crashed near Tell City under similar circumstances. This rang alarm bells through the entire industry, as it was obvious the Electra had a serious problem. The immediate response from the press was to have the aircraft grounded immediately. Naturally this did not sit too well with the various Electra operators, as they had spent thousands of dollars extolling the virtues of travelling in speed and comfort in the Electra. The F.A.A. ordered an inspection of some 50 aircraft in an attempt to piece together the mystery. In a dramatic and most unpopular move, speed restrictions were imposed and the aircraft was given a maximum cruising speed of 225 knots I.A.S. As would be expected this severely penalised the airlines, but the F.A.A. stood firm despite severe criticism.

The eventual cause was ‘whirl mode’ or ‘gyroscopic whirl’ as it was also called. This indicated that the Electra’s wing and engine mounts were faulty. From the very beginning several journalists had commented on the engines ‘jumping’ duringturbulence, mainly the outboard fittings. This was not deemed unusual as all aircraft have this built-in characteristic in one way or another. In the case of the Electra however, this proved to be fatal.

To briefly describe the condition, a sudden jolt caused by heavy to severe turbulence would cause the engine to jump on its engine mountings, which as later discovered were weakened. This in turn would set up vibrations which would very quickly travel the entire length of the wing until it reached the wing root itself. The vibration would cause the wing to flex and buckle beyond all design limitations and eventually snap causing the wing to separate from the fuselage. This explained the miles of debris found before the major impact site.

Once the cause of the accidents was established, Lockheed set about notifying all Electra operators. In a meeting held at the Burbank plant on 12th May 1960 it was revealed that the speed restrictions imposed by the F.A.A. - this included the Department of Civil Aviation in Australia - the set of circumstances needed to cause structural failure could not eventuate. As a result all Electra operators continued to abide by the restrictions and although not a popular decision with 225 kts I.A.S. on the clock, at least the aircraft stayed in the air.

The Lockheed answer to the problem was ‘L.E.A.P.’ - the Lockheed Electra Achievement Programme! This called for all Electras in service to be returned to the Burbank factory for modification. While the airlines assured staff and the general public alike that the Electra was safe, the press at the time certainly did nothing to help the matter. The headlines spoke of the ‘killer plane’, with often contradictory and confusing reports.

To Lockheed’s credit the L.E.A.P. modifications were a complete success and the whole programme swung into action almost immediately. The modifications called for stiffeners and bracing to be added to the engine nacelles and the use of heavier gauge panels in some wing areas. The F.A.A. lifted the speed restrictions on 5th February 1961 and the aircraft settled down to regular service.

The Lockheed Corporation had and still has a reputation for integrity and reliability and the manner in which the modifications were carried out certainly highlighted these qualities. It must be noted that Lockheed accepted full financial responsibility for all modifications - the only costs incurred by the airlines were those associated with ferrying individual aircraft to and from Burbank. All Electras that re-entered service and all subsequent production aircraft were dubbed ‘Electra Mk 11’ airliners in a further effort to steer the public away from the unpleasant events of the past. Production of the Electra ceased in mid 1960 due to several factors, not the least that the last order held by Lockheed saw a delivery date of late 1961. With no new orders on the books, and only 170 aircraft ordered, it was obvious that termination of the project was the only viable alternative.

During the early stages of production and planning it was agreed that at least 300 aircraft would have to be constructed to break even. A conservative estimate of the losses Lockheed incurred during the L.E.A.P. programme was put at $US 25 million. This figure coupled with the short haul jet airliners already in the advanced stages at Boeing and Douglas virtually crippled the Electra project.

Most of the United States carriers relegated their Electras to secondary routes after the arrival of the Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9 aircraft in the mid 1960’s. Eastern Airlines for example, operated a highly successful ‘no frills’ shuttle service with their substantial Electra fleet for many years before finally placing them on the second-hand market. The resale value of the aircraft was always high despite the troubled history. Stories abound regarding several low-time Electras stored in the open for many years in highly corrosive conditions, and the fact that due to high resale prices they were finally scrapped because the airlines who needed this type of equipment didn’t have the financial resources to match the prices asked.

T.A.A.’s three strong fleet of Electras were sold during 1972, after a brief period in storage. It was VH-TLB which operated TN1922, the last T.A.A. Electra service. The aircraft arrived in Brisbane on a cool and rainy day on 30th April 1971. There was no ceremony and no sentimental words. The aircraft was simply towed to a hangar and stored awaiting sale. Ansett Airlines on the other hand, sent their first Electra VH-RMA for conversion to pure freighter configuration on 6th March 1972. The second and third aircraft, VH-RMB and VH-RMC, followed in rapid succession. For many years to come Ansett Air Freight operated a highly successful service with these aircraft and carried all manner of goods from fruit and veggies to live horses. Several flights were operated from Brisbane to Honiara in the early 1980’s to clear a huge backlog of freight from the Qantas freight terminal. So successful was the Electra freighter that an additional aircraft VH-RMG was purchased from McCulloch International on 23rd August 1975. This aircraft operated until 1978 when it was returned to the United States.

Ansett disposed of their faithful Electras during 1984 amid a flurry of media interest and thus an era of Australian aviation drew to a close. Sadly VH-RMC which first arrived in this country in February 1959 crashed near Kansas City on 9th January 1985 while flying as N357Q. The aircraft had been sold to T.P.I. on 14th September 1984.No article on the Electra would be complete without mention of the Varig ‘Ponte Aerea’ in Brazil. With a current fleet of 14 Electras Varig has the distinction of operating the world’s largest passenger carrying Electra fleet.

Although the Boeing 737-300 is rumoured to be the aircraft that will finally replace the Electra, one cannot but admire the class and dependability offered by those Electras as they ply their trade on the lucrative Rio - Sao Paulo route. A job they have been doing since 1975! Although the Electras still have many years left in their airframe, once again it’s economics that dictate the rules of the game. The Electra simply cannot cope with the increasing passenger loads and frequencies. At present Varig dispatch one aircraft every 15 minutes but much more and they system would fail. However in this fickle and ever-changing world once can only speculate on the time that Varig will offer its final Electra service.

To the aviation enthusiast a trip to Miami or Detroit’s Willow Run airport will certainly offer the opportunity to view the Electra, even in this jet age. The aircraft is still much in demand as a freighter and still has many many years of life left in dozens of examples spread across the world. In its brief but turbulent history the Electra has carved a name for itself as a powerful and faithful workhorse and it is a shame that it has been tagged a ‘problem’ aircraft.

Only recently while speaking with a friend of mine, I mentioned that I was writing an article on the Lockheed Electra. His comment ... ‘Ah yes the Electra, it used to crash a lot, didn’t it?’

There is however another side. I was also speaking with an old school friend whose dad had many years of command experience with one of the domestic airlines. I mentioned my article to the gentleman who had flown on the DC-6, Viscount, Electra, B-727 and Airbus, and I asked him which aircraft he most enjoyed flying. Without hesitation and with a warm grin he announced ... ‘The Electra most definitely! Now that was a real aircraft!’