Posted 2 years ago
Hopefully I will enter more photos soon. I bid on ebay for this - and I got it. I did not put the original note paper that came with it in the photo but will soon. Cost me around 550.
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 disintegrate.
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 ticket
"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."
While passengers balked at getting on these "flying cylinders of death," the airlines tried to get around the bad publicity. Eastern touted its "Golden Falcon Service." National advertised "Jet Powered Service." Braniff called its Electras "L-188s." (L-188 was the Electra production number, as L-1011 is today for the Lockheed Tristar.)
Meanwhile, the investigations continued. When beautiful new airliners lose their wings for no And that is what occurred. Boeing lent staff, simulators, and a wind tunnel to Lockheed. Douglas contributed engineers and equipment; most notably flutter vanes that, when attached to the ends of the wings, could induce serious oscillation.
The investigation, occurring in the early sixties, was the first serious use of computer stress analysis in this field.
Electras were test flown in every possible form of turbulence. Test pilots tried to destroy the Electra by ramming it into the severe Sierra Madre air waves, over and over again. Electras were put through every possible flight maneuver that would normally cause a wing failure. Super severe wind tunnel winds were shot out at Electras and mock-ups. Over and over, every possible test was done to try and break the Electra.
Finally, on May 5, 1960, and engineer stood up at a Lockheed meeting and announced: "We're pretty sure we've found it."
Basically, the problem was a high-speed aircraft in a conventional design. The Electra's power plants were housed in four enormous engine nacelles protruding far forward of the straight, stubby wing. It was the two outboard engines that were involved in the Electra's destruction.
Every aircraft wing is flexible to some degree- some more than others. And wing vibration, oscillation, or flutter is inherent in the design. Flutter is expected on wings. In engineering terms, there are more than 100 different types of flutter- or "modes"- in which metal can vibrate. The "mode" that destroyed the Electras was "whirl mode."
Whirl mode was nothing new. It was not a mysterious phenomenon. As a matter of fact, it is a form of vibrating motion inherent in any piece of rotating machinery such as oil drills, table fans, and automobile drive shafts.
The theory was devastatingly simple. A propeller has gyroscopic tendencies. In other words, it will stay in a smooth plane of rotation unless it is displaced by some strong external force, just as a spinning top can be made to wobble if a finger is placed firmly against it. The moment such a force is applied to a propeller, it reacts in the opposite direction.
Now suppose the force drives the propeller upward. The stiffness that is part of its structure promptly resists the force and pitches the prop forward. Each succeeding upward force is met by a protesting downward motion. The battle of vibration progresses. The propeller continues to rotate in one direction, but the rapidly developing whirl mode is vibrating in the opposite direction. The result, if the mode is not checked, is a wildly wobbling gyroscope that eventually begins to transmit its violent motion to a natural outlet: the wing.
Whirl mode did occasionally develop in propeller-driver airliners. It always encountered the powerful stiffness of the entire engine package, the nacelles and the engine mounting, the mounting being a bar truss holding the engine to the wing. No problem usually. But on painful microscopic examination of the crash wreckage of the eight Electra engines, it was found that something caused the engines to loosen and wobble, causing severe whirl mode, which tore off the Electra's wings. Specifically, the investigation centered on the outboard engines.
What the investigators found was that the engine mounts- made for GE/Allison by the Lord Company- weren't strong enough to dampen the whirl mode that originated in the outboard engine nacelles. The oscillation transmitted to the wings caused severe up-and-down vibration, which grew until the wings tore right off.
The Braniff Electra had an over speeding prop, which produced an eerie, peculiar sound. When a tape of this sound was played for the crash witnesses, it was absolutely verified as the sound they heard. Examination of the wreckage found a loose and wobbly prop on the left wing's outboard engine. Apparently, the whirl mode caused from the wobbly, over speeding prop was unchecked by the weak engine mounts. The up-and-down motion was transmitted to the Electra's left wing. And it tore off.
The Northwest Electra, when landing for its Chicago stop, experienced a "hard landing" as verified by the lucky few who deplaned there. And all around Tell City, there was known clear air turbulence. Probably what occurred was that the hard landing and the CAT weakened the NWA Electra's outboard engines- specifically the engine mounts, causing instigation of whirl mode, and when the pilot tried to "pull up" and compensate for severe turbulence down draft, he literally tore off the already weakened wings.
It was discovered that the Lord engine mounts were not strong enough to combat the destructiveness of whirl mode.
Lockheed embarked on a mass retrofit program called LEAP (Lockheed Electra Adaptation Program). All Electras had their wings strengthened, their engine nacelles reinforced, and the mounts- which were originally a bar- became a strong "V", able to withstand much more stress.
That did it. Electras took to the skies with restored energy and speed. And then on October 4, 1960, an Eastern Electra taking off from Boston to New York crashed into Boston Bay, killing all 72 aboard.
The clamor rose up again to ground the Electras, but it was discovered on examining the mainly intact wreckage that large numbers of English starlings had been ingested into the Electra's wide engine intakes. This caused the engines to "flame out." The plane lost lift, stalled, and fell into the bay. Although this new problem was severe- for all airliners- it was fortunate in a way that this was a separate problem.
There have been other notable Electra crashes. On September 14, 1960, an American Electra flipped over upon landing at LaGuardia and hurtled onto the Grand Central Parkway, where it came to a stop, upside down. All aboard survived. Then on September 17, 1961, another Northwest Electra crashed near Chicago, killing 37 people.
Neither crash was attributed to any structural flaw in the Electra; the first involved too high a landing speed and a skid; the second resulted from an improperly replaced aileron cable.
Not too long ago, on January 20, 1985, a Galaxy Airlines Electra on a charter run crashed, killing about 80 people at Reno-Cannon airport; but this accident was attributed to a stall arising from the pilot's preoccupation with a clanging fuel port.
Electras continued to serve the airlines into the early eighties, eventually being replaced by jets.
The Navy still flies its submarine chaser version, the Orion.
And if you look in the corners of some large airports, you'll still see an occasional Electra.
A good book on the Electra (which is unfortunately out of print) is "The Electra Story by Robert Sterling (brother of Rod), published by Doubleday in 1963.