The Lockheed L-188 Electra prop-jet airplanes were high tech in the 50s… but then the planes started crashing

The Lockheed Electra L-188 prop-jet airplane

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First entering service with Eastern Air Lines in 1959, the Lockheed L-188 Electra was a leap forward in airline technology when it appeared.

Selling well right out of the box (as the below ad indicates — 144 initial orders) the Electra was bound to be an overnight success. And it was — for a time.

Unfortunately, a design defect with the engine mounts caused an oscillation to be transmitted from the outboard engines to the wings, vibrating the wings in a severe up-and-down motion — until the wings would tear right off the plane.

Three Electras were lost in this way in the fourteen months between February 1959 and March 1960.

While the defect was tracked down and remedied in existing planes, and all new ones were built with the modifications, only a total of 170 Electras ended up being manufactured.

Despite the stigma from the early failures, Electras went on to serve long-lasting careers as freighters. Moreover, the military version — the P3 Orion — ended up selling over 700 aircraft, many of which were still in operation more than 50 years after their original appearance.

Lockheed Electra plane crash (from LIFE Feb 16, 1959)

Normal approach pattern which Electra failed to follow is shown by streaks in 20-minute ime exposure of planes landing on Runway 22. Horizontal streak is made by a plane on a false pass.

Salvaging Electra, a giant derrick barge in East River already has wingtip and outboard engine on deck as a crane prepares to bring up a section of fuselage. In background are lights of Runway 22.

LIFE Feb 16, 1959 Lockheed Electra plane crash 2

A Wingtip of the sunken Electra protrudes from the East River near a line of pilings. The tip, a short submerged piece of wing and the outboard motor attached to it, made up first piece salvaged.

LIFE Feb 16, 1959 Lockheed Electra plane crash

Shredded wing from Texas crash is inspected by experts Jack Leak (left), John Cyrocki in warehouse where remains were taken.

LIFE Jul 25, 1960 Electra plane crashes

LIFE Jul 25, 1960 Electra plane crashes 1

Order in chaos, with seats still upright and part of tail leaning against tree, is looked over by state patrolmen after crash near Buffalo, Texas.

LIFE Jul 25, 1960 Electra plane crashes 2

Fatal pit where Electra and 63 occupants plunged near Tell City, Ind. was too hot for investigators to begin digging until eight days after crash.

LIFE Jul 25, 1960 Electra plane crashes 3

Boston flight crash – the fifth in 2 years (1960)

Here’s the turbo-prop Lockheed Electra after it plunged into Winthrop Bay. It was carrying 72 passengers and crew, and only 11 survived.

Shown here, a Navy tug hauls out the nearly-intact tail – from LIFE Oct 17, 1960

Lockheed Electra plane crash in LIFE Oct 17, 1960

About the Lockheed L-188 Electra, from vintage magazine ads

The Lockheed L-188 Electra makes her debut - a leap forward in airline technology (1958)

Lockheed Electra (1958)

The only practical, economically sound air transportation machine for “short-to-medium haul” airline routes!

“Short-to-medium haul” What is it?

Route patterns divide into “long-haul,” “medium-haul,” and “short-haul”… each with different characteristics… each requiring a specialized air transport to fit its needs. Short and long-haul characteristics and the kind of machine needed are most clearly defined. Medium-haul is between the two, and is less clearly definable.

Route definition

(1) Long-haul: a pattern of long, non-stop flights between big cities with big airports — generating heavy traffic.

(2) Short-to-medium haul: involves a varied pattern with many intermediate stops — with lower flying altitudes for shorter periods – and between large, medium and small cities… some with small airports and with traffic varying from very heavy to very thin.

Transport requirement

(1) Requires the large turbo-jet powered airplane, flying at high cruise speeds and high altitudes for long periods.

(2) Requires a highly specialized, flexible machine of just the right size and carefully tailored to fit “short-to-medium” haul needs. Emphasis must be on economics since airline unit operating costs are inherently higher in this area.

Since 35% to 65% of air traffic travels on “short-to-medium” haul routes, profit or loss on this portion of the system determines airline financial success.

MORE: A 1950s tour guide to Hawaii: See what the islands looked like before becoming the 50th state

Lockheed Electra June 28 1958

Lockheed Electra…

The Electra is the only practical air transport in the market or under development, explicitly designed from the very start to fit the particular functional needs of “short-to-medium haul.” It was designed and produced by the greatest team in aviation history: Aircraft by Lockheed (California Division) / Power by General Motors (Allison Division)

ALSO SEE: Pretty, thin, young and single? Check out these sexist stewardess job requirements of the ’50s & ’60s

This outstanding team, by employing the most advanced aircraft and turbine power technology in the proper combination for the required job in the turbine age, developed and produced the Electra.

Results that solve the short-to-medium haul problem for today and tomorrow

Realistic economies: Profitability under today’s and tomorrow’s operating conditions. No unknowns!

Dependable passenger appeal: Quiet, vibration free. Shortest elapsed trip time and most frequent schedules with all-weather dependability. Not just novelty appeal!

Practical operational performance: For “many-stop” schedules under today’s air traffic control conditions. No unpleasant surprises!

Realistically achievable: Highest utilization, shortest ground time with practical load factors on “many-stop” schedules. The tool fitted to the job!

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation
Burbank, California

Electra/Flight: More flights — to more places

Jet age travel coming this fall — 25% faster city-to-city schedules

The Lockheed Electra makes her debut (1958)

ALSO SEE: Knute Rockne’s TWA airplane crashes – The football legend among the 8 killed (1931)

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