Vintage Plastic Modeling – Revell’s Lockheed L188 Electra

By Dennis Sparks 

Long range commercial aviation was dominated in the early 1950s by aircraft like the Douglas DC-6 and DC-7, Lockheed’s L-749 and L-1069 Constellation and Boeing’s Model 377 Stratocruiser.  But the sound of the future could already be heard in the whine of the turbojet engine, which was soon to be powering aircraft such as the deHavilland Comet, Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.

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Early reciprocating and jet aircraft kits (click any to enlarge) 

But for a time at least, it seemed that there was yet another type of engine that would be suitable for commercial aircraft, one that would bridge the gulf between the traditional reciprocating engines and the new turbojets.


Introduced in 1953, the Vickers Viscount became the world’s first airliner to be powered by turboprop engines.  Both Capitol and Continental Airlines operated the Viscount in the US, but with an initial capacity of around 50 passengers, it was seen as a bit too small for some routes.  Therefore, American Airlines had asked Lockheed for a similar aircraft that could instead seat 75 100 and their response was their Model L188.  Lockheed chose to revive the name Electra for the new airliner from their 1930’s vintage Model 10.   The most famous Model 10 was the one flown by Amelia Earhart.

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Various Viscount models (click any to enlarge) 

American launched the L188 by placing an order for 35 aircraft in June 1955.  By the time the first prototype had flown in December 1957, Lockheed had orders from Eastern, Braniff, Northwest and others totaling 144 aircraft, which was about halfway to Lockheed’s estimate of the 300 needed to financially break even on the design.


Electra Prototype 

In Commercial Service

The new aircraft was initially popular with both aircrew and passengers.  It’s four 3750 shp. Allison turboprops made it 100 mph faster than the aircraft it was intended to supplant.  Its passenger compartment was also larger, quieter and more comfortable.  Due to an ongoing pilot’s strike at American, Eastern became the first airline to place the Electra in service, with the first flight on 12 January 1959 from New York’s LaGuardia airport to Miami.  With the strike over, American’s Electras entered service a few days later.


Early Eastern Airlines Electra 

Disaster struck quickly.  On 03 February, American’s first L188, registered as N6101A, crashed into the East River while on approach to LaGuardia, and 65 of the 73 aboard were killed.  The subsequent investigation blamed pilot error, citing among other things, a faulty setting on the altimeter, leaving the autopilot engaged too far into the approach, and marginal weather.  Coincidentally, that same day Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens were killed in an unrelated plane crash at Clear Lake, Iowa.


American Airlines Electra 

Worse was to come.  On 29 September 1959, Braniff’s Flight 542, an L188 enroute from Houston to New York broke up in the air over Buffalo, Texas, killing all 33 aboard.  Pieces of aluminum and fuel literally rained on eyewitnesses, and the left wing was found several miles from the crash site.  On 17 March 1960, a second Electra disintegrated over Indiana.  Eyewitnesses reported that both wings had come off the aircraft in flight.  Northwest Flight 710 crashed vertically into an open field, killing 63.

But with over 130 L188s already in service, the FAA was reluctant to ground the entire fleet.  However, as a safety precaution, they immediately ordered that the cruising speed be reduced from 373 mph to 316 mph.  On 25 March, the FAA further reduced the maximum permitted cruise speed to 259 mph.

Lockheed engineers scrambled to find out what had gone wrong.  Boeing lent staff, simulators and provided access to a wind tunnel.  Douglas sent engineers and equipment, most notably flutter vanes that could be attached to wing tips to induce oscillations.   The discovery of the nature of the problem was announced only a few weeks later on 05 May 1960.  The engine mounts, which had not designed by Lockheed, were found to be too weak and susceptible to damage.  The outboard engines then induced a whirl mode oscillation in the wing, which was by coincidence near the natural oscillation frequency of the wing, causing failure in as little as 30 seconds.

Lockheed immediately recalled all of the aircraft, strengthening the engine mounts and the wing.  The total cost of the modification program was $25 million, all of which was borne by Lockheed.  In 1961, the FAA lifted the speed limits on the modified aircraft.

But the Electra’s reputation had been ruined and no further airline orders were forthcoming.  Production ended that same year with only 170 examples built.  Although turboprop engines remain popular for smaller commuter and corporate aircraft, the Electra was to be the only large American-built turboprop airliner.  A number of L188s were converted to cargo aircraft with the addition of a strengthened floor and a large cargo door.  The last domestic airline to offer passenger service in Electras was Reeve Aleutian Airways, which sold off its fleet in 2001.

New Life as the Orion

Fortunately for Lockheed, the US Navy had been looking for a suitable aircraft to replace the P2V Neptune, which was currently in service as a long range patrol bomber and was being used primarily for anti-submarine patrol.  The performance characteristics of the L188 airframe proved to be a good match to the Navy’s requirements.  The first of over 600 P-3 Orions flew in August 1958, and the type remains in service, only now being replaced by a naval 737 variant.

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Various Revell P-3 Issues (click any to enlarge) 

The Kits

Revell released their 1/115th scale kit of the Electra in 1957.  In addition to the straight-up airliner, Revell also produced a special boxing that featured decals for the Electra that was being leased at the time by the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.  The Dodgers Electra was intended to be sold exclusively at the baseball stadium’s gift shop, and never appeared on the shelves at the local hobby emporium or dime store.  Just as rare is the Revell Kikoler issue of a Varig Electra.

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Revell S, Post-S, Skyway Promotional (for American) and Kikoler Brazil Issues (click any to enlarge) 

The mold was later altered to yield a kit of the P-3A Orion by adding a MAD boom and deleting the windows, so the original kit can never be re-released.  Unbuilt and complete examples of the airliner kit in an ‘excellent’ box go for $150 and up.  The kit of the Dodgers and Varig Electra are much more rare, and accordingly commands much higher prices, on the order of $500 or so.

My father built two examples of the Revell Electra, with the first one using the American Airlines decals that were provided with the kit.  The registration number is N6100A, which may have actually been one of Lockheed’s demonstration aircraft, since as I noted earlier, American’s first Electra was registered as N6101A.   To the best of my recollection, Dad brush painted the overall natural metal finish, working from a baby food jar of aluminum paint that he’d appropriated from the Tenneco plant where he worked.

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Revell Electra as built by the author’s father (click any photo to enlarge) 

Eastern Airlines’ Electras entered service wearing the blue window stripe and the red Falcon logo as seen on their earlier Connies.  But they began repainting their aircraft in the blue “hockey stick” logo in 1964, and I can recall Dad saving newspaper advertisements that featured photos of Eastern’s Electras in this new scheme.  During a visit with my aunt in Louisville, we made a side trip to Standiford Field so that he could make notes about the various markings and colors used on these aircraft.


Eastern Airlines Electra postcard from the 1970s 

He used spray cans of flat white and silver from the hardware store to paint this second Electra, opting to model N5501, which was Eastern’s first Electra.  If there were any aftermarket decals available at the time for Eastern’s new scheme, Dad didn’t know about them, so he carefully hand painted all of the markings, using his notes and sketches as guidelines.   I don’t know if we saw this actual aircraft at Standiford, but it was the one that was featured in the newspaper ads.  And since he seldom discarded anything willingly, I still have one of these clippings and his notes.

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 Eastern Electra, built and custom painted by the same (click any photo to enlarge)  

His usual technique to keep the nose wheel on the ground was to tightly pack window glazing compound into each half of the nose before assembly, and this has proved to be an unfortunate choice.  As the glazing compound aged, it swelled slightly, with the result that many of his models are now splitting apart at the nose.  This can be seen in the photos of the Eastern Electra, but so far it has not similarly afflicted the American model.

And as usual, my thanks to fellow MMCL member Randy Fuller for taking the photos.