During the 1950s and 60s decisions taken at the major US trunk airlines have to be seen in the light of the personalities that led the carriers. At Eastern this was Edward Vernon Rickenbacker a veritable powerhouse personality that made Eastern in the image of himself, for better or worse. Rickenbacker was always frugal and cautious and, admittedly along with others like Delta's C.E Woolman and American's C.R Smith, saw a gradual transition to jet equipment rather than the headlong rush that eventuated.
Eastern received its first aircraft on October 8, 1958 and the 40 frames took up a sequential registration series from N5501-N5541 (missing N5508). PIlots and Rickenbacker himself loved the Electra. Due to Rickenbacker's personal dictate the Electra's appeared with huge 'Fly Eastern's Prop-Jet Electra' titles on them. The aircraft were outfitted in a no doubt luxurious 68 seat all first class configuration. The last three deliveries were L-188Cs with a higher gross weight.
Services began in January 1959 but very quickly it became obvious something serious was wrong with the Electra as 3 aircraft proceeded to crash in less than a year - all inflight. Fortunately none of these crashes were of Eastern aircraft. Already without the crashes the Electra hadn't been pleasing customers since the noise in the forward cabin was high. Lockheed redesigned the engine nacelles and tilted the engines up 3 degrees to try and remedy this issue.
Note the below Aeroclassics model wears the predelivery colours which say 'FLY EASTERN'S ELECTRA PROP-JET' not 'FLY EASTERN'S PROP-JET ELECTRA'
In a sign of the times, that would never be repeated today, the FAA didn't ground the Electras but did put a speed restriction on the type whilst investigations were underway. Eventually it was discovered that vibrations from the outboard engines transmitted along the wing literally tore the wings off the aircraft. Lockheed were forced to implement a costly modification programme (they called it LEAP - Lockheed Electra Achievement Program). Each of the 145 delivered Electras required a 20 day overhaul before they could re-enter service. By this time Lockheed had already decided to end production due to the obvious competition from short-haul jets. With 170 orders (not abysmal for the 1950s) the programme still lost Lockheed $57 million plus another $55 million in lawsuits.
The backlash against the Electra at Eastern was massive and reinforced by the crash of N5533 on October 4, 1960, which was nothing to do with the airframe. On this occasion birdstrike was to blame as flight 375 to New York hit a flock of Starlings on take-off from Boston in the early evening. Three of the four engines were damaged with engine one shutting down. The aircraft stalled and crashed vertically into Winthrop bay. Eight passengers and two flight attendants seated at the rear were thrown clear but the other 62 onboard perished as the aircraft sank. As part of the accident investigation 16 experienced Electra pilots attempted to keep the aircraft in the air, and all failed on their first attempt.
A combination of the crash and the Electra's speed restrictions and design flaw publicity saw a boycott of the type and load factors slipped from 75-50%. Rickenbacker reinforced his mistake in buying so many Electras by also delaying delivery of his DC-8s enabling Delta to sneak in and take them instead. Delta then put them into service between New York and Houston destroying the load factor on Eastern's competing service, which used Electras. Until then the load on the Electras had been 90% but within a fortnight Eastern had to temporarily abandon its direct service on the route. One of the issues Eastern had, aside from the lack of cash, was that its route network didn't really support the first jets, which were primarily long haul aircraft. What Eastern needed was a 727 but it'd be years before they were developed (partly at the instigation of Eastern).
The ongoing Electra problems and Boston crash, as well as a wildcat pilot strike and economic recession, were all contributory factors to Eastern posting its first loss, of $3.6 million, in 26 years, in 1960. This unfortunately coincided with the airline at least nominally having a new CEO, Malcom MacIntyre. He would spend much of his time trying to wrestle Eastern from Rickenbacker's control. The pair agreed on almost nothing but MacIntyre had been left a rather poisoned chalice and in the eyes of some, Rickenbacker's close friend Laurance Rockefeller for example, the Electra deal was the beginning of many of Eastern's later travails. Things would get worse for Eastern in 1961 and 1962 and MacIntyre's tenure would be ended in 1963.
The Electra's would however continue to serve and eventually benefit from one of MacIntyre's initiatives - the Eastern Shuttle. For part 2 of this story see:
- Eastern's Electras Pt2: Shuttle Survivors
Cearley Jr, G.W. Eastern Air Lines: An Illustrated History
Russell, D.L. Eastern Air Lines: A History, 1926-1991
Serling, R.J. From the Captain to the Colonel: An Informal History of Eastern Air Lines
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: