Sunday, February 20, 2005

Good Book: The Electra Story, by Robert J. Serling

On September 29, 1959, a Lockheed Electra airliner crashed in Texas. Officials concluded that a wing had snapped off, but they didn’t know why. A few short months later, on March 17, 1960, another Electra passenger airline nose-dived into a soybean field near Tell City, Indiana, at more than 600 miles per hour. This time, it looked like both wings had snapped off in flight.

The public, of course, reacted with gallows humor (i.e., Mourning Becomes Electra, etc.) as well as outrage and fear. To airline officials and government investigators in charge of public safety it was no joke. And to some airline owners, a swift answer was crucial. They simply could not survive either more crashes or the groundings of their Electras, not to mention the horror of more loss of life. The bottom line: answers were needed, and fast.

The first crash had been a Braniff International Airways flight. The second had been a Northwest Orient Airlines flight. The problems couldn’t be shoved off on one carrier. The whole industry was affected.

To make it worse, this particular model of aircraft had been a pilot’s dream machine. Many of the men who flew it considered it to be better than any other airplane ever built. It was fast, smooth, and responsive, with tremendous reserve power. They considered her to be very forgiving of mistakes. If there was to be a plane that was jerked from service, they did not want it to be this one, their ‘sweetheart’.

Robert J. Serling, a leading aviation writer, detailed the crashes and their aftermath in The Electra Story: The Dramatic History of Aviation’s Most Controversial Airliner, 1963, Doubleday, reissued as The Electra Story: Aviation’s Greatest Mystery, by Bantam in 1991 as a mass market paperback. The Bantam edition is No. 9 in the Bantam Air & Space Series. It’s a compelling read, a true-life detective story.

This has been a collectible book for some time now. Even a paperback in fair condition tends to fetch $40 or more. Prices for books in better condition generally run between $60 and $150 these days. (See, you should take better care of your books, even the paperbacks.)

For a related bit of history, see Wind Tunnels of Nasa, Chapter 6: Winds Tunnels in the Space Age, The Langley Carry-Over Tunnels, at


Carol Carmel said...

I just found this Blog this morning while doing research on the September 29, 1959 plane crash of Braniff's flight 542. I'm not particuliarly interested in the plane. But, my grandfather was one of the passengers on that plane and I am looking for historical information regarding his life and times..(which was pretty crazy!) Your input has helped widen my trail. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Part of the Braniff 542 Lockheed Electra plane that crashed on September 29, 1959 landed om ,y grandfathers farm near Buffalo, Texas. I am interested in the crash and would be willing to help in any way.


Dan Chaney


Anonymous said...

I am wondering if anyone is planning a memorial for the 50th anniversery of the Braniff Electra crash in Buffalo.

This could be a day long rememberance with activities.


Dan Chaney