Crash of a Troubled Bird

After some close calls, a chartered plane goes down in Nevada

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The Lockheed Electra, with its four jet engines driving propellers, was a hybrid designed to bridge two aviation ages. But its birth in the late 1950s was a painful one. Two of the early Electras lost wings, one over Texas in 1959, the other over Indiana in 1960. Ninety-seven people died. The 400-m.p.h. propjet plane was found to suffer from a "runaway flutter," in which vibration was transmitted from an engine to a propeller and then to a wing, which would sometimes shake loose. Lockheed spent $25 million to modify the design and strengthen the plane. Gradually, most pilots lost their fear of the aircraft, and a military version, the P-3C Orion, has proved reliable in tracking submarines.

One particular Electra, however, managed to revive memories of the aircraft's ominous beginnings. Put into service in 1959, this craft was acquired in 1983 by Galaxy Airlines, a Fort Lauderdale charter service. When John Glenn used it for one trip during his campaign for the Democratic nomination last year, the pilot aborted a landing at Sioux City, Iowa, because of poor visibility and narrowly missed a control tower. A month later, another Democratic candidate, Jesse Jackson, chartered the same Galaxy Electra. On a trip with Jackson from Washington to Dallas last May, the Electra repeatedly shook, dropped and pitched in heavy turbulence. Recalled Juan Williams of the Washington Post: "It was a terrible flight. It's always a touchstone to see the stewardess calmly smiling, but she was screaming and vomiting." The Secret Service asked the Federal Aviation Administration to check out the plane. It did so, but found nothing wrong.

Two cargo-carrying Electras crashed in the past nine months. One broke up in flight over Pennsylvania, killing all four people aboard. The other missed its approach while trying to land in Kansas City; the three crewmen died.

One man who never lost faith in the Galaxy Electra was Allen Heasley, 49, of Coconut Creek, Fla., a veteran charter pilot. He had flown the Navy version in Viet Nam, his wife Dorothy said last week, and the Electra was his "favorite plane."

Heasley was asked by Galaxy to return a group of Minneapolis-area residents from a three-day outing to Caesars casino on Lake Tahoe, Nev., over Super Bowl weekend. On Sunday many of those who did not fly off to the game attended a Super Bowl party at the casino. The mood of the travelers was light as they took a bus to Reno, where the Electra was waiting for them. At the last minute, Douglas Abalan, 38, and his wife Beverly, dreading the four-hour flight and the 5 a.m. arrival in Minneapolis, checked into Reno's MGM Grand Hotel and played the slot machines. She hit a payoff of $300, then $150. He struck a $1,500 jackpot. The Electra, meanwhile, had been used on other hops around the West. Another crew was about to fly it out of Las Vegas on Sunday morning when an Eastern Airlines pilot, following the Electra, radioed the tower: "You ought to tell that Lockheed Electra . . . that they oughta look at their No. 1 engine. That thing's smoking a lot and losing some kind of liquid." Replied the tower: "Galaxy 532, did you copy that?" Responded a Galaxy crew member: "Yes, thank you. We didn't get any indication; will take a look at it next stop." They did so, but found nothing wrong.

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