The recent discovery of an aluminum panel on Nikumaroro atoll in the South Pacific has renewed interest in the search for the Lockheed Electra flown by the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. During this blog, we will follow the development of the Electra, as well as its civil and military roles.
In spite of the Great Depression, the early 1930s was a time of expanded air traffic, in both the passenger and cargo categories. Lockheed developed the Electra to compete with the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC 2. The Electra was the first all metal plane built by Lockheed and complied with a 1934 federal requirement that all aircraft carrying mail had to be powered by more than one engine, due to a series of crashes with single engine planes. It was also Lockheed’s first major move toward becoming a key manufacturer of transport aircraft. The Electra was a cantilever low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction, with retractable tailwheel landing gear and a tail unit incorporating twin fins and rudders. The prototype was first flown in 1934, with the Model 10 entering service later that year. By the late 1930s the Electra was flown by eight major airlines, resulting in a production run of 148 aircraft.
However, it began to decline in both the cargo and passenger roles by the beginning of World War II, due to the introduction of larger aircraft types such as the Boeing Stratoliner. The Electra was relatively easy to fly and could be modified for a variety of tasks. A modified Electra was used to conduct wing de-icing tests with a system that utilized hot gasses from the engine exhausts. Sidney Cotton, an Australian executive who used an Electra Model 12 for business trips, modified the plane to carry cameras, taking clandestine photographs of German and Italian military installations over a three month period just before the beginning of World War II. Perhaps the two most famous flights of the Electra were that of Amelia Earhart, in her attempted around the world flight in 1937 and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 meeting in Munich with Adolf Hitler.
While civil interest in the Electra began to decline, the military potential of the plane increased. Lockheed, in an effort to promote foreign sales, sent cutaway drawings of the plane in 1937 to various publications, displaying the aircraft as both a civilian airliner and a converted military bomber. The following year, the British purchased a modified version of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra airliner to supplement its Avro Anson maritime patrol aircraft, the Lockheed planes designated as the Hudson Mk I. The aircraft quickly entered production with 78 aircraft available to the RAF by the start of the war in September 1939. The RAF received an additional 410 planes via the Lend Lease program. The Hudson was originally armed with two fixed Browning machine guns in the nose along with two .30 cal. machine guns in a dorsal turret. As the war progressed, the Hudson’s armament increased with the addition of two waist guns and a single ventral gun.
Operationally, the Hudson achieved a number of firsts. It was the first aircraft deployed from the British Isles to shoot down an enemy aircraft in October 1939. A Hudson was the first US plane to sink a German U boat (U 656) and the first Canadian aircraft to do the same (U 754), both in 1942. In 1941, an attack by an RAF Hudson based in Iceland forced U 570 to surface, causing the submarine’s crew to display a white flag and surrender – the aircraft being the first to capture a warship. In the Pacific, the Hudson was equally effective, with an RAAF Hudson being the first to make an attack on the Japanese Troopship Awazisan Maru off the Malayian coast, an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Saburo Sakai and other Japanese aces have praised both the durability and maneuverability of the Hudson in protracted aerial combat.
While outclassed by larger bombers later in the war, the Hudson was available at a time when it was most needed. Although difficult to take off and land, it was easy to fly. It was a versatile aircraft, performing a variety of missions ranging from antisubmarine patrols to transporting agents behind enemy lines, as well as a trainer aircraft for bomber pilots. The Hudson was noted by its pilots for exceptional agility for a twin-engine plane. Perhaps the most enduring tribute to the Hudson was it spawned the development of two other successful Lockheed aircraft, the Ventura and the P-38 Lightning.