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April 2002

Remembering an agile workhorse: A look back at the Electra (Part I)

The NCAR Facilities Laboratory (now ATD) used this image of the Electra in a 1972 newsletter announcing the arrival of the aircraft


It’s hard to overstate the importance of the now-retired NSF/NCAR Electra aircraft to the field of atmospheric science. Beginning in 1974, the durable four-engine turboprop carried researchers and their equipment around the globe, collecting often-elusive meteorological data and contending at times with hurricanes and other severe weather.

“The Electra was a hard-working tool,” says Dave Carlson, director of the Atmospheric Technology Division. “Just in terms of the number of people who got their start doing science with the Electra, together with the data collected in the many missions, it had an enormous impact.”

The airplane, still flyable, was retired last year to a storage facility in Arizona. “We’re exploring options about what to do with it,” Dave says.

The NCAR Archives staff has established an Electra Oral History Project to capture the memories of those who worked with the Electra over the last three decades. Following are excerpts from archival interviews with former Research Aviation Facility engineer Norm Zrubek and pilot Lester “Bill” Zinser. Next month, SN Monthly will publish excerpts from interviews with RAF flight technician Kurt Zrubek and MMM scientists Peggy LeMone and Don Lenschow.

Norm Zrubek

Now retired, Norm was the aeronautical engineer with RAF. His responsibilities included all engineering and modifications to RAF aircraft, including the Electra, as well as the engineering and installation of all research equipment on the aircraft. An FAA-designated engineering representative, he did the approvals for all the equipment to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

Norm Zrubek in a photograph originally taken for the July 1998 issue of SN Monthly. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

There were plans for a Global Atmospheric Research Program [GARP] in the early ’70s to be conducted off the coast of Africa. And NCAR was invited to participate and we needed a long-range aircraft for endurance and reliability. So, in 1972 we acquired the Electra, and it was subsequently outfitted and modified by Lockheed and participated in that particular program.

We did a survey [of various aircraft]. What we really wanted was a Lockheed P-3 Orion, which you may have heard of as the Navy patrol aircraft. The Navy said they would sell us one—but for 18 million bucks. And we of course had to buy a spot on the production line, too, and obviously the cost and schedule of getting a P-3 prohibited us from doing that. So we then started a survey of existing aircraft and found the Electra, which was available, and we proceeded to lease it. It was interesting at the time, that when we acquired the Electra, we had a contract with NSF that only allowed us to operate a certain

number of aircraft, and we were up to that limit. So, what we did with the Electra was we leased it. And we leased it for several years before we finally got the contract language changed to buy the aircraft.

To go back a little bit further, to talk about the history of the Electra itself, it was built in 1961. It flew for Capitol Airways for a while. Capitol was acquired by United Airlines; United was operating the Vickers Viscount aircraft, and the Electra really didn’t have any place, if you will, in their inventory. So, it was parked for a while. . . . [Eventually] Pacific Coast Airlines, I believe, picked it up and then flew it in commuter service up and down the West Coast—San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The Navy then contracted to use the airplane to fly missile-tracking missions for missiles launched out of Point Magoo in California. After that was over the airplane was parked for a while again. Then it was picked up by John King of King Resources in Denver, who was an entrepreneur oil person. It was his private aircraft, and it was outfitted in the back with private quarters. John King then met with some financial reverses and his empire folded. So the aircraft then ended up with Ford Motor Company leasing, and it was parked at Muskogee, Oklahoma, and that’s when we found it.

A group of us from RAF went down to Muskogee, looked the airplane over, and Jack Hinkelman, the RAF manager at the time, led the efforts on acquiring the aircraft. I was the technical representative, responsible for all the modifications that were done to it. NCAR acquired the aircraft and it then went to Lockheed Aircraft Service Company in Ontario, California. There, we had the nose boom put on. We had windows taken out and blank windows put in, which had a metal plate to which we could attach external items. We had apertures on the bottom and the top of the airplane so we could mount things. So, that meant that we could look up, we could look down, we could look out the side, we could put air sampling scoops on. Then, of course, the electrical system was modified too because we had anticipated quite a lot of different types of instrumentation with different types of power requirements.

The Electra was at Lockheed for about six months. We took delivery of it in April of ’73. We outfitted the aircraft with research equipment and then it left for GARP [Global Atmospheric Research Project] later in 1974. . . .

Personally I think the most interesting mission that I was involved in was Chet Gardner’s laser missions, University of Illinois, where he was looking at the iron layer in the atmosphere, which is out at about 80 to 90 kilometers [50–56 miles]. He started out with a single laser on the airplane, and this was Star Wars stuff. This orange beam projected out of the top of the airplane, and we flew at night. It was really spectacular. You would go through moisture and it would be kind of like popping popcorn. The moisture would hit this laser beam, and of course it would just explode, and it was just like Sparkle Plenty watching this thing. Then he came back later with two lasers to do the same thing, and we put those on, and we had to put a huge heavy grid support structure on the floor of the airplane. We had these two lasers on board that were very high powered, two receiving telescopes, and data systems. It was pretty spectacular.

Bill Zinser

Bill, who flew B-29s in World War II, joined NCAR as a pilot in 1966. He retired in 1984.

Bill Zinser in the cockpit of the Electra in 1974, flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

The airplane came to NCAR in 1972, but we didn’t get any training on it or start to use it because of the preparation needed to make it a viable research platform. In 1973, Jim Covington, Ted Atkinson, and I went to Miami, to Eastern Airlines’ Electra school. We started Electra ground school on September 4. We trained on the simulator until we had our first flight in their aircraft on September 11. That’s when I got my first impression of the aircraft. It was quiet up front, very easy to fly, and very sensitive on controls. I had a tendency to overcontrol because I wasn’t used to the sensitivity of hydraulic-powered controls. But once you get used to boosted controls, it’s a beautiful flying airplane. I really enjoyed it.

The Electra had been in storage for some time, causing oil seals to dry out, et cetera. Aircraft systems need to be used. After installation of research equipment and several test flights, 596KR was ready for its first research mission. On February 5, 1974, we ferried for our first flight for AMTEX [Air Mass Transformation Experiment]. We ferried to [the] Alameda, California, Naval Air Station. We departed for Hawaii on the 6th of February.

About 900 miles out, we had an EDC [engine-driven compressor] failure. The Electra is equipped with two EDCs to pressurize the plane—one EDC on engine two and one on engine three. One failed, causing a slow loss of pressurization. Then number-four prop started to leak oil. To prevent loss of prop control we had to feather the propeller with a concurrent engine shutdown. During the time it took to reverse course and shut down the engine, the cabin pressure came up, causing a crew warning light to come on. However, instead of a pressure light coming on, every warning light in the cockpit came on. Now we are without any warning systems—to the crew a more dangerous situation then the loss of one engine and pressurization.

I put the crew and observers on oxygen masks and ascertained there was enough oxygen for several hours of flight. We said to ourselves, Okay, what do we do? The airflow was such that it looked like it would be wise to return to Alameda. Interesting thing about this aircraft was that we could get more distance on two or three engines than we could on four. We easily had enough fuel on board to return to Alameda, even though we had to descend to a less fuel-efficient altitude because of the loss of pressurization. We had a relatively easy trip back, with an uneventful landing. Of all the research programs for which I was project pilot, this was the only one where I failed to get there and do the job.

After numerous attempts to solve the propeller leak problem, the project was abandoned. On one of our problem-solving flights, the aircraft suffered another pressurization part failure, and on landing at Alameda we had smoke coming out of the aircraft and were met by the base fire department. Finally all of the problems were repaired and we returned to Jeffco.

The next big project for the Electra was GATE. We departed for GATE on June 11, 1974, and arrived in Dakar on the 15th of June at 17:10 local time. This was the first big run for the Electra. It performed magnificently. We didn’t lose a day to any mechanical problems. On July 31, we helped find a ship in distress and gave the coordinates to the Coast Guard. The ship was foundering off the coast of Africa. We received a “Save” citation from the head of the GATE program. . . .

We did manage to fly through the eye of a small hurricane. It was beautiful. I have pictures of it. We measured 74-knot [85 mph] winds. It wasn’t the intent of our flight; it just kind of happened along the way. It was the first time I had flown into the eye of a hurricane. I think the pre-hurricane studies were a first and it was great to be a contributor.

I enjoyed meeting the other crews in the GATE program. I still correspond with the French captain and I used to correspond with the Russian captain. The French DC-7 pilot, Henri Prugent, had fun with our C-ration diet. Many times I would find a DC-7 menu on the captain’s seat—example: escargot and wine—with a note stating “Bon Appetit.”. . .

The Electra could take us anywhere in the world. There wasn’t any place we couldn’t go. The Electra was, in a way, an outlet to the world. I enjoyed the comradeship. I enjoyed the adventure of it, and hope I helped contribute to a better understanding of the atmosphere. How could you ask for a better career?

It was a pretty agile airplane, considering that it was built as a commercial airliner. We flew it through some pretty rough stuff. It was a good, sturdy, strong aircraft. May it rest in peace in the Arizona sun.

The Electra in its Jeffco hangar. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)


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Edited by David Hosansky, hosansky@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Fri Apr 12 17:08:40 MST 2002