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The Lockheed L-188 Electra airliner was built in much smaller numbers than its famous Lockheed sister aircraft, the P-3 Orion (a long-range maritime patrol aircraft used by coast guards, armies and navies around the world), or the C-130 Hercules (one of the most successful military aircraft ever produced), even though all three planes were based on the original L-188 Electra's design principles.

The key feature of the L-188 Electra is its power source: four turboprop engines noted for their high-performance short-takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities. Although originally intended for use in medium-distance routes, they were also adapted for long-range flying. Turboprops operate most efficiently at modest flight speeds – below 725 kph/450mph – and are ideal for long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance.

Turboprop engines use a gas turbine to drive the propeller. Unlike jet aircraft, the engine's exhaust gases contain very little energy for powering the aircraft. The turboprop was the brainchild of Hungarian mechanical engineer, György Jendrassik, who produced the first test model in Budapest between 1939 and 1942. His engine was intended for a twin-engine reconnaissance bomber, but that program was scrapped before the plane could become fully operational. Jendrassik moved to Britain after WWII and variants of the turboprop soon found their way into Rolls Royce RB.50 Trent engines as well as Soviet and other aircraft.

The L-188 Electra was first introduced in 1957 when it became the first turboprop produced in the United States. Unfortunately, two well publicized crashes early in its career caused a number of order cancellations, and production was halted soon after. In both crashes, the Electra broke up in flight and a structural fault called a "whirl mode" was blamed. A whirl mode occurred when a damaged engine created a harmonic vibration so powerful it caused the aircraft's wing to be torn off. A speed limit on the aircraft was imposed until the structural problems were overcome and, undeterred by this initial problem, the United States Navy commissioned the P-3 Orion. The Orion and the C-130 Hercules variants then went on to become hugely successful aircraft for Lockheed, but, for the passenger trade, the damage was done and history soon bypassed the turboprop Electra.

While most of the world's major airlines skipped over turboprop airliners in favour of the turbojet Boeing 707, American Airlines, Braniff International, and Eastern Airlines flew Electras out of North America, and KLM was the major carrier in Europe. They also saw service in the South Pacific and South America. Although they were originally manufactured for passenger travel, most of the surviving aircraft are being used for cargo, with some passenger service still underway in Africa.

Buffalo Airways operates two vintage L-188 Electras for cargo service in Canada's North. They're powered by the original issue Allison-501 power plants, capable of a cruising speed of 390mph/620kph and a range of 3,540 km/2,200 miles.

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