The Last Flight of the Legendary Spirit of TWA: Lockheed Electra 12A
The distinctive roar of the twin-engine taildragger echoed across Winslow’s Lindbergh Regional airport. All eyes went skyward to the shiny aluminum aircraft from another era: A Lockheed Electra 12A.
Around three p.m. Wednesday June 20th, co-owner Captain Curt “Rocky” Walters smoothly brought the 1937 Electra known as Ellie (L.E.) down the runway—one stop on the final flight of an extraordinary aircraft with a fascinating history.
“Watching, no, experiencing NC18137 – “L. E.” – touch down on runway two niner, the lumpy rumble of her twin Pratt & Whitney radial engines, the sight of an iconic airplane in aviation history land at the Winslow airport raised the hair on my arms and gave me a lump in my throat. Three friends were on board.”
Harold Soehner–Winslow native and pilot, pictured with Winston Morris, Wiseman Aviation
The three friends on board this final flight were owner Ruth Richter Holden, Co-Owner Captain Curt “Rocky” Walters, and air-man extraordinaire Captain Kirk Douglas McQuown. And of course, Cookie, the adorable Yorkie.
Ruth Richter Holden
To say Ruth grew up around airplanes would be an understatement.
Her father, Paul E. Richter, began flying in 1924. He was a flight instructor and a stunt flyer/wing walker with the 13 Black Cats. Most notably he co-founded Trans World Airlines (TWA) with two of his fellow pilots. .
Paul Richter even served in the Navy as Operations Chief of Staff for Naval Air Transport Service. Richter, quite simply, loved to fly.
The Lockheed Electra 12A
In June 1936, Lockheed introduced the Electra Junior, 12A, a smaller version of the earlier 10E–the aircraft Amelia Earhart was flying when she disappeared. The 12A also appeared in the classic film, Casablanca when they made their escape from Morocco.
Only 130 of these eight-seat, six-passenger planes were made—the fastest transport plane of its day.
NC18137 or Ellie–the Lockheed Electra 12A that landed in Winslow—began life flying for Continental Airlines, transporting passengers between Denver, Colorado and El Paso. In 1940 TWA purchased the plane to use as a flight research laboratory, testing static discharge and de-icing equipment.
They also used it to transport executives and celebrities like Bette Davis and Wallace Berry—with Ruth’s father Paul often at the controls.
How NC18137 Found Ruth
Sometimes things are just meant to be. In 2005, this Lockheed Electra 12A found its way back to Ruth in a roundabout way.
There’s a terrific website highlighting the life of Paul E. Richter: The Spirit of TWA. A woman named Connie Bowlin contacted Ruth through the website wanting more history on an airplane she was selling–one owned by TWA from 1940-1945.
Thanks to logbooks, Ruth confirmed this was the plane her father often flew–one she flew in as a child–and knew she had to have it. Even though she didn’t have the funds at the ready, she bought the plane sight unseen.
Next, she needed to figure out how to get the aircraft home. Ruth had gotten her pilot’s license when she was in her 50s (instrument rated!), but wasn’t signed off to fly tail-draggers. She knew just who to call, though: Her flight instructor and friend…
Captain Curt “Rocky” Walters
American Eagle Captain Walters–otherwise known as Rocky–had never flown a tail-dragger either, but he was up for the challenge. After six hours of training, he and Ruth went to Georgia to pick up the plane.
He took to her so easy, in fact, the Pilot-in-Command for that initial flight deplaned at a fuel stop and Ruth and Rocky continued on to California. Captain Walters never looked back.
Flash forward to 2019.
For this, their final flight in Ellie, Ruth and Curt enlisted the help of…
Captain Kirk Douglas McQuown
When asked about his role in this epic journey, he said:
He’s a pretty funny guy.
In truth, Captain Kirk is a legendary pilot/mechanic/vintage aircraft restoration expert and all-around airplane guy who, on his sixteenth birthday, set the world record for the number of planes flown in one day: 14 (he wanted to do 16, but the insurance carrier nixed #15 and #16).
Seems Harold got the joke on the jokester this time.
The Final Flight
The original plan was to fly into Winslow Wednesday around 1 pm, refuel, and continue on. Thanks to a heavy cloud cover in Santa Maria where they began, they arrived later than expected and booked Sondra Purcell’s AirBnb for the night. Early the next morning, they headed back to Lindbergh and at 6:35 am on Thursday, June 20th they were wheels up bound for Kansas City, their final destination (with a couple fuel stops in between). Click the image below to watch an ABC news story on the landing.
Of the one hundred thirty Lockheed Electra 12As built, only a handful remain airworthy—including Ellie. The owners of this eighty-two-year-old historic flying machine felt it was time to share her with the public.
After fourteen years of ownership, Ruth and Captain Curt handed over TWA’s oldest flying aircraft to the TWA Museum in Kansas City.
For the pilots and spectators, the day was both joyful and a bit bittersweet.
So Long Ellie
May everyone who lays eyes on this spectacular aircraft love her as much as those who got to spend time with Ellie, the Lockheed Electra 12A. I know I’ll never forget the stunning lines of this art deco machine, nor the people who made her fly.
Many thanks to Harold Soehner for being my editor for this piece and for orchestrating the coverage.
Until next time…
Wow.. what an interesting article and fabulous pictures !!
Such wonderful sentiment and fun brought to this page. I share such admiration for those aircraft. Thank you for sharing.
ANOTHER great article! Thanks for the shout-out!
We would love to have a copy of this article for our museum. I am the Volunteer Coordinator and Board Member for the TWA Museum. We are so happy to have acquired this airplane. It means so much to have her on display at the museum. It was so emotional when she landed last week. Would it be possible to get a copy of the article.i have tried to print out but with all the pictures, it does not come out well.
My father owned this plane in the 70’s. I have lots of good memories flying in it when I was a kid.