Wake up! Your Saturday Air Mail is here, brought by a sleek, stunningly beautiful monoplane.
Allan Lockheed and Jack Northrop teamed up together in 1927 and formed the Lockheed Aircraft Company. It was a great combination and their Vega became the aircraft of the Golden Age for setting records. Names like Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart and Roscoe Turner furthered the reputation of the aircraft as well as their own. Wiley Post set many records in Vega, the “Winnie Mae”.
Post was the first person to set a round-the-world record with a commercial aircraft. He made the first solo flight around the globe, was the first person to fly New York to Berlin nonstop and also set an unofficial world altitude record of 55,000 feet. All in the Winne Mae.
Amelia Earhart was the first woman to solo across the Atlantic and did so in a bright red Vega.
The first Vega 1, named the Golden Eagle, flew from Lockheed's Los Angeles plant on July 4, 1927. It could cruise at a then-fast 120 mph (193 km/h), and had a top speed of 135 mph (217 km/h). The four-passenger (plus one pilot) load, however, was considered too small for airline use. A number of private owners placed orders for the design however, and by the end of 1928, they had produced 68 of this original design. In the 1928 National Air Races in Cleveland, Vegas won every speed award.
In 1928 Vega Yankee Doodle (NX4789) was used to break transcontinental speed records. On August 19-20, Hollywood stunt flier Arthur C. Goebel broke the coast-to-coast record of Russell Maughan by flying from Los Angeles, California to Garden City, New York in 18 hours and 58 minutes, in what was also the first nonstop flight from west to east. On October 25, barnstormer and former mail pilot Charles B.D. Collyer broke the nonstop east to west record set in 1923 by the U.S. Army Air Service in 24 hours and 51 minutes. Trying to break the new west-to-east record on November 3, Collyer crashed near Prescott, Arizona, resulting in his death and that of the aircraft owner, Harry J. Tucker.
Looking to improve the design, Lockheed delivered the Vega 5 in 1929. Adding the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine of 450 hp (336 kW) improved weights enough to allow two more seats to be added. A new NACA cowling increased cruise speed to 155 mph (249 km/h) and top speed to 165 mph (266 km/h). However, even the new six-seat configuration proved to be too small, and the 5 was purchased primarily for private aviation and executive transport. A total of 64 Vega 5s were built.
The Lockheed Vega had a very low zero-lift drag coefficient of 0.0278. The low zero-lift drag coefficient was obtained through careful attention to detailed aerodynamic design of the aircraft and by the absence of drag-producing struts, wires, and other external drag-producing elements. The fixed landing gear, however, remained as a significant drag-producing feature of the airplane.
The Vega could be difficult to land. In her memoir, Elinor Smith wrote that it had "all the glide potential of a boulder falling off a mountain. In addition, forward and side visibility from the cockpit was extremely limited; Lane Wallace, a columnist for Flying magazine, wrote that "Even [in level flight], the windscreen would offer a better view of the sky than anything else, which would make it more of a challenge to detect changes in attitude or bank angle. On takeoff or landing, there'd be almost no forward visibility whatsoever."
The structure of this airplane is all wood. The fuselage was molded in halves and glued together. The only part of the aircraft that wasn't particularly streamlined was the landing gear although production versions wore sleek "spats". For power they chose the Wright Whirlwind, which delivered 225 horsepower (168 kW). Using a large concrete mold, a single half of the fuselage shell was laminated in sections with glue and then a rubber bladder was lowered into the mold and inflated with air to compress the lamination into shape. Two fuselage halves were then nailed and glued over a previously made rib framework. With the fuselage constructed in this fashion, the wing spar had to be kept clear, so they decided to make a single spar cantilever mounted on the very top of the aircraft. Other aircraft designs by Lockheed used the same basic fuselage but the configuration and model type determined where the cockpit and door openings were cut.
The Air Express was based around the original fuselage of the Vega, but in order to meet the requirements of Western Air Express, the wing was raised to a parasol configuration above the fuselage and the cockpit was moved behind the wing, while a more powerful Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine was fitted to ease operations over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The design was a commercial success for the company although only seven were built, plus one Air Express Special.
Special thanks to: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives