First flight of the first Vega from Mines Field, now part of Los Angeles International Airport, 1927.
The Vega 1 under construction in Hollywood, California, before its move to Burbank, 1927.
Famous arctic and Antarctic explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins poses with his Lockheed model 1 Vega, 1928.
Second Vega 1 being brought back on land in the autumn of 1928. Sir Hubert Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson's first exploratory flight over Antarctica.
In the 1930 Bendix Race from Burbank to Chicago, the five entries all flew Lockheeds.
An assembly line in Burbank California, showing Vega monocoque fuselages, 1930.
Amelia Earhart established many of her world records in Lockheed aircraft.
The U.S. Air Corps bought a single Lockheed Vega in 1931 for evaluation of light fast transports.
The world-famous aviator Wiley Post set several records in a Vega called the Winnie Mae.
The Lockheed Vega and Its Pilots
Although the Lockheed Vega is best remembered for its speed and record-breaking flights, it was designed as an airliner by the Lockheed Company. The Vega was named for one of the brightest stars in the sky and followed Lockheed's custom of naming aircraft after astronomical bodies. Designed by the talented Jack Northrop, it marked the limits of wooden design and single-engine performance. It had a streamlined, smoothly rounded monocoque fuselage that was made of molded plywood in two halves and glued together to produce an extremely smooth surface. It had no external struts or wires to break its smooth look and was what Northrop called "clean." The plane had cantilever (internally braced) wings set above the fuselage, a feature that had been introduced by the Dutch aeronautical pioneer Anthony Fokker in the early 1920s, and a similarly constructed tail assembly. Its wing design helped give the aircraft its superior speed.
The original Vega could seat four and a pilot. It had a wingspan of 41 feet (12.5 meters) and was 27.5 feet (8 meters) long. It weighed 2,900 pounds (1,315 kilograms) fully loaded and fueled and could fly at altitudes up to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). A single 225-horsepower (168-kilowatt), air-cooled nine-cylinder Wright Whirlwind J-5 engine powered it.
Produced at minimal cost, the Vega made its first flight from Los Angeles on July 4, 1927. It had a cruising speed of 118 miles per hour (190 kilometers per hour), a top speed of 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour), and a 900-mile (1,448-kilometer) range. The prototype Vega, the Golden Eagle flown by Jack Frost and Gordon Scott, was lost in the Dole Derby race from California to Hawaii in August 1927.
The third Vega was used by Sir Hubert Wilkins for a series of Arctic flights in 1928. Wilkins and Alaskan bush pilot Carl Ben Eielsen flew across the Arctic from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway, in 20 hours. On December 20, 1928, Wilkins and a team of pilots flew two Vegas to Antarctica to conduct aerial mapping of 100,000 square miles (259,000 square kilometers) of the continent.
During 1928, Lockheed built 64 Vegas in its Burbank plant—28 were the original Vega 1 configuration. The aircraft won all of the speed trophies in the 1928 National Air Races in Cleveland, and the company's slogan became "It takes a Lockheed to beat a Lockheed!"
Over the years, the basic design was improved and modified, which increased its speed and power. The Vega 5, which appeared directly after the Vega 1, was the same size as the Vega 1, but was powered by a 450-horsepower (336-kilowatt) air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine that gave it a cruising speed of 155 miles per hour (249 kilometers per hour) and a top speed of 165 miles per hour (266 kilometers per hour). Originally also holding four, it was improved to hold six passengers, still too small to be regarded as a practical airliner. Its major advantage was its speed, and it found use as an executive plane. Later models also added the NACA cowling around the radial engine, further streamlining the plane. Five were fitted as seaplanes.
One of its most famous pilots was Wiley Post, who, in the white and purple Winnie Mae named after the owner's daughter, won the 1930 Los Angeles to Chicago Air Derby, flying 1,760 miles (2,832 kilometers) in nine hours, nine minutes, four seconds, at an average speed of 192 miles per hour (309 kilometers per hour) in spite of a faulty compass. Then, along with navigator Harold Gatty, he went on to fly around the world in the plane between June 23 and July 1, 1931, taking eight days 15 hours and 51 minutes. The first round-the-world flight, only seven years earlier, had taken 175 days. Post, flying alone, broke another round-the-world record two years later when he circled the globe in seven days 19 hours and 43 minutes. This feat was even more remarkable because Post had only one eye since one had been removed due to an infection resulting from an industrial accident.
In 1934, Post also flew the Winnie Mae to an altitude first of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) and then to a record-breaking altitude in the range of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). (It was not confirmed due to a faulty barograph—an instrument that measures altitude.) In preparation, Post realized that the Winnie Mae was unsuitable for a pressurized cabin so he flew wearing the world's first high-altitude aircraft pressure suit, which he modified from a deep-sea diver's suit. Flying at that altitude, he discovered the jet stream—fast-moving currents of air that flowed in a westerly direction. He believed correctly that if an airplane could fly in the jet stream, it would fly faster and use less fuel than an aircraft at a lower altitude, and in 1935 demonstrated this by cruising at more than 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) at an average speed of 279 miles per hour (449 kilometers per hour)—more than 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour) above the Vega's normal cruising speed.
Others set records in their Vegas too, including Amelia Earhart, Jimmie Mattern, Ruth Nichols, and Roscue Turner. Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone. Her flight had taken 14 hours 54 minutes and had suffered severe icing, going into a 300-foot (91-meter) plunge from which Earhart managed to recover. Nichols, known as the "Flying Debutante," set both transcontinental endurance and altitude records, climbing to 28,743 feet (8,761 meters) in her Vega before Post's climb into the stratosphere.
During its production lifetime, more than 128 Vegas were built, including the Model 4 Air Express which had a parasol wing and open cockpit behind the passenger cabin. Air Express planes were built for Western Air Express and for the Texaco Oil Company.
Considered a trendsetter, the Vega made famous the Winged Star insignia that later Lockheed planes wore.
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Hallion, Richard P. Test Pilots – The Frontiersmen of Flight, revised edition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, 1988.
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Yenne, Bill. Legends of Flight. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Publications International, Ltd., 1999.
"Lockheed Vega." National Air and Space Museum. http://www.nasm.edu/nasm/aero/aircraft/lockheed_5c.htm