If ever there was proof required that pedigree is critical, the Lockheed Vega story provides it. The airplane, built under the Lockheed banner was designed by John Northrop and Gerrard Vultee who were to become famous in later years as independent designers. Their brief was to produce a four seat airplane that was rugged, fast and reliable. They bettered the specs to produce a plane that went on to create aviation history in every field it touched.
Departing from traditional construction, the designers chose to build a plane without any external empennages. Designed without any spars, wires and external braces they produced a plane that was clean and streamlined. The designers chose to use a high wing cantilever design and a monocoque fuselage that was polished plywood.
The first versions of the Vega used the Wright Whirlwind 225 HP engine. This was later powered by the P&W R 1340 Wasp delivering 450 HP. The Vega was built with a service ceiling of 15000 feet. It was a good airplane, doing its job well and that is where the story would have ended had it not come across a pilot called Wiley Post.
Dancing at High Altitude With The Lockheed Vega
Wiley Post and the Lockheed Vega were built for each other. Wiley flew a Vega model (the Winnie Mae) belonging to his employer. He went around the world twice in it and set numerous other records in it. But the relationship really blossomed when Wiley Post decided to explore high altitude flight in the aircraft.
The Vega was built for 15,000 feet. Wiley Post decided to take the aircraft to 50,000. He put in a new supercharger and new cylinders on his P&W Wasp and conducted a number of flights into the Stratosphere. Flying a piston engine aircraft at 50,000 feet, running out of power and oxygen and nearly at stalled conditions all the time because the reserve of power is so low is a feat few pilots could accomplish. It is a tribute to the handling characteristics of the Vega that the aircraft responded so well to the demands placed on it by its pilot.
As a result of all the high altitude work Post under took, he discovered jet streams in the Stratosphere. The Lockheed Vega Story is thus the story of one of the first airplanes to fly in the jet streams. Wiley Post demonstrated this by covering large distances at an average speed that was more than 100 mph faster than the top speed of the Vega.
The Vega was also the lab where a lot of pressure suit research was carried out. Wiley Post altered the aircraft to accept liquid oxygen tanks and tried out several pressure suit models before he built one that could take him to 50,000 feet. An official high altitude record trip failed because of failure of the official recording equipment, but it is commonly accepted that the aircraft climbed above 50,000 feet.
It is difficult to say if the high altitude flights undertaken by the Vega were a result of the pilot’s skills alone. If an aircraft designed for 15,000 feet could climb to 50,000 feet and participate in discovery of the jet streams, it is a tribute to its designers who could build such a versatile machine. The Lockheed Vega Story leads us to believe that an airplane has life and that like some pilots, the airplane also sets out to achieve what no other plane has done before.
“It takes a Lockheed to beat a Lockheed” – Lockheed Company Slogan
(If you are fascinated by this aircraft, then you might like to build a paper model of the Winnie Mae to display.)
Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!
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