Vega, Orion, Sirius, and Altair are names we normally think of while observing the night sky. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, they were also the monikers of fast and handsome planes of the recently-founded American company, Lockheed, record-breakers piloted by a “who’s who” of aviation at the time. The origin of the Lockheed Vega and its successors was the failed S-1 Sportplane (1919), which was constructed by the Loughead brothers and Jack Northrop: one S-1 cost the equivalent of eight Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, a biplane sold off cheaply by the army during the post- -war period. The S-1 was futuristic and super-quick, thanks to its plywood monocoque fuselage, manufactured using an innovative process: wood layers glued in two concrete moulds, then compressed by an inflatable rubber bladder, after being joined.
The memory of the S-1 reunited its creators to produce a new commercial plane with a monocoque fuselage and a cantilevered wing, i.e. without external supports. The Lockheed Aircraft Company was founded in 1926 (“Lockheed” is the correct pronunciation of “Loughead”) and the Vega was its first plane. Of this first generation of Lockheeds and its impressive array of pilots, between 1926 and 1936, Wiley Post and the Vega Winnie Mae were particularly outstanding.
Fascinated by flight, Post used the compensation for losing an eye in a work accident to buy his first plane. Later, he became the private pilot for oil magnate F.C. Hall, owner of the Vega Winnie Mae, which was named after the businessman’s daughter. After breaking various speed records, Post decided, with Hall’s support, to undertake a round-the-world flight and beat the German Graf Zeppelin’s 21-day record of 1929. On 23rd June 1931, the Winnie Mae left Long Island, New York, with Post sitting on an armchair and Harold Gatty inside the fuselage, acting as navigator. Eight days, 15 hours and 14 stopovers later, the Graf’s record had been smashed and the aviators were welcomed with an ovation. That same year, Post bought the Winnie Mae, using it for a new record in 1933, this time a solo effort, replacing Harold Gatty with an Sperry autopilot: seven days and 18 hours.
After going around the world twice, Post swapped distance for altitude, and the Winnie Mae climbed to the edge of the stratosphere. As it was impossible to pressurise the Vega, Post worked with Goodrich on the first functional pressure suit. Among several modifications, the Winnie gained jettisonable landing gear, reducing weight and drag. On 5th September 1934, Post reached 50,000 feet (15.24 kilometres) and discovered the jet stream effect. In 1935, against Lockheed’s advice, he “crossed” an Orion with an Explorer, creating a plane that would cost him his life in August, on a flight to Alaska. The Winnie Mae was acquired from Post’s widow by the Smithsonian Institute and currently shines at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
by Ricardo Reis
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