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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

6. Neglected alternative i: plywood stressed-skin construction,   pp. [114]-134

Page 118

market. In 1921 the company suspended operations, and the Lougheads
temporarily abandoned the airplane business.12 Nevertheless, the S-1 fuse-
lage bore fruit a few years later in the Vega of 1927.
In December 1926, Allen Loughead established a new company to pro-
duce a single-engine passenger monoplane based around a monocoque fuse-
lage similar to the one developed for the S-1. Allen Loughead named the
new firm the Lockheed Aircraft Company, using the phonetic spelling of the
family name. Aircraft designer John Northrop, who had previously worked
on the S-1, was the chief engineer for the Vega, as the new airplane was
called. Northrop laid out a closed-cabin, fully cantilevered monoplane. The
Vega's careful streamlining was more reminiscent of a racing plane than of
the commercial airliners of the day, a resemblance that Lockheed empha-
sized in its descriptions of the Vega. The Vega was powered by the reliable
Wright Whirlwind, the same engine that took Charles Lindbergh across the
Atlantic. The Vega carried from four to six passengers at a cruising speed of
110 mph, with a top speed of 135 mph. It flew faster than competing air-
planes of similar size and power, such as the Fokker Universal, which had
a top speed of 118 mph, or the Stinson SM-1, with a top speed of 125 mph.13
The speed and load-carrying efficiency of the Vega made it well suited for
record-breaking flights. The first Vega disappeared during a race from Oak-
land to Hawaii in August 1927, while in April 1928 explorer George W
Wilkins took the third Vega on a 2,200-mile exploration flight across the
Arctic from Alaska to Norway That August, a Vega with a 420-horsepower
Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine became the first airplane to fly nonstop from
Los Angeles to New York. With an advertised top speed of 170 mph, guaran-
teed to within 5 percent, the Wasp-powered Vega was the fastest commer-
cial airplane of the late 1920s able to carry more than two passengers.14
The addition of the NACA engine cowl further increased the performance
of the Vega and its variants. The first commercial airplane to use the new
NACA cowl was the Lockheed Air Express, a modified Vega designed for
combined mail and passenger transport. The cowl increased the top speed
of the Air Express from 157 to 177 mph. In February 1929 the cowled Air
Express set a new nonstop record from Los Angeles to New York. The re-
duction in drag produced by the NACA cowling was especially advanta-
geous when combined with the streamlined monocoque fuselage, produc-
ing a smooth contour from propeller to tail. With an NACA cowl, the top
speed of the Vega increased to 180 mph. Amelia Earhart owned such a Vega,
and used it in 1932 to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic
(figure 6.1)."
The performance figures and record-setting flights of the Vega brought
Lockheed numerous orders. The ease of producing the molded monocoque
fuselage helped Lockheed meet this demand. Manufacture of the Vega fuse-
lage followed the procedure developed for the Loughead S-1. The reinforced

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