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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 120

Figure 6.2. Molding the Vega's plywood fuselage. A completed fuselage half-shell is
being removed from the mold. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Insti-
tution (SI neg. no. 83-332).
in production costs. Sales of the Vega grew from thirty-one in 1928 to sixty-
eight in 1929, which compared well with the eighty-six Ford trimotors sold
in 1929. Even though the Ford carried twice as many passengers as the
Vega, the two planes had roughly the same cost per seat-mile, according to
estimates made later by E. P Warner.17
Lockheed's success with the Vega made it an attractive target in the great
merger wave that swept over the airline industry in the late 1920s. In 1929
the Detroit Aircraft Corporation bought the Lockheed company and in 1930
developed a metal monocoque fuselage for the Vega. The metal fuselage did
not help the company's profitability, however, and in 1931 both Lockheed
and its Detroit parent were in receivership. In 1932 Lockheed found new
owners, who built a few more wooden Lockheeds while developing a new
twin-engine all-metal airliner. Even with the decline in sales after 1929,
more than 180 wooden Lockheeds were built between 1927 and 1934.18
The Vega was not only a prime example of the plywood monocoque fuse-
lage but also of the stressed-skin plywood wing. Most airplanes in the 1920s
used fabric wing coverings, which did not contribute to structural strength.
The Lockheed wing, on the other hand, had a covering of 3/32-inch spruce
plywood, which increased both the strength and rigidity of the fully canti-

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