Once a ground-looped wreck, the sole surviving metal-fuselage Lockheed Vega is back in the air after a meticulous restoration.
The Lockheed Vega was the single-engine superplane of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Learjet of its day. Had there indeed been a jet set back then, its members would have traveled by Vega.
The Vega first flew on the Fourth of July in 1927, just a month and a half after Charles Lindbergh demonstrated that aviation had a future far beyond barnstorming, county fair stunting and thrill rides at $5 a pop. So the timing was perfect for the first modern single-engine airplane with a semi-monocoque fuselage; a clean, cantilever wing; and a dead-nuts reliable engine. It burst upon a world of strutted biplanes and high-drag trimotors, and its baby-bottom-smooth, stogie-shaped plywood fuselage and one-piece wooden wing were revelations.
Designed as the ideal shape to tag along behind a big round engine, the Vega was commodious enough for six seats in the cabin, with a single pilot sitting ahead of and above them in a tight but fully enclosed cockpit. The earliest Vegas flew with 200-hp Wright Whirlwind J-5s, which Spirit of St. Louis had proved to be the world’s first light, powerful and utterly dependable aircraft engine. Later models got Pratt & Whitney Wasps, typically producing 500 hp. Thus began the U.S. hegemony in air-cooled radials, which would peak in the Pratt & Whitney R-2800. (Yes, there were later, larger and more powerful radials, but none better.)
Nor did it hurt that Vegas sold for the cost of a new Cessna Skyhawk, the equivalent of about $200,000 in today’s dollars, or Skylane ($260,000), depending on the engine. Like Chevy Corvettes, they offered Piper-Heidsieck performance on a Budweiser budget. Not surprising, then, that Lockheed built 131 Vegas, the last two assembled from parts by former Lockheed employees after their company had gone bankrupt. This was an extraordinary production quantity for the time. Yet only four survive intact in museums, including the most famous Vegas of all, Wiley Post’s white Winnie Mae, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, and Amelia Earhart’s bright-red transatlantic trailblazer, in the downtown D.C. museum.
Today just one Vega is flying: US Airways Captain John Magoffin’s sole surviving metal-fuselage model, a DL-1B that made its first post-restoration flight last December 17, on the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. (It will soon be joined by Kermit Weeks’ 1929 Vega 5, which had been on static display at Fantasy of Flight but is now under restoration to flying status by Kevin Kimball in Mount Dora, Fla.)
NC12288 was restored over 3½ years by Marana, Ariz., craftsman Richard Barter’s Arizona Airframe Service, and it was by no means a part-time job. “The fuselage was bent, the wing was broken, the tail was in splinters and the airplane was completely disassembled,” Barter recalls. “It had bad ground-loop damage, and the restoration was pretty challenging.”
The airplane had lived a challenging life as well, first as a corporate transport for the Morrell Meat Packing Company in Iowa—certainly one of the first true business planes in the world, if you don’t count biplanes that had been emblazoned with oversize company logos purely for the advertising benefit—and it later served as a mini-airliner for Braniff and then an Alaskan outfit, Northern Consolidated. Eventually relegated to a colorful bush-flying career, it was ultimately wrecked and abandoned, pushed into the brush alongside an Alaskan runway.
Robert Taylor, founder and still president of what is today the vigorous Antique Airplane Association, rescued the Vega from the weeds and built an entirely new wing for it in the late 1960s. “That was a godsend,” Barter says. “It was in pretty good shape when we got the airplane.” Still, he had to replace a 6-foot section thanks to its most recent groundloop damage—an accident scenario that seems to have plagued this Vega throughout its 10-owner career.
The hardest part of the restoration? “Hard to say,” Barter muses. “You take it one piece at a time. I spent about six months replacing the horizontal stabilizer, but we spent about a year and a half on the fuselage. There was lots to fix on the fuselage.”
Ten of the last Vegas had aluminum hulls—the world’s first semi-monocoque metal airplanes, according to Barter. (Many sources say there were nine metal Vegas, but the tenth one is often missed because it was assembled by ex-employees after Lockheed no longer existed, and its fuselage eventually ended up as part of an Orion rather than a Vega.) Once 2024 Duralumin became common, there were no longer good reasons to make production airplanes out of wood, despite the rivet-free sleekness it offered.
Barter admits that it was difficult to find accurate data on the airplane. “We had the drawings, the blueprints, but we never did have a maintenance manual or a parts catalog,” he notes. “Those things just didn’t exist in those days, as far as we could determine. I felt very privileged to have worked on this project.”
Magoffin’s Vega had been re-engined sometime during the 1940s with a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney R-985, which it still carries. “Much more practical engine than the old 1340 snap-cap engine, much more reliable,” Barter says, referring to the lubrication points for the individual rocker arms. “You had to pull the cowling to grease the rockers every 10 hours, and it had a ground-adjustable prop rather than a constant-speed. We had the 985 overhauled by Covington Aircraft, in Oklahoma, and it runs like a Swiss watch. They’re probably the best R-985 overhaulers around.”
Since two of the five surviving Vegas are painted as Winnie Mae—the real one in the Smithsonian and Kermit Weeks’ airplane—and another two are in Amelia Earhart colors, Magoffin opted for an unusual 1930s military paint scheme, a replication of one of the two Vegas acquired by the Army Air Corps for evaluation. That airplane was given the designation Y1C-12—the Y1 denoting that it was bought outside normal procurement channels, the C-12 its temporary cargo type designator. When the USAAF officially impressed into service a well-used Vega in 1942, it designated the airplane UC-101, for utility cargo. (The second Air Corps Vega, Y1C-17, only flew 33 hours before it was destroyed in a crash landing during a transcontinental record attempt by one Captain Ira Eaker. At the time, it was the fastest aircraft the Army owned.)
After being displayed at the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing’s museum at Falcon Field, in Mesa, the Vega visited Oshkosh last summer to take part in Air Venture 2014. It was then flown to Reno, Nev., to have a complete seven-seat period military interior installed before returning to Falcon Field.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.