Vega Number 72: Keeping History Alive
One of the oldest surviving Lockheed Martin heritage aircraft is being reborn in a restoration shop in Florida. This particular aircraft, a Lockheed Model 5 Vega, was built in 1929 at Lockheed’s then new Burbank, California, facility.
Given constructor’s number 72 (c/n 72), this Model 5 was the first Vega built as an executive transport for a commercial customer—Independent Oil & Gas Company. Independent later became part of Phillips Petroleum Company, operating the aircraft through 1931 before selling the Vega to the first in a series of private owners.
The Vega returned to Lockheed for a rebuild and was converted from a Model 5A to 5C with the addition of a larger vertical tail and heavier operating weight. Ship 72 then changed hands several times, going through a long list of individual owners and companies.
In 1939, it was extensively modified as a camera ship for Iowa Aerial Surveys and later went to Mexico serving as a transport once again. The aircraft could have served its last days in the Mexican back country but was fortunately imported back into the United States.
The aircraft continued in operation through 1957 when it was involved in a serious mishap in Addison, Texas. Most of the plywood belly under the cockpit and passenger compartment was torn from the fuselage, leaving a gaping hole.
It appeared the Vega might be finished at this point. The wing and tail surfaces were removed and the parts stored on the ground behind some hangars. The fuselage became a jungle gym next to some parked cars behind one of the hangars.
Plywood In The Bathtub
Part of what made the Vega perform so well and set so many records in the 1920s and ‘30s was the thin, lightweight spruce plywood used for the semi-monocoque skin. While many aircraft of the day also used ply, the Lockheed aircraft were built using an unusual process.
Lockheed Chief Engineer Jack Northrop (who later started his own aircraft company) had his woodworkers quarter-saw boards from spruce logs. Then thin veneer strips were shaved from the individual boards.
This process gave each piece of veneer vertical wood grain instead of the horizontal grain found in veneers shaved from rotating logs. The vertical grain gives higher strength for less weight. Less weight translates to better performance.
These veneers were then butt-joined into sheets and then three layers used to make ply by alternating the direction of the wood layers by 90 degrees. While pre-made plywood sheet could be used for the wing and tail surfaces, the compound curves of the fuselage required another special process.
Lockheed used a concrete bathtub to form the fuselage shells. Layers of the veneers and glue were placed in the tub, alternating the direction of the wood for each layer. A cover was then bolted on and a rubber bladder inflated to push the wood into the shape of the concrete mold until the glue was dry.
Not Done Yet
The all-wood construction is the feature that probably saved Ship 72 and gave it its last working job, flying as an anti-radar test target in the late 1950s. While metal components such as the engine and landing gear would appear on radar, none of the wood structure would. This gave the Vega a small radar cross section.
General Electric bought the damaged plane from its owner in Texas and had it refurbished for limited operation out of its Schenectady, New York, facility. After completion of the test program, it was put up for sale and bought by David Jameson of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Jameson was to fly the Vega back to his home in Wisconsin but during a taxi test, the hydraulic brakes faded and the aircraft drifted left into a snowbank along the runway. The strain was too much for the landing gear attach points and the gear folded, ripping the mounts from the belly and damaging a wing tip.
This was another accident that could have spelled the end for the Vega. But Jameson was determined and had the Vega trucked to Wisconsin for repairs.
Ship 72 was rebuilt and painted in the blue and white colors of famed pilot Wiley Post’s Winnie Mae and appeared at many airshows and air meets including the annual Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA, fly-in in Oshkosh. It was later on static display at the EAA Museum.
The Vega was purchased from Jameson by current owner Kermit Weeks in 1992. The Vega was displayed the aircraft for many years at his Fantasy of Flight Museum in Polk City, Florida. In 2012, when Weeks decided it was time to restore the Vega to flying condition, he choose Kimball Enterprises about an hour away in Tangerine, Florida. Kimball has a history of vintage aircraft rebuilding and has won several awards for their restorations.
After surveying the aircraft to assess what was original, modified, or reconstructed, Kimball officials decided to reskin the entire forty-one foot, single-piece wing. To rebuild back to original specifications meant obtaining the special vertical grain, three-ply plywood that likely hasn’t been made since the 1930s.
Kimball knew that what you can’t find, you have to make. An order was placed with an Alaskan logging company to supply spruce logs. However there was a significant wait time to get them once the order was placed. Once cut, the logs were sent to a mill to be quarter sawn, have the veneers sliced and joined, and glued into plywood sheets.
While waiting for the ply, the wing was shored on support braces and the top skin removed. Inside was like a woodworking time capsule from 1929. The inner rib structure made from sticks and gussets and the layered main spar were in remarkably good condition. Of the estimated 1,000 glue joints, fewer than 40 were found needing rework. Part of the spar was opened to check its integrity and found to be sound as well.
Parts of the wing also tell some of the Vega’s history. The damaged wingtip from Jameson’s accident was evident, with mahogany ply being used for the repair. The wing’s fuel tanks were found to be made from thick Fibreglas. This was done as part of GE’s effort to reduce the radar cross section of the Vega. Since the tanks were not original, new aluminum tanks were made from copies of 1930s-vintage Lockheed drawings.
After receiving the shipment of newly made ply, the top surface was reskinned. The wing was then rotated upside down and the reskinning process repeated. The tail surface skins were also stripped and new spruce ply skin installed on the original frames
With the wing and tail surfaces complete, attention has now turned to restoring the fuselage. The bright white painted fabric covering the molded plywood fuselage has been removed, revealing more of the Vega’s history. Extensive repairs with mahogany ply are evident by shown large areas of darker wood color.
With the fuselage mounted on a rotisserie, Kimball now faces the challenge of recreating the fuselage’s compound curves and likely placing another phone call to Alaska to order more of the special spruce plywood.
The restoration of c/n 72 is roughly thirty percent complete and is about five years away from completion. The current plan is to refinish the aircraft in Winnie Mae colors. For many years, this aircraft held the distinction of being the only flyable Vega in the world. But when this Model 5C is flown again (probably in 2021), it will join one other restored Vega (with an aluminum fuselage) that was recently returned to flight.
Written by Pete Clukey, a systems engineer in Marietta, Georgia, providing technical support for Lockheed Martin heritage aircraft. This is his first feature article for Code One.