When the World Got Small

The Vega inspired the greatest flights and the greatest flyers of its day
- by Lane Wallace

The wooden bench that passes for a pilot's seat is worn, and the cockpit is so cramped, front to back, that Lockheed had to cut out small recesses in the firewall to accommodate the rudder pedals. The left side of the panel is taken up with antiquated fuel gauges marked "left," "right," and "rear," and on the right-hand wall is a hand-operated wobble pump that helped get all that fuel moving toward the hungry, 450-horsepower radial engine up front.

I reach out gently and touch the giant, aperiodic compass and Sperry directional gyro in the center of the panel with something approaching reverent awe. They now look like the museum pieces they are, but these instruments were brand-new, cutting edge advancements in her day. Her day. A shiver runs down my spine as I look at the aged data plate on the panel, untouched from the last day she saw it.

It reads, simply, "Model: Wasp Vega. No. 22. December 4, 1928."

"Oh, my god," a disbelieving voice whispers inside of me. "I'm sitting in Amelia Earhart's airplane!"

The real thing, mind you. Not a replica, and not a restored compilation of parts that still retains some of the original pieces. No, this Vega, registration number N7952, serial number 22, was the plane that Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic and then nonstop across the United States in 1932. She donated the plane to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia soon after her transcontinental flight, where it sat on display until the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum acquired it in 1966. So it now sits here in the Smithsonian's spotless display hall, still virtually unchanged...and untouched...from the day Amelia herself delivered it to the Franklin museum, stepped on its wooden bench seat and clambered out of the cockpit for the last time.

"'This is where she sat,' I whisper wonderingly to myself,
well aware of how few people since then
have ever been allowed to sit in the silence of this carefully preserved cathedral..."

I lean back gingerly against the cracked cushion that provided what little cockpit comfort Earhart would have had on her long, record-setting flights. The cushion is attached to the small, triangular door that provides one of two equally contortionist approaches into the cockpit. A pilot either had to climb up the side of the fuselage on retractable footholds, step on the top of the cowling, slide open the top panel of the cockpit greenhouse, and drop carefully down onto the seat, or crawl from the cabin through the tiny triangular cockpit door, which was hinged at the top. The seat/door then supposedly latched during flight. But many pilots, including Earhart, suffered takeoff or landing mishaps when the door opened accidentally, propelling them backward into the cabin.

"This is where she sat," I whisper wonderingly to myself, well aware of how few people since then have ever been allowed to sit in the silence of this carefully preserved cathedral to a time, an airplane, and a legendary lady pilot. I'm not sure how I managed to wrangle my way into this honor, but right now I'm just trying to keep a low profile and drink in my surroundings for as many minutes as they'll let me.

As basic as the cockpit comforts are, the Vega was a marvel of both form and function—a ship whose construction was as beautiful as its performance was remarkable. Jack Northrop, who would later go on to form his own highly successful airplane company, designed the all-wooden Vega for Allan Loughead (the founder of Lockheed) in 1927. The Vega was envisioned as a cabin-class commercial plane that would get executives or paying passengers wherever they wanted to go in an efficient manner. It became the fastest commercial plane of its day and a legendary long-distance record-setter that was flown by everyone from Earhart and Charles Lindbergh to Wiley Post, Roscoe Turner and famed movie stuntmen Frank Tallman and Paul Manz.

Amelia Earhart stands tall in her Vega's cockpit.

The reason for the Vega's popularity with such famous pilots was its unique combination of speed and range. A standard Vega could fly 1,000 miles without refueling, and if the cabin was modified to carry extra tanks, that range could be extended to 2,500 miles or more. In addition, at a time when the Ford Tri-Motor was lumbering along at 100 miles an hour, the Vega burst onto the scene with speeds up to 80 percent faster—performance made possible because of the Vega's innovative design and construction. Instead of the typical fabric-covered, externally braced wing and fuselage designs that characterized most airplanes built during the late 1920s, the Vega was constructed out of a fabric-covered, molded plywood shell and internally braced cantilevered wings, which gave the Vega an aerodynamically streamlined shape that was far more advanced than anything else in production at that time.

On the outside, the Vega was a sleek, smooth masterpiece of drag reduction. On the inside, it was nothing less than a work of art. As I look back down the cabin from the cockpit, the curved strips of wood bracing circling the walls every few feet give the interior the look of a well-crafted wooden boat hull. And sitting in the cramped cockpit, my head rests against the wing spar, with the leading edges extending about eight inches forward on both sides of me. So by turning my head, I can look inside the front section of the wings and see the intricately interlaced wooden ribs and spars that kept Northrop from having to support the wings with speed-reducing external struts.

Even after 70 years, this Vega is still a beautiful airplane. No wonder pilots fell in love with it. Of course, beautiful does not always equate to comfortable—in either airplanes or women's fashion. Earhart undoubtedly padded the wooden bench seat with a cushion, which would make it a little easier to see out of the windscreen, but even when I stretch up to see how the view would look to a taller person, I realize that there's precious little to see. The Vega was built for speed, which meant everything had to be as streamlined as possible. So the cockpit was tucked in a tiny little space between the front spar of the wing and the back edge of the huge radial engine out front. Even if the plane were in level flight, the windscreen would offer a better view of the sky than anything else, which would make it more of a challenge to detect changes in attitude or bank angle. On takeoff or landing, there'd be almost no forward visibility.

"On closer inspection, I see that instead of hydraulic cylinders, the mechanism
for the wipers consists of two little handles on the inside of the windscreen. They're hand operated."

Like the Atlantic pioneers before her, Earhart ran into bad weather and problems en route, including having her windscreen and wings covered with slush and ice. As I look around the cockpit, I notice that there are windshield wipers for the front two windows, so I guess in theory, Earhart could have kept a clear view, even in the rain and slush. But on closer inspection, I see that instead of hydraulic cylinders, the mechanism for the wipers consists of two little handles on the inside of the windscreen. They're hand operated. As if any Vega pilot flying in bad weather would have had a spare hand—or the spare focus—to devote to keeping the windscreen clear.

The Vegas had better instrumentation than many of the planes that came before them. But in the early 1930s, flying "blind"—by instruments alone—was still a challenging and risky kind of flying that most pilots didn't do. I look at Earhart's instrument panel, less than an arm's length in front of my face. She had a turn-and-bank instrument, which would tell her if and how the plane was banking, and she had a vertical speed indicator, which would tell her if the plane was climbing or descending. She had a directional gyro, which would have given her much more accurate course and heading information than just a compass. But she still didn't have an artificial horizon, which pilots today use as their primary reference for instrument flying.

Nevertheless, the Vega, inside and out, was the first of a new generation of aircraft that combined sleek, aerodynamic design with more reliable engines and instrumentation. And the Vega suddenly made all sorts of ventures possible, from record-setting distance flights to scheduled airline service on a greater variety of routes. In the years between Lindbergh's Paris flight and the Great Depression, fledgling airline companies were springing up like weeds, many of them with only one or two routes and a single airplane. And the Vega's speed, efficiency, passenger comfort and reliability made it a popular choice with many small operators.

Texas-based Bowen Air Lines, for example, used the smaller, cheaper, and faster Vegas to compete with the bigger American Airways, which had an airmail subsidy and operated Ford Tri-Motors. American instructed its pilots not to wait even one minute for passengers connecting from Bowen's planes. But if a Bowen Vega missed an American connection, its pilot was allowed to simply fuel up and take off for the Tri-Motor's next stop, arriving well ahead of the slower transport plane.

The Vega was also the Learjet of its day. Because Vegas offered relatively spacious cabins and fast speeds, they became popular vehicles for corporate executives and movie stars who liked being able to zip off to meetings or weekend retreats. One of these executives was an Oklahoman oilman named F.C. Hall, who bought a Model 5C Vega in 1930 and named it "Winnie Mae," after his daughter. Hall's pilot was a short, stocky, one-eyed Oklahoman named Wiley Post, who had logged thousands of flight hours but only obtained an official pilot's license when Hall hired him.

Record-setting duo: Wiley Post and his Vega, "Winnie Mae."

But Wiley Post had his sights set on bigger things than just flying for a corporate executive. He recognized that the Vega could set records and achieve fame for a pilot brave and stubborn enough to take on one of the many aviation "firsts" that still remained to be conquered. In 1931, he convinced Hall to let him use the company plane in an attempt to become the first pilot to circumnavigate the globe. Post and navigator Harold Gatty took off from New York's Roosevelt Field at 4:55 A.M. on June 23, 1931 and landed there again—a mere eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes later—having flown all the way around the world.

Today, it seems almost commonplace to think of flying around the world. There'd be the expense, to be sure, and no end of airport and customs hassles. But when Post and Gatty took off in the Winnie Mae, they entered a completely unknown realm. There weren't any aviation navigation aids, or even reliable maps, for them to follow, especially over the barren wastelands of Siberia. They followed railroads and rivers through Europe, ducking low under storm clouds because they had no way of navigating around mountains in the clouds. On their first leg into Russia, they flew through rain so intense that Post said, "It was just as if a fire hose were being turned through that opening in front of the engine cowl... Worse than all else, I couldn't see. Not seeing here was much worse than it was over the ocean. There we had plenty of altitude and nothing to hit, but hedge-hopping through Russia with about 200 yards' visibility and 100 or more miles an hour speed is enough to make your hair stand on end every time you cross a fence."

"The Vega and its pilots had a lot in common. They lived fast,
aimed high, and accomplished remarkable things."

They got bogged down in mud in Siberia, had to take off from the main street of town in Edmonton, Alberta, and came home looking much the worse for wear. But they made it. And two years later, with the help of a Sperry autopilot, Post bested his own record with the Winnie Mae by flying the plane around the world in only seven days, 18 hours and 43 minutes—all by himself.

The Vegas—and the five other variants of the design that Lockheed subsequently built—set so many speed and distance records that pilots in the early 1930s began to say that "It takes a Lockheed to beat a Lockheed." The first Trans-Arctic flight, the first nonstop Los Angeles to New York flight, the first east-to-west transcontinental flight, the first New York-to-Mexico City flight, the first woman's Honolulu-to-Oakland flight, the first flight to fly over and from Antarctica, and numerous other aviation "firsts" were accomplished with Vegas.

Unfortunately, the all-wood construction that gave the Vegas their speed and beauty also condemned the planes to a relatively short lifespan. Today, there are only three left in existence—one in the Fantasy of Flight museum in Kissemmee, Florida, and two at the Smithsonian. In addition to Earhart's Vega, the Air & Space museum also houses Wiley Post's Winnie Mae, which the museum acquired from Post's widow after he and famous humorist Will Rogers were killed in the 1935 crash of an Orion-Explorer in Alaska.

As I look around the silent cockpit of Earhart's airplane, it occurs to me that the Vega and its pilots had a lot in common. They lived fast, aimed high, and accomplished remarkable things. But the traits that made both the planes and their pilots fast record-setters often kept them from having long lives. Two years after Post's death, Earhart herself would disappear somewhere in the Pacific while trying to achieve yet another aviation "first." And the beautiful red, art-deco Vega on display at the Smithsonian is the only one of Earhart's record-setting airplanes still in existence.

The floorboards of her cabin are now threadbare, and the labels and wood trim in the cockpit are worn and faded. But in a way, I'm glad no one ever restored it, except to put a new coat of paint on the outside. It's better this way, because it's something more valuable than new: it's real. And because of that, it has a magic about it that makes time and space seem almost fluid. I stand up on the bench seat, reach up and pull myself up out of the cockpit, aware that my hands are pressed against the same pieces of metal that Amelia used to climb out of this very plane after landing in a field in Ireland. As I sit on the wing, I can picture the throng cheering my arrival at the end of my transcontinental flight. I wave graciously, savoring a moment of Walter Mitty satisfaction that only the Real McCoy could elicit.

Wiley Post waves from "Winnie Mae."

To many people, seeing Earhart's Vega at the Smithsonian would evoke only a few moments of vague historical interest. They would read the facts of the plane and the flight that are detailed on the exhibit's immaculate floor-level signs, glance briefly at the plane standing still and silent before them, make an appropriately impressed noise, and then move on to the next amazing piece of history. And they would miss the magic entirely.

For the magic, you see, is that she's still here. All of us complete the places we know and touch, whether they're childhood homes, favorite hiding places, or airplanes in which we've crossed oceans and continents. And we infuse those places with all the memories, feelings, and adventures we once knew there. Return to the house in which you grew up, and you'll find your eight-year-old self still playing on your old bedroom floor. Stumble upon the car you drove to your senior prom, and the night's adventures or misadventures will all come flooding back almost as clearly as if you were watching them unfold in the present.

Amelia and Wiley may be gone, but their airplanes survive. And somewhere in the pressed-wood fuselage, the intricately cross-braced wing structure, and the elegant, external lines of these Vegas are faint traces of their pilots' laughter, sweat and tears—priceless memories of a time when the world suddenly got small enough to explore, not in years, months, or weeks, but in merely a matter of days.