6 March 1931: Ruth Rowland Nichols set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Altitude Record of 8,761 meters (28,743 feet) at Jersey City Airport, New Jersey.¹
Nichols’ airplane was a 1928 Lockheed Model 5 Vega Special, serial number 619, registered NR496M, and owned by Powell Crosley, Jr. He had named the airplane The New Cincinnati.
Built by the Lockheed Aircraft Company, Burbank, California, the Vega was a single-engine high-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was flown by a single pilot and could be configured to carry four to six passengers.
The Lockheed Vega was a very state-of-the-art aircraft for its time. The prototype flew for the first time 4 July 1927 at Mines Field, Los Angeles, California. It used a streamlined monocoque fuselage made of molded plywood. The wing and tail surfaces were fully cantilevered, requiring no bracing wires or struts to support them. The fuselage was molded laminated plywood monocoque construction and the wing was cantilevered wood.
The Model 5 Vega is 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wingspan of 41 feet (12.497 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 2 inches (2.489 meters). Its empty weight is 2,595 pounds (1,177 kilograms) and gross weight is 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms).
Nichols’ airplane was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp C, a nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 5.25:1. It was rated at 420 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level. The engine drove a two-bladed controllable-pitch Hamilton Standard propeller through direct drive. The Wasp C was 3 feet, 6.63 inches (1.083 meters) long, 4 feet, 3.44 inches (1.307 meters) in diameter and weighed 745 pounds (338 kilograms).
Flying the Vega, Ruth Nichols also set records for speed between New York and Los Angeles. NR496M was damaged beyond repair at Floyd Bennett Field, 11 April 1931.
“Ruth Nichols was the only woman to hold simultaneously the women’s world speed, altitude, and distance records for heavy landplanes. She soloed in a flying boat and received her pilot’s license after graduating from Wellesley College in 1924, becoming the first woman in New York to do so. Defying her parents wishes to follow the proper life of a young woman, in January 1928 she flew nonstop from New York City to Miami with Harry Rogers in a Fairchild FC-2. The publicity stunt brought Nichols fame as “The Flying Debutante” and provided headlines for Rogers’ airline too. Sherman Fairchild took note and hired Nichols as a northeast sales manager for Fairchild Aircraft and Engine Corporation. She helped to found the Long Island Aviation Country Club, an exclusive flying club and participated in the 19,312-meter (12,000-mile) Sportsman Air Tour to promote the establishment of clubs around the country. She was also a founder of Sportsman Pilot magazine. Nichols set several women’s records in 1931, among them a speed record of 339.0952 kph (210.704 mph), an altitude record of 8,760 meters (28,743 feet), and a nonstop distance record of 3182.638 kilometers (1,977.6 miles). Her hopes to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean were dashed by two crashes of a Lockheed Vega in 1931, in which she was severely injured, and again in 1932. In 1940, Nichols founded Relief Wings, a humanitarian air service for disaster relief that quickly became an adjunct relief service of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during World War II. Nichols became a lieutenant colonel in the CAP. After the war she organized a mission in support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and became an advisor to the CAP on air ambulance missions. In 1958, she flew a Delta Dagger at 1,609 kph (1,000 mph) at an altitude of 15,544 meters (51,000 feet). A Hamilton variable pitch propeller (which allowed a pilot to select a climb or cruise position for the blades), from her Lockheed Vega is displayed in the Golden Age of Flight gallery. Nichols’ autobiography is titled Wings for Life.”
— Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Women In Aviation and Space History, The Golden Age of Flight.
Clarence Leonard (“Kelly”) Johnson was born at Ishpeming, Michigan, United States of America, 27 February 1910. He was the third of five children of Peter Johnson, a stone mason, and Kjrstie Anderson Johnson. His parents were immigrants from Sweden.
Kelly Johnson attended Flint Central High School, graduating in 1928. After studying at a community college, Johnson transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He graduated in 1932 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering (B.S.E. AeroE.). He won the Frank Sheehan Scholarship in Aeronautics, which enabled him to continue at the University to earn a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering (M.S.E.) in 1933.
Kelly Johnson started working as a tool designer for the Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank, California, in 1933. After transferring to the engineering department, he was assigned to the company’s Model 10 Electra project. Johnson identified a stability problem with the airplane’s design, and he was sent back to the University of Michigan to conduct a wind tunnel study which resulted in his proposal of the twin vertical tail configuration which was a characteristic of many Lockheed airplanes that followed. Johnson also served as a flight test engineer for the airplane.
A genius of aeronautical engineering and design, he was responsible for all of Lockheed’s most famous aircraft: the Lockheed Hudson and Neptune medium bombers, the P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first full-production jet fighter. He designed the beautiful Constellation airliner. The list is seemingly endless: The F-94 Starfire, F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and the SR-71 Blackbird.
Kelly Johnson was married three times. He married Miss Althea Louise Young, who worked in Lockheed’s accounting department, in 1937. She died of cancer in December 1969. He then married Miss Maryellen Elberta Meade, his secretary, at Solvang, California, 20 May 1971. She died 13 October 1980 of complications of diabetes. He married his third wife, Mrs. William M. Horrigan (née Nancy M. Powers), a widow, and MaryEllen’s best friend, 21 November 1980. Johnson had no children.
Kelly Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975 as a senior vice president. He remained on the board of directors until 1980.
Clarence Leonard Johnson died 21 December 1990 at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, Burbank, California, after a long period of hospitalization. He was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California.
23 February 1934: Test pilot Marshall Headle, Chief Pilot in Charge of Flight Operations for Lockheed Aircraft Company, took the prototype Lockheed Model 10 Electra, serial number 1001, registered NX233Y, for its first flight at United Airport, Burbank, California (which soon became United Air Terminal, then Lockheed Air Terminal and is now the Bob Hope Airport, BUR).
The Lockheed Model 10 Electra was designed as a 10-passenger commercial transport and was a contemporary of the Boeing Model 247. This was Lockheed’s first all-metal airplane. It had two engines, a low wing and retractable landing gear. An engineering team led by Hall Hibbard worked on the airplane.
A young engineer, Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson, an assistant aerodynamicist at the University of Michigan, performed the wind tunnel tests on scale models of the proposed design and recommended changes to the configuration, such as the use of two vertical fins mounted at the outboard ends of the horizontal stabilizer. This became a design feature of Lockheed airplanes into the 1950s and included the Model 18 Lodestar/PV-1 Ventura, the P-38 Lightning fighter and the L-1649 Starliner, which was produced until 1958. Johnson would later become the leader of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works.”
The prototype Electra was was used for certification testing. During a full-load test at Mines Field (now, LAX) the Electra’s landing gear malfunctioned. Babe Headle flew it back to Burbank and made a one-wheel landing. The airplane was slightly damaged but quickly repaired.
After testing was competed the first Electra was delivered to Northwest Airways, Inc., at St. Paul, Minnesota. The experimental registration was changed to a standard registration, NC233Y, and it was assigned the Northwest fleet number 60.
Like the Boeing 247, the Electra was originally produced with a forward-slanting windshield to prevent instrument light reflection during night flights. This resulted in ground lighting reflections, though, and was changed to a standard, rearward slant with the fifth production airplane. NC233Y was modified by Northwestern’s maintenance staff.
Lockheed built 147 Model 10s in various configurations. The first production variant was the Model 10A. It was 38 feet, 7 inches (11.760 meters) long with a wingspan of 55 feet (16.764 meters), and height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 6,454 pounds (2,927 kilograms) and a gross weight of 10,500 pounds (4,763 kilograms).
The Model 10A was powered by two air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liters) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. SB 9-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6:1. They were rated at 400 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 87-octane gasoline. The SB engines were direct-drive and turned two-bladed variable-pitch propellers. The Wasp Jr. SB was 3 feet, 6.59 inches (1.056 meters) long, 3 feet, 11.75 inches (1.162 meters) in diameter, and weighed 645 pounds (293 kilograms).
The airplane had a cruise speed of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 202 miles per hour (325 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 19,400 feet (5,913 meters) and range was 713 miles (1,147 kilometers).
Newsreel footage of the Lockheed Model 10 prototype’s first flight, by cinematographer Alfred Dillimtash Black for Fox Movietone News, is in the collection of the Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina, University Libraries, and can be viewed at:
The Electra was “the Lisbon plane” in the classic 1942 motion picture, “Casablanca,” which starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.
Probably the best-known Lockheed Electra is the Model 10E Special, NR16020, which was built for Amelia Earhart for her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937. She took delivery of the airplane on her 39th birthday, 24 July 1936.
The prototype Lockheed Model 10 later carried U.S. registrations NC2332, NC17380, and Canadian registration CF-BRG. It was placed in service with the Royal Canadian Air Force with the serial number 7652. One of 15 Lockheed Electras in RCAF service during World War II, it was destroyed by fire at RCAF Station Mountain View, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada, 14 October 1941.
Marshall Headle was born 21 March 1893 at Winthrop, Massachussetts, United States of America, He was the third child of Edwin Charles Headle, a clergyman, and Clarendo Yeomans Headle. He attended Winthrop High School before going on to the Massachussetts Agricultural College at Bolton. He graduated in 1912 with a Bachelor of Science degree (B.Sc.) in Floriculture.
Headle enlisted in the United States Army in 1917, and attended aviation ground school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). His flight training took place at Tours, France. He held the rank of First Lieutenant, Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force, United States Army. Lieutenant Headle served as a flight instructor at Tours and at the 2nd Aviation Instruction Center.
From 1919 to 1922, Headle was attached to the United States Embassy in Paris, France. He then returned to the United States.
Marshall Headle enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps, 25 October 1924. He served with the Marines in China as an airplane crew chief and aviator. He was promoted to gunnery sergeant (Gy.Sgt.). He returned to the United States in 1928, and resigned from the Marine Corps to become a civilian pilot.
In 1929, Headle married Dorothea Evelyn Breeder. They had two children, Marshall Ronald Headle, born in 1932, and Michele Ann Headle. (Mrs. Headle died in Honolulu, Hawaii, 25 May 2010, at the age of 99 years.)
Headle joined Lockheed in 1929, as chief pilot, flight operations. On 30 October 1929, Headle made the first flight of the all-metal Detroit-Lockheed DL-2 Sirius.
In 1930, Headle attempted to set a world altitude record with a 500 kilogram (1,102 pounds) payload, flying a Lockheed Vega. He used a pressurized tank of oxygen with a flexible tube.
In 1931, he took the Model 9 Orion, NX960Y, on its first flight.
In 1933, became the company’s chief test pilot, succeeding Wiley Post. He also traveled world-wide demonstrating Lockheed’s airplanes.
Headle also made the first flight of Gerard Vultee’s Vultee V-1A single-engine airliner, 19 February 1933.
On 29 July 1937, he made the first flight of the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra. The Model 14 fuselage was stretched, resulting in the Model 18 Lodestar. Headle, with Louis Upshaw, took the prototype, NX17385, for its first flight, 21 September 1939. The Lodestar would be developed into the Lockheed Hudson bomber.
On 16 September 1940, Headle made the first flight of the Lockheed YP-38 service test prototype. Headle was featured in magazine and billboard advertisements for Camel cigarettes in 1941.
In 1941, he was injured in an altitude chamber accident and was no longer able to fly.
Marshall Headle died 14 May 1945 at the age of 52 years. He was buried at the Valhalla Memorial Cemetery, Burbank, California.
14 February 1932: Taking off from Floyd Bennett Field, Ruth Rowland Nichols flew Miss Teaneck, a Lockheed Vega 1 owned by Clarence Duncan Chamberlin, to an altitude of 19,928 feet (6,074 meters).¹
The airplane’s owner had flown it to 19,393 feet (5,911 meters) on 24 January 1932.
A contemporary newspaper reported:
RUTH NICHOLS SETS NEW ALTITUDE RECORD
Ruth Nichols’ flight in a Lockheed monoplane powered with a 225 horsepower Packard Diesel motor to an altitude of 21,350 feet [6,507 meters] Friday had been credited to the Rye girl unofficially as a new altitude record for Diesel engines. A sealed barograph, removed from the plane, has been sent to Washington to the Bureau of Standards to determine the exact altitude figure.
—The Bronxville Press, Vol. VIII, No. 14, Tuesday, February 15, 1932, Columns 1 and 2
RUTH NICHOLS SENDS ‘FLYING FURNACE’ TO HEIGHT OF FOUR MILES
New York, Feb. 14—(AP)—Ruth Nichols, society aviatrix, flew Clarence Chamberlain’s [sic] “Flying Furnace” to a new altitude record, on the basis of an unofficial reading of her altimeter. When she landed it registered 21,300 feet, while Chamberlain’s [sic] official record for the Diesel-motored craft was 19,363 feet.
Miss Nichols took off at 4:15 p.m. from Floyd Bennett airport and landed an hour and one minute later after an exciting flight.
She encountered temperatures of 15 degrees below zero, she said, and at 20,000 feet two of her cylinders blew out. At that height, too, she was forced to the use of her oxygen tank.
In addition to the sealed barograph, which was taken from the plane at once to be sent to Washington for official calibration, Miss Nichols had three altimeters, two of which went out of commission in the upper atmosphere. The unofficial reading was taken from the third altimeter.
Despite her crippled engine and the fact that she had no brakes, she made a perfect landing and announced she had enjoyed the flight.
He unofficial altimeter reading was greater than that of Chamberlin after his flight and it is believed the official calibration would establish the new record for planes of this type.
Chamberlin was present as her technical advisor, and he gave last-minute instructions as she stepped into the cockpit, wearing a heavy flying suit, lined boots, and a purple scarf wound about her head instead of a helmet.
The plane carried 13 gallons of furnace oil, and one tank of oxygen. The regular wheels were changed smaller, lighter ones before the flight.
Miss Nichols hold several records and has reached an altitude of 28,743 feet in a gasoline plane.
—The Kokomo Tribune, Volume XLIV, No, 123, Monday, 15 February 1932, Page 7 at Columns 6 and 7
Miss Teaneck had been modified. The original engine Wright Whirlwind engine had been replaced by an air-cooled, 982.26-cubic-inch-displacement (16.096 liter) Packard DR-980 nine-cylinder radial diesel-cycle (or “compression-ignition”) engine. The DR-980 had one valve per cylinder and a compression ratio of 16:1. It had a continuous power rating of 225 horsepower at 1,950 r.p.m., and 240 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. for takeoff. The DR-980 was 3 feet, ¾-inch (0.933 meters) long, 3 feet, 9-11/16 inches (1.160 meters) in diameter, and weighed 510 pounds (231 kilograms). The Packard Motor Car Company built approximately 100 DR-980s, and a single DR-980B which used two valves per cylinder and was rated at 280 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m. The Colllier Trophy was awarded to Packard for its work on this engine.
The Lockheed Vega was a very state-of-the-art aircraft for its time. The prototype flew for the first time 4 July 1927 at Mines Field, Los Angeles, California. It used a streamlined monocoque fuselage made of molded plywood. The wing and tail surfaces were fully cantilevered, requiring no bracing wires or struts to support them.
The Vega was flown by one pilot in an open cockpit and could carry four passengers in the cabin. It was 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wingspan of 41 feet, 0 inches (12.497 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 2 inches (2.489 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 1,875 pounds (851 kilograms) and a gross weight of 3,470 pounds (1,574 kilograms).
The early Vegas were powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 787.26-cubic-inch-displacement (12.901 liter) Wright J-5C Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial engine producing 200 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m., and 225 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. This was a direct-drive engine which turned a two-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller. The Wright J-5C was 2 feet, 10 inches (0.864 meters) long and 3 feet, 9 inches (1.143 meters) in diameter. It weighed 508 pounds (230.4 kilograms).
The Vega had a cruising speed of 118 miles per hour (190 kilometers per hour) and atop speed of 138 miles per hour (222 kilometers per hour)—very fast for its time. The airplane’s range was 900 miles (1,448.4 kilometers). It could fly at an altitude 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).
¹ Virtually every source located by TDiA states that Ruth Nichols established an altitude record with this flight. Many state that it was a “world altitude record” and many also say that this record “still stands today.” A check with the National Aeronautics Association did not find such a record. Also, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale lists three world records credited to Ruth Nichols. This is flight is not listed. A very few sources called this an “unofficial record.”
4–5 February 1929: At 5:37:30 p.m., Pacific Time, Monday, Frank Monroe Hawks, took off from Metropolitan Field, Los Angeles, California, (now known as Van Nuys Airport, VNY) in a new Lockheed Model 3 Air Express transport, NR7955, serial number EX-2. Also on board was Oscar Edwin Grubb, the final assembly superintendent for Lockheed. The pair flew non-stop to Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, arriving there at 2:59:29 p.m., Eastern Time, on Tuesday. The duration of the flight was 18 hours, 21 minutes, 59 seconds.
The only previous non-stop West-to-East flight had been flown during August 1928 by Arthur C. Goebel, Jr., and Harry Tucker with their Lockheed Vega, Yankee Doodle, NX4769. Hawks cut 36 minutes off of Goebel’s time.
Hawks was a technical adviser to The Texas Company (“Texaco”), a manufacturer and distributor of petroleum products which sponsored the flight. On his recommendation, the company purchased the Air Express from Lockheed for use as a company transport.
On 17 January 1930, “Pilot Frank Hawks attempted a takeoff from a soggy field in West Palm Beach, Florida, destroying the aircraft christened ‘Texaco Five’ in a spectacular crash that catapulted it into a row of three parked aircraft. All three occupants were unhurt while the aircraft was destroyed.” —Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives
NC7955’s Department of Commerce registration was cancelled 31 January 1930.
The Lockheed Model 3 Air Express was a single-engine parasol-wing monoplane transport, flown by a single pilot in an open aft cockpit, and capable of carrying 4 to 6 passengers in its enclosed cabin. The airplane was designed by Gerard Freebairn Vultee and John Knudsen Northrop. It used the Lockheed Vega’s molded plywood monocoque fuselage.
The Model 3 received Approved Type Certificate No. 102 from the Aeronautic Branch, U. S. Department of Commerce.
The Lockheed Air Express was the first production airplane to use the “NACA Cowl,” an engine cowling for radial engines which had been designed by a team led by Fred Ernest Weick of the the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. The new cowling design tightly enclosed the engine and used baffles to control air flow around the hottest parts of the engines. The exit slots were designed to allow the air to exit the cowling at a higher speed than it had entered the intake. The new cowling design provided better engine cooling and caused significantly less aerodynamic drag. The addition of the NACA cowling increased the Air Express’s maximum speed from 157 to 177 miles per hour (253 to 285 kilometers per hour).
The day following Hawks’ transcontinental flight, Vultee sent a telegram to NACA:
COOLING CAREFULLY CHECKED AND OK. RECORD IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT NEW COWLING. ALL CREDIT DUE TO NACA FOR PAINSTAKING AND ACCURATE RESEARCH. GERRY VULTEE, LOCKHEED AIRCRAFT CO.
The Lockheed Model 3 Air Express was 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wing span of 42 feet, 6 inches (12.954 meters) and height of 8 feet, 4½ inches (2.553 meters). The wing area was 288 square feet (26.756 square meters). The wing had no dihedral. The airplane had an empty weight of 2,533 pounds (1,149 kilograms) and gross weight of 4,375 pounds (1,984 kilograms).
The Model 3 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp C nine cylinder, direct-drive radial engine. The Wasp C was rated at 420 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level. It was 3 feet, 6.63 inches (1.083 meters) long, 4 feet, 3.44 inches (1.307 meters) in diameter, and weighed 745 pounds (338 kilograms).
The Air Express had a cruising speed of 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour), and maximum speed of 177 miles per hour (285 kilometers per hour). It’s service ceiling was 17,250 feet (5,258 meters).
Francis Monroe Hawks was born at Marshalltown, Iowa, 28 March 1897. He was the son of Charles Monroe Hawks, a barber, and Ida Mae Woodruff Hawks. He attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Long Beach, California, graduating in 1916. He then studied at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
Frank Hawks was an Air Service, United States Army, pilot who served during World War I. He rose to the rank of Captain, and at the time of his record-breaking transcontinental flight, he held a commission as a reserve officer in the Army Air Corps. Hawks transferred to the U.S. Naval Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. His date of rank 27 May 1932.
His flying had made him a popular public figure and he starred in a series of Hollywood movies as “The Mysterious Pilot.”
On 28 December 1920, Miss Amelia Earhart took her first ride in an airplane at Long Beach Airport in California. The ten-minute flight began her life-long involvement in aviation. The airplane’s pilot was Frank Monroe Hawks.
Francis M. Hawks married Miss Newell Lane at Lewiston, Montana, 7 August 1918. They had a daughter, Dolly. They later divorced. He next married Mrs. Edith Bowie Fouts at St. John’s Church, Houston, Texas, 26 October 1926.
Frank Hawks was killed in an aircraft accident at East Aurora, New York, 23 August 1938. He was buried at Redding Ridge Cemetery, Redding, Connecticut.