Tag Archives: World Record for Altitude

18 April 1958

Lieutenant Commander George Clinton Watkins, United States Navy, set a World Altitude Record with a Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, 18 April 1958. (U.S. Navy)
Lieutenant Commander George Clinton Watkins, United States Navy, set a World Altitude Record with a Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger, 18 April 1958. (U.S. Navy)

18 April 1958: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, test pilot Lieutenant Commander George Clinton Watkins, United States Navy, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Altitude Record of 23,449 meters (76,932 feet) ¹ with a Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, Bureau of Aeronautics serial number (Bu. No.) 138647.

Lieutenant Commander Watkins wore a David Clark Co. C-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with an International Latex Corporation (ILC Dover) K-1 helmet and face plate for protection at high altitudes.

Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, Bu. No. 138647, in flight near Edwards AFB, California. (U.S. Navy)
Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, Bu. No. 138647, in flight near Edwards AFB, California. (U.S. Navy)

The F11F-1F Tiger was a higher performance variant of the U.S. Navy F11F single-seat, single-engine swept wing aircraft carrier-based supersonic fighter. The last two regular production F11F-1 Tigers, Bu. Nos. 138646 and 138647 were completed as F11F-2s, with the standard Westinghouse J65-WE-18 turbojet engine replaced by a more powerful General Electric YJ79-GE-3, which produced 9,300 pounds of thrust (41.37 kilonewtons), or 14,350 pounds (63.83 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The air intakes on each side of the fuselage were longer and had a larger area to provide greater airflow for the new engine. After testing, the fuselage was lengthened 1 foot, 1½ inches (0.343 meters) and an upgraded J79 engine installed. The first “Super Tiger” was damaged beyond repair in a takeoff accident and was “expended” as a training aid for fire fighters.

The U.S. Navy determined that the F11F-2 was too heavy for operation aboard carriers and did not place any orders. The designation was changed from F11F-2 to F11F-1F, and later, to F-11B, although the remaining aircraft was no longer flying by that time.

The F11F-1F Tiger is 48 feet, 0.5 inches (14.643 meters) long with a wingspan of 31 feet, 7.5 inches (9.639 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 10 inches (4.216 meters). The Super Tiger has an empty weight of 16,457 pounds (7,465 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 26,086 pounds (11,832 kilograms).

The General Electric J79 is a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).

With the YJ79 engine, the F11F-1F has a maximum speed of 836 miles per hour (1,345 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, 1,325 miles per hour (2,132 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) and 1,400 miles per hour (2,253 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). Cruise speed is 580 miles per hour (933 kilometers per hour). It had an initial rate of climb of 8,950 feet per minute (45.5 meters per second) and service ceiling of 50,300 feet (15,331 meters). Range with internal fuel was 1,136 miles (1,828 kilometers).

The Tiger’s armament consisted of four 20 mm Colt Mk 12 autocannon with 125 rounds of ammunition per gun, and four AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles.

The single remaining F11F-1F, Bu. No. 138647, is on static display at the Naval Air Weapons center, China Lake, California.

Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, Bu. No. 138647. (U.S. Navy)
Grumman F11F-1F Tiger, Bu. No. 138647. (U.S. Navy)

George Clinton Watkins was born at Alhambra, California, 10 March 1921, the third of seven children of Edward Francis Watkins, a purchasing agent for the Edison Company, and Louise Whipple Ward Watkins. (Mrs. Watkins was a candidate for election to the United States Senate in 1938.) George’s brother, James, would later serve as Chief of Naval Operations.

George was educated at the Army and Navy Academy, Carlsbad, California, and at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, before being appointed to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. He entered the Academy 3 July 1940. He graduated and was commissioned as an Ensign, United States Navy, 9 June 1943. He was then assigned as a gunnery officer aboard the battleship, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). Ensign Watkins was promoted to the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), 1 September 1944.

Near the end of the war, Lieutenant (j.g.) Watkins entered pilot training. He graduated and was awarded the gold wings of a Naval Aviator in 1945. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, 1 April 1946. His first operational assignment was as pilot of a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber with VT-41. In 1950 Watkins attended the Navy’s test pilot school at NAS Patuxent River on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. Among his classmates were future astronauts John H. Glenn and Alan B. Shepard. Lieutenant Watkins served as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F-6 with VF-24, aboard USS Yorktown (CVA-10)then returned to duty as a test pilot. On 1 January 1954, he was promoted to lieutenant commander.

George Watkins was the first U.S. Navy pilot to fly higher than 60,000 feet (18,288 meters), and 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). In 1956, he set a speed record of 1,210 miles per hour (1,947.3 kilometers per hour). Lieutenant Commander Watkins was promoted to the rank of commander, 1 March 1958. He was assigned as Comander Air Group 13 in August 1961. On 9 May 1962, Commander Watkins became the first U.S. Navy pilot to have made 1,000 aircraft carrier landings.

Commander Watkins was promoted to the rank of captain, 1 July 1964. Captain Watkins served in planning assignments at the Pentagon, and was an aide to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

USS Mars (AFS-1). (United States Navy)
Captain George Clinton Watkins, United States Navy (1921–2005)

From 14 December 1965 to 12 December 1966, Captain Watkins commanded USS Mars (AFS-1), a combat stores ship. (Experience commanding a deep draft ship was a requirement before serving as captain of an aircraft carrier).

He later served as a technical adviser for the 1970 20th Century Fox/Toei Company movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” about the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor which brought the United States of America into World War II.

By the time Captain Watkins retired from the Navy in 1973, he had flown more than 200 aircraft types, made 1,418 landings on 37 aircraft carriers, and logged more than 16,000 flight hours. He continued flying after he retired, operating sailplane schools at Santa Monica and Lompoc, California. He had flown more than 21,000 hours during 26,000 flights.

Captain Watkins married Miss Monica Agnes Dobbyn, 20 years his junior, at Virginia Beach, Virginia, 9 June 1979. Mrs. Watkins is the author of Cats Have Angels Too, Angelaura & Company, 1998.

Captain Watkins died 18 September 2005 at the age of 84 years. His ashes were spread at sea from the deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier.

¹ FAI Record File Number 8596

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 April 1934

Renato Donati prepares for high altitude flight, 11 April 1934. (Caproni)
Renato Donati prepares for high altitude flight, 11 April 1934. (Società Italiana Caproni Milano)

11 April 1934: Commander Renato Donati of Italy’s Regia Aeronautica flew a modified Società Italiana Caproni Milano Caproni Ca.113 two-place biplane named Alta Quota from Montecielo Airport, outside Rome, to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record altitude of 14,433 meters (47,352 feet).¹

At such high altitudes, airman must not only be provided with oxygen, but it must be under positive pressure. In this photograph, Commander Donati is being prepared for the flight with a special pressurized suit made of “gutta percha” (a type of rubberized fabric).

Renato Donati in the cockpit of the Caproni Ca.113 A.Q., 11 April 1934. (Caproni)
Renato Donati in the cockpit of the Caproni Ca.114, 11 April 1934. (Società Italiana Caproni Milano)

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported:

     ROME, April 11.—Renato Donati, 40 year old Italian war ace, hung up a world’s altitude record today when he spiraled his specially constructed Caproni airplane nine miles up into the skies of Rome, to the very limit of the earth’s air envelope.

     Seventy-five minutes after he took off from the Monticello airport on his Icarian adventure Donati dropped back onto the field. He collapsed from the nervous and physical shock of such a swift change of atmospheric conditions, for his instruments registered a height of 14,500 meters [47,560 feet] and temperature of 66 degrees below zero, Centigrade [67.3 degrees below zero Fahrenheit]. With medical aid Donato quickly recovered. . .

Chicago Daily Tribune, Volume XCIII.—No. 88, Thursday 12 April 1934, Page 11, column 1. Article written by David Darrah, Chicago Tribune Press Service.

Renato Donati after his world record-setting flight, 11 April 1934.

The Società Italiana Caproni, Milano Caproni Ca. 113 Alta Quota was developed from the Ca.113 trainer. It was powered by a British-built Bristol Pegasus, the same type used by the Houston Mount Everest Flying Expedition to fly over Mount Everest the previous week. It was an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,752.79-cubic-inch-displacement (28.72 liter) nine-cylinder radial engine, with a compression ratio of 5.3:1. It had a Normal Power rating of 525 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), and produced a maximum of 575 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). It drove a four-blade ground-adjustable metal propeller.

Caproni Ca.113 Alta Quota at Montecelio airport, 11 April 1934. (Luce Cinecittà)

The production Ca.113 was a single-engine, two-place, two-bay biplane with fixed landing gear, built in Italy and at Caproni’s subsidiary in Bulgaria. The airplane was designed to be aerobatic. It first flew in 1931. It was constructed of steel tubing and wood, covered wit aluminum sheet and doped fabric. The Ca.113 was  24 feet, 5 inches (7.442 meters) long with a wingspan of 34 feet, 5 inches (10.490 meters) and height of 9 feet, 2 inches (2.794 meters). The lower wing was staggered behind the upper. It had an empty weight of 1,797 pounds (815 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,348 pounds (1,065 kilograms).

The Ca.113 was powered by an Alfa-Romeo engine developed from the license-built Bristol Pegasus. It had a Normal Power rating of 525 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), and produced a maximum of 575 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters).

The Ca.113 had a maximum speed of 143 miles per hour ( kilometers per hour), and was capable of climbing to 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) in 15 minutes.

The following year, Commander Donati’s Ca.114 (Ca.113 R, equipped with an Alfa Romeo Pegasus S.2 engine) was flown by aviatrix Contessa Carina Negrone, to a women’s record altitude of 12,043 meters (39,511 feet).²

Caproni Ca.113 A.Q.
Caproni Ca.114.

¹ FAI Record File Number 8170

² FAI Record File Number 12166

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 April 1972

Windover’s Interstate Cadet S-1A, with Pikes Peak in the background. Inset: Lieutenant-Colonel W. Roy Windover, RCAF, in the cockpit of his Interstate Cadet. (UPI)
LCol W. Roy Windover RCAF

10 April 1972: Lieutenant-Colonel W. Roy Windover, Royal Canadian Air Force, a pilot assigned to the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude when he flew a 1941 Interstate Cadet S-1A, N37239, to an altitude of 9,388 meters (30,801 feet) ¹ over Pikes Peak, a 14,115 foot (4,320 meter) mountain in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For this achievement, the FAI awarded him its Médaille Louis Blériot.

Lieutenant-Colonel Windover had previously set a Canadian national record by flying a Cessna 140 to 27,050 feet (8,245 meters).

William Roy Windover was born 26 November 1924 at Belleville, Ontario, Canada. He was the son of William Everette Windover and Ella May Charlton Windover.

Pikes Peak, 14,115.19 feet (4,302.31 meters), west of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Roy Windover learned to fly in 1941. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was “seconded” to the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy.

Windover married Genevia Topelko, 10 Feb 1945. They would have three children, Jo-Anne, Roy and Rodderick. They later divorced. Mrs. Windover died in 2005.

In 1958, Flight Lieutenant Windover had been the first Royal Canadian Air Force Red Knight, a solo aerobatics demonstration performer, flying a bright red Canadair CT-133 Silver Star.

In 1974–1974, Windover served at National Defense Headquarters, Ottawa.

On 26 April 1983, Lieutenant-Colonel Windover married Cecile Rose Bruyere.

Lieutenant-Colonel William Roy Windover, Royal Canadian Air Force, Retired, died in an automobile accident, 29 May 1990 at the age of 65 years. He was buried at the Beechwood National Cemetery, Carleton, Ontario.

Roy Windover’s Red Knight CT-133 Silver Star, 21057.

Windover’s Interstate Cadet S-1A, serial number 82, was built by the Interstate Aircraft and Engineering Company, El Segundo, California, in 1941. The airplane was assigned an Airworthiness Certificate on 18 December 1958 and registered N37239.

The Cadet was a single-engine, high-wing monoplane with a tandem cockpit and fixed landing gear. The fuselage of the Cadet was built of a tubular steel framework. The wings had two spruce spars with Alclad metal ribs. The leading edges were covered in Dural sheet and the complete wing then covered in doped fabric. The wing support struts were made of tubular steel. The S-1A was 24 feet, 0 inches (7.315 meters) long with a wingspan of 35 feet, 6 inches (10.820 meters) and height of 7 feet, 3 inches (2.210 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 720 pounds (327 kilograms) and maximum weight of 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms).

Interstate Cadet S-1A NC34939, the same type airplane flown W. Roy Windover to set a World Record for Altitude 10 April 1972.

The Interstate Cadet S-1A was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 171.002-cubic-inch-displacement (2.802 liter) Continental A65-8 horizontally-opposed four cylinder direct-drive engine, with a compression ratio of 6.3:1. It was rated at 65 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level, using 73-octane gasoline. The engine turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller with a diameter of 6 feet, 4 inches (1.930 meters).

At the time N37239 set this record, it was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 171.002-cubic-inch-displacement (2.802 liter) Continental A75 horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 6.3:1, rated at 75 horsepower at 2,600–2,650 r.p.m. (depending on variant) at Sea Level. The A75 also required a minimum grade73-octane aviation gasoline.

The Cadet S-1A had a maximum speed of 103 miles per hour (166 kilometers per hour) in level flight, and 139 miles per hour (224 kilometers per hour) in a dive. The service ceiling was 14,500 feet (4,420 meters). The S-1A’s fuel capacity was 15 gallons (57 liters). Its maximum range was approximately 350 miles (563 kilometers).

Approximately 320 Cadets were built by Interstate during 1941–1942. In 1942 and 1943, another 259 were built as OX-63, L-6 and L-8 Grasshopper light observation airplanes.

N37239 caught fire during a training flight near Amarillo, Texas, 12 January 1995. After an emergency landing, the airplane was destroyed by the fire. The cause was not determined. The airplane was rebuilt and issued an Airworthiness Certificate 8 April 1999. It is currently registered in Farmington, Missouri.²

¹ FAI Record File Number 1918

² FAA registration cancelled 12 March 2018.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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23 March 1948

John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.110 Vampire (BNPS).
John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1, TG/278. Note the metal canopy with porthole. (BNPS).

23 March 1948: During a 45-minute flight over Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, the de Havilland Aircraft Company chief test pilot, Group Captain John Cunningham, D.S.O., flew a modified DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude of 18,119 meters (59,446 feet).¹ Cunningham broke the record set nearly ten years earlier by Colonel Mario Pezzi in a Caproni Ca.161 biplane.² (See This Day in Aviation, 22 October 1938)

DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)
DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)

The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 flown by Cunningham was the fifth production aircraft, TG/278. It was built by the English Electric Company at Preston, Lancashire, with final assembly at Samlesbury Aerodrome, and made its first flight in August 1945. It was intended as a prototype photo reconnaissance airplane. The cockpit was heated and pressurized for high altitude, and a metal canopy installed.

The photo reconnaissance project was dropped and TG/278 became a test bed for the de Havilland Engine Company Ghost 2 turbojet (Halford H.2), which produced 4,400 pounds of thrust (19.57 kilonewtons) at 10,000 r.p.m. The Vampire could take the Ghost engine to altitudes beyond the reach of the Avro Lancaster/Ghost test bed already in use. The airplane’s wing tips were each extended 4 feet (1.219 meters) to increase lift.

De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 before the record flight. (De Havilland)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 after modifications. (de Havilland)

The aircraft was stripped of paint to reduce weight. Smaller batteries were used and placed in normal ballast locations. Special instrumentation and recording cine cameras were installed in the gun compartment, and ten cylinders of compressed air for breathing replaced the Vampire’s radio equipment. At takeoff, the Vampire carried 202 gallons (765 liters) of fuel, 40 gallons less than maximum, sufficient for only one hour of flight. The takeoff weight of TG/278 was 8,400 pounds (3,810 kilograms).

John Cunningham had previously flown TG/278 to a world record 799.644 kilometers per hour (496.876 miles per hour) over a 100 kilometer course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947.³

TG/278 continued as a test aircraft until it was damaged by an engine fire in October 1950. It was used as an instructional airframe at RAF Halton.

De Havilland DH.100 F Mk 1 Vampire TG/278 after high-altitude modifications (Vic Flintham)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 with high altitude modifications (de Havilland)

A standard Vampire F.1 was 9.370 meters (30 feet, 8.9 inches) long with a wingspan of 12.192 meters (40 feet, 0 inches) and overall height of 2.700 meters (8 feet, 10.3 inches). The fighter had an empty weight of 6,380 pounds (2,894 kilograms) and gross weight of 8,587 pounds (3,895 kilograms).

The basic Vampire F.1 was powered by a de Havilland-built Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. This engine used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. It produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m. The Goblin weighed approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms).

It had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour (869 kilometers per hour), a service ceiling of 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and range of 730 miles (1,175 kilometers).

The Vampire F.1 was armed with four 20 mm Hispano autocannon in the nose, with 150 rounds of ammunition per gun.

De Havilland DH.100 Vampire FB.5 three-view illustration with dimensions.
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (BNPS)

Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L., F.R.Ae.S, was born 1917 and educated at Croydon. In 1935 he became an apprentice at De Havilland’s and also joined the Auxiliary Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, 7 May 1936, and was promoted to Flying Officer, 5 December 1937. Cunningham was called to active duty in August 1939, just before World War II began, and promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 12 March 1940.

While flying with No. 604 Squadron, Cunningham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 28 January 1941. He was appointed Acting Squadron Leader, Auxiliary Air Force, and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, 29 April 1941. The Gazette reported,

“This officer has continued to display the highest devotion to duty in night fighting operations. One night in April, 1941, he destroyed two enemy bombers during a single patrol and a week later destroyed  three enemy raiders during three different patrols. Squadron Leader Cunningham has now destroyed at least ten enemy aircraft and damaged a number of others. His courage and skill are an inspiration to all.”The London Gazette, 29 April 1941, Page 2445 at Column 1.

His Majesty George VI, King of the United Kingdom, greets Squadron Leader John Cunningham, D.S.O., D.F.C., 1941. (BNPS)

Acting Squadron Leader Cunningham’s promotion to Squadron Leader (Temporary) became official 10 June 1941. The King approved the award of a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross, 19 September 1941. Squadron Leader Cunningham took command of No. 604 Squadron 1 August 1946.

On 3 March 1944 Wing Commander Cunningham received a second Bar to his Distinguished Service Order. According to The Gazette,

“Within a recent period Wing Commander Cunningham has destroyed three more hostile aircraft and his last success on the night of 2nd January, 1944, brings his total victories to 20, all with the exception of one being obtained at night. He is a magnificent leader, whose exceptional ability and wide knowledge of every aspect of night flying has contributed in large measure to the high standard of operational efficiency of his squadron which has destroyed a very large number of enemy aircraft. His iron determination and unswerving devotion to duty have set an example beyond praise.

The London Gazette, 3 March 1944, Page 1059 at Column 1.

Promoted to Group Captain 3 July 1944, Cunningham was the highest scoring Royal Air Force night fighter pilot of World War II, credited with shooting down 20 enemy airplanes. He was responsible for the myth that eating carrots would improve night vision.

In addition to the medals awarded by the United Kingdom, he also held the United States Silver Star, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Order of the patriotic War (1st Class).

Following the War, John Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot. After the death of Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland, Jr., in 1946, Cunningham became the de Havilland’s chief test pilot. He remained with the firm through a series of mergers, finally retiring in 1980.

Cunningham was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1951, and promoted to Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1963. He relinquished his  Auxiliary Air Force commission 1 August 1967.

Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L.,  died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years.

Wing Commander John Cunningham, D.S.O. and two bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., Auxiliary Air Force. (Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9844

² FAI Record File Number 11713: 17,083 meters (56,047 feet)

³ FAI Record File Number 8884

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 March 1931

Ruth Nichols (1901–1960)
Ruth Rowland Nichols (1901–1960)

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).

Ruth Nichols with man holding barograph after setting FAI World Altitude Record. (FAI)
Ruth Nichols with man holding barograph after setting FAI World Altitude Record. (FAI)

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.

Ruth Nichols with her Lockheed Model 5a Vega.
Ruth Nichols with the Lockheed Model 5 Vega Special. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

¹ FAI Record File Number 12228

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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