1/48 Lindberg Lockheed Vega

"The Winnie Mae" 

by Michael Presley 



  This is my updated Lindberg kit (# 533) of Wiley Post's celebrated, much modified, Lockheed Vega 5C, "The Winnie Mae".  I have had a longstanding, personal history with this particular aircraft, having been commissioned on behalf of Phillips Petroleum's Aviation Division to paint two illustrations of the plane in 1975.  Post flew it around the World twice.  Once in 1931 with a navigator, Harold Gatty (just 4 yrs. after Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic), then solo (the first) in 1933 using one of Sperry's first autopilots, and one of their early automatic direction finders (ADF for short, which homes in on radio signals).   The Lindberg kit roughly approximates the aircraft in it's 1933 setup.  Strictly speaking, the Winnie Mae was never a "stock" Vega,  Post overseeing, and authorizing many modifications during it's construction at Lockheed's Burbank factory, where he had been a test pilot.  He had Pratt & Whitney install a custom 10:1 gear ratio setup on the R-1340-SC (replacing the stock 7:1 gears).  Lockheed lowered the wing's angle of incidence to reduce drag, and four extra fuel tanks were installed, which increased the fuel capacity to 500 gallons. Lockheed's manufacturing records always listed NC-105-W as a "Special". The aircraft was also frequently upgraded to include any improvements Lockheed made to the Vega line. Examples being internally balanced ailerons, and different vertical tails. It was manufactured as a 5B model, but soon upgraded to a 5C. It was constantly modified from before it's first flight, until right before it's last.

     After the World Flights, Post began a high alititude modification program on the Vega, and had a pressure suit made by B.F.Goodrich to his specs (the first). Lockheed carried out the modification work at their Burbank factory, much of it at their own expense (remember, Post's accmplishments were the greatest advertising a depression era company could've asked for).  His other major sponsors were Phillips Petroleum (who were still using their sponsorship for advertising over 40 yrs. later, when I did the illustrations ), and  Howard Hughes who funnelled money to Wiley from his TWA Air Mail funds.

    One of the last modifications was a set of jettisonable landing gear. Freed of the weight, and drag, the Winnie's performance was greatly increased. They installed a keel (belly) skid, made of a spruce beam, covered in sheet metal to absorb the power-off, gearless landings. The design of the jettisonable gear was the very first assignment Lockheed gave to a young engineer named Kelly Johnson (who later designed the P-38, P-80, F-104, U-2, & SR-71).  Other modifications included a much larger supercharger added to the Pratt & Whitney R-1340SC, which needed an intake mounted on the top of the cowling, and straight exhaust stacks replacing the collector ring with dual exits (the engine's output was increased from 450, to over 550 h.p. through this, & the use of experimental high octane fuels from Phillips). The cowling had additional notches cut into the frontal intake to allow more cold air in for cooling the fuselage sides, which were now being heated by the exhaust stacks. Wing filets at the trailing edge root were added, and replacement of the tall Vega 5C vertical stab, and rudder with it's earlier, shorter 5B unit (which saved weight, & reduced drag). These modifications were added in steps, as Post gradually pushed the Vega to it's limits.

   He eventually reached altitudes up to 55,000 ft.,with ground speeds exceeding 340 mph (with tailwinds from the West)...being the first to discover, and use the jetstream (one reason Hughes and TWA were eager to sponsor him).

    Future NACA/NASA X-Plane flight test programs, undoubtedly owed much to the systematic approach Post, Lockheed, and Pratt & Whitney used for these flights.  In a sense, it was the X-15 of the 1930s. The Winnie Mae was purchased by the Smithsonian shortly before Post and Will Rogers were killed in Post's new plane (a Lockheed "Orion-Explorer" hybrid) at Point Barrow, Alaska on August 15, 1935.

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   I had originially planned to use the AMT-ESCI kit from the late 70s. I had once started this project in 1980, however but gave up the hobby shortly after assembling, and painting the airframe. The decals were terrible, and yellowed badly over the years. I hoped to find another route ( NOTE: The AMT kit has a full set of passenger windows. This is how the Winnie Mae appeared during it's 1931 World Flight. These can easily be filled for later versions, however. )

   Then I stumbled upon Michael Benolkin's excellent review article on the old Lindberg kit in Cybermodeler Online (http://www.cybermodeler.com/hobby/kits/lin/kit_lin_0533.shtml ), and thought that kit might be an easier starting point.  I recall my father building one of these when I was very young (I'm 55 now), so that gives you an idea of the kit's vintage (I read somewhere the original issue was 1959, but I'm pretty sure it was earlier). Over an extended period, I managed to accquire 3 of these kits from Dean Sills at "Dean's Hobby Stop", as they became available. I knew, I would probably need some spare parts.

    In the meantime, I contacted Keith Davidson of Red Pegasus Decals (who specializes in Race Plane decals, chiefly post-war Unlimiteds) on the possibility of having a set of custom decals produced, specifically, in the Winnie's last "high altitude" scheme.  He accepted the commission, and I began sending him reference materials (photos, histories, sponsor logos, etc.).   This was a lengthy process, as Keith is quite busy running his business, and like most modelers, I had other projects, as well.

   Finally all the pieces fell into place. I had the needed kits, approved Keith's proofs, & he sent me a sheet with extras of everything. Keith's work is first rate, and I was quite pleased.  I had bought a P&W R-1340 from "Engines & Things", but it turned out to be a later model, with a different gearbox. Fortunately, I had recently built Academy's nifty little P-26A, which had a beautifully detailed R-1340 (which only needed spark plugs, & wires), so I bought another to cannibalize. I'd found this engine readily accepts the prop, and shaft from a Monogram AT-6 (which, with some refinements, is MUCH better than the Academy, AMT, or Lindberg airscrews...I'm real picky about props).  A note of interest... Pratt & Whitney's R-1340s came from the factory with the pushrods painted gloss black. However, many pilots elected to "dress up" their engines (as they do today), and had the pushrods chrome plated. The Winnie's were plated (On the other hand, Earhart's Vega, the "Little Red Bus", had the stock, gloss black rods). The high altitude, belly skidded Winnie also has a "V" shaped brace which is welded to the engine's gearbox, and bolted to the belly skid at the chin of the cowling. This was intended to take the shock, and stress of the gearless landings off the motor mounts. This system seemed to have worked fine, as I have never seen a mention of damage from the deliberate belly landings.

   I built up a cockpit using the original Lindberg floor-bulkhead, a T-6 seat with Eduard harness, and other assorted bits from the spares box. The old Time-Life  'Epic of Flight' series volume,"The Pathfinders" has a chapter on Post, & the Winnie Mae, with a very nice two page cutway illustration of the Winnie's innards (in her 1933, World Flight trim). Nice little details like a lefthand armrest, and brass fire extinqusher.

   I added these knowing only a destructive vandal, insurance adjustor, or an archaeologist is apt to see them, as they are buried beneath the dense greenhouse framework, and the supercharger shroud.  I had also decided, I was stuck with the rather thick, original canopy. It forms part of the kit's airframe structure, and has to be installed before the wing can be jointed to the fuselage. Given all the filing, and sanding, this was no spot for a delicate vacuform piece.

After joining the fuselage halves (having added the cabin windows, also original, & for the same filing-sanding reason) I began cutting down the vertical stab, and rudder to Vega 5B proportions. This was purely an "eyeball" operation. There are literally hundreds of photos of the Winnie Mae on the internet, and with a little dedicated detective work, plus some hard net surfing you can find photos of the Winnie Mae from any point during it's long career. These photos, along with written histories, will give you all the information you need for accurately modifying your kit for the time frame you choose.

  After the stab-rudder. I began building up the belly skid using plasticard in laminated layers using Crazy Glue as adhesive, and filler. This skid extends out to the chin of the cowl, which is molded as part of the fuselage on the Lindberg kit (AMT's has a separate cowl, score one for AMT). Once that was completed, it was time for the razor saw, and I carefully cut the cowling off. I built up a very thick firewall, nose extension, then sanded down the radius, so the cowl would overlap (as the real one does). I also thinned the interior wall of the cowling. This was to provide clearance for the nine straight exhaust stacks (one stack for each cylinder...four on the starboard side, five on the port side). These were made with small diameter Evergreen plastic tube, thinned with a rat tail file.

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    Then I cut out the aileron linkage inspection widows on the underside of the wing. There are four of these, plus one for the pilot tube connection on the port wingtip. These are just raised rectangles on both the Lindberg, & AMT parts. I enlarged them slightly using a micro bit to establish the corners, before cutting them out. The clear windows can be glued in, polished out, then masked with the paint overlapping the seams. The wing filets were made of fitted plasticard triangles. The filing, and shaping of these was one of the more difficult operations. They have a certain "look" that took several days to get right. I also located, and added the fuel vent blisters on the top of the wing, along with the fuel caps (Lindberg's kit has none. AMT's has some, but they are incorrect...although probably passable).  The wing tip navigation lights were also sanded off, and the landing lights filled in (2 convex indentions on the underside of the Lindberg kit's wings, no indication on AMT's, so these should remain, or be added if you are building a World Flight version), as they were removed from the high altitude Winnie, as well. If I had been building an early version, I would have drilled the landing lights out, and replaced them with large model railroad CV lenses (Note: Earhart's Vega had extra landing lights in the wing leading edges.)

    The Lindberg's wheel pants are about an 1/8" longer than the ones supplied by AMT. Lindberg's are correct length-wise, but too thick by at least a third, and must be thinned (along with the wheels, which are separate). AMT's are thinner, but actually too thin, and need a plasticard insert between the halves (the wheels are molded into the pants).

          I reshaped, and made additions to the T-6 prop (which has a unique hub with flat plates wielded to the sides), turning it into a reasonable replica of the last unit installed on the Winnie Mae (an early constant speed model). Like everything else, this airplane had different props. The earlier World Flight versions had a ground adjustable type. Even the tail skid wasn't stock on the Winnie, Wiley having removed a balancing weight (a half circle of metal on the inside of the bend),  and it was shortened by 4" to counter the decreased incidence of the wing on landings.  There are other little details...this last version had no venturi tubes, earlier versions did. There are retractable step pegs (all Vegas) on the port side of the fuselage, and the aileron cables come out of the side of the cockpit into the bottom of the wing (these on all Vegas, as well), and so on. Peculiar to the "high altitude" Winnie is the large supercharger intake with it's butterfly valve at the opening (as on a fuel dragster), and it's actuator linkage on the starboard side. I sharpened a piece of aluminum tube, and used it as a "cookie cutter" to make the circular valve. Trying to glue it into a half open position was an ordeal. You might want to consider an earlier version just to avoid this, the exhaust stacks, and the wing filets...Lastly, I built the simple jettisonable gear using aluminum tube, needle sections, plastic spruce, and some wheels out of the spares box. The cable was made of white, Bobe's EZ-Line (the thicker , .006 stuff) colored with a silver Sharpie. The attach loops were made of jeweler's solder.

      Having built both the Lindberg, and AMT kits, I now think it's a toss up. Both have strong points (and major weaknesses), but I slightly prefer the older Lindberg.  Another note...the Vega was made of plywood, so no panel lines to scribe...& no trim tabs either. (AMT's series of civil aircraft of the 1930's often suffered from warped wing halves. They were easy to correct on the Staggerwing, but difficult on the Vegas, so be prepared to purchase more than one. The Lindberg wing halves are more robust and there was no warpage in my 3 examples.)

     Keith Davidson's Red Pegasus Decals will soon be offering Winnie Mae sheets as part of the standard inventory.  Keith's instructions will feature some of my reasearch, and modication tips, along with variations (mostly omissions of logos, etc.) which would allow you to build one of the earlier, less modified versions. So you too, can add one of history's truly great aircraft to your fleet with a bit less hassle, and much better results than you previously could (for much less than it cost me, I might add).  Keith is also planning to offer a set for Earhart's Vega, in it's later Honolulu to L.A form (the earlier Trans Atlantic version had no wheel pants, & all of the cabin windows), so if these great aircraft interest you, best start looking for one of these vintage, long out of production beauties. There may be a run.

      Lastly, I added a scanned image of the second painting I executed for Phillips Petroleum (It was one of a series of suitable for framing prints given out to pilots by Phillips' Fixed Based Operators). It represents the Winnie at the beginning of the high altitude program, with the large supercharger, and wing filets, but without the short vertical stab-rudder, or belly skid (therefore retaining it's panted landing gear). The original was acrylic on illustration board, 17" x 20", as I recall. I no longer own the original, so had to scan one of the prints. It had gotten a bit dinged up after 33 years, so I reduced, and cleaned it up in Photoshop.  Then it occurred to me, why not drop the gear, shorten the stab, and add the belly skid...so I did a second version. It's interesting because in all my research over the years, I have only seen one air to air photo of the Winnie Mae with the landing gear jettisoned.

     Thanks to Dean Sills (Dean's Hobby Stop, Flushing, Michigan), Keith Davidson (Red Pegasus Decals, Columbus, Ohio), and to Henry Popp for the photos.    


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Photos and text by Michael Presley