Sunday, April 19, 2015

Amelia's First Speed Record (of Sorts)

Vega NC-538M somewhere over the San Fernando Valley
4/19/2015-This post was originally published on August 9, 2013, but has been rewritten and updated.

During the famous 1929 Women's Air Derby, billed by the press as the “Powder Puff Derby”, Amelia Earhart flew the only Lockheed Vega (NC-31E, c/n 36) that had been entered entered to a respectable third place, which garnered yet more positive media publicity for Lockheed.

Following the Derby, Earhart flew her race Vega back to Los Angeles, and there stayed with friends Jack and Helene Maddux (of Maddux Airlines and subsequently T-A-T Airlines fame). While in LA, she decided to visit Lockheed and shop for an upgraded Vega, taking several test flights in Wasp-powered Vega 5A Executive NC-538M. Earhart recorded in her logbook that on November 18, while test flying the plane over a closed course, she flew one leg at a blazing 197 mph. “Hooray!” was her commentary.

In the Derby a few months before, Louise Thaden had won the race. Thaden also happened to hold the women’s speed record, at a paltry 156 mph. It occurred to Earhart that in the Vega, she could easily beat that. On November 21, Earhart flew the one mile course set up at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport - what is now known as Van Nuys Airport – with Detroit Aircraft’s chief test pilot, Lt. Carl Harper, to confirm the potential. Lockheed recognized a great publicity opportunity when they saw it, and offered to loan her the plane for the record attempt.

NAA rules specified a 24-hour notice for any record attempt, and Earhart fulfilled this obligation, indicating that on the following day she’d attempt to break Thaden’s record.

The NAA sent their official timer, a Mr. Joe Nikrent, and over four laps Earhart’s average speed was 184.17 mph, with one lap clocked by Nikrent at 197.8 mph. And yet, despite the use of the official timer, who used two calibrated chronometers, the NAA refused to recognize the achievement as an official record. The reason? The NAA informed her that the FAI did not have a category for the one-mile straightaway. They only recognized the 3-kilometer closed course, and only for absolute world records, meaning there wasn’t a separate women’s record to be claimed for that distance.

Frustrated, Earhart continued shopping for a new plane, settling on serial number 22, NC-7952 (she also took a ride in the Sirius, serial 140, that had been custom built for Lindbergh). She also began petitioning the FAI to establish a category for women’s speed records, and at length they acceded. Finally, on July 5, 1930, flying another borrowed Vega (serial 94, NC-974H), Earhart set the 3-km closed course speed record at 181.18 mph. It still took another year of fighting the FAI to get them to officially recognize the attempt as an official record, but in the end the determined Earhart prevailed.

Meanwhile NC-538M stayed on with Lockheed, who used it as a demonstrator aircraft. On October 14, 1931, the Vega crashed in Greencastle, Indiana. Supposedly, at least one of the wings was later used to rebuild another Vega, s/n 99.

The photo itself is back stamped "Grand Central Air Terminal Photo Services", and came from R.C. Talbot's camera.

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