Thursday, April 30, 2015

High-Flying Cameraship

NC858E was originally built as a standard five-place Vega 2, in May 1929. Lockheed kept the plane in-house for almost a year and a half, then sold it in September 1939 to Van de Mark Flying Service of Lockport, NY. Lt. Allen W. Van de Mark was prone topublicity stunts, including one with the local newspaper, the Union Sun & Journal, in which he would deliver bundles of newspapers by plane to the paperboys who’d then deliver them around their neighborhoods. Each boy was instructed to lay out a bedsheet in a nearby field, and Van de Mark would fly over and drop the papers. It’s unclear, though, whether this stunt was performed in his Ryan B-1 Brougham or in the Vega.

Van de Mark had the plane modified at Lockheed into a seven-place 5B, which replaced the Wright Whirlwind J6 with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp, giving it a 50% increase in horsepower. It was later upgraded a step further to a 5C.

On November 11, 1935 Van de Mark sold the Vega to Columbia Airways of Bloomsburg PA. Though a relatively small town, Bloomsburg was a hubbub of aviation activity, centered around the Bloomsburg Flying Club. In June, 1934, the club saw opportunity in their hobby, and organized themselves into Columbia Airways, providing twice-weekly service from Bloomsburg to Philadelphia. Their service proved popular, and they expanded to eleven destinations, including Pittsburgh and New York. The airline few their Vega for a year and a half, selling it (or possibly trading it) to Beech Aircraft in April 1937.

Beech flipped it the next month to Standard Aerial Surveys, in whose colors our photo shows the plane. Standard was established by George J. DeGarmo, Jr., who was a pioneer in developing aerial photography and photogrammetric engineering techniques. When WWII broke out, DeGarmo joined the Navy, and the service utilized his expertise. DeGarmo developed the syllabus used for the first aerial photography course given to Navy cadets, and commanded an aerial survey squadron based in the Pacific, earning an Air Medal for his efforts. When the Korean conflict broke out, he was back, again commanding an aerial photography squadron. Standard was based at Hackensack, New Jersey until 1938, when the company moved to Newark. As our photo has “Newark” including in the company name painted on the side, it’s a safe bet to assume that it was taken after 1938.

The Vega was modified yet again to accommodate large-format survey cameras looking down through a port in the belly. In addition, DeGarmo had the engine modified with a 10:1 supercharger, which allowed the plane to operate quite well at altitudes as high as 26,000 feet (they didn’t bother with a cabin heater, however, and pilot and cameraman had use arctic-style cold-weather suits. The Vega was used primarily for aerial mapping, including producing the first complete set of aerial photographs of the State of Rhode Island in 1939. Before this, all maps of the state relied on surveys performed in the mid-1800s.

Standard kept the plane busy until selling it off in 1943 to well-known broker Charlie Babb. It then drifted through several different owners until being picked up by pilot-adventurer Jimmy Angel in 1944. By this time in his life, Angel was spending most of his time in South America, looking for gold, and using planes to do so. Angel was credited by the media in “discovering” Angel Falls, the highest waterfalls in the world, though he was far from being the first to discover them...they were well-known to locals for years.

Angel and partner Jack Baker took the Vega to Nicaragua, where it was re-registered AN-ABL. It’s uncertain if they used the mods incorporated by Standard for photo surveys for their search for gold, or just used the plane for transport. The end came on February 19, 1945 when the plane was wrecked, and was subsequently written off.

Note: This article was developed from a number of sources, but the chief source is the extensive article at the D-M Register website on this plane. The site includes several technical articles on Standard and their photogrammetric techiques.

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