X-Files: LOCKHEED LITTLE DIPPER

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In today’s Sydney Flyer article we are delighted to welcome back author Anthony Coleiro and the most recent instalment of his X-Files series. This is Anthony’s 140th article under the ‘X-Files’ banner for the club magazine. What a record!

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FILE X140: LOCKHEED LITTLE DIPPER

When one brings to mind ultralight aircraft the sort of aircraft one imagines are things like Jabiru, Foxbat and Lightwing amongst a plethora of others. One does not normally associate major aircraft manufacturers in this category but the American Lockheed company did dabble.

In the middle of 1944 it was becoming apparent that Germany, now on its knees, would not last long and with the end of hostilities comes the end of large aircraft orders. This sudden chop would be devastating for a company and its workforce so these large aircraft manufacturers were starting to turn their attention to the civil market to cushion the blow to their production.

Lockheed ran with the idea that soon a lot of trained pilots would be returning home and it saw these as potential customers in the small plane market, after all they will need some sort of recreation in the future prosperity to come. The president of the Lockheed Company having seen what one of his design engineers had come up with became interested in the idea of commuting from his home to work in a single-seat aircraft and he reasoned that others would too.

The prospects for such an aircraft looked promising not only for the civil market but it could have a military application also and so he gave his approval and the Little Dipper project was established in the company’s Vega division in June 1944. A small group of draughtsmen and engineers were assembled and they set to work designing and building the Little Dipper Model 33 also known as the Vega V-304. Concurrently, they also worked on a two-seater with a pusher propeller that they called the Big Dipper.

LOCKHEED LITTLE DIPPER

They moved at a rapid pace and in just 3 months they had a machine that was ready to fly. The aircraft they had constructed was an all metal semi-monocoque low wing type with the pilot sitting on the wing spar under a bubble canopy. The wings had slotted flaps that could be lowered to 40° giving the aircraft STOL ability. It was powered by a 50 h.p Franklin 2AL-112 2-cylinder horizontally opposed engine. Fuel capacity was 30 litres. The design had an unusual feature for the time, an all flying elevator with an anti-servo tab, the first aircraft to have such an innovation. If you ever wondered how Piper came up with the elevator that they use on the Warrior and other models that you are probably flying, the Little Dipper was the daddy of that design.

The aircraft was given the registration of NX18935 (X for experimental) and Vega’s chief test pilot Bud Martin flew the aircraft in the first week of September 1944 at Newhall California for the first time and no problems presented themselves. It flew again a few days later at the hands of Lockheed’s test pilot Milo Burcham and it was a complete success. The aircraft was pleasant to fly and had a cruising speed of 145 km/h with a maximum speed of 161 km/h and could land at 48 km/h. It could climb initially at 900 fpm and had a service ceiling of 16,000 ft. and a range of 338 kilometres.

It had really good short field performance with a take-off run of 31 metres and a landing run of 37 metres. This short field performance proved handy in that most of the test flying was done at Newhall but some flights had to be done in front of official observers and this was done at Burbank and to keep the aircraft away from unwanted prying eyes, approval was given to fly at low level and to use a taxiway as a runway.

In the air too it did not need much space it could do a 360° turn in a 92 metre diameter circle, its manoeuvrability and turn performance was truly amazing. Cheekily plans were hatched to fly the little aircraft inside Lockheed’s huge Constitution hanger that was temporarily unoccupied, that idea soon died when management got wind of what was being planned and they quickly filled the hanger with aircraft to foil any such tom-foolery.

The aircraft was so simple and docile to fly that it was believed that all that was needed to fly it was some ground school in its handling and maintenance with little to no dual flying. The idea of the aerial trooper was sold to the military at Fort Benning Georgia as this thing could take-off and land anywhere as demonstrations proved. For the military version it was given the designation of V-308 Airtrooper. So confident were they in how simple it was to fly that a soldier with no previous flying experience volunteered to be a ‘guinea pig’. He was given a through briefing on the aircraft, given a walkie talkie, the aircraft was started and he was talked into the air, around a circuit and then an approach and a successful landing. Their rather unorthodox method of training on such a docile aircraft had been proved.

The aircraft then went to the Andrews Air Force base to do the same, however, this time things did not go so well. Instead of a novice, on this occasion, the aircraft was flown by an experienced pilot. During a steep turn near the ground, he reduced power and the wing contacted the ground and the aircraft cartwheeled. The aircraft was extensively damaged but the overconfident colonel came away only with his pride dented, another testament to the design of the aircraft. Clearly an example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing in this case. I personally can attest to this, many years ago I was working for the Aero Club at Parkes in NSW when a keen youngster came in for a TIF. We rolled the trusty Cessna 150 out of the hanger, I did the usual brief on how it works and then we were off. He followed me on the controls for the take-off. I then gave him the usual airborne demonstration and then let him fly. He did precisely what I asked him to do so I let him continue the flight and talked him into the circuit. Again, he was following instructions precisely and he set us up on final, I decided to keep him going standing by on the controls, he approached flared and landed all while I was giving instructions on what to do. He was absolutely thrilled that he had landed on his first ever flight. He taxied it back and shutdown for me. I told him he could not do that again without lessons as now he knows too much and if I tried to talk him into another landing, his experience would filter whatever command I would have given. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.

In another testament to its design, the aircraft so embarrassingly crashed by the chastened USAF colonel was flying again within two weeks.

This was not the last accident for this aircraft though; it crashed again at the hands of the editor of a popular flying magazine who was evaluating the aircraft. The weather was not the best and she became disorientated and proceeded to put it down in a paddock but in the process the aircraft flipped, thankfully the damage this time was not serious and it was all fixed up again in a few days.

To further show the military what this diminutive aircraft can do, it was flown into the inner grounds of the Pentagon. The air force general, Hoyt Vandenberg, witnessed the rather spectacular arrival from his office window. He was never inclined with the idea of a flying cavalry and this display did not change his view and so ended any hopes of a military application for the Airtrooper. Lockheed then turned its attention more fully to the civil market and took surveys to gauge the interest in the aircraft and work out production costs. While it was found that there was a demand for such an aircraft, it was not in the thousands as Lockheed had hoped and consequently they would not get the economies of scale to profitably produce the aircraft.

Work continued concurrently with the prototype 2-seat Big Dipper but this crashed in the spring of 1946. With this, the project died. The Little Dipper was put into storage along with another partially completed one. There were several attempts to resurrect the project but the aircraft were broken up and sold for scrap for tax purposes a few months after they were moth balled to the dismay of the engineers who worked on the project.

Acknowledgments

Air Progress
June/July 1963
Conde Nast Publications

Anthony Coleiro

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