MPM Lockheed Vega 5C
"Shell No. 7"

By Tim Nelson

Introduction

Several fine in-box reviews of the 1/72 MPM Vega kits have been provided by Jim Schubert in previous editions of Internet Modeler (see References). He previewed this particular kit in the October 2003 issue. I can't top his brief early history of the Lockheed company and the Vega, nor his thorough Reference list, and I won't try. What I will do is provide a little history on the Vegas operated by the various Shell companies.

Shell owned and operated numerous airplane types during the 1930s. The airplanes were used as platforms for aviation fuel development, executive transport, a little racing, and plenty of good old-fashioned publicity. At that time, Shell was organized into three entities in the U.S.: Shell Oil of San Francisco, CA, Shell Petroleum of St. Louis, MO, and Shell Eastern Petroleum of New York, NY. John MacReady headed the aviation department of Shell Oil out of San Francisco and Jimmy Doolittle directed the Shell Petroleum aviation department out of St. Louis. The subject of this kit, :"Shell No. 7", NC-13705, c/n 203, was the last of four Vegas acquired by Shell. A summary of Shell’s Vegas follows (compiled from Refs 1 and 2):

Shell Petroleum Corp. (St. Louis)
Vega 5A Executive, c/n 108, mfd 1/30, NC 539M (purchased for Jimmy Doolittle, repaired after crack-up at Mitchel Field)

Shell Oil Co. (San Francisco)
Vega 5B, c/n 134, mfd ?/30, NC926Y (purchased for John MacReady, became Lituanica II)

Shell Oil Co. (San Francisco)
Vega 5, c/n 54, mfd 4/29, NC 657E, delivered to Alaska-Washington Airways (acquired by Shell in 1932, written off 4/33)

Shell Oil Co. (San Francisco)
Vega 5C, c/n 203, mfd 9/33, NC 13705 (subject of the MPM kit)

Shell operated a couple of other single engined Lockheeds in addition to the Vegas:

Shell Oil Co. (San Francisco)
Sirius, c/n 141, mfd 2/30, NC 349V (purchased for MacReady, damaged & scrapped by 12/30)

Shell Petroleum Corp. (St. Louis)
Altair, c/n 180, mfd 9/31, delivered to TWA, converted to Orion 9C, NR 12222, 6/32 (acquired by Shell, became the famous Shellightning)

Jimmy Doolittle is one of my heroes, and quite possibly the greatest aviator of all time. However, one of the Shell Vegas (c/n 108, not the subject of this kit) was involved in one of his most embarrassing moments. The event occurred on February 16, 1930, at the beginning of his stint with Shell, in which he was flying his wife and kids from Mitchel Field, NY to St. Louis. In his autobiography (Ref 3), Doolittle retold the tale:

“It had snowed the night before and was very cold and windy. At daylight we loaded our things into the Vega and said our good-byes to a number of folks who had come to see us off, and I taxied out to the takeoff area. Previous rains had softened up the field and there were deep ruts, now frozen and snow covered, which had been made by aircraft wheels before the ground froze. I lined up and gave it full throttle. The takeoff roll seemed sluggish and I should have sensed something was wrong. After going a few yards, the wheels caught crosswise in a snowdrift. The door between me and the cabin where Joe [Mrs. Doolittle] and the boys were strapped in flew open and I fell backward. I thought Joe had opened it, which she had not done. I hurriedly righted myself and continued the takeoff. The left wheel hit another snowdrift, and the sudden drag on the left side was more than the plane could take. The gear gave way and the Vega plowed into the frozen ground, careened sideways, ground-looped, and nosed up in the snow, causing damage to the left wing and propeller … It seemed obvious that we had ended the flight this way because the Vega was overloaded. Those who witnessed this scene say that the unique, unprintable language I used against myself and my stupidity was something they never expected to hear again…I called the Shell people in St. Louis to tell them what had happened and that I would be late reporting for work.”

Repairs cost $10,000, relative to a purchase price from Lockheed of $25,000. Doolittle and family traveled to St. Louis by train. A low point, albeit humorous, in an otherwise extraordinary career as pilot, aeronautical engineer, military leader, and corporate executive.

Now, to the build of the model of Vega c/n 203. I was compelled to build this kit for several reasons. First, the Lockheed Vega is unquestionably on the short list of the most significant airplanes of all time, with a long list of outstanding accomplishments. Second, the Vega is a personal favorite, not only because of its stellar history, but because of its elegant lines. Third, the colorful Shell livery promised to be a knockout. I'm sure there were other motivations, but these were enough to proceed.

The Kit and Modifications

The basic kit parts look good on the sprues, but several issues emerge when you start assembly:

- The passenger cabin floor is too wide and interferes with fit of the fuselage halves unless sanded down.
- The cockpit aft bulkhead and firewall need careful attention to ensure fit and alignment.
- The single piece injection molded canopy has some subtle but nearly uncorrectable molding flaws, which fortunately are less apparent on the finished model than the bare part.
- Landing gear struts are too long and appear almost as if the oleos are extended to their in-flight position. Using drawings in Ref 1 and the old IPMS/Quarterlies (see Jim's October 2003 review for full references), I estimated that about 2 mm should be cut from the main struts. Important! Cut from the bottom, not the top, where a nub makes a socket joint with a fairing on the fuselage.
- Landing gear side and drag strut placement is vague and must be treated with caution. Full strength and stability are not achieved until both these braces are installed. The thinness and brittleness of the struts is a deterrent to inserting pins to add strength, so I opted to assemble the struts prior to painting by using ProWeld for strong bonds. This scheme worked like a dream until I dropped the whole damned thing later, not once but twice.
- There are 2 small pins within the wheel pants for locating the wheel axis of rotation. Using these pins results in the wheels extending too far down and out of the pants, to my eye. I removed the pins and shoved the wheels as far as they would go inside the pant wells, which results in a more natural placement.
- Some reviewers have noted alignment issues with the cabin windows. Those reviewers were correct! Not only is the bank of windows higher on one side of the fuselage than the other, and the rearmost right side window out of kilter, the windows are misaligned fore and aft as well. These issues seem really objectionable when dry fitting the left and right fuselage halves, but correction struck me as a major fun-killer and I let it go. (When the model is completed with wing installed, window alignment is much more subtle since there is no single view that facilitates left/right comparison. A high mounted wing has its advantages!)
- The exterior passenger cabin window frames are very pronounced and benefit from sanding down.
- Wing top and bottom fit is generally good, and the trailing edges are commendably thin, but I think the trailing edges still benefit from a bit of thinning.
- The shape of the elliptical horizontal tail surfaces appears too eccentric, and not quite right for the more oval shaped Vega tailplanes. I used them anyway. For a more accurate and natural look, I separated and repositioned the elevators and rudder.
- The kit engine suggests a Pratt & Whitney Wasp, but falls short in some of the details and will irritate those who get wrapped up in such things. It was good enough for me.

This particular Shell Vega incorporated several configuration features that differ from the kit parts. Here are some basic mods I made to replicate/emulate these features:

- Filled in the scribed port passenger door lines, and installed a starboard door. Since my scribing skills are, shall we say, still developing, I chose to use the spare door in the kit and carefully created an opening for it on the starboard side.
- This airplane may have featured an executive interior. I made a few changes to the kit cabin to render the apparent seat configuration typical of this more luxurious cabin. I chose various brown tones to suggest different leathers, and 'folded' a couple of seats as seen in some photos (see Ref 1). I added seat belts to all seats. For that final touch, I created a small typewriter for the desk in the forward cabin. Naturally, hardly a lick of any of this is visible in the completed model.
- I drilled a small hole on the right side of the engine cowl for a starter crank.
- The kit prop is a rather generic mishmash composite of several props and I replaced it with an Aeroclub Hamilton-Standard prop (Aeroclub P028). Some surgery was required to meld a brass shaft of the proper diameter to this prop.
- The engine exhaust stacks of this aircraft are cut square and not beveled, which was straightforward to correct.
- Some photos of this aircraft show a radio aerial running from the top of the wing to the vertical fin. I fabricated a mast from a pin and installed it based on photos of Amelia Earhart’s Trans-Pacific Vega, which appears to have had a similar configuration.
- Most Vegas had landing lights installed in the lower wing, which rotated down for forward illumination when needed. This Vega had fixed landing lights in the wing leading edges, as well as small shields placed slightly inboard, to keep the glare out of the pilot’s eyes. I filled the kit's scribed lights on the lower wing and fabricated new ones similar to those shown in photos.

Assembly

I rendered the cockpit in a straightforward manner, using the kit parts with the exception of the fire extinguisher. I scratchbuilt a simple new one to replace the unconvincing one molded on the bulkhead. It must be said that cockpit details are very hard to discern through the canopy on the finished model.

Fuselage fit required some seam-filling on the bottom, even after dealing with the cabin floor width problem. The biggest fit problem, however, is the junction of fuselage, canopy, and wing. My canopy did not want to fair with the fuselage and my wing did not want to sit flush with the top of the fuselage. I spent significant time gingerly filing and sanding to remove the offending material. The most salient problem seemed to be the inboard facing surfaces of the wing leading edge, which butt against the sides of the canopy. I finally achieved a reasonable fit, but this hurdle was the least enjoyable part of the build. It should be noted that the canopy MUST BE INSTALLED prior to wing join, or you will find yourself in a profanity-inducing conundrum similar to that experienced by Doolittle after cracking up at Mitchel Field.

An oddity of the kit's engineering is that the cockpit rear bulkhead extends upward into the wing volume through an oversized slot on the wing bottom, which leaves a sizeable opening after assembly. My sequence of assembly (painting first, then major joins as described below) meant that dealing with these orifices would be awkward at best. I left them as is since they are very hard to see unless you put your face on the table, but if you are contemplating one of these kits, be forewarned.

Fit of the engine mount assembly leaves a large step at the joint in front of the cockpit, which requires significant filler. Later installation of the cowl presents a problem due to the scarcity of mating surfaces and fit around the engine. Don't tell anyone, but my cowl is actually only held in place by the two bottom cylinders, which had to be filed down to allow the cowl to have the proper installed orientation. You may want to consider provisions to hold the cowl more positively.

Painting and Final Bits

Because of the challenges of this paint scheme, I chose to do most of the painting prior to major assembly. I couldn't figure out a good way to paint and mask the wing and tailplane perimeters while all joined together. This approach actually worked pretty well, but you have to do much test fitting to ensure the finished assemblies go together at the end. For masking the curves, I cut yellow Tamiya tape into thin (approx. 1/16 in) strips to define the shape, then filled the rest in. For paints, I used Testors Model Master Insignia Red and Insignia Yellow with about 15% white added for scale effect, followed by Duracryl gloss.

The kit decals are absolutely first rate and almost bury themselves. I gave them a couple of coats of Duracryl gloss, with light sandings in between. I applied a little light weathering before the final semi-gloss coat.

A notable characteristic of Vegas and their single engined Lockheed siblings was the rubstrips for the horizontal stabilizer. These metallic strips, often protected with a leather skin, ensured proper conformance of the stab fairings with the curved fuselage as the stab traversed its range of travel. After some experimentation, the solution I found was to pre-scribe thin strips of clear Supercal decal stock, and then airbrush the sheet a leathery brown. The strips were then tediously trimmed and installed (48 in all). I think the effect is quite pleasant and adds significantly to the appeal of the model.

Final steps included installation of the kit's wing pitot probe (an aftermarket probe would be superior) and a small wire 'handle' for the new starboard door. I then rigged the aerial; I don't have extensive rigging experience and my glue blob which joins the horizontal run to the vertical run is larger than I'd like it to be. I set aside the kit's thick cabin window panes and treated the openings with MicroGlaze. My original intent was to render the sliding window halves of this Vega's fore-and aft-most windows, but in the end that contemplation yielded to other priorities in life: family, work, soccer practices, the dog, etc., etc.

Conclusion

Yes, there were numerous fit and alignment problems. However, this kit was an enjoyable build and it was very satisfying to finally extract a 1/72 Vega from my workbench. Anyone interested in the single engined Lockheeds of the "Golden Age" ought to enjoy this kit and its companion offerings from MPM. Bravo to MPM for producing them. Let's see more of these Lockheeds soon, as well as more aftermarket decal options for them. There is a pent-up demand for civil subjects from this era.

Special thanks to Tim Kalina, Jim Schubert, and others on the Wings of Peace discussion group for their great help with research (and encouragement) on this Shell Vega.

References

1. Revolution in the Sky, Richard Sanders Allen, Orion Books, New York, 2nd ed., 1988 (reviewed by Tracy Hancock elsewhere in this issue of Internet Modeler)

2. “The Aircraft of the Shell Oil Company in the 1930s”, compiled by Al Hansen, American Aviation Historical Society, Vol 47, No. 3, Fall 2002

3. I Could Never be so Lucky Again, James H. Doolittle, Bantam Books, New York, 1991

4. Review, MPM 1/72 Lockheed Vega 5C (UC-101), by Jim Schubert, Internet Modeler, October 2003

5. Review, MPM 1/72 Lockheed Vega (Winnie Mae & Little Red Bus), by Jim Schubert, Internet Modeler, April 2004

6. Review, MPM 1/72 Lockheed Vega 5 on Floats, by Jim Schubert, Internet Modeler, September 2004

7. Review, MPM 1/72 Vega DL-1/YC-12, by Jim Schubert, Internet Modeler, May 2005

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