Lady Peace and Her Partners

"Build them fast and build them simple." Those cogent words guided Gerard "Jerry" Vultee in the design of the V1, a single-engine, all-metal, high-speed transport design accepted for production in 1932 by the Airplane Development Corp, which was financed by automobile manufacturer Errett Cord. Construction began at United Airport in Burbank CA and was later moved to Grand Central Airport in Glendale, where most of the V1s would be assembled.

    The V1 prototype took one year to build. Its elliptical monocoque fuselage was made from narrow strips of flat Alclad sheets, overlapped like shingles. Repairs on such a structure would be simple—drill out the rivets and replace the damaged surface with flat Alclad stock. The wing was built in three sections using the same technique. Wing and tail surfaces were completely faired to the fuselage. Fully-retractable landing gears and split flaps were operated by a single electric motor. This first Vultee, with a 650hp Wright SR-1820-F2 and three-blade prop, was test-flown for more than a year, proving to be very efficient for its time by carrying a pilot and eight passengers 750 miles at 195 mph.

    Initial orders for the V1 were placed by American Airlines (then Airways) in 1933. Working with airline pilots and engineers, the production model incorporated several changes. The cockpit was rearranged to accommodate both a pilot and copilot, the fuselage and wings were slightly lengthened, and other modifications were made to the engine cowling, tail assembly, landing gear, and flaps. As V1-A, it was certified in July 1934 by ATC #545.

    American Airlines began taking delivery in July 1934 and was operating eight V1-As between St Louis and Chicago by Sep 1934, and eventually bought a total of 11 V1-As, but government concerns over single-engine safety (and the advent of the twin engine Douglas DC-2 and Boeing 247) brought the V1-A's commercial airline career to a halt. Despite this setback, V1-As and -ADs with deluxe interiors were sold as high-speed executive transports to corporate customers.

V1-As set many aviation records and helped promote the growth of aviation around the world. On 1/14/35 Jimmy Doolittle, with his wife, Josephine, Robert Adams of Shell Petroleum, and three large California oranges, flew [NC13770] non-stop across the USA in record time. Despite being forced 300 miles off-course by bad weather, Doolittle completed the trip in 11h:59m. A few hours later, the three oranges were delivered to Mayor Ellenstein of Newark. Six weeks later, Doolittle's brother-in-law, Leland Andrews, flew the same plane over nearly the same route, shaving 25 minutes off the record despite stopping in Washington to deliver some orchids to Eleanor Roosevelt. Later Andrews set a new time record in a V1-A between Los Angeles and Mexico City—1,620 miles in 8h:08m.

    Harry Richman, a well-known entertainer of the time, and an aviation enthusiast and part-time pilot, sponsored the first round-trip flight between New York and London. Henry T "Dick" Merrill, chief pilot of Eastern Airlines, would captain the V1-A [NC16099]. Extra fuel tanks and a 1000hp Wright Cyclone with a constant-speed, two-blade prop were installed, and some 41,000 Ping-Pong balls were stowed in the hollow recesses of wings and fuselage—if forced to ditch, the airplane would certainly float! With war looming in Europe, Richman christened the Vultee Lady Peace.

    On Sep 2, 1936 the pair took-off for London. The flight was uneventful until they were 600 miles from landfall, when they were forced to fly through very bad weather for nearly four hours. Eyeing their fuel gage after battling the storm, Merrill wisely decided to land in Llandila, South Wales, some 175 miles west of London. Flying for 18 hours and 36 minutes, they had made the fastest Atlantic crossing to date. The next day they completed their flight to London.

    On Sep 14 they began a return flight from the hard-packed sands at Southport, England. Enroute Richman inadvertently dumped some fuel and, with insufficient fuel to reach New York, Merrill had to land on a soft bog at Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland. After minor repairs and refueling, a week later they landed in New York. The round-trip flight cost Richman $360,000, and is known in aviation history as the "Ping-Pong Flight."

Many Vultees found their way to the Spanish Civil War. At least 16 V1-As and -ADs were shipped to Spain and used by both sides as light bombers, couriers, and recons. Five bomber conversions had dorsal gun positions and internal racks for eight 75kg bombs. Lady Peace was captured by the rebel Nationalists and rechristened Capitan Haya in memory of a famous Nationalist pilot. Several Vultees survived the war, including Capitan Haya, which served in the Spanish Air Force until 1953, when the record-breaking plane was unceremoniously sold for scrap.

    The last Vultee transport built was a seaplane version of the 735hp V1-A for the USSR as V1-AS, fitted with a pair of 30' EDO floats, enlarged vertical fin, an adjustable cold-weather engine cowling, and added fuel capacity. It was flown 10,000 miles in five and one-half weeks to Moscow in 1936.

Today the only known survivor of the famed V1 series is the Virginia Aviation Museum's [NC16099]. As V1-AD Special, it was built for San Francisco Examiner publisher William R Hearst in Dec 1936. Fitted with a plush interior and a powerful 1000hp R-1820-G5, Hearst operated this fastest of the Vultees for nearly three years. In 1939 it was sold to Marco "Tito" Gallabert, "Father of General Aviation in Panama," for operations in Central and South America. On 12/10/41, it suffered a landing accident at Aero Puerto, Panama.

    The US Army bought the wreck and moved it to Allbrook Field. The War Department needed a high-speed civil aircraft for use by the Embassy in Columbia, so it was repaired and turned over to the military attaché for use as a high-speed transport. Flown throughout Central and South America, Cuba, and the Caribbean, it always received top priority for landings. Later it flew for a variety of owners as an executive transport, in a charter/air taxi service, and as a prop for some Hollywood motion pictures, including "Tarnished Angels." Its most exotic role was for hauling live monkeys from Central America to the University of California Medical School for research.

This plane was located in the early '60s by Harold W Johnston of Pueblo CO, who later became owner and renamed it Spirit of Pueblo. After five years of restoration, it flew once more on 4/30/71. Johnston flew the Special for several years, logging almost 700 hours before it was finally retired to static display at the Shannon Air Museum in Fredericksburg VA. Renamed Lady Peace II to commemorate Dick Merrill's round-trip Atlantic flight, it is now featured at the Virginia Aviation Museum. (— Mike Boehme 3/26/01)
When Sid Shannon bought Lady Peace II for his museum, it did not go on static display, but continued to fly regularly. Sid prided himself on the fact that all the aircraft in his museum were in flying condition, and all flew except the Thomas-Morse Scout, which no one ever worked up the nerve to take aloft. It was ready to fly, but had no brakes and a tail skid, so was sort of a loose cannon on the ground.

    The way I know the above is that my Dad (Frank Beck) was very good friends with Mert Meade, the co-curator of the Shannon Air Museum with Dick Merrill. Dad was a regular judge at the Shannon Airport Father's Day Fly-In. At one point, Mert rented a room from Dad for a couple years.

    Mert and Dick Merrill flew Lady Peace II to airshows regularly, alternating with the American Airlines Stinson gull-wing. My folks often rode along. I, too, got a ride in the V1-A once. What a thrill! (— Tony Beck 3/4/02)