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Lockheed Model 9 Orion

Model 9 Orion
"North Wind" - one of six Orions owned by Varney Speed Lines of Burbank, California
Role Airliner
Manufacturer Lockheed Aircraft Limited
Designer Richard A. Von Hake
First flight 1931
Introduction 1931
Number built 35 (36?)
Unit cost

The Lockheed Model 9 Orion was a single-engined passenger aircraft built in 1931 for commercial airlines. It was the first airliner to have retractable landing gear and was faster than any military aircraft of that time. Designed by Richard A. Von Hake, it was the last wooden monoplane design produced by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.


  • Design 1
  • Operational history 2
  • Variants 3
  • Survivors 4
  • Operators 5
  • Specifications (Orion 9D) 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


The Orion was the last design using many identical elements from the Lockheed designs preceding it. It primarily used all the elements of the Altair, but included a forward top cockpit similar to the Vega, plus the NACA cowling introduced in the Air Express.[1] Lockheed used the same basic fuselage mold and wing for all these wooden designs (the Explorer wing was unique), hence the close similarities between them. The Orion featured an enclosed cabin with seating for six passengers. The Orion received its Approved Type Certificate on May 6, 1931.[2]

Gerard F. Vultee was Lockheed's chief engineer in 1928 through 1931 and was involved in the designs of all the Lockheed variants of that time and specifically designed Charles Lindbergh’s Sirius.[3]

Operational history

Although designed with the passenger market in mind, its speed made it a natural for air races. The first Bendix race of 1931 had a showing of two Orions, three Altairs and one Vega in a race that had only nine aircraft competing. On 11 July 1935, Laura H. Ingalls flew a Lockheed Orion, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, from Floyd Bennett Field to Burbank, California, establishing an East-West record for women. Two months later she flew it back to set a West-East record.[2]

The first Orion entered service with Bowen Air Lines at Fort Worth, Texas, in May 1931.[1] American Airways, renamed American Airlines in 1934, operated several 9D Orions. Many safe miles were flown in airline service and the headlines won by a few expert speed pilots proved the advanced design and reliability of the Orion. Those that went into airline use as a passenger transport had their lifespan limited, however. In 1934 the Civil Aeronautics Authority issued a ruling prohibiting further use of single-engined passenger aircraft from operating on all major networks. It also became mandatory to have a copilot and therefore a two-seat cockpit arrangement on all such flights. The requirements of the ruling brought an end to the "Orion" as a passenger-carrying airlines airplane. They were then used for cargo or mail carrying or sold for private use and charter. Because the aircraft had a complicated wood construction and needed to be sent back to Lockheed in Burbank California to be repaired, they were often disposed of after any type of significant accident. At least 12 of the used "Orions" were purchased for service in the Spanish Civil War and destroyed in use.[2]

In 1935 a single Model 9 Orion was modified by Lockheed as a news camera plane for the Detroit News. To work in the role, a pod was built into the front leading edge of the right wing about eight feet out from the fuselage. This pod had a glass dome on the front and mounted a camera. To aim the camera the pilot was provided with a primitive grid similar to a gunsight on his windshield.[4]

The Orion Explorer was a modified 9E. It had a damaged wing replaced with the wing of the Explorer 7 after a crash, and was fitted with a 600 hp (482 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 engine. Fixed landing gear and later floats were also fitted. It was used by Wiley Post and Will Rogers for a round-the-world flight attempt, but both men died when the aircraft crashed in Alaska on 15 August 1935.[1]


A Swissair Orion undergoes flight tests
The UC-85 in 1943
Orion 9
14 built, 410 hp (306 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp A or 420 hp (313 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp C[1]
Orion 9A Special
one aircraft with 450 hp (336 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC engine[1]
Orion 9B
two aircraft supplied to Swissair, 575 hp (429 kW) Wright R-1820-E engine[1]
Orion 9C
redesignated Altair DL-2A[1]
Orion 9D
13 built[1]
Orion 9E
three aircraft with 450 hp (336 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC-1 engine[1]
Orion 9F
one executive aircraft with a 645 hp (481 kW) Wright R-1820-F2 engine[1]
Orion 9F-1
one executive aircraft with a 650 hp (485 kW) Wright SR-1820-F2 engine[1]
one Orion 9D to USAAF in June 1942[1]
modified Orion 9E, 600 hp (482 kW) Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 engine[1]


The Shellightning in October 1932
The only existing Orion, Swiss Transport Museum, Lucerne

In all, Lockheed built a total of 35 Orions costing $25,000 each new. It is not known if any survived past the 1940s except the one that survives to the present day. This lone remaining Orion was originally built as an experimental Altair with a metal fuselage. This Altair (built in 1931) was damaged in a belly-landing accident in Columbus, Ohio, in 1933. It was returned to Lockheed where it was converted in 1934 to an Orion 9C configuration by the original designer of the Orion, Richard A. Von Hake, and others who worked for free during a slow period when the Lockheed factory was going into bankruptcy.

A valid argument has been raised that since the fuselage, wing and tail of both planes are identical, and that it was also rebuilt by the original designer at the Lockheed plant, it may be considered an actual Orion (#36) instead of a modified Altair. In any case, it was sold to Shell Aviation Corp., painted yellow-orange and red and named "Shellightning." It was used by Shell's aviation manager, James H. Doolittle, on cross-county and exhibition flights. Jimmy Doolittle made hundreds of trips in this Lockheed, and the aircraft was very much in evidence at air shows, airport dedications, and business meetings across the territories of all three Shell companies in the United States.

In 1936, "Shellightning" was again involved in an accident, in St. Louis, and was stored there. Two years later, Paul Mantz caught the racing bug in addition to his aeronautical movie work. He bought the damaged "Shellightning" and had it rebuilt at Parks Air College in St. Louis, Missouri with a more powerful Wright Cyclone engine and some streamlining to add to its speed. It was repainted red with white trim and Mantz flew the plane in the Bendix Races in 1938 and 1939, coming in third both times. In 1943, he sold the plane and it went through a series of owners until Mantz bought it back in 1955. He retained ownership until selling it to TallMantz Aviation, Inc. in 1962.

In 1964, the plane was sitting out in the open on the flightline at Orange County Airport, now John Wayne Airport, in blue-and-white American Airways trim. Some time in the 1960s it was purchased by Swiss Air and rebuilt to flying status by the famous "Fokker" restoration team and is on display at the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland in the livery of the original Swiss Air Orion.[5]


 United States

Specifications (Orion 9D)

Data from The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft[1]

General characteristics


See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Eden, and Moeng, eds. 2002, p. 899.
  2. ^ a b c Francillon, 1987.
  3. ^ Vultee, Gerald. Fabrication of the Lockheed "Vega" Airplace-Fuselage. Los Angeles Aeronautic Meeting Paper, November 1928.
  4. ^ "Flying Camera Aimed Like a Machine Gun" Popular Mechanics, April 1935
  5. ^ [2]
  • Francillon, René J, Lockheed Aircraft since 1913. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 1987.
  • Eden, Paul and Moeng, Soph, eds. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. London: Amber Books Ltd., 2002. ISBN 0-7607-3432-1.

External links

  • Lockheed Orion on Swissair flights (French)
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