It's fast, it's rare and it's often confused with a Beech 18 - it's a Lockheed 12A Electra Junior, and Joe Shepherd spent 20,000 hours restoring this one to pristine glory.
Thank goodness there are passionate and determined owners of vintage aircraft in this world. Due to people such as Joe Shepherd, the lives of we who are crazy about flying machines have been vastly enriched because we get to see the results of their passion fly rather than gather dust. Shepherd owns, and regularly operates, a flying rarity—there were only 130 built—from what some would refer to as a Golden Age of piston twin design. To make matters more interesting, few pilots have ever heard of the type, and most, upon seeing one for the first time, confuse it with another classic that was built in far greater numbers but didn’t perform or handle quite as well. Joe owns and flies a 1936 Lockheed 12A Electra Junior—and the story of the uncommon type and how Shepherd came to own and bring one back to life makes for fascinating reading.
A Little History
In 1912 brothers Allan and Malcom Loughead formed a company to build airplanes—they eventually named it after themselves and, in 1926, changed the name again so it was spelled the way it was pronounced. Despite the almost constant threat of financial collapse, the company turned out a series of single-engine airplanes one perceptive individual referred to as “plywood bullets.” Lockheeds were fast and often pushed the design envelope—consequently they were used for more than their share of record-setting speed and distance flights as well as serving as airliners until the powers that be decreed that there would be no more single-engine airliners.
In 1934, a year after Boeing introduced the first modern airliner, its 10-passenger Model 247, Lockheed entered the twin-engine airline market fray with its 10-passenger, but faster, Model 10 Electra. Wind tunnel testing at the University of Michigan by engineering student Clarence “Kelly” Johnson revealed that a twin vertical tail design would be more efficient than the planned single vertical—creating what became almost a trademark for future Lockheed piston airplane—and resulting in a job for Johnson straight out of school. He went on to head Lockheed’s famed “Skunk Works.”
As fate would have it, Jack Northrop, the engineer who had designed Lockheed’s cutting-edge Vega moved on to Douglas Aircraft and designed a “multi-cellular” wing that Douglas used on its DC-1 airliner—which begat the DC-2 and DC-3 and smoked the rest of the world in airline design and sales, including Lockheed.
While the Lockheed 10 Electra airliner was left in the propwash of the DC-3, it is remembered as the airplane of choice for Amelia Earhart’s attempt to fly around the world in 1937.
The Electra Junior
As the Depression dragged on, Lockheed made the decision to enter a competition for what was called a feeder airliner, with six to eight seats. The result looked as if the engineering department simply parked an Electra outside overnight in the rain and let it shrink 30 percent. Christened the “Electra Junior,” the Model 12 had the traditional lean look of a Lockheed, a pair of 450-HP Pratt and Whitney radials and could cruise at over 200 MPH. The 12 would evolve almost immediately into the 12A, of which 70 were built—the remaining airplanes that came off the assembly line with minor differences were given a mix of civilian and military designations, depending on the customer.
Making its first flight three days before the June 30, 1936 competition deadline, the Electra Junior won by default—the competing companies couldn’t get their airplanes ready in time. Unfortunately, the feeder airline market never amounted to much, only a score or so 12s (the Electra Junior name didn’t really stick) became airliners. However, its useful load of some 3,000 pounds made it attractive to corporate and government users. As the decade wore on, Lockheed turned its attention to military aircraft, designing and building twin-engine transports, bombers and the famous P-38 fighter.
Production of the Lockheed 12 ended in 1941—the demands of preparing for war meant Lockheed would move its resources to its other airplanes and Beechcraft would produce the airplane it was building in the same performance niche as the Lockheed 12, the Beech 18.
Beech would go on to build over 9,000 18s. There are those who say Beech copied Lockheed’s twin-tail design, although the truth is probably that twin tails became a design fad in the 1930s (Cessna’s original version of its first twin, the Bobcat, had twin tails until testing showed a single tail worked better) as did T-tail in the 1970s. Nevertheless, a Lockheed 12 is often confused with the Beech 18. The easy way to tell the difference is that Lockheed carried the horizontal stabilizer through and outboard each vertical—the Beech 18 horizontal stabilizer is completely between the verticals.
After World War II the sheer number of Beech 18s, and parts availability, meant they stayed in service into this century, largely trickling down to the on-demand freight haulers. While the Lockheed 12 could carry about the same amount of freight, a little faster, the lack of spares meant there was a far lower demand. Time, attrition and cost to keep them alive meant Lockheed 12s became increasingly unusual to see anywhere.
A Certain Determination
Before becoming an airline pilot, Joe Shepherd spent some time doing as so many of his contemporaries did—he flew freight in Beech 18s and came to know them well. In the early 1980s it happened that he had a chance to fly a friend’s Lockheed 12 and was captivated by the way it handled and its speed. He became determined to buy one—which didn’t prove to be easy. In 1988, he got word of a 12A in Texas that was on the market; the owner wanted to trade straight up for a Cessna 195. It just so happened that Shepherd owned a Cessna 195.
Shepherd flew his airplane to Texas to look at the Lockheed 12A. Joe’s airplane was airworthy, in good shape and being flown regularly. The Lockheed hadn’t flown in nine years and had been sitting in the open. That was good enough for Joe—after a few hours looking over the Lockheed, he traded even for it.
Shepherd ferried parts, tools and friends between his home in Georgia and the Lockheed for the several months it took to get his 12A into condition to be ferried home. Once there, he pulled the wings and found that he’d only just scratched the surface of the work that going to be required. It would prove necessary to replace every cable, pulley, electrical wire and most of the nuts, bolts and screws. The landing gear had to be pulled and completely refurbished. He overhauled both engines. The more he got into the airplane, the more he realized it needed. He found and bought two other Electra Juniors to use for parts.
The 1980s became the 1990s and the restoration continued. 2001 ushered in the New Millennium with the restoration still not complete. After what Shepherd described as 20,000 hours of labor, his 12A flew again in 2007. Since then it has flown for 400 “trouble-free” hours, its polished aluminum lines drawing crowds everywhere it goes.
Shepherd praises the handling of the 12—specifically mentioning that it is predictable on the ground. He’s used to comparing it to the Beech 18, an airplane he greatly likes—and points out that the Lockheed is a little crisper handling, plus it does not have the tendency to bite when the wheels are in contact with the ground that the Beech can have. At 65 MPH, the Lockheed 12 also stalls a bit slower than the Beech 18, because the Lockheed’s ailerons deflect downward as the flaps extend—an early STOL design.
Shephard flies final at 80 MPH and regularly uses a 3,000 foot-long grass strip without having to touch the brakes. He says the Lockheed 12 is about 20 MPH faster than the Beech 18 and that the airplanes have about the same useful load—although there were many versions of the 18, and numerous STCs for them, so some Beech 18s can carry more than his Lockheed.
Shepherd says that a pilot with a fair amount of time in heavier tailwheel singles, such as a Cessna 195 or North American SNJ/T-6, generally has no trouble checking out in the Lockheed. The checkout is made easier by, as he says, dirt-simple systems. While many airplanes designed in the 1930s had horrendously complicated gear, flap, fuel and electrical systems, Shepherd says the Lockheed 12s are utterly straightforward and easy to learn.
Joe’s Lockheed played a starring role in the movie Amelia, where it stood in for Earhart’s Model 10 Electra in the action scenes because there are no Electras flying and the producer figured, correctly, that few could tell the difference from a distance. To double for the star of the movie, Joe wore a wig and scarf as he taxied and flew his 12A.
We don’t even want to think about how much work is involved in keeping the acres of bare aluminum polished; Shepherd told us he does have help. However, he reiterated that the airplane has been utterly reliable since the restoration and polishing rather than repairing a vintage machine seems pretty attractive to us. Plus, as Shepherd related, there has never been an Airworthiness Directive issued against a Lockheed Electra Junior.
Rick Durden is the Feature and News Editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.