More to the story than meets the eye

The first time I saw Sam Lyons’ print “”Shellightning,”” it got my attention. It is vividly colorful and it depicts one of the famous Lockheed planes, specifically one made notable by Jimmy Doolittle. Little did I know then the fascinating story of this plane, which was to unfold as I investigated its history.

The plane, a Lockheed Orion, was one of a series of famous models built by the manufacturer. The Vega, Air Express, Explorer, Sirius, Altair and Orion were progressive improvements on the same design concept and construction tooling, yet each was different. Author Richard Sanders Allen documented the history of these planes in his book “”Revolution in the Sky: Those Fabulous Lockheeds — the Pilots Who Flew Them.””

“”Think back to the daring years 1927 to 1937, the decade that saw continents and oceans spanned anew, the Polar regions explored, records for distance, speed, altitude, and endurance set, broken, and reset — all in single-engine airplanes bearing the winged star insignia of Lockheed,”” Allen says. “”The unique design and construction of the six prototypes — and the 197 individual planes that were born therefrom — in less than 10 years wrought a revolution in the sky. Sleek and versatile, they became the most copied, coveted, newsmaking airplanes of the era. And their pilots, legends in their own time, became heroes of the nation — and the world.””

“”Shellightning”” was one-of-a-kind. It was originally built as an experimental Altair with metal fuselage and wooden wings. With few exceptions, these planes were made from wood. What made them revolutionary was the wooden monocoque construction process developed by Lockheed to make exceedingly strong, but relatively lightweight, fuselages.

It was built in 1931 as a fast open-cockpit Altair and leased to Transcontinental & Western Air to be flown as a mail carrier on one of their routes. In October 1931 it was damaged in a belly-landing accident in Columbus, Ohio, and returned to Lockheed, where it was converted to an Orion, the only Orion with a metal fuselage. It was then 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 and is the plane depicted in Sam Lyons’ painting.

Probably the most unusual flight made by Doolittle in this plane took place on June 25, 1932. Called the George Washington Bicentennial Flight, it was a commemorative flight to celebrate the 157th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Postal Service. The plan was to fly in one day over all the American towns visited by George Washington during his lifetime and drop mailbags at 30 significant historical spots.

Doolittle was joined on this flight by Al Maple, editor of Shell’s New York house organ, and Anne Madison Washington, great-great-grandniece of the first president. The flight started at Washington’s farthest north visit, Kittery, Maine, and went as far south as Sunbury, N.C.

Fifteen hours and 40 minutes after taking off, a very tired Jimmy Doolittle completed the 2,600-mile flight in New York.

Not only was it a long flight, it was also navigationally challenging because he had to fly low and find all the obscure spots he was to fly over. The last mailbag was dropped by Maple, who by then had honed his bombardier skills, on the parade ground at West Point almost at the feet of the postmaster waiting there.

Jimmy Doolittle made hundreds of trips in this Lockheed, and the ship 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. The presence of the famed racing pilot was enough to ensure good attendance at any air event.

But perhaps Doolittle’s most significant contribution to aviation while with Shell was his work in developing new fuels and lubricants for high-performance aircraft. The development of 100-octane fuel for use by our military aircraft in World War II was one result.

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 with a more powerful Wright Cyclone engine and some streamlining to add to its speed. It was painted red with white trim and so “”Shellightning”” ceased to exist, but that’s not the end of NR 12222’s story.

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. When Allen wrote his book in 1964, the plane was sitting on the flightline at Orange County Airport, now John Wayne Airport, in blue-and-white American Airways trim. At the time, it was the only Lockheed Orion in existence.

As is true with all paintings, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when there is more to the story than meets the eye. Sometimes the story is readily available and fascinating, sometimes its trail has long since grown cold, leaving you forever wondering what happened, and sometimes it exists only in the mind of the artist and your imagination. Whatever the story is and how you find it, it is there for you to enjoy. What’s the story behind your favorite painting?

Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *