the great air races of the 'Golden Age'

Bendix Trophy

In the United States, racing began with the Los Angeles meet of January 1910, in which Glenn Curtiss and Louis Paulhan were the big winners. Paulhan was again victorious in the grueling London-to-Manchester race in which he beat a heroic effort by the British aviator Claude Grahame-White. It seemed, in fact, that Grahame-White made more capital out of losing than Paulhan did winning. Although he was a relative newcomer, Grahame- White won the Gordon- Bennett trophy at Belmont Park, Long Island, in October 1910, making him an international celebrity.

After Reims, a series of races were held across Europe—Paris to Rome; and circuits in France-Belgium and in England—pitting, for the most part, Andre Beaumont against Roland Garros. Here, too, Garros seemed to make more out of losing each time than Beaumont did winning. Garros finally won the races held in Monaco in August 1914, a year after the first Schneider Cup event, and then went on to be first to cross the Mediterranean.

Glenn Curtiss continued designing and building planes  in the 1920s for racing and exploring. The Oriole, among the most popular, was a versatile and inexpensive plane that could fly a good race one day, deliver mail the next, and fly the Arctic the day after...

The war curtailed racing in Europe, and in the United States the vigorous litigation by the Wrights against anyone they thought was infringing on their patents put a damper on racing and on flying in general. After World War I, the sons of newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer established the Pulitzer Trophy races in 1920. The huge turnout at Mitchell Field, New York, proved that interest was still there. A crowded field—thirty-seven planes staggered just two minutes apart, which meant nearly all of them were on the 116-mile (186.5km) course at the same time during most of the race—circled the course three times, with the winner, Corliss C. Mosley, in a Verville- Packard biplane.

The first man to congratulate Mosley was Billy Mitchell, now a hero of the war and at this point still highly respected in military aviation circles. Mitchell sold the armed services on the value of the Pulitzer (and other races) as a means of improving aircraft design and flying technique. During much of the twenties, the army and navy participated extensively in racing, and they often flew Curtiss racing planes, which became a profitable portion of Curtiss’ business. The next Pulitzer races were held in 1921 in Omaha, and the event was part of a larger cavalcade of aviation races and displays called the National Air Congress. These meets developed into annual events that eventually came to be called the National Air Races.

Many design innovations had their first testing at the Nationals, and some of the better aircraft went on to race in the Schneider or in other races. The Curtiss R3C-2 racer in which Jimmy Doolittle flew to victory at the Schneider races in 1925 had been flown (minus the pontoons) at the 1924 Nationals by Cyrus Bettis, who walked off with the Pulitzer that year. Along with the planes, many a flier’s reputation was made at these events and many pilots became household names of the period. Bert Acosta, a Curtiss test pilot, for winning the 1921 Pulitzer in record from a starting line instead of racing against the times of their competitors flying separately. The race gave rise to the sport-within-a-sport of “pylon polishing” (seeing who could fly closest to the pylon on the turn without hitting it), which the crowd found nearly as enthralling as the race. Being a pylon judge was definitely not a job for the squeamish.

In 1929 Henderson also convinced manufacturer Charles U. Thompson to sponsor a new Trophy event a fifty-mile (80.5km) race open to all aircraft. The Thompson Trophy became the premier air-racing event of the 1930s, bringing a whole new cast of intriguing dark horses into the spotlight, all trying to beat the army and navy planes. The 1929 Thompson race was won by Douglas Davis, flying a Travel Air  “Mystery” plane. (The mystery turned out to be that the plane had a Whirlwind engine, thought to be too bulky for racing.) The big news coming out of the race was that for the first time a civilian plane had beaten a government plane in a race. To make matters worse, the third-place finisher was also a civilian: Roscoe Turner flying a Lockheed Vega.

Wiley Post is seen here with Winnie Mae, the Lockheed Vega aircraft in which he made his legendary round-the-world flights.

The 1930 Thompson Trophy introduced the aviation world to Benjamin 0. “Benny” Howard, an airmail flier who built his own aircraft, a racer marked DGA-3 (which Howard said stood for “Damn Good Airplane”) and which Howard called Pete. Howard and Pete would become fixtures at the Nationals throughout the 1930s, though Howard never won a trophy. The year 1930 also saw the debut of an unknown barnstormer with a patch over one eye, Wiley Post, who flew a Lockheed Vega called Winnie Mae. The field that year was rich in planes and pilots that would ultimately become legendary in aviation history:

The Thompson Trophy ward plaque. This one was awarded to first-prize winner Cook Cleland in 1947.

Speed Holman flying Emil “Matty” Laird’s Solution (which had not been completed until hours before the start of the race, and had been test-flown for all of ten minutes), Frank Hawks in one of two Travelair  Air “Mystery” planes built by Walter Beech, and several others. The favourite plane that year was a Navy Curtiss Sea Hawk, with a 700- horsepower Curtiss Conqueror engine. However the navy plane crashed and Holman won the race. (In 1931, Holman was killed in a crash while stunting in Omaha.)

The Gee Bee R2 in which Jimmy Doolittle won the Thompson Trophy in 1932, with a record speed of 296 miles per hour (474kph). Doolittle then quit racing, claiming the Gee Bee was too dangerous to fly. (Later analysis showed that the odd weight distribution made it virtually impossible to control the plane once it went into any sort of roll.)

The 1931 Thompson competition saw the unveiling of one of the most unusual aircraft ever to fly: the Gee Bee. The name stood for the Granville Brothers, a small airplane manufacturer in Springfield, Massachusetts. The designer, Bob Hall, had no experience designing racing planes, and the final design looked like a bad drafting mistake—as if someone had forgotten to draw in the back half of the aircraft. Amazingly, the Gee Bee flown by Lowell Bayles beat Jimmy Doolittle flying a Laird Super- Solution and took the Thompson home. Doolittle was impressed, and the next year he flew a Gee Bee and won the Thompson. The experience must have been a harrowing one, though, because not only did Doolittle never again fly a Gee Bee, but he also became a staunch opponent of air racing and testified before Congress to have it banned.

In truth, the Gee Bee was configured as it was because it housed an enormous Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine. The plane was notoriously unstable and structurally fickle; every Gee Bee ever built crashed sooner or later.

the Thompson Trophy in 1932

Bayles, the 1931 Thompson winner, crashed after the competition trying to set a land speed record in the aircraft (which is how Doolittle got to fly the plane in the  first place). And in 1934, Zantford “Granny” Granville died when a Gee Bee he was flying to a customer crashed. That’s when Edward Granville discontinued the line. In 1931, a fourth major race, the Bendix Trophy, joined the Schneider, Pulitzer, and Thompson as the prestige races of the period.

Plaster model of the Bendix Air Race Trophy.

The Bendix was no more than the cross-country race to the Nationals that was held informally every year. The big winners of the Bendix included Benny Howard, who won it and the Thompson in 1935, his banner year; Jimmy Doolittle; and Roscoe Turner, ever the showman, winning it flying with his pet lion cub.

Roscoe Turner accepting his third Thompson Trophy in 1939. Though he became a showman and a flamboyant businessman, the Thompson victories attested to his great skill as an aviator

The Bendix was taken very seriously because it was a race that related directly to the desire to use aviation to traverse the vast distances of the United States. It encouraged cross-country speed flights by non-contestants that extended the capabilities of long-distance flight. Frank Hawks and the Lindberghs established cross-country records in the early 1930s, the latter proving in their Lockheed Sirius that airplanes could fly best high over storms in the rarefied atmosphere above fifteen thousand feet (4,57kn). All these records were to fall, however, when a brash young movie producer named Howard Hughes, flying an open-cockpit Northrop Gamma mail plane (which he had personally enhanced by installing a powerful Wasp engine), established records on an almost yearly basis in the early to mid-1930s, culminating in his January 1937 flight from Los Angeles to Newark in seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and twenty-five seconds.