Racetracks In The Sky
The aerial contests of the 1920s and 1930s were extravagant and murderous, but they proved The old horseman’s adage: Racing betters the breed
Pilot Roscoe Turner went out on top. On September 5, 1939, he won the Thompson Trophy for an unprecedented third time. Before a crowd of 60,000 people, he climbed out of his plane—largely extemporized and suicidally overpowered—and stepped up into the grandstand. There, garlanded with flowers and holding his prize, he called, “Make way for the photographers! This is the last time you boys will be photographing me with the Thompson Trophy. I’m not going to race anymore.”
With his waxed mustache, well-practiced grin, and custom-made uniform, Turner was the very image of what a racing pilot should be. Flamboyant and photogenic, he called himself “Colonel,” based on tongue-in-cheek commissions from the governors of Nevada and California. At one point he had flown with a lion cub he named Gilmore afterthe oil company that sponsored him. His retirement marked the end of an era, not just for air racing but for the world. Four days earlier Germany had launched its blitzkrieg against Poland and started World War II. The golden age of air racing was over.
But what a time it had been! In the decades between the wars, the public had passionately followed races in which pilots competed in airplanes that were often constructed by self-taught designers. The goal was to build planes that could win races, set records, and go faster, faster, faster.
Air races had been around almost as long as airplanes. In August 1909, less than six years after the Wright brothers had first flown at Kitty Hawk, Glenn Curtiss won a competition sponsored by the newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett. The first Gordon Bennett airplane race took place outside Reims, France, and Curtiss won with an average speed of only 47.65 miles per hour. Just four years later the French pilot Maurice Prévost flew his Deperdussin monoplane to victory at a new world speed record of 126.67 mph.
The airplane had entered an exuberant adolescence, but World War I shifted the focus from civilian races to military contests where the stakes were death. The technical developments during the war and the profusion of trained pilots and surplus aircraft it left behind set the stage for the great races of the 1920s and 1930s.
Internationally, the most prestigious one was the Schneider Trophy, a speed contest sponsored by French industrialist Jacques Schneider to spur seaplane development. The race made its debut in 1913 and resumed after the war, to great public interest. In 1929 a million people watched from along the English coastline and aboard a flotilla of private boats as British and Italian seaplanes battled for the trophy. Two years later the British took it home permanently by winning for the third time, and soon after that, the British pilot George Stainforth broke the 400-mph barrier for the first time in history. “The fact that airplanes encumbered by huge floats could have attained more than 400 mph in 1931 is sufficient testimony to the competition’s role in the education of aero-dynamicists,” wrote the aviation historian Ron Dick.
In the United States, the newspaper publishing brothers Herbert, Joseph, and Ralph Pulitzer announced their sponsorship of their own contest. On Thanksgiving Day in 1920, 40,000 spectators watched the first Pulitzer race, held at Mitchel Field on Long Island. The 34 competitors took off at staggered intervals and flew around pylons on a triangular course. Each lap was supposed to be just under 33 miles long, but they turned out to be about 3 miles shorter. This proved embarrassing to the race’s planners, who trumpeted the speed records they believed the pilots had achieved. The miscalculation aside, the first contest was considered a great success, and the Pulitzers continued annually through 1925, dominated by military aircraft.
As speed records increased, many wondered how fast racing planes could go. “Some authorities claim 500 miles per hour to be the limit, because after that, air friction will set the plane on fire!” Scientific American wrote in 1930. “But 300 miles an hour as a commercial speed is certainly within the limits of possibility.”
James Doolittle was one pilot who pushed the limits. Born an only child on December 14, 1896, in Alameda, California, Doolittle was 13 when he attended the first air meet ever held on American soil—at Domínguez Ranch outside Los Angeles in January 1910—where he saw Curtiss set a new speed record with a passenger aboard: 55 mph.
When America entered World War I, Doolittle joined the Army and started flight training, but he never got overseas. After the war he remained with the Air Service and destroyed a good number of planes, sometimes through his own recklessness. One time he dove his Curtiss Jenny along with a flock of ducks, only to realize too late that the birds had led him into a blind canyon. Trying to get out, he crashed the plane.
But Doolittle was no mere daredevil. “The trick was to learn your limitations,” he said, “gradually expand them, but never go beyond them.” He developed into a prudent pilot and eventually an exceptionally well-educated one. He attended Air Service Engineering School, then earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became Dr. Doolittle when he earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical sciences, also at MIT.
At that time the U.S. military saw air racing as an opportunity to develop flight technology and entered competitions despite the considerable expense involved. In 1925 the Army and Navy spent a quarter of a million dollars each to buy four Curtiss R3C-1s, sleek racing biplanes powered by Curtiss V-1400 engines.
The V-1400 was the latest in a family of revolutionary liquidcooled engines. In 1916 Charles B. Kirkham of Curtiss had developed the K-12, the first wet-sleeve monobloc engine. The tops of its cylinders, or sleeves, were screwed into a cast aluminum block. Cooling water circulated through the block and around the sleeves. Arthur Nutt, the chief motor engineer at Curtiss, developed an improved version called the D-12, which powered the airplanes that won the first four places in the 1922 Pulitzer race. A year later David Rittenhouse flew his D-12-powered Navy CR-3 to victory in the Schneider race. The engines were the precursors to the liquid-cooled power plants many American fighters would use in World War II and, indeed, influenced aircraft design right up to the jet age.
The V-1400 was larger but lighter than the D-12. One drawback of liquid-cooled engines was their flat-faced drag-inducing radiators, but engineers reduced that problem on the Curtiss racers with wing radiators, layers of brass sheets soldered to each other and bent into a series of triangles. Coolant flowed between the sheets, and the entire assembly slipped over the wings.
The Army and Navy both entered their Curtiss racers in the 1925 Pulitzer. As before, the race took place at Mitchel Field on Long Island, with 25,000 customers paying to watch six planes compete in two separate heats. The Navy’s Curtiss, flown by the cocky Al Williams, was off first. Army pilot Cyrus Bettis, a quieter and more contemplative man, took off two minutes later and whipped through the course at an average speed of almost 249 mph, narrowly beating Williams. The Navy pilot was so embittered by the outcome he at first refused to shake Bettis’s hand.
In a further humiliation for the Navy, the Army took the winning Curtiss, fitted it with floats, and assigned Doolittle to fly it in the Schneider race, which pitted the Americans against British and Italian entries in a contest held in the Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore. Doolittle learned to coax more speed from his airplane by changing the pitch of its propeller, and he doggedly studied pylon techniques to find the best method of banking around them. Doo-little’s hard work paid off. He flew to an easy victory with an average speed of 232.57 mph, hurtling so tightly around the turns that the judges stationed in stands atop the pylons said they felt his propeller wind.
Despite the Army’s victory, after that the ardor of both services for air races declined. “It was difficult to get government funds to improve aircraft, although racing did have the effect of providing an incentive, a stimulus, to the development of aircraft and engines,” Doolittle said in his autobiography. Previous investments had led to developments that would prove crucial in the next war: better engines, metal propellers, new methods of drag reduction—retractable landing gear among them—and stronger and lighter wing designs. By withdrawing from competition, the American military lost an opportunity to forge more improvements from air racing’s crucible.
Civilian planes and pilots picked up the slack. In the decade before World War II two races in particular, the Thompson and the Bendix, attracted the best of the country’s civilian pilots, thanks in part to the promotional genius of Cliff Henderson.
Henderson had moved from Iowa to California at 14, and one of his classmates at Los Angeles Manual Arts High School had been Jimmy Doolittle. During World War I Henderson served in Europe as an ambulance driver. Afterward he bought a Curtiss Jenny and learned to fly. Soon Henderson was running the tiny Clover Airport in California, where he offered weekend exhibitions. In 1928, capitalizing on the aviation mania that followed Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing the year before, Henderson organized the National Air Races and International Aeronautical Exposition, held outside Los Angeles. It included 18 closed-course contests—those circuits around the pylons—as well as several long-distance competitions.
At the same time, people in Cleveland were seeking a way to promote their city as an aviation center. A group of prominent citizens asked the newly formed National Aeronautics Association to hold the National Air Races at the city’s new Hopkins Airport. They hired Cliff Henderson and his brother Phil to promote it. Henderson kept a paying audience of half a million entertained over the course of the weeklong event in 1929. Opening day kicked off with a mile-long parade called the Pageant of Flowers, featuring 1,500 participants and almost 200 floats, with four dirigibles cruising overhead. There were parachute jumps, stunt flying, and an appearance by Lindbergh himself, who performed aerobatics with members of the Navy’s “High Hat” Squadron. The New York Times called the races “our greatest air carnival—for carnival and circus it was rather than a race meeting.”
There was racing, though, including a closed-course contest called the Thompson Cup Race, sponsored by Thompson Products, a local manufacturer of airplane engine parts, including the valves in Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis . The 50-mile race—10 laps around a pylon course—was open to all comers, with a $750 cash prize for the winner. Most expected a military pilot to win. One person who didn’t was a pilot named Doug Davis, who reached Cleveland in a commercial low-winged monoplane called the Travel Air R. Davis kept his airplane under such tight secrecy that the press dubbed it the “Mystery Ship.” Once exposed to the public, the black-and-orange Mystery Ship proved to be in a class by itself, and Davis effortlessly beat the Army and Navy biplanes competing against him—the first time military aircraft had been bested by a civilian in a closed-course race.
Thompson Products was so pleased with the 1929 event that it offered to sponsor a race every year, with the winner to get $5,000. The Thompson Trophy Race debuted at the 1930 National Air Races, held in Chicago. In the military’s final effort to compete in civilian races, the Navy entered a modified Curtiss Hawk. By removing the lower wing and adding a more powerful engine, the Navy increased the Hawk’s speed by nearly 100 mph and made its pilot, Capt. Arthur Page, the race’s clear favorite.
The pilots took off at 10-second intervals, with Page first. Then on the seventeenth lap the Hawk veered off course and smashed into the ground opposite the grandstands “with an impact that raised the dust and dirt like a bursting shell,” a New York Times reporter wrote. Page survived the crash only to die from head injuries a few days later. Apparently carbon monoxide fumes had leaked into his cockpit and knocked him out. The winner was Charles (“Speed”) Holman, flying a biplane that its designer, Matty Laird, called the Solution .
The next year’s races featured the debut of the transcontinental Bendix race. Henderson had personally badgered Vincent Bendix, president of the Bendix Aviation Corporation, to sponsor the race, cornering the industrialist on a Chicago– to–New York train to make his pitch. With Bendix’s prize money as incentive, pilots would start on one coast and finish at the National Air Races, whether they were held in Cleveland or Los Angeles.
By then Doolittle had resigned from the Army to join the Shell Oil Corporation. He called Matty Laird in Chicago and asked if he could fly the Solution , now modified so extensively Laird called it the Super Solution . Doolittle used the plane to win the first Bendix race, but in that year’s Thompson the engine overheated on the sixth lap and a frustrated Doolittle had to drop out of the contest.
Doolittle was going to fly the Super Solution in 1932, but it didn’t happen. Laird had added retractable landing gear to the plane, but it refused to lower for Doolittle at the end of a test flight. Doolittle tried everything, and after two hours of frustrated circling he dropped a note to the ground crew, asking them to write suggestions on the side of an airplane and fly alongside him. They suggested he “Zoom right. Zoom left. Power dive.” Doolittle had already tried these strategies; he ended up bringing the plane in on its belly and putting it out of commission for the race.
Then Zantford Granville called and offered Doolittle a chance to fly one of the period’s most distinctive, and dangerous, airplanes. Granville was the oldest of five brothers who built airplanes in a converted dancehall in Springfield, Massachusetts. He had an eighth-grade education and had designed his first plane on wrapping paper. The brothers struggled with their business in Depression-era America, for neither their Model A biplane nor Model X Sportster had sold particularly well. Lured by potential winnings, the Granvilles decided to build a racer.
Unlike many of the day’s instinctual designers, the Granvilles wanted assistance from someone with a college education, so they hired an engineer, Robert Hall, to help them with their new design. They called it the Model Z, and to recognize the support of the consortium that financed it, they named the airplane the City of Springfield, Massachusetts .
The Gee Bee (for Granville Brothers) Model Z looked like a single massive engine with wings stuck on it. The engine was a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior, the very same power plant, in fact, that had propelled Speed Holman and the Solution to victory in the Thompson the previous year. The plane’s stubby fuselage flowed almost immediately into the rudder, reflecting the Granvilles’ theory that the teardrop was the best shape for a fast airplane. The large “pants” over the wheels were shaped like teardrops too. Flown by the local pilot Lowell Bayles, the Model Z won the Thompson Trophy in 1931.
Bayles didn’t live long enough to much enjoy his triumph. With the enthusiastic support of Pratt & Whitney, the Granvilles fitted the Model Z with an even more powerful Wasp engine in hopes of breaking the world speed record of 278.48 mph. During his third attempt, in December, Bayles appeared to have reached 300 mph, but then a fuel cap flew off the engine, crashed through the windscreen, and struck him in the face, knocking him unconscious. The plane climbed and rolled, a wing snapped off, and Bayles was fatally injured in the crash.
Undeterred, the Granvilles set out to build Gee Bees that could win both the Bendix and the Thompson. Hall had departed to design his own planes, so the Granvilles hired Howell W. (“Pete”) Miller, a graduate of New York University’s Guggenheim School of Aeronautics. They even tested scale models in an NYU wind tunnel, something rare in racing circles at the time. “It’s ironic that these stubby Gee Bee designs that proved to be such man-killers had more ‘educated’ design in them than many more conventional ships,” wrote Roger Huntington in his book Thompson Trophy Racers: The Pilots and Planes of America’s Air Racing Glory Days .
The Granvilles designed the R-1 for the Thompson. It was larger than the Model Z and had a more powerful Wasp engine. Initially the R-1 had essentially no vertical fin, but the finished plane was so directionally unstable the Granvilles added more surface area. The R-2 was similar, but it had a less powerful engine and greater fuel capacity to make it competitive in the distance race. Recognizing the gamble they were making, the Granvilles painted the number 7 on the R-2 and 11 on the R-1, hoping the airplanes would be a lucky roll of the dice.
Russell Boardman was supposed to fly the R-1 in the Thompson, but he was injured in a crash in August. The Granvilles needed a pilot; Doolittle needed an airplane. Zantville Granville picked up the phone.
Doolittle hurried to Springfield. He walked around the R-1 several times to take stock of the stubby little beast. Then he climbed into the cockpit, fired up the engine, took off, and flew directly to Cleveland for the race. “It was fast,” he said of the airplane, “but flying it was like balancing a pencil or an ice cream cone on the tip of your finger. You couldn’t let your hand off the stick for an instant.”
Eight airplanes were competing for the Thompson, including three racers designed by Jimmy Wedell of Louisiana. To make the race more exciting, Henderson had dispensed with the staggered start. Instead, all the planes would take off at the drop of a flag, just like the racecars at Indianapolis, a chaotic and dangerous but undeniably thrilling beginning. As a crowd of 60,000 watched, the eight competitors roared off the ground for the start of the 100-mile, 10-lap contest. Doolittle took his time in the beginning but was soon blasting around the course, circling wide around the pylons but making up for the extra distance with blistering speed in the straightaways. He won.
It was Doolittle’s last air race. He thought the shows had run their course and accomplished all they could. “They had served a useful purpose by arousing public interest in aviation,” he wrote. “They had also become the inspiration and proving ground for new concepts in aircraft design and construction. Cockpit venting, retractable gear, and bold new wing and fuselage designs were born in the competition for the various trophies. But the price in planes and pilots had been high. I thought aviation should now begin to serve world commerce rather than be considered mostly a sport.”
But Doolittle did not quit aviation. In 1942, leading the famous air raid on Tokyo, he became a national hero once again.
Roscoe Turner remained in competition, despite tribulations that would surely have grounded a lesser pilot.
He had been born on September 29, 1895, to a farming family outside Corinth, Mississippi. When America entered World War I, Turner joined the Army and was assigned to the ambulance corps. With only a tenth-grade education he lacked the schooling necessary for flight training, but eventually he managed to get assigned to the observation balloon corps.
While in the Army he cadged rides and instruction from pilots he knew. Back in the states he became an all-around aviation gypsy, working as a mechanic one day, a wing walker the next. He also nurtured a natural gift for self-promotion. He designed a flying uniform that included polished boots, Sam Browne belt, jodhpurs, pilot’s cap, and his own insignia. He kept the ends of his mustache neatly waxed. “I’m a flier and I’m earning a living at being one,” he said once. “Publicity helps. That’s why I wear this monkey suit. It makes people notice me wherever I go. Not that I like it. Nobody will ever know how much guts it takes for me to wear this circus outfit.”
Or to fly. Turner knew how to play the daring and unflappable aviator, but just before a race his feet would shake uncontrollably on the pedals, and afterward his hands trembled so badly he had trouble signing autographs. Throughout his life he was plagued by nightmares, and he once flung himself through a window in his sleep, dreaming he was escaping from a burning airplane.
Turner was largely a self-taught pilot, and he flew an airplane built by a self-taught airplane designer. Jimmy Wedell, the Texas-born son of a bartender, learned to fly despite having lost the sight in one eye in a motorcycle accident. He and his brother took up careers as barnstormers, with some occasional work flying illegal booze from Mexico.
Wedell’s fortunes turned when he met the Louisiana lumber baron Harry Williams, who invested two million dollars to help him start an air charter and a design business in the bayou country of Patterson, Louisiana. Wedell is said to have outlined the design for his first racing plane in chalk on his hangar floor, and throughout his life he spurned blueprints and design drawings. “I can’t understand to this day how he did it,” said his shop foreman, Eddie Robertson, who recounted an occasion when they were working on the airplane Wedell called the Model 44 because “it was hot as a .44 and twice as fast.” “He said to me, ‘Eddie, I have too much surface there. It’s a little too long and a little too wide. You’ll have to build another one smaller.’ So Jimmy took a piece of yellow crayon and marked off how much smaller he thought it ought to be. The same thing applied to his other planes. There were no sketches or prints of any of them Jimmy built at Patterson.”
There was nothing revolutionary about the Model 44. Wedell made it from steel tubes, wood, and fabric and gave it a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior. But it was fast, and throughout the airplane’s life Wedell made it faster by shortening its wings and adding more powerful engines. In 1930 it went 210 mph. In 1931 he reached 255. Before the 1932 races he made further improvements he hoped would make it faster yet.
When Turner first saw Wedell’s plane, he thought it was “a terrible looking old crate.” Then he decided he wanted one too. He got some financial assistance from the Gilmore Oil Company and then persuaded Pratt & Whitney to give him an engine. At Wedell’s headquarters in Louisiana, Turner learned that Wedell was busy building a Model 44 for the racer Jimmy Haizlip. Turner left his trusted mechanic, Don Young, at Wedell’s shop, and Young copied the plane Wedell was building.
Such informality had drawbacks. When Wedell was performing final flight tests on Turner’s plane, a wing tore off, and he had to bail out.
Turner consulted the aeronautical engineer Howard W. Barlow about beefing up his replacement Model 44, and in 1932 he brought the plane in third in both the Bendix and Thompson races. With a more powerful engine, Turner won the Bendix in 1933, flying from New York to Los Angeles in 111/2 hours, about a half-hour faster than the second-place finisher, Wedell.
Turner wasn’t as lucky in the Thompson, held that year in Los Angeles. Before a crowd of 55,000 people, he pulled away from Wedell and after the third lap remained in the lead until the finish. He didn’t win, though. On the first lap he had flown inside the pylon. Turner had been presented with the trophy and was ready to begin his acceptance speech when race officials told him he had been disqualified in favor of Wedell.
Turner responded to the loss by giving his airplane a huge, 1,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine. He called the improved plane the Wedell-Williams 57 to honor his sponsor, the H. J. Heinz Company. An oil leak kept him out of the 1934 Bendix, but he was back in Cleveland and ready for the Thompson.
Doug Davis, also flying one of Wedell’s planes, pulled into an early lead, with Turner hard on his tail. This time it was Davis who flew inside a pylon. Perhaps remembering Turner’s fate the year before, Davis immediately whipped his airplane into a high-speed climbing turn to round the pylon, but he stalled and smashed into the ground. Turner won, but Davis’s death cast a pall over his victory.
Turner realized that his Model 44 was out-of-date and began looking around for a new airplane. By then Jimmy Wedell was dead, killed in a freak accident while demonstrating a sedate Gypsy Moth for a potential buyer. Turner asked Howard W. Barlow, who had refined the Model 44 for him, to design an all-new racer. Barlow drew on the resources of the University of Minnesota’s engineering school, where he was on the faculty, to come up with a design based on Turner’s sketches.
Turner contracted with Lawrence W. Brown to build the plane, a process that turned into a nightmare. Brown decided Barlow’s plans needed changes. Turner was furious when he saw them—so furious, one story goes, he took an ax to Brown’s redesigned wings. Brown was equally unhappy when he learned that Turner had no money to pay him. Pilot and builder parted ways, and Turner shipped the unfinished plane from Los Angeles to Chicago for completion at Matty Laird’s shop.
Laird finished Turner’s new plane in time for the 1937 races. Depending on the pilot’s mood and his sponsor, the airplane was variously called the Laird Turner Racer, the RT-14, the Laird-Turner Special, the Turner Racer, Ring Free Meteor, Pesco Special, or Miss Champion. The plane’s debut was confused. Before the Bendix race, gasoline vapors exploded in his fuel tank, forcing him to withdraw.
In the Thompson, Turner thought he had missed a pylon. Not willing to repeat history, he immediately turned around and circled it. It turned out, however, that he had not missed the pylon after all, but the lost time cost him the race.
In 1938 a new rule stipulated that an airplane could not compete in both the Bendix and Thompson races. Turner opted to sit out the Bendix but remained determined to win the Thompson. He refined his racer and began using the improved aviation fuel that Jimmy Doolittle had once strongly advocated at Shell.
Early in the Thompson race, Turner was neck and neck with Earl Ortman, who was flying an all-metal Marcoux-Bromberg Special with retractable landing gear. The ground and grandstands were just blurs in the corners of his eyes as Turner flashed around the course. “For the next 40 minutes, I was hardly conscious of anything but the ever-recurring pylons,” he said. He received a shock near the end of the 300-mile course when he spotted Ortman’s plane ahead of him. Then he realized he had lapped his rival.
“I never knew a greater moment in my life than when I saw the checkered flag go down as I crossed the finish line in front of the grandstands,” he wrote. “I shouted to myself, ‘I’ve won! I’ve won!’ In the joy of the moment, I made another circuit of the course.”
Confident in his airplane’s abilities, Turner made no changes before the 1939 race, scheduled for Labor Day. The world, however, was undergoing violent change. War had begun in Europe. On the day before the race, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Over Cleveland, storm clouds gathered on race day. An intense thunderstorm drenched the 100,000 waiting spectators, and the organizers postponed the race for the first time in the Thompson’s history.
The racers, seven entries that year, finally gathered for the start on Tuesday, September 5. After another heart-stopping shotgun competition, Steve Wittman’s tiny “Bonzo” took an early lead and held it until Tony LeVier passed him on the fifth lap. Turner pushed his throttle forward and used his huge Pratt & Whitney engine to muscle his way into the front. Finally he landed, uniform soaked with sweat, hands and feet shaking, knees almost buckling when he climbed out of the cockpit. Roscoe Turner had won the Thompson for the third and last time.
Turner left the stage as a new breed of airplane emerged. One of them was the Seversky SEV-S2, an all-metal monoplane with retractable gear that won the Bendix in 1937, 1938, and 1939. It was a civilian version of the Army’s P-35, an airplane designed by the Russian émigré Alexander de Seversky for an Army Air Corps design competition. The military had dropped out of racing after the 1930 Thompson, but now it was trying to make up for lost time. With the P-35 the Army Air Corps finally began to modernize its forces.
The P-35 was a sign of things to come. One of its direct descendants, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, would be among the best U.S. fighters of World War II. Air racers gave over the limelight to war machines that battled in the skies around the world. Modified, the new fighter planes would then dominate postwar air racing.
The men who flew them had never scudded past a pylon a hundred yards above a cheering grandstand, never wrestled the stubby Gee Bee through the unforgiving air. But the reckless, improvident, vanished world of air racing had helped give them the edge they needed to win their war.