The Great Air Races

Catalyst for Innovation

by Steven A. Ruffin


In late August 1909, just outside the French city of Rheims, the world’s first international air meet was held.  On a flat plain where Joan of Arc had encamped with her army some 500 years earlier, aviators from the world over gathered to demonstrate their various flying machines.  They also came to compete for cash prizes, offered to those who could prove they were the best at this brand new game of aviation.


On Saturday the 28th, thousands of spectators from far and wide—royalty, ambassadors, and millionaires included—flocked to the open flying field to watch the international air race sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, Jr.  French aviator Louis Blériot, fresh from his historic first flight across the English Channel, was the overwhelming favorite.  But in a major upset, an obscure American named Glenn Curtiss flew at a blistering pace of 47 mph to edge past the Frenchman for the coveted trophy.  The era of air racing had begun.


The attention this first Gordon Bennett race attracted was but an indication of things to come.  Air racing would serve as a driving force behind aviation progress for the next three decades.  From 1909 to 1939, the ever-increasing “need for speed” influenced aircraft performance like no other single factor, with the exception of World War I.


The Gordon Bennett races continued for the next four years, with speeds increasing to over 120 mph.  Then in 1913, a new competition was introduced that would take command of the international racing scene.  French steel and munitions magnate Jacques Schneider offered a trophy in his name, specifically to promote seaplane development.  The Schneider Trophy race would be held 12 times over its 19-year existence, with Italy, Great Britain, and the United States dominating.  By the final 1931 race, speeds exceeded 400 mph.


The Schneider Trophy races had even greater significance than anyone at the time imagined.  Their influence on airframe and engine development would impact the very future of the world.  Most notably, the bloodlines of the World War II British “Spitfire” fighter and its Rolls Royce “Merlin” engine can be traced directly back to the Supermarine Schneider Trophy racers.  Without this outstanding engine and aircraft, the pivotal Battle of Britain would almost certainly have been lost—and with it, the war itself.  And without the Schneider Trophy races, neither would ever have made it to the drawing board.


The other dominant air race of this era was the Pulitzer Trophy race, held in the United States from 1920 to 1925.  The Pulitzer brothers, wealthy American newspaper publishers, sponsored this series of races.  Significantly, the U.S. military also officially recognized them, which meant there would be government funding for experimental racing planes.  This was a boost the stagnant post-war aviation industry desperately needed. 


The Pulitzer Trophy race was primarily a competition between the U.S. Army and Navy.  It provided—along with the Schneider Trophy—an important impetus to American aviation technology during the first half of the 1920s.  The first race, held at Long Island on Thanksgiving Day 1920, was such a success that it prompted 1909 Gordon Bennett Trophy winner Glenn Curtiss to proclaim optimistically, “The public, at last, is interested in the airplane.”


Between 1925 and 1929, racing fervor in America languished, but at the 1929 National Air Races in Cleveland, an event occurred that spurred renewed interest.  A “mysterious” new monoplane piloted by Doug Davis humiliated the U.S. Army and Navy by soundly defeating the best that either service could put into the air.  The success of Davis and his Travel Air “Mystery Ship” set the stage for the biggest and most significant air-racing decade of all time.  The 1930s had arrived, and with them America’s “Golden Age” of air racing.


For all the considerable significance of the air races to this point, it was not until the 1930s that they reached their true pinnacle.  Occurring in the midst of the Great Depression, when money was short and the aviation industry flat, the races were just about the only thing keeping American aviation airborne.  Their thrilling combination of speed and danger generated public enthusiasm that eclipsed even that of the Schneider and Pulitzer races of the previous decade.  Not only did they produce some of aviation’s greatest and most innovative airplanes, they also gave birth to a new American superhero, the racing pilot.


The preeminent races of the 1930s were the Thompson and Bendix Trophy races.  The Thompson Trophy was introduced by Cleveland’s Charles E. Thompson, to encourage the development of faster land-based airplanes—which, thanks to the Schneider Trophy, were lagging well behind seaplanes in performance.  This unlimited free-for-all pylon race was the world’s most prestigious closed-course race, and as such, would be the featured closing event for the annual weeklong National Air Races.


The first Thompson Trophy race was held at Chicago’s Curtiss-Reynolds airport on September 1st, 1930.  Charles “Speed” Holman, flying a Laird “Solution”—still in construction right up to the very day of the race—beat out the six other entries for the $5,000 prize.  He was closely followed by Jimmy Haizlip’s Travel Air and Ben Howard in his tiny 90-hp racer “Pete.”  The fastest plane in the race was a highly modified U.S. Navy “Hawk,” flown by Marine Corps Captain Arthur Page.  Tragically, it exited the race when it rolled into the ground on the seventeenth lap, killing its pilot.  This was the last and only time this decade that the U.S. military would officially sponsor a plane and pilot to compete in the Thompson race.


The following year, the Thompson was augmented by what would become the other principal race of the 1930s, the Bendix Trophy race.  Like the Thompson, it was scheduled to coincide with the National Air Races.  It differed, however, in that it was a no-holds-barred cross-country speed dash—normally from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, where the National Air Races were usually held. 


The pot for the first Bendix was sufficiently sweet to attract the very best.  The first three finishers shared a prize totaling a whopping 15,000 depression-era dollars.  Significantly, all the participating aircraft were equipped with variants of the powerful and highly reliable Pratt & Whitney “Wasp” radial engine—a testament to its popularity and performance.


A young pilot, who in 1925 had first achieved fame by winning the Schneider Trophy for the U.S., also dominated the first Bendix race.  On September 4th, 1931, flying a Laird “Super Solution,” he led the pack of eight racers from Burbank to Cleveland in just over nine hours to claim the trophy and the $7,500 prize.  Still not satisfied, he continued on to Newark, New Jersey, to set a transcontinental record.  The world would hear more from this talented aviator, named Jimmy Doolittle.


Doolittle was also favored to win that year’s Thompson Trophy pylon race, scheduled for September 7th.  He and the rest of the aviation community, however, had an unexpected surprise in store for them.  Lowell Bayles, a pilot from Springfield, Massachusetts, showed up in what was to become the most famous—and infamous—racing plane of all time, the Granville Brothers Gee Bee racer. 


The fat, squat, ugly little racer was designed for only one purpose—speed.  Essentially a very large engine attached to just enough wing to get it off the ground, the Gee Bee was indeed fast, having already unofficially exceeded 300 mph.  But its blinding speed came at a cost.  It landed dangerously fast, was tricky to fly, and had, as one writer put it, “the glide ratio of a manhole cover.”


Bayles and his Gee Bee “Z” had little difficulty winning the 1931 Thompson race, but his success in the treacherous “flying beer barrel” was to be short-lived.  Three months later, he crashed in a ball of flames while trying to set the landplane speed record in the insidious little speedster. 


Two more models of the nefarious Gee Bee racer, the R-1 and R-2, were built.  Both of these also eventually killed their pilots—but not before the irrepressible Doolittle once again made history.  Flying the 800-horsepower R-1, he won the 1932 Thompson Trophy race and set a new landplane speed record.  It was not easy, though, even for a pilot of Doolittle’s skill.  The skittish racer was so difficult to control that he once compared flying it to balancing the end of a pencil on his fingertip. 


By this time Jimmy had had enough of the deadly sport of air racing—and was wise enough to quit while he still could.  The deaths continued throughout the decade at an alarming rate.  Of the eight men to win the Thompson Trophy, four eventually died in air crashes—along with a host of other good pilots.


As the Thompson and Bendix Trophy races continued to dominate the National Air Races throughout the 1930s, more outstanding aircraft—and personalities—emerged.  One of the brightest of these stars was the illustrious Roscoe Turner.  The ultimate racing pilot’s pilot, he also had all the presence, flamboyance, and photogenicity of a Hollywood star.  He won the Thompson an unprecedented four times, although one was retracted on a technicality.  He was also a Bendix winner, and overall, a prizewinner nearly every year the races were held.  Of all the outstanding racing pilots of the Golden Age, he may have been the best—and definitely the luckiest.  Like Doolittle, he beat the odds by surviving.


The ladies also made their mark on air racing’s Golden Age.  Some of the top female pilots of the day raced in the Bendix, and even managed to win it two out of the nine times it was held—much to the chagrin of their testosterone-laden male competitors.  In the 1936 Bendix, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes beat out all the guys by flying their Beechcraft G-17 Staggerwing from New York to Los Angeles in just under fifteen hours.  In 1937, Jacquelyn Cochran placed third, also in a Staggerwing, and then returned the next year in a Seversky SEV-S2 to take the trophy.


The last year for the big air races was 1939, as war clouds once more darkened the skies around the world.  The races resumed after World War II, but never with the same vigor they had enjoyed in the 1930s.  Still, they had served their purpose.  The races provided an immeasurable boost to aviation—both military and civilian.  During this time of worldwide economic depression—with aircraft sales virtually nonexistent, factories all but closed, and engineers and technicians out of work—racing was virtually the only game in town.  It, more than any other single factor, served to keep the industry alive.


During this period, the thriving and fantastically popular air races kept American aviation moving forward.  Using much-needed prize and endorsement money for funding, designers made numerous technological innovations that kept speeds on the rise and technology advancing.  This period saw racing planes evolve from souped-up, wood-and-fabric biplanes to ultra-streamlined, all-metal monoplanes exhibiting a stunningly sleek and modern appearance still beautiful even today.


The races served as testing grounds for innovation, and the planes as precursors to the aircraft of the future.  With their powerful radial engines, streamlined designs, adjustable-pitch propellers, retractable landing gear, wing flaps, and flush-riveted metal cantilever wings, these highly advanced aircraft surpassed even the best the U.S. military could offer.  Consequently, they became the models for the fighting aircraft of the next decade.


Equally important, the great air races served to keep aviation squarely in the forefront of the public eye.  The publicity and enthusiasm they generated ensured that America remained aeronautically oriented and firmly dedicated to the advancement of aviation.  Outstanding racing pilots like Doolittle and Turner became the era’s most-admired celebrities—and the role models for tens of thousands of young future American pilots.  Indeed, the great air races of aviation’s Golden Age paved the way for the aircraft and airmen that would soon fight to defend America—and ultimately, lead the nation and the world into the jet age.