Remembering a magnificent air contest of the ’20s & ‘30s
by: nick Rutter
This September will see the 85th anniversary of the final outcome in a thrilling contest of speed, skill and technical innovation which took place on a sunny late summer’s day over the skies the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth – a magnificent air race that captured the imagination of thousands of people but which is now sadly all but forgotten: The Schneider Trophy.
This was a race of pure speed specifically for those most fascinating and romantic of aircraft – seaplanes. Its origins can be traced to the early years of powered flight when Frenchman Jacques Schneider, an armaments manufacturer and amateur balloonist, met the Wright Brothers during their 1908 tour of Europe and became instantly enthralled by powered flight. Schneider saw a future where aeroplanes would be able to take off from and land on the planet’s most abundant and natural airfields – its oceans and waterways. Fired by this idea, in 1912 Schneider arranged with the French Aero Club and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to create a competition that would encourage the development of seaplanes, with the ultimate aim of establishing them as the best method of long-distance passenger flight.
The result was officially called La Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider and a handsome silver and marble trophy (depicting The Spirit of Flight kissing the waves of the sea featuring the face of Neptune with seashells and crustaceans) was quickly commissioned (although to call it a trophy is an understatement, since it is more like a statue!).
The competition was open to all nations’ aero clubs, who were required to sponsor up to three entrants and play host the following year if they won. Any country that won the contest three times in a row would be allowed to keep the trophy in perpetuity. The rules were that of a time trial, with each aircraft taking off at 15 minute intervals and flying around a triangular course for no fewer than 150 miles. As if that wasn’t enough, navigation and mooring tests were thrown in for good measure to ensure the aircraft were reliably seaworthy and not just fragile racers. The winner received £1,000 prize money (£300,000 today) as well as custody of the trophy until the next race.
The inaugural contest was at Monaco in April 1913, with Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Britain, Switzerland and America all putting forward entries. As if to underline the still shaky reliability of a barely ten year old technology, only four aircraft actually made it to the starting line – all French! The spirit of competition was not dulled, however, and the event proved hugely popular and exciting. The winner, Maurice Prévost, won at a dizzyingly high average speed of 45.71mph in – surprisingly for the time – a monoplane. It also proved to be the first and only time that the founding country won.
In 1914 everyone reconvened at Monaco for the second race, which was won by a British Sopwith Tabloid floatplane. In a remarkable testament to the advancement of aviation in the course of one year, the average speed had almost doubled to 86.83mph.
More pressing matters were to displace the competition for the next four years and the next race was not held until 1919, at Bournemouth on the 10th September. Britain, France and Italy were the contenders but this time it was the weather that spoiled the fun, with thick fog robbing onlookers of any spectacle and allowing only a single aircraft – an Italian flying boat – to finish the course.
Venice was the venue of the next two races – again due to the 1920 event only containing entrants from the host country! – and in 1922 it looked dangerously like they could win the whole shooting match and keep the trophy forever.
That year, however, marked the entrance of a British aviation company and more importantly its brilliant young designer, whose names were to become forever intertwined with the event and its subsequent legacy – Supermarine and R.J. Mitchell. The Mitchell-designed Supermarine Sea Lion, a traditional biplane flying boat powered by a 450hp Napier Lion engine, faced off against French and Italian competitors and carried the day with an average speed of 145.71mph – almost exactly 100mph faster than Prévost’s winning time of nine years previously.
The 1923 event was held at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, with the greatest threat to Britain’s supremacy coming from a new and powerful source – the United States. The US Navy had decided to take a hand to prove the worth of its air arm. This show of interest and backing from a national service was to prove hugely influential for the race’s future. Jacques Schneider’s original concept of reliability trials to help improve commercial flying boats, having already taken something of a back seat, was thrown out the window entirely with the arrival of the Americans’ Curtiss seaplanes (which were converted land-based fighters). 1923 arguably marked the point when the Schneider Trophy became a contest of outright speed and although the Times newspaper rather sniffily called the involvement of the military “unsporting” it paved the way for others – including Britain – to do the same in future races.
The US comfortably won the 1923 event with a speed of 177.28mph – beating the improved but outdated Supermarine Sea Lion by almost 20mph with their streamlined Curtiss CR-3 biplane. Indeed so overwhelming was the Americans’ advantage that when the 1924 event rolled around neither Britain nor Italy had finished developing their latest aircraft. The hosts rather generously postponed the competition for another year so it was September 1925 when the three teams turned out at Chesapeke Bay, Baltimore.
In the event America still had the upper hand – and then some! Its all-new Curtiss R2C-2 not so much raised the top speed as knocked it out of the park, with its pilot – a certain James Doolittle (who would later go on to greater fame in the Second World War) – flying at an impressive 232.57mph and making the US the new favourites to win the trophy outright. The first of Mitchell’s magnificent Supermarine floatplanes, the S4, was to have taken part but crashed in practice. What might have been if it had flown, one wonders?
For the 1926 race Mitchell was designing the successor to the S4 but although the contest was again postponed – this time only by one month – his revised design was not ready and so it fell to the Italian Air Force and its equally impressive Macchi M.39s to thwart the Americans and bring the Schneider Trophy back to Italy.
Returning to Venice for the 1927 race, with crowds 200,000 strong lining the beach, were the British and Italian teams – the Americans having pulled out when their design wasn’t ready in time. By now Britain had its own government-backed High Speed Flight of RAF officers and two of Mitchell’s new and improved 875bhp Napier Lion V12-engined S5s were ready to take the fight to the Italians’ new Macchi M.52s, with three similarly-powered Gloster IVB biplanes to help keep up the pressure. It ended up being somewhat unnecessary when all the Italian entrants withdrew, their highly-stressed 1,000bhp V24 engines proving chronically unreliable. Flt-Lt. Sidney Webster subsequently won in one of the new S5s at a speed of 281.65mph – faster than most land ‘planes of the time.
With the competition between nations now really hotting up it was agreed that the contest would become a biannual event, to give each country more time to design their aircraft.
American Curtiss R2C-2 and it’s pilot
James Doolittle - 1925
Supermarine S6 1595 - 1929
It was therefore not until 1929 that the next race took place at Portsmouth, along the Solent in a diamond-shaped course from Cowes to Hayling Island. The Italians again sent a team of aircraft – two of their newest high-performance Macchi M.67s with 1,800bhp 57-litre V18s and one M.52R – but they met their match in Mitchell’s latest refinement of his sleek monoplane design, the S6.
The S6, although similar in appearance to the S4 and S5, was largely a new design. Biggest among the changes were the switch from fabric/metal construction to full metal (beautifully streamlined and decorated in a striking blue and silver paint job) and, more importantly, a new powerplant. It was decided that the Napier Lion had reached its technical limits and so Mitchell turned to a different engine-maker to produce a successor – Rolls-Royce. Within six months they produced a supercharged V12 engine that promised up to 1,900bhp – the Rolls-Royce R. But it came at a cost. So highly stressed and heat-producing was this new engine that early examples were tearing themselves to pieces inside 15 minutes. However by August 1929 Rolls-Royce could guarantee 100 minutes of running at full power – enough to complete the course. To counter the excessive heat from the engine Mitchell hit upon the brilliant idea of fitting radiators into the wings and floats – the latter of which also contained the fuel tanks to help further balance the aircraft.
On the 7th September 1929 an estimated one and a half million people lined the beaches on both sides of the Solent, at Calshot Castle, on the destroyers that served as the course markers and on dozens of yachts spread out across the water. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle and an example of how air racing had so captured the public’s imagination. Oh to have been there!
Two of the new S6s and one S5 went up against the opposition and although the Italians put up a stiff fight in the end their Macchis proved too unreliable, with S6 N247 piloted by Dick Waghorn finishing first at an average speed of 328.26mph. Britain had won the Schneider Trophy in triumphant style for the second consecutive time. Could we make it a hat-trick and keep the thing forever?
As it happened we were almost denied the right to find out as by 1931, with the Depression biting, the British government didn’t want to stump up the £100,000 (£6 million today) to put it on again. It took the fiercely patriotic Lucy, Lady Houston, who saw the value of the event and Mitchell’s designs for the future of Britain’s air development, to provide the funds for the race with the Air Ministry agreeing to a new High Speed Flight. This delay meant there were only nine months until the race; Mitchell, unable to design a new S7 in time, upgraded the S6 into the ultimate streamlined racing seaplane – the S6B. Amazingly Rolls-Royce managed to coax another 400bhp from the R engine; Mitchell adding more radiators to help cope with the heat.
Sunday 13th September 1931 dawned bright and clear as two S6Bs and an S6 lined up on the slipway at Calshot, ready to make history and win Britain the Schneider Trophy for all time. The fact that there were no other competitors, with France, Germany and Italy all withdrawing for various reasons, put no dampener on the million-strong spectators’ excitement nor the pilots’ desire to put on a good show.
S6B S1595 went up in the morning to complete the seven laps, each of 33 miles, this time from Gosport, across to Hayling Island and down to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. The crowds cheered and whistled and ship horns sang as Flt-Lt. John Boothman zoomed across the line to post an average speed of 340.08mph before circling in victory over Calshot Castle. The Schneider Trophy belonged to Britain! That afternoon S6B S1596, piloted by Flt-Lt. George Stainforth, upped the ante to 379.05mph – the fastest any aircraft had ever travelled. On 29th September S1596 became the first ever aeroplane to travel over 400mph when Stainforth took it to 407.05mph over the Solent. What a stirring sight it must have been, among the huge crowds, to see the mass of ships and the silver-blue S6Bs roaring past over the sea at six miles a minute!
The Schneider Trophy, won so convincingly by Britain and Mitchell’s Supermarine racers, now resides in the Science Museum in London alongside S6B S1596. S6 N248 can be seen at the Solent Sky Museum in Southampton; the only two surviving aircraft from that wondrous era. Their greatest legacy, however, was in allowing R.J. Mitchell and Rolls-Royce to put all they had learned into designing another iconic aeroplane and engine – which was to help Britain win something far more important – the Merlin-powered Spitfire. We may never be able to recreate the evocative images and thrills associated with the Schneider Trophy races but it would be nice to see something done to commemorate this remarkable event on this, its 85th anniversary.
Nick Rutter runs the blog Eclectic Ephemera, under the Sherlockian pseudonym “Bruce Partington-Plans” and has a passion for the ‘20s and ‘30s, with a particular fascination for anything transport-related as well as the fashion, music, film and culture of the era. Find him at: eclecticephemera.blogspot.co.uk