The Schneider Cup seaplane trophy, probably shortly after it was won by the U.S. Navy on September 18, 1923.
Plaster model of the Bendix Air Race Trophy.
The Thompson Trophy award plaque. This one was awarded to first-prize winner Cook Cleland in 1947.
The Major Trophy Races of the Golden Age of Air Racing
The major air racing trophy contests of the 1920s and 1930s produced arguably the most exciting competitions in aviation history and contributed significantly to the advancement of aeronautics. From the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II--a period known as the "Golden Age of Air Racing"--thousands of spectators flocked to the era's four major trophy races and watched several record-breaking performances.
During the Great Depression, a handful of manufacturing companies and wealthy aviation enthusiasts sponsored several major air races. They offered large cash prizes to the aviators who could build the fastest planes and race them to victory. These major races enticed several designers and pilots to enter their own aircraft in the contests. They also led to many aeronautical innovations as engineers developed highly maneuverable aircraft that could race at breakneck speeds. Interestingly, one of the notable themes that also developed during the history of these competitions was the struggle between government-supported military flight teams and smaller groups of civilian engineer-aviators.
The Schneider Trophy Race was the first of the golden age's contests. Jacques Schneider, a wealthy French industrialist with an interest in advancing the speed of seaplanes, founded the international competition in the early 1910s. The Schneider Trophy racecourses ran out over open water. Schneider stipulated that if a nation won the trophy three times in a row, that country would become the race's overall permanent champion.
The first two Schneider Trophy Races, which were held in Monaco in April 1913 and 1914, were mainly competitions between teams of civilian aviators. French pilot Maurice Prevost won the inaugural race. When World War I began, Schneider had to suspend the contest. After the war, when the race resumed, it became a much different type of event, as government-backed military aviators started to dominate the major trophy races.
When the Schneider returned, it generally became a three-way contest among military teams from the United States, England, and Italy. All three governments poured money into their national teams, and winning became a point of national honor. Thanks to this increased funding, several technological advancements took place in seaplane design, and numerous new air speed records soon followed.
One of the first significant victories that occurred after the war took place on October 26, 1925, when U.S. Army Lt. Jimmy Doolittle won the Schneider while piloting the Curtiss R3C-1 racer that another U.S. Army flyer, Lt. Cyrus Bettis, had flown only two weeks before in another air race, the Pulitzer race. In Doolittle's hands, the Curtiss, specially reconfigured with wooden floats and redesignated the R3C-2, handled like a charm. In fact, a day after he won the Schneider, Doolittle set a new world speed record for seaplanes in the R3C-2 at 245.7 miles per hour (395 kilometers per hour).
After Doolittle's victory, the Schneider Trophy changed hands. In 1926, the Italians captured the prize with their sleek Macchi M39. Then, in 1927, the British claimed the first of three victories in a row. From 1927 onward, the English dominated the Schneider until they became the outright champions in 1931 (the race had become biannual by then).
Britain permanently secured the Schneider with the Supermarine 6B, a seaplane developed with government support. This plane embodied the day's best aerodynamic advances, and in a way, epitomized all of the efforts that America, England, and Italy had put into their Schneider racers. In September 1931, the Supermarine set a new absolute world air speed record of 407.5 miles per hour (656 kilometers per hour); up to that time, the world record for land planes had been a mere 278.5 miles per hour (448 kilometers per hour). In the late 1930s, the Supermarine 6B become the model for one of World War II's best aircraft--the Spitfire fighters that helped defend England during the Battle of Britain.
The second major trophy race of the period was the Pulitzer, established in 1920 by American publishing magnate, Ralph Pulitzer, who created the speed contest to encourage U.S. designers to build faster airplanes. The first race took place in November 1920 at Mitchell Field, Long Island. U.S. Army Lt. C.C. Moseley, racing around the pylon-marked course, won the event. During the Pulitzer's six-year history, military pilots won each competition, thanks to the fact that the U.S. military had the best American aircraft at the time. U.S. Army Lt. Cyrus Bettis won the Pulitzer's final running in October 1925 with his Curtiss R3C-1 racer, a plane that the U.S. government had spent some $500,000 developing. This was the same plane that Jimmy Doolittle would fly to victory in the Schneider two weeks later.
As the Schneider Trophy Race was coming to a close, a new contest was being born. In 1929, two brothers from California, Clifford and Phillip Henderson, persuaded Cleveland manufacturer Charles Thompson to sponsor the third major trophy contest of the era. The Thompson Trophy Race, which was intended to encourage the design of faster land planes, became the showcase of the new National Air Races.
The Thompson was a closed circuit, pylon-marked contest, similar to the Pulitzer, with one major exception. Rather than planes competing one at a time, the Thompson was a horse race in the air: pilots started together and jockeyed for position. The high speed, low-altitude race, which made tight turns around the pylons, was extremely exciting. As one Thompson racer noted: "It was a toss-up whether everybody was going to get to that first pylon alive." Of the major trophy races, the Thompson was the most popular.
Although the military had dominated the Pulitzer and Schneider races, civilian pilots and homebuilt planes tended to excel in the Thompson contest. In 1929, Doug Davis shocked everyone when he piloted a Travel Air Model R "Mystery Ship" to victory over the best the military had. Even though Jimmy Doolittle, an army aviator, won the 1932 race, he did so in a privately manufactured plane--one of the infamous Gee Bees. Notably, Doolittle had established a new world speed record for landplanes in the same aircraft a few days before his victory.
Some of the Thompson's other noteworthy pilots included Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Wedell, and Benny Howard. Turner did the unthinkable when he won three Thompsons, a feat that no one ever matched. Jimmy Wedell, a Texan who supposedly built his first racer from a chalk outline he had made on the floor, won the 1933 contest. And Benny Howard, the maker of the "Damned [or 'Darned,' depending upon the source] Good Airplane," flew his own Mister Mulligan to victory in 1935. That same year, Howard became the only person to win not only the Thompson, but also the Bendix, the National Air Races' other major contest.
The Bendix Trophy Race, the fourth major air competition, began in 1931 after the Henderson Brothers convinced industrialist Vincent Bendix to sponsor a transcontinental, point-to-point race. The main intent behind the event was to interest engineers in building faster, more reliable, and enduring aircraft, which in turn, would directly affect the future of commercial aviation. During the 1930s, the Bendix competitors flew from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, except for two years when the contest began in New York and ended in Los Angeles.
Some of the Bendix's standouts included Jimmy Doolittle, who won the inaugural event; Roscoe Turner, who captured the trophy in 1933; Doug Davis who piloted a Wedell-Williams aircraft to victory in 1934; and significantly, several women. In 1936, Louise Thaden and her copilot Blanche Noyes won the Bendix, defeating some of the world's best male pilots. Laura Ingalls finished second. Two years later, Jackie Cochran, arguably the greatest female aviator, won the contest. All in all, female and civilian pilots excelled in the Bendix.
After the Golden Age of Air Racing, air races became less common. High-performance aircraft were becoming a government secret, and the military, which owned the fastest planes, tested them mainly in private. Air racing consequently lost much of the appeal it had exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to providing some spectacular entertainment and record setting performances, the national trophy races encouraged engineers to make some truly significant aeronautical advances. To make their planes go as fast as possible, and perform their very best, designers developed retractable landing gear, streamlined cockpits, wing flaps, variable-pitch propellers, and supercharged engines. Perhaps these innovations were the most important legacy of the national trophy races.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading
Barker, Ralph. The Schneider Trophy Races. London, UK: Chatto and Windus, 1971.
Borderman, Don. The Great Air Races. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
Christy, Joe. Racing Planes and Pilots: Aircraft Competition, Past and Present. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books Inc., 1982.
Dwigins, Don. They Flew the Bendix Race: the History of the Competition for the Bendix Trophy. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1965.
Gwynn-Jones, Terry. Farther and Faster: Aviation's Adventuring Years, 1909-1939. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Hawks, Ellison. British Seaplanes Triumph in the International Schneider Trophy Contests, 1913-1931. Southport, UK: Real Photographs Co. Ltd., 1945.
Hood, Joseph. The Skyracers: Speed Kin of Aviation's Golden Age. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1919.
Huntington, Roger. Thompson Trophy Racers: The Pilots and Planes of America's Air Racing Glory Days, 1929-1949. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1989.
James, Derek N. Schneider Trophy Aircraft, 1913-1931. London, UK: Putnam, 1981.
Kinert, Reed. Racing Planes and Air Races. Fairbrook, Cal.: Aero, 1968.
Mandrake, Charles G. National Air Races, 1932: A Pictorial Review. New York: Speed Publishing, 1976.
Matthews, Birch. Race with the Wind: How Air Racing Advanced Aviation. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 2001.
Mendenhall, Charles A. The National Air Racers in 3-Views, 1929-1949. Rochester, N.Y.: The Diane Publishing Company. 1971.
Mikesh, Robert C. and Oakes, Claudia M. Exhibition Flight. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
Mondey, David. The SchneiderTrophy. London, UK: Robert Hale, 1975.
National Air and Space Museum Library Staff. International Handbook of Aerospace Awards and Trophies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978.
O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Orlebar, A. H. Schneider Trophy. London, UK: Seeley Service and Co., 1932.
Palmer, Henry R., Jr. The Story of the Schneider Trophy Race, 1913 to 1931. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1962.
Schmid, S. H. and Truman C. Weaver. The Golden Age of Air Racing. Hales Corner, Wis.: Experimental Aircraft Association, 1963.
"Aerospace Racing: Lessons from History," Space Frontier. http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/Racing/history.htm
"Air Racing," at http://users.mfi.net/~stearman/airshow/racing.html
"Air Racing," at Hickok Sports. http://www.hickoksports.com/history/airrace.shtml
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"The Golden Age of Air Racing," at. http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Lab/4515/airrace.htm
"The History of Supermarine," Spitfire Society. http://www.spitfiresociety.deon.co.uk/supermar.htm
"Howard DGA-6 Mister Mulligan," Arkansas Air Museum. http://www.arkairmuseum.org/mulligan.html
"International Air Meet, St. Louis, Mo., 1923 Pulitzer Trophy Race," at http://home.earthlink.net/~ralphcooper/pimaga24.htm
"National Air Races," Allstar. http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aerojava/wings4.htm
"The National Air Races, 1920-1951" at http://www.aerofiles.com/nar.html
"The Pulitzer Trophy Races," Aerofiles. http://www.aerofiles.com/pulitzer.html
"The Schneider Trophy," Air Racing History. http://www.airracinghistory.freeola.com/Schneider.htm
"The Schneider Trophy," Royal Air Force. http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/schneider1.html
Pelzer, John. "Speed and Spectacle," Aviation History Magazine. http://americanhistory.about.com/library/prm/blspectacle1.htm
"Speed Pilots: Jimmy Doolittle and the Thompson Trophy Race," at Columbia University Oral History Research Office Transcript. http://www.fathom.com/feature/122268