Granville Gee Bee Model Y Senior Sportster, around 1933.
Granville Gee Model R-2 Super Sportster, around 1932.
The Gee Bees: The Planes, Their Designers, and Their Pilots
The Gee Bees--a series of 1930s racing planes--are perhaps the most famous, or infamous, aircraft in aviation history, depending on one's viewpoint. During the early 1930s, the Gee Bees were among the fastest planes of the day and won several prestigious National Air Races, but several pilots also lost their lives while flying them. To date, the Gee Bees have remained very controversial. While some people have labeled them "killer planes" and "the most dangerous aircraft ever built," others admire their engineering and claim that they were just too aerodynamically advanced for the pilots of the day to handle. Whatever the case, the history of the Gee Bees seems destined to remain a point of contention among aviation enthusiasts and historians.
The Gee Bees took their name from the initials of their designers, the Granville Brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. In the early 1920s, Zantford Granville, the oldest of five brothers, started working as an auto mechanic. By 1925, he was trading engine repairs for flight lessons, and he quickly acquired his pilot's license. With his brothers, Thomas, Robert, Mark, and Edward, he founded Granville Brothers Aircraft, an airplane repair shop. Shortly after, the Granvilles expanded their business into an abandoned dance hall on the outskirts of town, thanks to a loan from the Taits, another set of Springfield brothers.
In 1929, the Granvilles built their first aircraft, a two-seat biplane named the Model A. It was the first in a line of aircraft they dubbed the "Sportsters," which they advertised as "the fastest and most maneuverable licensed airplane for its horsepower in the United States." The Granvilles' main business goal, as they entered the 1930s, was to produce a series of Sportsters for sale to aviation enthusiasts. But when the commercial aviation market started to dry up in the early years of the Great Depression, they began to explore other options. Although they would continue to construct aircraft for private use, they also started to modify planes for air races in the hope that they could secure some of the National Air Races' large cash prizes.
In 1930, the Granvilles produced the Model X monoplane for use in the Cirrus Engine Company's All American Flying Derby. The derby--which was the world's longest air race at the time--was a trip of approximately 5,500 miles (8851 kilometers) that took pilots in a circuit from Michigan to Texas, and then to California, before returning to Michigan. Lowell Bayles, a well-known airman of the day who liked to fly barefoot so that he could feel the rudder pedals more easily, flew the Model X to a second place finish. Encouraged by such a good showing on their first time out, the brothers decided to continue to modify planes for racing.
The next aircraft the Granvilles produced was the Model Y Senior Sportster. Although they originally designed the Model Y for use as a private plane, it still did very well on the racing circuit. This factor, when coupled with the fact that the Great Depression had essentially decimated the commercial aviation market, was all that the Granvilles needed to convince them to turn all of their attention to producing racing planes.
The Granvilles were top-notch engineers who experimented with some of the most advanced aerodynamic theories of the day, particular for private airplane manufactures. They were working with wind tunnels before most aircraft companies began using them. Because they built the Gee Bees to the highest performance standards they could design, only the most skilled pilots could handle their aircraft. The Gee Bees had a very fast landing speed and were much more difficult to fly than other racers of the era. Unlike most airplanes of the period, the Gee Bees' wingspans were noticeably wider than the length of their fuselages. Contemporaries easily recognized the short and chubby little planes because, as one observer noted, they resembled "a section of sewer pipe which had sprouted stubby wings."
In 1931, the Granvilles produced their first full-fledged racer, the Model Z. Bob Hall, a fine pilot and one of Granville Brother Aircraft's most promising engineers, helped design the plane. Hall and the Granvilles specifically designed it with the goal of winning that year's prestigious Thompson Trophy, and they succeeded. In fact, at that year's National Air Races in Cleveland, the plane exceeded all of their expectations when both Bayles and Hall piloted Model Z's to win five first place trophies. On September 1, Bayles won the coveted Thompson Trophy Race, a closed circuit race of 100 miles (161 kilometers), in 25 minutes, 23 seconds, by averaging more than 236.24 miles per hour (380 kilometers per hour). Maude Tait, the daughter of one of the brothers who had originally loaned the Granvilles money, also flew a Gee Bee to victory at the same meet. Tait won the Cleveland Pneumatic Aero Trophy Race for Women in a Model Y.
Later in 1931, Bayles made several attempts to set a new speed record in his Model Z. On December 1, he actually exceeded the then current record of 278.4 miles per hour (448 kilometers per hour) by averaging 281.75 miles per hour (453 kilometers per hour) during a time trial, but because world record rules required him to surpass the previous mark by more than 4.97 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour), he did not receive credit for a new record. Then, on December 5, while making another attempt at the record, Bayles's plane pitched up sharply and its right wing folded in half. The sudden change caused the plane to spin uncontrollably and crash. Bayles died on impact. When race officials later reviewed a film of the accident, they determined that a gas cap had loosened during the flight and had flown back and knocked Bayles unconscious. On January 14, 1932, aviation officials awarded Bayles a new speed record posthumously for his 281.75-mile-per-hour (453 kilometer-per-hour) flight. Although the Granvilles had achieved a certain degree of fame with the Model Z by winning so many trophies at the 1931 National Air Races, the plane also, perhaps undeservedly, started to saddle them with a reputation as the designers of "death traps."
Bayles's accident did not deter the Granvilles from building more racers. In fact, they produced two more racing planes less than a year after the tragedy. The first racer they rolled out that year was the R-1. The Granvilles had specifically designed it with the hope of winning the Thompson Trophy, and, once again, they succeeded. Pilot Jimmy Doolittle not only flew the R-1 to victory in the Thompson Race on September 5, 1932, but he also lapped his competitors in the process by averaging 252.67 miles per hour (407 kilometers per hour). As he noted about the plane, it flew "like a bullet."
The second racer the Granvilles built in 1932 was the R-2. Its sole purpose was to win the Bendix transcontinental race, another of the nation's most prestigious air contests. Unfortunately for the Granvilles, the R-2 did not achieve its goal. During the Bendix, it suffered an oil leak and pilot Lee Gehlbach could coax it only to a fourth place finish.
In 1933, the Granville Brothers suffered several major setbacks that undoubtedly contributed to the demise of their company. The first set of incidents occurred during the Bendix in July. During a landing in Indianapolis, the R-2 sustained some damage, and its pilot, Russell Thaw, decided to drop out of the race (although the Granvilles would repair the R-2 shortly after, it would quickly suffer another crash that would put it permanently out of commission). On the same day as Thaw's accident, Russell Boardman, who was also competing in the Bendix, died when his R-1 crashed shortly after takeoff from Indianapolis. Then, in September, Florence Klingensmith, a 25-year-old female pilot, lost her life during the Phillips Trophy Free-For-All Race in Chicago, when she flew her Model Y Gee Bee into a tree. By the end of 1933, Granville Brothers Aircraft was bankrupt, not necessarily because of the repercussions caused by the accidents but rather because the Granvilles had not won enough prize money to keep their company going.
One of the final ironies of the Gee Bees' history occurred in 1934. On February 12, Zantford Granville, the oldest brother, was flying one of the last Sportsters to a customer when he ran into trouble. While trying to land in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Zantford suddenly noticed a construction crew in the landing area. When he quickly tried to abort the landing by pulling up, the Sportster's engine failed and the plane crashed. Zantford died en route to the hospital.
From their inception in the early 1930s to the present day, the Gee Bees have remained among the most controversial airplanes in aviation history. While some scholars and aircraft enthusiasts have continued to consider them "killer planes," others admire their advanced aerodynamic designs and argue that several skilled pilots safely flew the Gee Bees to several key victories and records. Regardless of how one views the brief history of the 22 Gee Bees, it seems that there will always be a wide range of opinions about the well-known racers.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Benjamin, Delmar and Steve Wolf. Gee Bee. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1993.
Haffke, Henry A. Gee Bee: The Real Story of the Granville Brothers and Their Marvelous Airplanes. Colorado Springs, Colo.: ViP Publishing, 1989.
Mandrake, Charles G., The Gee Bee Story. Wichita, Kansas: R.R. Longo Company, 1957.
Mendenhall, Charles A. The Gee Bee Racers: A Legacy of Speed. North Branch, Minn.: Specialty Press, 1979.
O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers & Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Fiddlers Green Website. http://www.fiddlersgreen.net. (search on Gee Bee).
"The History of the Gee Bee Aircraft." http://www.geebee.com/history/
"Those Fantastic Gee Bees: The Granville Brothers and Their Fantastic Airplanes." http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Lab/4515/index3.html