The 1930s National Air Races tested the mettle of a new breed of pilot and showcased the cutting edge of aircraft technology.
By John Pelzer
The weather was clear and cool in Cleveland, Ohio, on the Labor Day afternoon of September 6, 1937. The crowd of about 100,000 jammed the grounds of the Cleveland airport and filled to overflowing the grandstands that had been erected for the air races.
All was in readiness for the 200-mile contest. On the field sat nine airplanes, the fastest and the finest unlimited air racers in the world. The planes were lined up side by side at 100-foot intervals. Fifty-foot-high pylons marked the limits of the rectangular 10-mile course laid out across the surrounding Ohio countryside.
As the explosion of a signal bomb echoed across the field, the planes roared to life and took off toward the official starting line of the course a half-mile away. Frank Sinclair was the first off the ground and the first across the starting line, but his silver Seversky SEV-S2, a stripped version of the P-35 army fighter, was too slow on the closed course to hold the lead for long. By the end of the first lap, Steve Wittman, a tall ex-schoolteacher from Oshkosh, Wis., had taken the lead.
The high speed and the tight turns created by closed-course racing were a severe test for both pilots and planes. With their engines generating as much as 1,000 hp, the planes had potential airspeeds approaching 300 mph. The G-forces created by the turns were so great that pilots often became lightheaded during the race, adding to the danger of the wing-tip-to-wing-tip competition. Nonetheless, the pilots pushed their planes on at top speed.
Lap after lap, Wittman’s home-built racer continued to increase its lead over the field. Soon he had built a half-lap lead over second place. With only two laps to go, Wittman’s victory seemed assured.
Such certainty could be very fleeting in air racing, however. Wittman’s plane struck a bird, bending the propeller and causing an oil lead in the engine; he was soon forced to slow down. With one lap to go, the Laird-Turner racer Meteor, racing plane of the flamboyant Roscoe Turner, flew past the disabled Wittman and into the lead.
Turner’s hopes of victory proved no less fleeting. With oil covering his windscreen and obscuring his vision, Turner inadvertently cut inside a pylon on one of the turns. Turner was forced to return and circle the pylon or face disqualification, thus giving up the lead.
On the final lap, 28-year-old Lemont, Ill., pilot Rudy Kling just managed to push the nose of his Folkerts SK-3 Jupiter past Earl Ortman’s Keith-Rider racer for the victory. Nonetheless, the prestigious Thompson Trophy, to say nothing of the $9,000 in prize money, belonged to Kling, who had covered the 200 miles at an average speed of 256.910 mph.
Each sport has its premier event. Baseball has the World Series. Automobile racing has the Indianapolis 500. Horse racing has the Triple Crown. But for America’s air racers of the 1930s, the event was the National Air Races, and nothing on earth could compare with the event. Begun in the 1920s as an odd collection of racing events, military demonstrations, stunt-flying and parachuting exhibitions, the National Air Races had grown by the 1930s into the nation’s outstanding aeronautical event. Some of the races measured endurance. Others measured speed and skill in t he tight and treacherous closed-course races. But together they provided a challenge for both planes and pilots and created one of the most colorful and exciting chapters in the history of American aviation.
The years following the end of World War I were difficult ones for America’s aviation industry. Not only did peace mean an abrupt end to government contracts, but manufacturers soon found themselves competing with their own products as the sale of war surplus aircraft more than saturated the limited peacetime market for airplanes.
Part of the problem, industry leaders thought, was the public perception of aviation. Most Americans of the time accepted the airplane as a military tool. Few, however, saw the possibilities of commercial aviation in peacetime. As part of an effort to bring public attention to the civil potential of peacetime aviation and to breathe new life into the sagging industry, the National Air Races were born.
The form of the races varied during the early 1920s. Then, in 1923, the National Aeronautic Association consolidated a number of smaller events into what was called the International Air Races. The large national meeting proved to be a success. The name was soon changed, and from then until the eve of World War II, the National Air Races became America’s premier aviation event.
During the early 1920s, the Pulitzer Prize, sponsored by the famous publishing family, was the highlight of the annual event. After the cancellation of the Pulitzer Trophy Race in 1925, however, the races lacked the distinction that a major prize had given the event, and it deteriorated into little more than an exhibition of parachuting and stunt flying.
The successful flight of Charles Lindbergh in 1927, however, brought about a renewal of public interest in aviation. This revival also meant new interest in racing as well. The fortunes of the National Air Races rose.
Part of the reason for this growing status was the leadership of two brothers from California, Clifford and Phillip Henderson, who convinced the National Aeronautic Association to give them charge of the event. As promoters, the Henderson brothers quickly proved themselves to be the ideal team to put the air races back in the clouds. Clifford, the master showman, had the ability to keep the crowd entertained; Phillip was the astute businessman. Together, the brothers transformed the fortunes and the reputation of the National Air Races.
Under the Henderson brothers, stunt-flying and parachuting remained important attractions of the National Air Races. Nonetheless, it was the air races which everyone paid to see, and the new races added to the program attracted crowds and caught the attention of the aviation world as well.
The first of these events, the Thompson Cup Race, was added to the Nationals in 1929. The closed-course event for unlimited planes, sponsored by Cleveland manufacturer Charles E. Thompson, was an immediate success. Like the barnstorming events, the race provided breathtaking excitement for the crowd. In 1930, the name of the race was changed to the Thompson Trophy, but the importance of the event remained unchanged. From then until it was ended in 1939, the Thompson Trophy Race provided the climactic final event of each year’s National Air Races meeting. It was also the premier closed-course race in the world.
The Thompson Trophy Race, as well as the other closed-course races, was among the most popular events with the crowds that filed into the grounds and filled the grandstands for the competitions. Although the courses varied in length and shape, the races were generally flown over a course of about 10 miles long with 50-foot-high pylons marking the turns. With their high speeds and wing-tip-to-wing-tip flying, the closed-course races were loaded with breathtaking action. Because the races were flown at low altitudes and around a closed course, the crowds in the granstands could easily see much of the spectacle. All in all, the Thompson Trophy and the other closed-course races were spectator sport of the highest order.
One innovation that the Hendersons brought to the Thompson Trophy and the National Air Races to make them more appealing to the crowds was the massed start for the closed-course events. Instead of taking off at timed intervals, as had been the custom at most closed-course air races before that time, the planes in the National Air Races took off together.
Lined up on the field side by side at about 100-foot intervals, the planes took off 10 seconds apart. Each cleared a staging pylon, which equalized the interval. And once the planes passed onto the course, each competitor was in his relative position on the course. The arrangement, unlike timed events, made competition wing tip to wing tip and helped make the events more exciting by allowing competitors and spectators alike to see just how daring the competition really was.
Death was not an uncommon occurrence in any form of air racing in the 1930s. Close flying, low altitudes, and high speeds, however, made the Thompson Trophy races particularly dangerous events. Death was a constant companion for the competitors, and each year the death of another competitor seemed to mar the event.
During the first Thompson Trophy Race in Chicago in 1930, a young Marine pilot, Captain Arthur Page, was leading the race and seemed well on his way to winning in his XF6C-6, an extensively rebuilt Curtiss Hawk fighter to which, among other things, an 800-hp Curtiss Conqueror engine had been added. Then, on lap 17, as Page was rounding the home pylon in front of the grandstand, his plane shuddered, went into a slow roll, and crashed. No one ever knew what happened to his plane. Charles “Speed” Holman, in a Laird “Solution” that had been completed only hours before the start of the race, went on to win. Page survived the crash, only to die from head injuries a few days later.
The legacy of death that was begun in that first race was to follow the Thompson Trophy for many years. In fact, death seemed to stalk the victors of the Thompson Trophy. Both 1930 winner Speed Holman and 1931 winner Lowell Bayles were killed in competitive crashes within a few months of their Thompson Trophy victories, and in 1933 winner Jimmy Wedell was killed in a non-racing crash in June 1934. On the eve of the 1934 race, only one former winner, 1932 champion Jimmy Doolittle, who had retired shortly after his victory, remained alive.
The prestige of the Thompson Trophy was, in itself, sufficient to assure the status of the National Air Races as one of the world’s premier aviation meets. This reputation of the Nationals was enhanced still further, however, when the Bendix Trophy, an annual cross-country race for unlimited planes, was added to the program in 1931.
Point-to-point racing, rather than closed-course events, was probably the most common type of racing in the 1920s and 1930s. It was, however, less popular with the crowds than the closed-circuit races. Confined to their seats in grandstands, the spectators got little more than a brief glimpse of the racers as they flew across the field to cross the finish line at the end of the race.
Nonetheless, the challenge of long-distance racing attracted the attention of the aviation industry, and the idea of a cross-country race appealed to the popular imagination. With the Bendix Trophy, just such an event became an integral part of the National Air Races. And, like the Thompson Trophy, the Bendix Trophy quickly became the most important contest of its kind in the world.
The routes over which the Bendix Trophy Race was run varied. When the Nationals were held in Cleveland, the race was run between Los Angeles, and the northeast Ohio city. When the Naionals were held in Los Angeles, as they were for two years, the Bendix Trophy became a truly transcontinental race, being run between New York and Los Angeles.
Consistent with the tradition of American barnstorming, the National Air Races, more than any of its predecessors, relied upon the crowd for its existence. Most of the earlier air-racing contests had relied heavily upon industry sponsorship and government-supported teams. The National Air Races, on the other hand, were basically shows and, as such relied almost entirely upon ticket sales and paying spectators to cover the cost of the event.
During the Depression years, following the stock market crash of 1929, the event, like many other of the nation’s industries, was generally in a precarious financial situation. In 1934, for instance, admission to the races ranged from 50 cents to $2.50, lavish sums during those lean years. However, profits for the event were meager. In 1930, the National Air Races made only about $2,500. In 1933, the event just broke even, and in 1931 and 1932, it actually lost money, a loss which the backers had to make good. Nonetheless, the Nationals managed to survive the Depression, no small achievement considering the scope of the nation’s financial catastrophe.
During the 1930s, the National Air Races were generally held at Cleveland. Occasionally, however, the event was moved to other venues when attendance or local interest began to wane in its hometown. In 1933 and 1936, for instance, the races were held in Los Angeles. In 1930, they were held in Chicago. Most of the time, however, a change of venue was not necessary. Most years, the crowds would line the roads leading from the city out to the Cleveland airport for the opportunity to glimpse the lightning-fast racing planes as they thundered by.
“To anyone who fought and bumped his way out of Cleveland’s post-race traffic on a Labor Day afternoon, it was no news that this year’s National Air races were more popular with the public than ever,” Aviation magazine told its readers in 1938.
“Industry groups may sit about with bored yawns at stunting routines and at familiar military demonstrations, but thousands of housewives, bond salesmen, and insurance brokers were nursing sunburned tonsils and taking aspirin after the echoes of the last signaling bombs had died away.”
The exciting and popular sport of air racing soon developed its own pantheon of starts, and none was more famous than Jimmy Doolittle. Second only to Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle was the personification of aviation in his day. Born in California in 1903, Doolittle began his career in aviation as a military flier after joining in the U.S. Army during World War I. In 1925, while still in the Army, Doolittle attracted nationwide fame when he won the prestigious Schneider Trophy seaplane race for the United States against a tough field of foreign government-supported international teams.
This fame followed Doolittle when he left the Army in 1929 to become a civilian air racer, working for the Shell Oil Company promoting its aviation fuels at the nation’s air races. In 1931, Doolittle won the first Bendix Trophy Race by flying his Laird “Super Solution” between Los Angeles and Cleveland in 9 hours, 10 minutes and 21 seconds. Doolittle then continued on to Newark, N.J., to set a new transcontinental record of 11 hours, 16 minutes and 10 seconds.
The following year, Doolittle, flying the accident-plagued Gee Bee R-1, proved himself to be equally adept at closed-course racing by winning the Thompson Trophy Race. Doolittle retired from racing shortly after his 1932 victory. Nonetheless, his career as an aviator was far from over. During World War II, Doolittle returned to the Army and won his greatest fame by leading his famed carrier-based B-25 bombing raid on Tokyo early in 1942.
No less famous than Doolittle and infinitely more flamboyant was the California-based air racer Roscoe Turner. Famous for his flying uniform, which consisted of a canvas flying helmet, a sky blue blazer with a large set of wings over the pocket, fawn-colored breeches and riding boots, Turner was certainly the sport’s greatest showman. His wide, toothy smile and large handlebar mustache made him the consort of movie stars and the darling of the newsreels. Turner’s showmanship didn’t detract from his accomplishments as a flier, however. During his career, he won the Bendix Trophy in 1933 and the Thompson Trophy three times, to become the only multiple winner of the event.
The unlimited racing planes of the day were not, as a general rule, the products of large aircraft companies. Instead, they were the creations of small firms or even the work of individuals. Generally, air racing was a sport for those who faced the danger in hopes that the fame and prize money resulting from the racing events would help establish them in the aviation industry.
Among the most successful of the racing planes of the 1930s were those built by famed air racer and designer Jimmy Wedell. Himself the winner of the 1933 Thompson Trophy, Wedell built three planes in a hangar in a sugar cane field in the one-street town of Patterson, La. The record for those three planes included three victories in the Bendix Trophy Race and two victories for the Thompson Trophy.
Another popular air racer and racing plane builder, Benny Howard, built a number of very popular and successful racers. His most famous, Mister Mulligan, won both the Bendix and Thompson Trophy races in 1935. He was said to have begun his career building small, fast planes for bootleggers during prohibition.
Fans seemed to prize this spirit of individual enterprise that was part of the National Air Races throughout the 1930s. When rumors spread that the French government had spent $1 million developing Frenchman Michel Detroyat’s 1936 Thompson Trophy winner, for instance, the eventual three-time Thompson Trophy winner Roscoe Turner spoke the sentiments of many when he said, “It just isn’t fair for a foreign government to trim a bunch of little guys who build airplanes in their backyards.”
The Depression-era crowds could easily identify with the get-rich efforts of such designers and builders, and the use of such “backyard” creations added greatly to the danger of the events. Many also questioned the advancement of aircraft design and technical innovation. “The records show that they [the National Air Races] have been about the same value to commercial aviation that motorboat racing has been to battleship construction,” said an article in the New York Times.
The complaint was not without some justification. All too often, especially in the early 1930s, technical innovation meant little more than adding bigger and bigger engines to the smallest possible airframes. Such combinations often proved lethal.
The danger such aircraft presented to pilots did not escape public attention. “Most American racing planes are built in small shops by inexperienced, if enthusiastic, designers,” Newsweek magazine reported in 1937 after the death of two pilots, including that year’s Thompson Trophy winner, Rudy Kling, during a single air race at Miami. “Speed is attained by cutting down wings, control surfaces, and cockpits to absolute minimums, then installing as big of engines as the ship will stand.” All too often such racing planes proved to be unstable and contributed to the growing number of fatalities. And of all the planes of the 1930s, none had more of a reputation as killers than the infamous Gee Bees.
The name Gee Bee was taken from the name of the planes’ manufacturer, the small, Springfield, Mass., firm Granville brothers Aircraft Company. Founded by Zantford D. (“Granny”) Granville, the company began business by rebuilding wrecked airplanes at the Boston Airport.
In 1929, having secured a loan from a local business man, the company built a handful of small racing planes called “Sportsters.” The commercial success of these planes enabled Granny Granville to design and build a series of more powerful unlimited racing planes.
The resulting craft were planes built for speed, not beauty. One observer, not unjustifiably, said the planes looked like “a section of sewer pipe which had sprouted stubby wings.” They were small, only 15 feet long with only a 23 1/2-foot wingspan. But they were also powerful. At first the plane was powered by a 535-hp Wasp Junion engine. This was then replaced by an 800-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine.
No one denied that the resulting planes were fast. In the first of these super-racers, the Model Z, pilot Lowell Bayles covered the 100 miles of the 1931 Thompson Trophy Race in 25 minutes, 23.88 seconds to win easily with an average speed of 236.239 mph.
The following year, Jimmy Doolittle flew the second Gee Bee racer, the R-1, to victory in the Thompson Trophy Race at a record speed of 252.686 mph, and he also set a landplane speed record of 294.38 mph during trials for the event.
Unfortunately, however, the Gee Bees proved as deadly as they were fast. Bayles was killed in a crash of a second Gee Bee after a refueling stop at Indianapolis during the 1933 Bendix Trophy Race. Even the smaller Gee Bee racer would take its toll as well. Female air racer Florence Kilingensmith and even Granny Granville himself would die in Gee Bee crashes. In all, three of the large racing Gee Bees were built, and each would crash, killing its pilot.
Despite the danger of the male-dominated sport, women played an active role in the National Air Races. The degree to which they were allowed to participate, however, varied from year to year. By the early 1930s, women were generally permitted to compete at the National Air Races in the separate women’s events. Chief among these events were the Aerol Trophy, the closed-course, free-for-all race that served as the women’s equivalent of the Thompson Trophy, and the Amelia Earhart Trophy, a special handicap race for women pilots.
In addition, women were, at various times, permitted to compete in the men’s events as well. In 1932, for instance, women were permitted to compete with men in all the air-racing events except the Thompson Trophy.
This victory for the female sex proved to be short-lived, however. Growing concerns that aircraft had become too powerful for women pilots surfaced with the death of 25-year-old racing pilot Florence Klingensmith in the crash of her Gee Bee Model Y during a race at Chicago in 1933. As a result, women’s events were dropped altogether from the 1934 National Air Race, and in 1935 were limited to separate all-women’s events that were restricted to stock, commercially licensed aircraft with an airspeed of less than 150 mph.
Notable women pilots, including Amelia Earhart, opposed the restrictions, and by 1936 women were again permitted to participate in the men’s events. And they did it in style. That year, two women, Louise Thadens and Blanche Noyes, flying their Beechcraft C-17 Staggerwing, completed the run between New York’s Floyd Bennett Field and Los Angeles in 14 hours, 55 minutes, 1 second, to take the Bendix Trophy. Two years later, the Bendix Trophy would again be won by a woman when Jacqueline Cochran, in the cockpit of a Seversky SEV-S2, covered the distance between Los Angeles and Cleveland in 8 hours, 10 minutes, 31 seconds.
Although air racing was still popular among the crowds, industry interest in the sport declined in the late 1930s. While the commercial aviation industry was trying to convince the public of the safety of flying, the frequent crashes and fatalities at the air races were counterproductive to its efforts. In addition, world events increasingly took attention away from the annual racing event. For the industry, the war in Europe promised to be both a greater test of aircraft performance and a more lucrative market than any race could ever hope to be.
As the decade waned, it became increasingly difficult to attract enough planes to make up a field. With the retirement of the Henderson brothers after the 1939 races, the Nationals came to an end. The 1939 event was the last time the races were held until after World War II.
After the war, air racing was resurrected. But, despite the excitement of the racing events themselves, they never achieved the glory or popularity of the prewar competitions. The jet aircraft developed during the war were so fast that they were unsuitable for closed-course racing. Unlimited air racing continued with propeller-driven aircraft, but such planes were relics of the past, not the harbingers of the future, that their counterparts of the 1930s had been.
Even more important, however, the spread of the cold war made high-performance aircraft a state secret rather than the subject for public entertainment. Unlike the 1930s, the 1950s and 1960s were a time when the accomplishments of the world’s greatest aviators were hidden behind a veil of secrecy.
In all, the glory and popularity of the great air races of the 1930s were not to be recaptured. Nonetheless, the National Air Races of the 1930s have left behind them many great tales of excitement and danger. Truly, it was the golden age of American air racing.
For further reading: History of Aviation, by W.R. Taylor and Kenneth Munson; Encyclopedia of Aviation (Scribner’s), and The International Encyclopedia of Aviation, edited by David Mondey.