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The Pulitzer Air Races: American Aviation and Speed Supremacy, 1920-1925

by Michael Gough, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2013, $45

 Although the first controlled, powered airplane flight was accomplished in the United States in 1903, by 1918 American aviation technology lagged far behind Europe’s. World War I had driven rapid advances in aviation development in Europe during the period when the U.S. had remained neutral. As a result, America didn’t have a single modern, battle-worthy airplane when it entered the conflict, and its airmen were forced to fly foreign planes in combat. When the war ended in November 1918, U.S. aviation was regarded as second-rate.

All that changed during the first half of the 1920s. By 1925, American aircraft and aviators were regularly setting world records. One of the driving forces behind the turnaround was the Pulitzer Air Races. Run from 1920 through 1925, they were closed-circuit speed races, not unlike the Thompson Trophy races of the 1930s. Un – like the later Thompson races, however, the Pulitzer races were chiefly interservice competitions between the U.S. Army and Navy, since few others at the time could afford to compete against the military’s government-funded entrants.

Much had been written about the history of the National Air Races, especially the later Thompson and Bendix trophy competitions, but no one has ever written a book about the Pulitzer races. Michael Gough’s new volume admirably rectifies that deficiency. He maintains that the 1920 Pulitzer races provided the template for air competitions to come. Essentially they were run at low altitude within a triangular closed course before large crowds of spectators. Only three of the entrants were civilians, and in spite of repeated invitations sent to the various European nations, none of their fliers ever participated in any of the Pulitzer races.

The Pulitzer Air Races vividly captures a unique era when the Army and Navy expended a great deal of money and effort on air racing. It was a time when American military aircraft regularly set new records, and when military pilots such as Jimmy Doolittle and Al Williams became heroes of the American air-racing scene.

There’s no question that a great deal of progress was made in aircraft technology through the Pulitzer races. The military, however, came in for criticism from some quarters over the funds spent on what was perceived as mere sport, as well as the cost in terms of military pilots injured and killed.

After the last Pulitzer race was run, in late 1925, both the Army and Navy began to opt out, and U.S. government sponsorship of air racing came to an end. The late 1920s saw the beginning of a new era, in which civilians came to dominate the National Air Races.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.