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Roaring along just beyond the crowd’s edge was a stubby red and white airplane with a bad reputation. Like others, I stood amazed on the hot tarmac as Delmar Benjamin flew a flawless aerobatic routine breathtakingly close to the ground in the Gee Bee replica. Wasn’t this plane known as a pilot killer?

Caught up in the aviation mania that gripped America after Lindbergh’s historic 1927 transatlantic flight, five industrious farm boys from New Hampshire—led by their eldest brother, Zantford “Granny” Granville—established a thriving aircraft repair business that quickly morphed into a company building little sport planes out of a former Springfield, Mass., dance hall. When the Great Depression came along, government money to promote aviation dried up in the early 1930s. To help spur innovation and advertise their products, oil companies and aircraft suppliers offered rich cash prizes at air races across the nation. For their struggling company to survive the bad times, the Granvilles needed to build airplanes capable of winning that cash.

Zantford teamed up with Howell “Pete” Miller, a young aeronautical engineer, to design and build the legendary R-1 and R-2 Super Sportster racers for the 1932 race season. Similar in appearance, the Gee Bee Model R airplanes were built for just one purpose: to go fast. Well engineered and hand-built, the racers were designed with the smallest airframe possible—to minimize aerodynamic drag—around the most powerful engine then available.

Zantford believed a teardrop-shaped fuselage was ideal for streamlining the bulk of a radial engine. He and Miller consulted with noted race pilot Lee Gehlbach about gaining maximum performance from the design. Speed would trump stability. Prior to construction, detailed wind-tunnel testing was performed with scale models, something rarely done with racers at the time.

The R-1, a pylon racer purpose-built to capture the prestigious Thompson Trophy, mounted a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine souped up to deliver 730 hp. Crafted to win the Bendix Trophy cross-country race, the R-2 featured a smaller R-985 engine and increased fuel capacity. Both radial engines were borrowed from Pratt & Whitney, then a relatively new engine manufacturer eager to make its mark in air racing.

Piloted by Jimmy Doolittle, the Gee Bee R-1 set a world landplane speed record of 296 mph and won the Thompson Trophy before 60,000 enthusiastic race fans at the 1932 National Air Races in Cleveland. Gehlbach, also an experienced test pilot, raced the R-2 from Burbank, Calif., to Cleveland during the 1932 Bendix Transcontinental Race. Although hampered by an engine oil leak, he finished fourth, winning some prize money.

Doolittle and Gehlbach would be the last pilots to finish a race flying the Gee Bee R-1 and R-2. Both were brilliant, accomplished pilots who considered the airplanes fast but unstable—“too hot” for just anybody to fly.

During the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race, Jimmy Doolittle flashes past a pylon in the R-1. (National Archives)
During the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race, Jimmy Doolittle flashes past a pylon in the R-1. (National Archives)

Doolittle’s victory in the 1932 National Air Races, the Granville brothers’ second consecutive Thompson Trophy win (their Model Z came in first in the 1931 contest), would embolden the Granville organization as it prepared for the 1933 races by installing bigger engines in both Super Sportsters. The R-1’s Wasp was swapped out for a more powerful Pratt & Whitney Hornet, capable of propelling the racer over 300 mph, while the R-2 inherited the Wasp. Additionally, the R-1 received a larger fuel tank, making it a Bendix Trophy contender. The R-2 acquired a new wing with something novel for Super Sportsters—flaps. Because of their high landing speeds, the planes were “floaters,” and the flaps reduced the R-2’s landing speed significantly.

These thoroughbreds performed well at racing speeds; the problems came during takeoffs and landings, when the Gee Bees’ tiny wooden wings necessitated unusually high speeds. The racers required a proficient pilot at the top of his game.

As it turned out, 1933 was not a good year for the Granvilles. While competing in the Bendix Race on July 1, the R-2 sustained damage after a landing in Indianapolis that put it out of the running. But a worse fate befell the R-1 while departing that same city. Heavily loaded with fuel, the R-1 was hauled into the air before it was ready to fly, and after gaining a little altitude it rolled inverted and crashed. Although he was pulled from the wreckage alive, pilot Russell Boardman died from his injuries.

In August Jimmy Haizlip crashed the R-2 while demonstrating a flaps-up short field landing. Just before touchdown, the plane snap-rolled, caught a wingtip and cartwheeled down the field. A crestfallen Haizlip walked away from the wreckage, a testament to the Gee Bee’s rugged construction.

Determined to persevere, the Granvilles would combine salvaged parts from both Gee Bees to create a racer they called the R-1/R-2 Long Tail. This promising racer was wrecked when its pilot landed on a wet grass strip and slid off into a drainage ditch.

But that wasn’t quite the end of it. Pilot Cecil Allen bought the damaged Long Tail and rebuilt it for the Bendix Race. Ignoring Pete Miller’s warnings, Allen modified the racer with an additional fuel tank behind the plane’s center of gravity. Both he and the Long Tail were lost in a crash at the start of the 1935 Bendix.

Newspapers had a field day, alleging that the Granvilles built “killer” airplanes. “Most of the myths surrounding Gee Bees are essentially distilled newspaper reports written hastily at the time, and perpetuated as fact,” said Dick Gilcreast, a staunch defender of the Granvilles’ reputation. “There were never any follow-up reports assigning causes in those days. I know Pete Miller resented the killer reputation to the day he died.”

Starting in 1984, Gilcreast, a volunteer at the New England Air Museum (NEAM), helped build a R-1 reproduction from original plans supplied by the Granville family. Having just finished working on a rare Marcoux-Bromberg racer, he was a good choice to lead the volunteer crew during the nine-year effort. Miller would serve as the project adviser.

“The Gee Bee was a thoroughly engineered airplane from the ground up,” said Gilcreast. “It was stress-analyzed for 12 positive Gs on the wings, landing gear and fuselage!” He also noted that the R models had innovative features such as a fully adjustable horizontal stabilizer, counterbalanced ailerons to dampen flutter and controllable-pitch metal propellers.

Delmar Benjamin pilots a replica of the Gee Bee R-2 at an airshow in the mid 1990s. (© George D. Lepp/Corbis)
Delmar Benjamin pilots a replica of the Gee Bee R-2 at an airshow in the mid 1990s. (© George D. Lepp/Corbis)

While the NEAM team worked on the reproduction, people who had been involved with the original Gee Bees visited the museum to see the project and pass on odd little details. One visitor explained how Doolittle taped a book of 10 matches to the R-1’s instrument panel to aid with situational awareness during the pylon race. The Thompson Trophy competition consisted of 10 laps, and after each circuit he’d shift a match; those remaining would be the laps to go.

During the 1990s, Delmar Benjamin, flying an R-2 replica, would show what a Gee Bee could do with a master pilot at the controls. Benjamin knew his plane and performed maneuvers that were previously thought impossible in the stubby racer: Knife-edge passes along with inverted flight stunts became part of his airshow routine.

Benjamin agreed with Doolittle that the Gee Bee was unstable in both yaw and pitch. Another aerodynamic anomaly was the plane’s inclination to snap-roll (one wing stalls before the other, rolling the airplane) when flying at a high angle of attack near stall speeds, a situation most often encountered during takeoffs and landings. Pilots couldn’t relax at the controls for an instant, and landings always required total concentration.

While getting acquainted with the replica’s flight characteristics, Benjamin confronted this phenomenon just prior to touchdown during a three-point landing—the airplane unexpectedly snap-rolled, scraping the right wingtip. He managed to recover, but decided to do no more three-point landings. To avoid future episodes altogether, liftoff and touchdown were thereafter pegged at 120 mph. Benjamin went on to perform at airshows around the world, becoming history’s most experienced Model R pilot, almost singlehandedly dispelling many of the myths surrounding the maligned Gee Bees.

Today no original R-1 or R-2 exists, but there’s lingering fascination with what the Granvilles achieved. Besides the R-2 flying replica, a Jim Moss interpretation of one of their last designs, the Q.E.D. touring aircraft and racer, was nearing flight at presstime after years of painstaking construction. And both the NEAM and the San Diego Air & Space Museum proudly display R-1 reproductions. “It’s certainly one of our most popular airplanes,” said San Diego museum curator Terry Brennan. “Most visitors really don’t know about the controversy; they’re just attracted by its brightly colored shape.”

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