By William Pearce
After World War I, it was clear that aircraft were vehicles with great potential, and not just playthings for the rich or eccentric. A rivalry built up between the United States Marine Corps, Navy, Army, and civilians as they each explored aviation in the 1920s. The military branches competed with each other in various races, with float planes switching to wheels for land-based races and wheeled aircraft switching to floats for sea-based races.
US Marine Corps Captain Arthur H. Page flew his float-equipped Curtiss F6C-3 racer to victory in the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race on 31 May 1930, besting the rest of the field, which consisted entirely of Navy pilots. The F6C-3 was a member of the Curtiss Hawk family of biplane fighter aircraft, which had been steadily developed since the first Hawk was built for the Army in 1923. The F6C-3 had a fuselage and tail made of welded steel tubing and covered with fabric. The wings had a spruce structure and were fabric covered. Page’s F6C-3 (serial A-7147) had been cleaned up aerodynamically to achieve every bit of speed possible, and it averaged a race-record 164.08 mph (264.06 km/h).
Page knew he would need more speed from the F6C-3 if he were to have any chance in the inaugural Thompson Trophy Race, which would be held on 1 September 1930 during the National Air Races. In the 1929 National Air Races, civilian Doug Davis in the privately-built Travel Air “Mystery Ship” beat both the Army and Navy Hawk entries when he averaged 194.9 mph (313.7 km/h) over the course of the race. Page wanted to avenge this humiliating defeat and set a new standard of speed in the process. Page won the support of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, and Curtiss went to work in June 1930 to turn the F6C-3 (serial A-7147) into a pure air racer. This was the same aircraft in which Page won the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race.
The modifications made to the F6C-3 were so extensive that the aircraft was redesignated XF6C-6. With the exception of the tail, the XF6C-6 bore no resemblance to the F6C-3. The 450 hp (336 kW) Curtiss D-12 engine was removed and replaced by a supercharged 750 hp (559 kW) Curtiss Conqueror engine. The Conqueror had a 5-1/8 in. (130 mm) bore and a 6-11/32 in (161 mm) stroke. The engine’s total displacement was 1,570 cu in (25.7 L), and it turned an 8 ft (2.4 m), two-blade, steel, ground-adjustable propeller.
The aircraft’s lower wing was removed, and the upper wing was moved back several inches. The now-parasol wing was mounted to the fuselage on streamlined struts. The wing had a duralumin leading edge, and brass surface radiators made up most of its upper and lower surfaces. Coolant was taken from the engine and flowed through pipes installed in the front wing struts. The coolant then flowed into header tanks along the wing’s leading edge and through the surface radiators. At the rear of the wing, the coolant was collected and flowed back to the engine via pipes that ran through the rear struts.
The wing radiators enabled the chin radiator to be discarded, and a very streamlined aluminum engine cowling was fitted over the Conqueror engine. The landing gear was housed in aerodynamic wheel pants and attached to the fuselage by a single streamlined strut. The XF6C-6’s cockpit had metal panels on each side and was partially enclosed by a cushioned cover positioned over the pilot’s head. The panels hinged down, and the cover hinged to the rear for pilot entry and exit. The aircraft’s fuselage was aerodynamically cleaned up and recovered.
The XF6C-6 racer is often referred to as the “Page Racer” or “Navy Page Racer.” The aircraft had a polished navy blue fuselage and lower wing surface, and the upper wing surface was yellow. The exposed brass of the surface radiators was polished. The aircraft had a wingspan of 31 ft 6 in (9.6 m), a length of 23 ft 0 in (7.0 m), and a height of 8 ft 11 in (2.7 m). The XF6C-6 had an empty weight of 2,600 lb (1,179 kg) and a loaded weight of 3,130 lb (1,420 kg). Its range was 270 mi (435 km). The XF6C-6 had a cruising speed of 200 mph (322 km/h) and an estimated top speed of 250 mph (402 km/h).
Construction for the XF6C-6 was rapid, and the aircraft was completed by mid-August. The initial flight testing went well, but some signs of flutter were encountered at high speeds. Originally, a louvered panel on top of the engine cowling supplied air to the engine’s carburetor. A raised scoop replaced the louvers before the Thompson Race. However, some sources indicate the scoop was discarded and the louvered panel was reinstalled for the actual race.
The aircraft made its public debut for the Thompson Trophy Races held at the Curtiss-Reynolds airport (later Naval Air Station Glenview and now a shopping center) south of Chicago, Illinois. Captain Page in the XF6C-6 was the only military entrant in the field of seven. The XF6C-6 was larger than the other Thompson Trophy racers, but it was also more powerful.
Page was the first airborne, followed by the other racers at 10 second intervals. By the time the last racer took off, Page had almost completed his first lap of the five mile (8 km) circuit. The XF6C-6 was obviously much faster than the other racers; the only question was whether or not it would last the 20 laps. By the third lap, Page began lapping the slower aircraft. Page turned lap after lap at well over 200 mph (322 km/h), and the XF6C-6 went on to lap the entire field.
On the 17th lap, Page went high and turned inside the course as he neared the home pylon. The XF6C-6 never straightened from the turn; it smashed into the ground as the 75,000 spectators looked on. Page survived the crash and was taken to a hospital where he died from his injuries later that night. Fellow race pilot Jimmy Haizlip, who had just been lapped by Page, noted the XF6C-6’s propeller was barely turning before the ground impact. In addition, the ignition switch was found in the “Off” position. It is believed that Page had been slowly overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from the exhaust that built up in the tight cockpit. Although too late, he realized the situation and shut off the engine in an attempt to get fresh air. He then turned inside the course to seek a safe landing but became incapacitated and crashed. Unfortunately, carbon monoxide poisoning was a fairly common occurrence in early aviation, and Page was one of many aviators who succumbed to exhaust fumes in the cockpit.
The XF6C-6 had turned each lap between 207 and 219 mph (333 and 352 km/h) before the crash (some sources state the average speed was 219 mph / 352 km/h). Speed Holman in the Laid Solution went on to win the race at 201.91 mph (324.94 km/h). With the death of Captain Page, American military aircraft were no longer entered in air races until after World War II. Even then, civilian and military racers participated separately (primarily because of the military’s switch to jet aircraft).
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