Category Archives: Air Racing and Records


Savoia-Marchetti S.65 Schneider Racer

By William Pearce

After the Italian team was defeated on its home turf at Venice, Italy in the 1927 Schneider Trophy Race, the Italian Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Air Ministry) sought to ensure victory for the 1929 race. The Ministero dell’Aeronautica instituted programs to enhance aircraft, engines, and pilot training leading up to the 1929 Schneider race. Early in 1929, the Ministero dell’Aeronautica requested racing aircraft designs from major manufacturers and encouraged unorthodox configurations.


The Savoia-Marchetti S.65 in its original configuration. Note the single strut extending from each float to the tail, the short tail and rudder, and the short windscreen.

Alessandro Marchetti was the chief designer for Savoia-Marchetti and was preoccupied with the design of the long-range S.64 aircraft. Originally, he did not submit a Schneider racer design, but the Ministero dell’Aeronautica encouraged him to reconsider. Soon after, Marchetti submitted the rather unorthodox S.65 design. On 24 March 1928, the Ministero dell’Aeronautica ordered two S.65 aircraft and allocated them the serial numbers MM 101 and MM 102.

The Savoia-Marchetti S.65 was a low-wing, tandem-engine, twin-boom monoplane that utilized two long, narrow floats. The aircraft was designed to incorporate the largest amount of power in the smallest package. The S.65’s tension rod and wire-braced wings were made of wood and almost completely covered with copper surface radiators. The floats were made of wood (some say aluminum), had a relatively flat bottom, and housed the S.65’s fuel tanks. The floats were around 28 ft 8 in (8.75 m) long and were mounted on struts. Originally, one strut extended from the rear of each float to the tail, but a second strut was later added.


The S.65 has been modified with an additional strut extending from each float to the tail. The tail and rudder have also been extended below the horizontal stabilizer. Note that the windscreen has not changed, that the rudder has a rather square lower trailing edge, and that there are no handholds in the wingtips.

A narrow boom extended behind each wing to support the tail. The boom was hollow and had flight cables running through its interior. Sources disagree on whether the booms were made of metal or wood. The horizontal stabilizer was mounted between the ends of the booms. The vertical stabilizer was positioned in the center of the horizontal stabilizer. Originally, the rudder and tail extended only above the horizontal stabilizer, and the rudder was notched to clear the elevator. Later, the tail and rudder were enlarged and extended below the horizontal stabilizer, and the elevator was notched to clear the rudder. The tail and all control surfaces were made of wood and were fabric-covered.

Attached to the wing was a small fuselage nacelle that housed two Isotta Fraschini Asso 1-500 engines. The engines were mounted in a push-pull configuration with one engine in front of the cockpit and the other behind. The nacelle was made of a tubular steel frame and covered with aluminum panels. Oil coolers were mounted on both sides of the cockpit between the engines. Two windows to improve the pilot’s lateral visibility were positioned above each oil cooler. Just behind the front engine was a windscreen for the cockpit. Initially, a short windscreen was installed, but this was later replaced by a longer, more streamlined unit. The fuselage nacelle was around 18 ft (5.48 m) long, including the propeller spinners.


The 1,050 hp (783 kW) Isotta Fraschini Asso 1-500 engine. It is unclear how much this engine differed internally from a standard Asso 500 engine. The three cantilever mounts and the nearly-flush rear of the engine can clearly be seen. The exhaust ports have been relocated from the outer side of the cylinder head to the Vee side. A water pump and magneto are just visible on the extended gear reduction case. The vertical ribbing on the lower crankcase served to increase its strength.

The S.65’s Asso 1-500 V-12 engines were based on the Asso 500 Ri engine and were heavily modified by Giustino Cattaneo, head engineer at Isotta Fraschini. The engine’s crankcase was ribbed and strengthened to become a structural member of the S.65’s fuselage nacelle. Each engine mounted directly to a steel bulkhead on the end of the cockpit via three cantilever supports. The rear of the engine sat flush with the bulkhead. At the front of the engine was an extended gear reduction case which allowed for a streamlined cowling. Engine accessories, such as the two water pumps and two magnetos, were mounted to the gear case. Each Asso 1-500 engine produced 1,050 hp (783 kW) at 3,000 rpm.

At the bottom of each side of the cowling were two inlets. Air flowed from each inlet into a carburetor and then into three cylinders of the engine. Exhaust ports were located on the Vee side of the engine, and the exhaust gases were expelled up though the top of the cowling. Both engines turned counter-clockwise. Since the rear engine was installed backward, the propellers of each engine turned in opposite directions relative to one another. This installation effectively cancelled out the propeller torque that had been an issue for a number of Schneider racers. The metal, two-blade, fixed pitch propellers had a diameter of approximately 7 ft 5 in (2.26 m). The rear propeller’s spinner was about one-third longer than the front spinner.


The S.65 as seen at Calshot, England. The long windscreen has now been installed. The lower trailing edge of the rudder is now rounded, and the wingtips now have handholds. This image gives a good view of the surface radiators that cover nearly all of the wings. Also visible is the rectangular cover of the exhaust ports between the cylinder banks.

Italian sources and drawings from Savoia-Marchetti list the S.65 as having a wingspan of 31 ft 2 in (9.5 m) and a length of 35 ft 1 in (10.7 m). However, other sources often cite a wingspan of 33 ft (10.05 m) and a length of 29 ft (8.83 m). It is not entirely clear which figures are correct. The weight of the aircraft was approximately 5,071 lb (2,300 kg) empty and 6,173 lb (2,800 kg) loaded. The top speed of the S.65 was estimated between 375 and 400 mph (600 and 645 km/h).

In mid-1929, Alessandro Passaleva, one of Savoia-Marchetti’s pilots, tested the first S.65 (MM 101) on Lake Maggiore, near the company’s factory in Sesto Calende, Italy. Although the aircraft was not flown, Passaleva recommended a number of changes to stiffen and improve the S.65’s tail. The second S.65 (MM 102) was modified with the additional tail brace and extended rudder and tail. It is doubtful that MM 101 was ever flown or that MM 102 was flown on Lake Maggiore. MM 102 was delivered to the Reparto Alta Velocità (High Speed Unit) at Desenzano on Lake Garda in July 1929.

Initial flight tests of the S.65 were conducted by Tommaso Dal Molin and began in late July 1929. This is most likely the first time an S.65 was flown. Dal Molin was an experienced pilot and also small enough to fit inside the S.65’s very cramped cockpit. Some accounts state that Dal Molin did not bother with a parachute because the cockpit was so small, and the rear propeller made bailing out nearly impossible. A number of issues were encountered with the aircraft’s engines and cooling system. In addition, exhaust fumes constantly entered the cockpit.


This image shows the S.65’s rear engine being run-up at Calshot. The oil radiator is clearly seen between the two engines, and it gives some perspective as to the small size of the cockpit. Note the various engine accessories mounted to the extended gear reduction case.

It was soon obvious that the S.65 would not be ready in time for the Schneider Trophy Race held on 6–7 September 1929 in Calshot, England. However, the Italians decided to send the aircraft anyway, to give the British team something to consider. Before the S.65 arrived at Calshot, the lower rudder extension was rounded; the longer windscreen was installed, and handholds were added to the wingtips. During the races, the S.65 MM 102 was displayed, and its rear engine was run-up on at least one occasion. Some saw the S.65 as a sign of future high-speed aircraft to come.

Italy had developed four new aircraft for the 1929 Schneider Trophy Race: Macchi M.67, FIAT C.29, Savoia-Marchetti S.65, and Piaggio P.7. The end result was that Italian resources were spread too thin, and none of their aircraft were developed to the point of offering serious competition to the British effort, which was victorious. Once back in Italy, the head of the Reparto Alta Velocità, Mario Bernasconi, decided to recover some pride by making an attempt on the world speed record. Britain had just set a new record on 12 September 1929 at 357.7 mph (575.7 km/h) in its Schneider race-winning Supermarine S6 (N247) piloted by Augustus Orelbar.


Tommaso Dal Molin poses in front of the S.65. Note the longer windscreen and the side windows just above the oil cooler. Each rectangular port on the cowling leads to a carburetor. Also visible are the louvers that cover the cowling.

The S.65 underwent further refinements in late 1929, and it was believed that the aircraft could exceed the S6’s speed by a reasonable margin. It appears the aircraft was fitted with new aluminum (duralumin), V-bottom floats. In addition, the engine cowling had what appear to be six exhaust ports positioned on each side. Exhaust fumes entering the cockpit was an issue due to the central exhaust location, and relocating the ports to the engine sides (their original location in the Asso 500 engine) would help solve the issue. The carburetor intakes were not changed.

Dal Molin took the S.65 on a test flight from Lake Garda on 17 January 1930 to prepare for his speed record attempt the following day. On 18 January, Dal Molin made three takoff attempts, which were all aborted due to excessive yaw. On the fourth attempt, the S.65 became airborne and then pitched up at an extreme angle. The aircraft stalled some 80 to 165 ft (25 to 50 m) above the water and crashed into the lake. Rescue vessels arrived quickly, but the S.65 with Dal Molin still aboard had quickly sunk 330 ft (100 m) to the bottom of the lake. It was Tommaso Dal Molin’s 28th birthday. A special recovery vessel called the Artigilo retrieved the S.65 on 29 January. Dal Molin’s body was recovered on 30 January. While the exact cause of the crash was never determined, many believe the elevator jammed, resulting in the abrupt pitch up and subsequent stall.

Note: As mentioned above, many sources disagree on various aspects of the S.65. For example, sources (some of which were not used in this article) list the wing spars as being made from four different materials: duralumin, walnut, mahogany, and spruce. While images were closely scrutinized to give an accurate account of the S.65 in this article, only so much can be determined from analyzing a grainy, 85-year-old image. In addition, some sources claim that only one S.65 was built (MM 102). Others say construction of MM 101 was started but never completed, and still others contend that MM 101 was completed and stored at the Reparto Alta Velocità at Lake Garda until 1939.


The remains of the S.65 after it was recovered from Lake Garda and placed onboard the Artigilo. The rear engine is in the foreground. Note what appear to be exhaust ports along the sides of the cowling. The aircraft’s fuselage seems to be rather undamaged. Reportedly, the S.65 sank quickly, and some sources claim that Dal Molin could not swim.

Schneider Trophy Seaplanes and Flying Boats by Ralph Pegram (2012)
Aeroplani S.I.A.I. 1915–1945 by Giorgio Bignozzi and Roberto Gentilli (1920)
Schneider Trophy Aircraft 1913–1931 by Derek N. James (1981)
MC 72 & Coppa Schneider by Igino Coggi (1984)
L’epopea del reparto alta velocità by Manlio Bendoni (1971)

Wedell-Williams Model 45

Wedell-Williams Model 45 Racer

By William Pearce

In 1932, the Wedell-Williams Air Service Model 44 established itself as one of the premier air racers. The Model 44 was a fast, sleek monoplane with fixed gear. The aircraft was designed by Jimmie Wedell, an experienced pilot and air racer. The Weddell-Williams company was founded in 1929 when Jimmie Wedell and his brother Walter gained the financial backing of millionaire Harry Williams. Operating out of Patterson, Louisiana, Wedell-Williams Air Service was established to provide a wide range of aeronautical services that included constructing new aircraft, flight instruction, and passenger and mail service. The best way to prove one’s aircraft design abilities and gain publicity was to create a record breaking air racer—the Model 44 was exactly that. However, progress in aviation was swift, so it was in 1933 that Wedell began to design his next racer: the Model 45.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 side

The Model 45 followed the Wedell-Williams design concept that was so well executed in their Model 44 racer. It was a simple concept: a big engine in a sleek airframe resulting in a fast aircraft.

The Model 45 followed the same conventional layout as the Model 44, but the aircraft was further refined with a cantilever wing and retractable undercarriage. The Model 45 consisted of a welded chrome-molybdenum steel tube fuselage. The front and tail of the aircraft were skinned in aluminum. Fabric covered the rest of the fuselage, from in front of the cockpit back to the tail. The Model 45’s wing had a wooden spar; the rest of the structure was made from metal and skinned with aluminum. The main gear retracted inward to be fully enclosed within the wing. The aircraft’s tail skid retracted into the fuselage. Each side of the cockpit had a plexiglass panel that could slide up to fully enclose the pilot.

The Model 45 had a 26 ft 8.5 in (8.1 m) wingspan and was 24 ft long (7.3 m). The aircraft had a race weight of around 3,000 lb (1,360 kg). The Model 45 was intended to have a 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney (P&W) R-1535 Twin Wasp radial engine of 825 hp (615 kW), and its top speed was anticipated to be over 300 mph (483 km/h). However, the R-1535 engine was not ready, so a nine-cylinder P&W R-985 Wasp Jr. engine of 535 hp (399 kW) was installed in its place.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 early

This photo of the Model 45 was taken shortly after the aircraft was built in Patterson, Louisiana in 1933. Note the smooth cowling covering the R-985 engine. Jimmie Wedell stands by the side of the aircraft.

Wedell took the Model 45 (registered as NR62Y) up for its first flight on 28 June 1933. The R-985 engine caused the aircraft to be underpowered and tail-heavy. Very little flight testing was accomplished because Wedell had entered the Model 45 in the Bendix Trophy Race, which was scheduled for 1 July. The 1933 race was run from New York to Los Angeles. Departing for New York, Wedell made it from Patterson, Louisiana to Atlanta, Georgia (about 500 miles / 805 km) before he turned back. Wedell decided the aircraft would not be competitive with its current engine. Instead, he flew a Model 44 (No. 44) and finished the race in second place, behind Roscoe Turner in his Wedell-Williams Model 44 (No. 2).

With the R-1535 still delayed, a nine-cylinder, 800 hp (597 kW) P&W R-1340 Wasp Sr. engine was installed on the Model 45 in place of the smaller engine. The R-1340 provided sufficient power for the aircraft and restored its proper balance. While the two engines used the same mounts, the R-1340 had a larger diameter than the R-985 and required a new cowling. The smooth cowling covering the R-985 engine was replaced by a larger cowling with bumps around its diameter to provide clearance for the engine’s rocker covers. The same engines were used in the Model 44, so the entire engine package (including cowling) could be swapped between the aircraft. An 8 ft 2 in (2.5 m) diameter, variable-pitch propeller was also installed.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 front

The Model 45 with its R-1340 engine installed. Note the bumps on the cowling that provided clearance for the engine’s rocker covers. The engines used in the Model 45 and Model 44 (No. 44) racer were interchangeable.

The Model 45 made its race debut at the Pan American Air Races held during the dedication of Shushan Airport (now New Orleans Lakefront Airport) in February 1934. Wedell flew the Model 45 to a new speed record over a 100 km (62 mi) course, averaging 264.703 mph (425.998 km/h), with the fastest lap over 266 mph (428 km/h). Wedell reported that he flew the distance at less than full power.

After the record run, Wedell-Williams Air Service began work to prepare their aircraft for the 1934 Bendix and Thompson Trophy Races, respectively scheduled for 31 August and 4 September. But disaster struck on 24 June 1934; Jimmie Wedell was killed when the de Havilland Gypsy Moth he was piloting crashed shortly after takeoff. Wedell was with a student pilot but had control of the aircraft. The student escaped with only minor injuries. The loss of head designer Jimmie Wedell was a major blow to Wedell-Williams Air Service, but the company continued to plan for the upcoming races.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 Jimmie

Jimmie Wedell stands by the Model 45. Note the doors for the retractable tail skid.

Experienced Wedell-Williams pilot John Worthen flew the Model 45 in the Bendix Trophy Race from Los Angles, California to Cleveland, Ohio. Worthen led the race, followed by Doug Davis flying Wedell-Williams Air Service’s other racer, a Model 44 (No. 44). Worthen, in the Model 45, had a comfortable lead when he became lost and overflew Cleveland by 100 miles (160 km). Worthen landed and refueled in Erie, Pennsylvania and then flew to Cleveland; he landed 36 minutes behind Davis. Had he not overflown Cleveland, Worthen and the Model 45 would have easily won the Bendix race; the trip to Erie added over 50 minutes to his total time. Even with the delay, the Model 45 had averaged 203.213 mph (327.040 km/h) in the Bendix Trophy Race.

In the Shell Speed Qualification heat (Group 3) for the Thompson Trophy Race, Worthen and the Model 45 placed third at 292.141 mph (470.156 km/h), coming in behind the Model 44 racers of Davis (No. 44) at 306.215 mph (492.805 km/h) and Roscoe Turner (No. 57) at 295.465 mph (475.505 km/h). In the Shell Speed Dash Unlimited race, Worthen and the Model 45 achieved 302.036 mph (486.080 km/h).

Wedell-Williams Model 45

The size and weight of the Wedell-Williams Model 45 was more suited for cross-country racing than pylon racing. It would have won the 1934 Bendix race had it not been for a navigation error. The Model 45 is barely an aviation footnote since it was flown fewer than two years and never won a major race.

The Wedell-Williams Air Service team decided that the Model 44 (No. 44) had the greatest potential for the Thompson Trophy Race. This decision was made because of some instability the Model 45 exhibited in the pylon turns—perhaps because the aircraft was not fully refined due to Wedell’s death. The team had been swapping the R-1340 and R-985 engines between racers for various events, and now the R-1340 engine was installed in the Model 44 for the Thompson Trophy Race. The Model 45 would not be competitive with the R-985 engine, and it was withdrawn from the race.

During the Thompson Trophy Race, Davis and the Model 44 were comfortably in the lead when he cut a pylon. He went back to circle the pylon when the aircraft either stalled or experienced a structural failure. The Model 44 smashed into the ground, killing Davis instantly. The shocked Wedell-Williams Air Service team disassembled the Model 45 and shipped it back to Paterson; it never flew again.

Wedell-Williams Air Service was never able recover because tragedies continued to plague the company. On 18 July 1935, Walter Wedell and his passenger were killed in a crash while flying in a Brewster Aristocrat. On 19 May 1936, Harry Williams and John Worthen were killed in a crash after the engine in their Beech Staggerwing quit shortly after takeoff.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 Cleveland side

The Model 45 at the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio in September 1934. The unfortunate death of Jimmie Wedell seemingly cut short the aircraft’s development, and the Model 45 never reached its true potential. Its predecessor, the Model 44, continued to race until 1939, the last year of the races until after World War II.

The Model 45 was donated to Louisiana State University in 1936, but what happened to it is not known. It was most likely scrapped at some point. A full-scale replica Model 45 is in the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson, Louisiana.

Early in 1934, the Army Air Corps expressed interest in the Model 45 design suitably modified into a military pursuit aircraft. Initially, the Wedell-Williams Air Service proposal was rejected, but a subsequent proposal was approved, and a contract was issued on 1 October 1935 for detailed design work. The Wedell-Williams Air Service fighter was designated XP-34. The XP-34 had a wingspan of 27 ft 9 in (8.5 m) and a length of 23 ft 6 in (7.2 m). The 4,250 lb (1,928 kg) aircraft was forecasted to have a top speed of 286 mph (460 km/h) with a 750 hp (559 kW) P&W R-1535 or 308 mph (496 km/h) with a 900 hp (671 kW) P&W R-1830. The design of the XP-34 progressed until the aircraft was cancelled after the death of Williams in 1936, by which time its performance had been surpassed by other fighters.

Wedell-Williams Model 45 replica

The Wedell-Williams Model 45 replica in the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson, Louisiana. (Steffen Kahl image via Flickr)

Wedell-Williams Air Service by Robert S. Hirsch and Barbara H. Schultz (2001)
Aircraft of Air Racing’s Golden Age by Robert S. Hirsch and Ross N. Hirsch (2005)
The Golden Age of Air Racing Pre-1940 by S. H. Schmid and Truman C. Weaver (1963/1991)
They Flew the Bendix by Don Diggins (1965)
Racing Planes and Air Races 1909-1967 by Reed Kinert (1967/1969)

Roscoe Turner Howard Bendix 1933

Air Racing Was Like This – by Roscoe Turner

Roscoe Turner

Roscoe Turner, ever the showman, with his impeccable custom uniform and well trimmed mustache. Turner once admitted that he did not like wearing his uniform but used it to stand out and get publicity wherever he went.

Roscoe Turner (29 September 1896 – 23 June 1970) was the preeminent aerial showman of the 1930s, and perhaps of all time. From 1929 to 1930, Turner set numerous cross-country speed records and won many air races. He was awarded the Harmon Trophy in 1933 and 1939 and the Henderson Trophy in 1933, 1938, and 1939. He won the Bendix Trophy in 1933 and the Thompson Trophy in 1934, 1938, and 1939. Turner also placed second in the MacRobertson International Air Race from London to Melbourne. To raise publicity while he was flying for the Gilmore Oil Company in the early 1930s, Turner adopted a lion cub and flew with him until he became too large. A lion’s head was the logo for the Gilmore Oil Company, and Turner named the cub Gilmore. Turner retired from air racing in 1939, but continued to be involved in aviation until his death, which, unlike for so many early aviators, was from natural causes.

The following was originally from the August 1956 edition of Pegasus, the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation’s magazine.

Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven seconds, the clock on the dash panel says, ticking them off. And you sit there in the cramped cockpit and sweat. Waiting for the starter to drop the flag.

The tiny racing plane trembles. The propeller clatters. The skin throbs.

You’re in No. 2 position, next to the orange job with the taper wing, second from the end of the line. There are nine others, wing-tip to wing-tip, all rarin’ to go. Stinging, snorting little hornets.

And you’ve got to fly each one of them besides your own. Because you never know what the other guy is going to do.

Roscoe Turner Lockheed Vega 1929

Turner stands in front of the Nevada Airlines Lockheed Vega (NC7954) in which he set various cross-country speed records and flew in the 1929 Thompson Trophy Race.

This is the Thompson Trophy Race. The big one. The National Air Races. The one that really counts. Aviation’s “Kentucky Derby.” You’ve got to win. Everything you own is wrapped up in this trim and powerful little racer. Everything. Even your spare watch is in hock.

For 365 days, since the race last year, you’ve been getting the ship ready. Wings clipped to cut through the air faster. Engine souped up to get more power. One thousand two hundred horsepower in your lap and a feather in your tail. That’s what it amounts to. Enough to make any aeronautical engineer beat himself to death with his slide rule.

For what? For fame and glory and headlines and the prize money. So you can pay off your debts and come back next year.

Roscoe Turner Gilmore 1930

Turner poses with Gilmore the lion cub on the tail of the Gilmore Oil Company sponsored Lockheed Air Express in 1930. Turner made a custom parachute for the lion cub, and the pair flew together until the lion had grown too big (150 lb / 68 kg). Turner funded Gilmore’s care until the lion died in 1952. Gilmore was then stuffed and kept by Turner until he passed away in 1970. Gilmore is preserved and in storage at the National Air and Space Museum.

Check your instruments, fuel gauge. Pressure gauge. Oil temperature. Tachometer. Cylinder head temperatures. Glance at the chronometer. The clock has stopped. No, it’s still running.

Six… Five… Four… Why is a second a year? Tick, tick, tick, it sounds like the bong of Big Ben in your ears. Tension, nerves, fear. It drowns out the roar of the crowd.

The grandstand; a kaleidoscope of colors. It’ll be a blurred ribbon the next time you see it flash by.

See that black and yellow job down the line? Keep your eyes on him. He’s the guy to beat. Get out in front of him and try to stay there. No. 8, that’s him. Number Eight… Number Eight… Beat him… Beat him… The engine sings it. A battle cry. Remember what your mechanic said – “They’re ganging up on you. Look out! They’re going to try and box you in.” Just like they do at a horse race.

Roscoe Turner Gilmore Lockheed W-W 44 1932

Turner poses with his Gilmore Oil Company sponsored Lockheed Air Express (NR3057) and Wedell-Williams Model 44 (NR61Y) racer in 1932. At the time, the Model 44 had its original 535 hp (399 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Jr engine. A replica of the racer is at the Wedell-Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson, Louisiana.

Three… Two… One second now to go!

Why won’t your feet be still? They’re jumping up and down on the rudder pedals. Dammit! You can’t stop them. And your hands? Sticky, trembling on the stick and throttle. Shaking like you’ve got the DTs. Goggles streaming with perspiration. Your clothes are soaked. They’re soggy. Itchy. Hell fever, that’s what you’ve got. Scared-to-hell fever. You always catch it right about now with one second to go. It’ll go away. As soon as… There’s the flag.

Slap the throttle. Werrummm! The ship leaps forward. Your feet stop jumping. Hands? Cold and steady. Now, crouched in the cockpit, this is your world. Nothing else matters. It’s up to you.

Faster, faster, faster, shooting across the field. Pull back on the stick. Not too fast. Easy does it. You’re free. The ship leaps forward again, like a shot from a gun. No more ground drag. Too much speed. You’ll rip the wings off if you don’t slow down the propeller.

Roscoe Turner Wedell-Williams 44 1933

Turner with his Wedell-Williams Model 44 in late 1933. An 800 hp (597 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp Sr engine has now been installed in the racer.

Where are the others? Count ’em… one… two… three… they’re all up. Don’t get too close. One error and it’s curtains for both of you.

You’re no longer human. You’re a machine. Every move is timed to the split second… There’s the red roof. Pylon coming up. Left rudder. Left stick. Moving up. Wing down. You’re around. The straightaway. More throttle. The wind whistles in your ears.

Brown roof. Big tree. Another turn. Here comes the others. Who’s that on the left wing? He’s cutting in too close. You’ll get his prop wash on the next turn… Here it comes, boy… Hang on!

Too sharp. Take ’em wider next turn. Don’t try to cut so short. Let the other guy kill himself. You’re doing all right. There’s the grandstand again. Swoosh!

Pull off a strip of tape from the dashboard. That’s how you count the laps. Thirty laps. Thirty pieces of tape. Twenty-nine now… Check it the next time you go by the crowd. The guy will have the big numeral card out. It should read 28.

Roscoe Turner Boeing 247 1934

In 1934, this Boeing 247 (NR257Y) was flown by Turner, Clyde Pangborn, and Reeder Nichols to a second place finish in the Transport category of the MacRobertson Race, covering some 11,300 miles (18,200 km). The aircraft was borrowed from United Airlines and fitted with extra fuel tanks in the fuselage. After the race, it was returned to service by United. This aircraft is currently preserved in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Where is No. 8? You can’t see him. Red roof again… turn… straightaway… throttle… brown roof… big tree… pylon… The grandstand. Okay, it says 28.

There he is! Just ahead. You’re gaining on him. Faster, faster… Pour it on. Pray this thing will hold together… Red roof coming up… Try to cut it real short this time… Take the chance… Maybe you can get him on the turn… NOW… Wing down deep… Snap back… jerk… Shake, tremble, roar! But you made it. There’s nobody in front of you.

Instruments?… Oil pressure… Supercharger… Gas… Speed… Okay… If they only stay like that. Remember what happened last year- when the supercharger blew. It was only doing 2000 rpm then… Now it’s doing 3000. You improved it. But that much?

Pylon. Grandstand. Tape. Round and round going nowhere. Brown roof. Red roof. Big tree. Straightaway. Pylon. Zoom, zoom, zoom. Wing up. Wing down. Level off. More pylons. More trees, more roofs. It’s hot. Like an oven. Is something on fire? Glance around? No, don’t, you mustn’t. At this speed you can’t take your eyes off what’s coming up ahead… Grandstand… Tape… There’s one piece left. One more lap.

You’re still out in front. If you could only look back and catch that number card for a recheck. It was so blurred. Maybe you missed a pylon. Maybe they’ll disqualify you. No, not that, please. And let’er hang together another two minutes.

Roscoe Turner Howard Bendix 1933

Turner and Benny Howard shake hands as Vincent Bendix looks on after the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race. Turner finished 23 seconds behind Howard in the cross-country race. Turner’s Wedell-Williams Model 44 racer now had its final power plant, a 1,000 hp (746 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engine housed in a close-fitting cowling.

It’s over.

You won!

You’re shaking again. You can hardly control the ship after she’s on the ground. Your heart beats louder than the engine. Uniform soaked, sopping wet. Hands tremble. Knees buckle as you climb out to meet the reporters and photographers with a big, forced smile… Headache. Muscle ache. Exhaustion. Oh, for a great big soft bed.

Air racing is like that. It’s the toughest test of all on men and machines. I know. For ten years I was pushing pylons in the Thompson. For ten years I was smashing records across the country in the big Bendix Transcontinental. Three times winner of the Thompson, many times loser. But it gets in your blood, and it stays.

It’s the most dangerous profession in the world.

Roscoe Turner Turner-Laird 1938

Turner applies power to the 1,000 hp (746 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine in his Turner-Laird RT-14 Meteor racer (Race 29, NR263Y) at the start of the 1938 Thompson Trophy Race in Cleveland, Ohio. Beyond the Keith Rider R-3/Marcoux-Bromberg Special (Race 3) flown by Earl Ortman is Turner’s Wedell-Williams Model 44 (Race 25) flown by Joe Mackey. All of these aircraft are preserved: the Meteor is in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum; the Model 44 is part of the Crawford Auto-Aviation Collection in Cleveland, Ohio; the R-3 is in the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.

More on Roscoe Turner:
Roscoe Turner: Aviation’s Master Showman by Carroll V. Glines (1995)

Napier-Heston Racer front 3-4 2

Napier-Heston Racer

By William Pearce

Near the end of World War I, D. Napier & Son built one of the most outstanding aircraft engines of all time: the 12-cylinder Lion. Lion production continued through the 1920s and 1930s, and other Napier aircraft engines did not achieve a level of success anywhere near that of the Lion. In the 1930s, Major Frank Halford was the head aircraft engine designer at Napier and was working on H-type engines. Compared to contemporary aircraft engines, Halford’s new engines used a smaller cylinder bore and stroke and ran at a higher rpm. In the late 1930s, Halford’s latest engine was the Sabre—a sleeve valve engine with 24 cylinders of 5.0 in (127 mm) bore and 4.75 in (121 mm) stroke. The Sabre displaced 2,238 (36.7 L) and was capable of over 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) and speeds up to 4,000 rpm.

Napier-Heston Racer front 3-4

The Napier-Heston Racer’s sleek lines and wide-track undercarriage are apparent in this view of the aircraft taken at the Heston Airport.

Napier wanted a way to demonstrate their new aircraft engine to the world. In its earlier days, the Lion had powered aircraft used to set world speed records. Since 1937, the Germans had held the landplane 3 km (1.86 mi) world speed record at 379.38 mph (610.55 km/h), and since 1934, the Italians had held the absolute 3 km (1.86 mi) world speed record at 440.682 mph (709.209 km/h). Napier felt a specially designed aircraft powered by a Sabre engine would be capable of setting a new speed record at over 480 mph (772 km/h), beating both the Germans and Italians. Not only would this achievement be great marketing, it would also bring the record back to Britain and embarrass Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

Under lead designer Arthur E. Hagg, Napier laid out its racer design in mid-1938. Hagg previously designed the de Havilland DH.91 Albatross transport, and the two aircraft share some family resemblance. The racer’s sole purpose was to break the 3 km (1.86 mi) world speed record, and it was not intended as a testbed for the Sabre engine. The British Air Ministry was unwilling to financially support the project, but Lord Nuffield (William Richard Morris) stepped forward to independently fund the construction of two aircraft. In addition, a number of vendors donated parts and services or offered them at cost. Since Napier did not have the resources to construct the racer, the Heston Aircraft Company was selected to build the aircraft in late 1938. The Heston team was led by George Cornwall. The association between Napier and Heston gave the aircraft its popular name: the Napier-Heston Racer. The aircraft is also known as the Nuffield-Napier-Heston Racer, the Heston J.5 High-Speed Aircraft, and the Heston Type 5 Racer.

Napier-Heston Racer rear 3-4

The Napier-Heston Racer was painted silver with dark blue registration letters. Many layers of aircraft dope were applied to the birch ply sheeting that made up the exterior of the aircraft; this created a surface free from even the most minor of imperfections.

To expedite construction, the Napier-Heston Racer was built almost entirely of wood. The wing spars were made from compregnated wood of multiple laminations bonded with resin under high pressure. The fuselage frame and stringers and wing ribs were made of spruce. The wings and fuselage were covered with birch ply sheets. Split flaps were incorporated into the wings. The control surfaces had aluminum alloy frames and were covered with fabric. A variable-ratio control system was designed for the elevator. This system kept the elevator movements small when the control stick was near the neutral position. As the control stick was moved farther from neutral, the relative elevator movement became greater. This system was employed so that very precise elevator movements could be achieved at high speeds.

The Napier-Heston Racer was fitted with one of the first six Sabre I prototype engines, but its boost was increased. The standard Sabre I engine produced 2,000 hp at 3,700 rpm, but the racer’s engine produced 2,450 hp (1,827 kW) at 3,800 rpm. The racer had a 10 ft 9 in (3.28 m) diameter, metal, three-blade, de Havilland constant-speed propeller. Wing root intakes led to the engine’s supercharger. A radiator was housed in a duct under the aircraft. The radiator’s upper and lower surfaces were sloped back and formed a deep V in the duct. After air passed through the radiator, it was expelled under the horizontal stabilizer on both sides of the tail. A channel above the radiator skimmed off the turbulent boundary layer, allowing it to bypass the radiator. The wide-track (14.8 ft / 4.5 m) main gear retracted fully into the wings, and a small tail skid was incorporated into the fixed fin of the tail. After many layers of aircraft dope were applied, the fit and finish of the racer was near perfection.

Napier-Heston Racer left

The rather small size of the Napier-Heston Racer is illustrated in this photo. The radiator’s intake duct can be seen under the aircraft, and its exit duct under the horizontal stabilizer. Note the bulges in the cowling to allow clearance for the Sabre’s cylinder banks.

Between the engine and fully enclosed cockpit was a 73 gallon (276 L) fuel tank. At full throttle, the aircraft’s endurance was only 18 minutes. The racer had a wingspan of 32 ft (9.75 m), a length of 24 ft 7 in (7.50 m), and a height of 11 ft 10 in (3.61 m). Its fully loaded weight was 7,200 lb (3,267 kg). All tolerances were kept to a minimum, and the racer was highly polished to remove any imperfections. The aluminum engine cowling had four bulges to allow clearance for the Sabre’s cylinder banks. The cowling sealed so tightly that small air vents were installed on the bulges to ensure that no combustible vapors built up in the engine compartment.

The first flight of a Sabre engine occurred on 31 May 1939. The engine was installed in a Fairey Battle flown by Chris Staniland. The Sabre-powered Battle had accumulated a number of hours before the special engine in the Napier-Heston Racer was first run on 6 December 1939. The racer was painted silver, with the registration of G-AFOK painted in dark blue. Taxi tests began on 12 March 1940 at Heston Airport. The engine and taxi test did not reveal any issues with control or engine cooling.

The Napier-Heston Racer’s first flight was delayed by weather but finally occurred on 12 June 1940. Squadron Leader G. L. G. Richmond was at the controls and flew the aircraft off from the 3,900 ft (1,189 m) grass field at Heston Airport. Reportedly, Richmond chose to make this flight without the canopy in place. Shortly after liftoff, the Sabre engine rapidly overheated, and Richmond tried to quickly bring the plane in for a landing. Sources disagree on exactly what happened next.

Napier-Heston Racer front

Two of the small engine compartment vents can just be seen on the upper bulges of the cowling. The exterior of the aircraft was kept as aerodynamically clean as possible.

Some sources state that Richmond was preoccupied with the emergency and was also being scalded by the overheated cooling system. They claim that he may have experienced some difficulty mastering control of the variable-ratio elevator, as he had almost touched down after a steep approach when the aircraft rose sharply back into the air and stalled. Other sources point out that the racer did not exhibit any cooling issues during the numerous ground engine runs and that Richmond was scalded when the coolant pipes burst as a result of the hard landing after the stall. They contend that the aircraft’s elevator became ineffective as a result of low speed and that it was possibly in the wings’ turbulent airflow during the steep pitch up before the stall. While some sources state the Sabre engine seized, others report the ignition was on and the engine was running but that Richmond did not advance the throttle because of its overheated state.

Richmond’s flight in the Napier-Heston Racer was only about six minutes, and he never retracted the gear. After liftoff, he immediately brought the aircraft around for landing. Richmond’s actions indicate he felt something was wrong very early on. While a burst cooling pipe would explain the cooling issues and Richmond’s scalding, and control issues with the elevator would explain the odd altitude deviations in the aircraft’s final moments, the exact issues and sequence of events may never be known.

Napier-Heston Racer front 3-4 2

The wing root intake scoops that provide air to the Sabre engine can clearly be seen in this photo. Two three-into-one exhaust manifolds on each side of the racer collected the Sabre’s exhaust gases.

The end result was that the Napier-Heston Racer stalled about 30 ft (9 m) above the grass runway and hit the ground hard. The impact broke the landing gear, the left wing, and the rear fuselage just behind the cockpit. Fortunately, Richmond was able to walk away from the wreck. With the war against Germany underway, no attempt was made to repair the Napier-Heston Racer. The racer’s Sabre engine was not badly damaged. It was rebuilt and installed in a production Hawker Typhoon that was used during the war. Although the second racer, registered as G-AFOL, was around 60% complete, it was never finished. The Napier-Heston Racer project had cost Lord Nuffield £50,000 to £100,000.

Between the time the Napier-Heston Racer was conceived and its first flight, Germany had increased the absolute world speed record to 469.221 mph (755.138 km/h). However, the Chief Technician and Aerodynamicist at Heston Aircraft, R. A. Clare, had estimated that the Napier-Heston Racer could achieve a maximum of 508 mph (818 km/h) over the 3 km (1.86 mi) course. While the true capabilities of the racer will never be known, attempts have been made to create a flying replica. Due to the high cost of such a project and the extreme rarity of Sabre engines, for now, a Napier-Heston Racer replica remains just a dream.

Napier-Heston Racer right side

The Napier-Heston Racer ready to fly at the Heston Airport. It is unfortunate that the aircraft never had a chance to demonstrate its true potential.

– “The Napier-Heston Racer” by Bill Gunston Aeroplane Monthly (June 1976)
– “Napier-Heston Racer postscript” Aeroplane Monthly (August 1976)
– “A Co-operative Challenger” Flight (15 April 1943)
– “The Heston Napier Monoplane” by H. J. Cooper The Aero Modeller (August 1943)
By Precision Into Power by Alan Vessey (2007)

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer 18-08-1930

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer

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 floatplanes switching to wheels for land-based races and wheeled aircraft switching to floats for sea-based races.

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer

The Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer created for the 1930 Thompson Trophy Race.

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.

Curtiss F6C-3 Marine Race Page

The Curtiss F6C-3 Hawk that Arthur Page flew to victory in the 1930 Curtiss Marine Trophy Race. For that race, the radiator intake was modified, and the radiator housing was faired back to the tail. The fuel filler cap and pilot’s headrest were also faired to improve the aircraft’s aerodynamics. This aircraft was extensively modified into the XF6C-6 racer.

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.

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer 18-08-1930

The completed Curtiss XF6C-6 on 18 August 1930. Even though it is the same aircraft, the modifications have made it unrecognizable from its F6C-3 origins.

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).

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer cockpit

This image of the XF6C-6 racer shows the hinged cockpit sides and cover. The aircraft has its Thompson Trophy Race number (27) applied, and no carburetor scoop is visible. Note the exposed wheels.

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.

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer rear scoop

This image shows the Curtiss XF6C-6 racer again with its race number, but the carburetor scoop is in place. Also visible is the hand crank (and its shadow) used to start the engine. Note how the aircraft’s seams have been taped over to reduce drag.

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).

Curtiss XF6C-6 Page Navy Racer front scoop

The XF6C-6 during an engine run-up. This image provides a good view of the carburetor scoop and taped seams. The bulges on top of the wing are expansion tanks for the surface radiators.

Curtiss Aircraft 1907-1947 by Peter M. Bowers (1979/1987)
Racing Planes & Air Races 1909-1967 by Reed Kinert (1967)
– “Captain Page and the 1930 Thompson Trophy Race” by Jimmy Halzip The Golden Age of Air Racing (1963/1991)
Thompson Trophy Racers by Rodger Huntington (1989)