“Racing,” as the saying goes, “improves the breed.”  And during the Roaring 20’s, the rage of the nation (and the world at large) was airplane racing.  While the sport would reach its ultimate form in the 1930’s with the likes of the Thompson Trophy races, one of the earliest trophy races was the Schneider Trophy, first put up in 1911 and competed for in 1913.  The Schneider Trophy was  a prize competition for seaplanes and sponsored by Jacques Schneider, a financier, balloonist and aircraft enthusiast, who offered a prize of roughly £1,000. The race was held eleven times between 1913 and 1931 and was meant to encourage technical advances in civil aviation.  However, as raceers are wont to do, it became a contest for pure speed with laps over a triangular course (initially 280 km, later 350 km).

Through the race in 1924, seaplanes participating in the race were pretty staid — certainly advancing, incrementally, for their time, but a bit stodgy.  Typical was the winning British entry at the 1922 event hosted at Naples, Ital (the Italians had won the previous race and as such, were hosts).  A waterborne hull, high mounted engine (to keep out of sea spray) and of course, biplane configuration made up the Supermarine Sea Lion II – which was not altogether indistinguishable from the 1921 winning Italian entry, the Macchi M.7:

Supermarine Sea Lion II (1922)

Macchi M.7 (1921)

The Americans entered the fray in 1923 with the Curtis CR-3 racer — and blew the competition into the weeds with a blazing record speed of 177.38 mph (remember the time).

Curtiss CR-3

The CR3 was the second of a pair of racers built by Curtiss in 1921, as the Navy’s entry for the land-based Pulitzer Trophy race which that year, was held in conjunction with the National Air Races in Omaha, Nebraska.  With a fuselage of laminated wood/wood veneer, mated to a CD-12 in-line (vice the more common radial) engine developing over 400hp, the CR-3 looked fast just sitting on the deck:

CR-1 (later re-designated CR-2)Pulitzer Tropy entrant (1921)

(cooling for the CD-12 was liquid and the radiators are the pineapple-shaped pods nestled in the “V” of the undercarriage)

As is evident from the above photo – this was a very clean aircraft for the time, dragwise.  There also weren’t any floats — more later.  By the time the aircraft were ready for the race in September (BTW – the order had been placed in June, of 1921, roughly three months from bid to competitive debut) for reasons unclear, the Services (Army and Navy) withdrew form official participation in the race.  Instead, the two aircraft were “loaned” out for competition purposes back to Glen Curtiss.  In turn, rather than collect dust and moths, the aircraft were put in to hard service by Curtiss who used them to break international records, such as when factory test pilot, Bert Acosta took the CR-3 to a world record speed of 197.8 mph over the company’s field on Long Island, NY.

Curtiss CR-2, CR-3, CR-4 (A6081) (C-4 represented ca. 1925)

With the new year (1922) the racers were entered for competition again.  Building off lessons learned, new wings were installed along with a new cooling system – embedded in the wings using surface radiators.  At the Pulitzer races in Detroit, the Navy entries placed 3rd (LT Brow in the CR-2 @ 193 mph) and 4th (Lt Williams, USMC in the CR-1 @187 mph).  Army pilots took first and second in Curtiss R-6s built that year and incorporating the new wings and cooling system of the CR-2.  In 1923, the Navy converted both the CR-1 and CR-2 to seaplanes and packed them off to the gobsmacking administered at the Schneider competition hosted by Britain at Cowes,  Isle of Wight.  Lt. David Rittenhouse (USMC) took the honors with a closed circuit speed of 177.38 mph (that’s him making the pylon turn in the painting above).  LT Rutledge (USN) was second in the former CR-1 at 173.46.  Such a beating was administered such that when 1924 came rolling around and it was  America’s turn to host (at Baltimore, MD), all the European competitors withdrew in a snit and the host cancelled the competition rather than win by default.

The Navy, however, wasn’t going to let the snub lay unchallenged and set out on a massive record breaking tear with an updated CR-3 (now the CR-4 – model # A6081) which posted a new closed-course record of 188.078 mph on 25 October.  A talley of all the records during this period include:

  • Lieutenant G. T. Cuddihy, in a CR-3 powered with a Curtiss D-12 engine, broke a maximum world speed record of almost two years standing with 188.078 m.p.h.
  • Lieutenant R. A. Ofstie, in a CR-3 with a Curtiss D-12 engine, broke world speed records for 100, 200 and 500 kilometers with marks of 178.25 m.p.h. for the 100 and 200 and 161.14 for the 500.
  • Lieutenant G. R. Henderson, in a PN-7 flying boat equipped with two Wright T-2 engines, set four records for speed over 100 and 200 kilometers with loads of 250 and 500 kilograms, all at 78.507 m.p.h; and four records with a useful load of 1,000 kilograms with a speed of 78.507 m.p.h. for 100 and 200 kilometers, a distance record of 248.55 miles and a duration record of 5 hours, 28 minutes, 43 seconds.
  • Lieutenant O. B. Hardison, also in a PN-7, set world records for speed over 100 kilometers, and for distance with a useful load of 1,500 kilograms at 68.4 m.p.h. and 62.137 miles, and three more with a useful load of 2,000 kilograms in speed for 100 kilometers of 68.4 m.p.h., distance 62.137 miles, and duration 1 hour, 49 minutes, 11.9 seconds.

Curtiss R3C-2 (ca. 1925)

In 1925, Curtiss rolled out a new, radical racer – the Curtiss R3C-1.  The subject of a joint Army/avy order (Army – 1, Navy – 2) the R3C-1 was leading edge state of the art.  A 610-hp, 1400 cuin D-12 engine was mated to a monocoque fuselage made of two layers of laminated spruce with a fabric coat doped on top for added strength.  The wings employed a thinner airfoil and mounted the now famous radiators (corrugated brass running chord-wise) in a single strut arrangement.  The upper wings were mated to the upper fuselage, improving visibility in the turn.  The rudder was slightly enlarged to account for the more powerful engine and at the Pulitzer races that October, Lt. Cyrus Bettis (USA) flew against the clock and recorded a course speed of 248.99 mph for four laps around the 50km triangle course.

Curtiss R3C-2 being prepped for 1925 Schneider Trophy race at Baltimore

The Schneider competition followed close on the heels of the Pulitzer races (this year at 1924’s site, Baltimore) and all three were converted to float planes.  Flying for the Army was Lt James Doolittle – and he swpet to victory with a record speed of 232.57 mph.  The two Navy entries were running competitively until being forced out near the end with engine troubles.

Army Lt James Doolittle and 1925 Schneder Trophy winning R3C-2

The following year, the Europeans were back at full throttle, having clearly taken notes while getting their clocks cleaned by the Americans.  While a modified (larger engine, different floats) variant of last year’s winner, the R3C-4 was entered by the US, on the Italian side a slick monoplane made the scene and with an engine producing a noteworthy 880hp, a winning speed of 281.66 mph ensured the Schneider was going back to Europe (no doubt to the relief of designer Mario Castodi, who reputedly was told by Benito Moussolini to produce a winner…).  The next year, at Venice, the British reasserted themselves with the Supermarine S.5, again raising the bar with a winning speed of 328.65 mph.

1926 Schneider Trophy winning Macchi M.39

1931 and Final Shneider Trophy Winning Supermarine S.6B

By 1931, in the face of a deepening world recession and spectre of hostile forces on the far horizon, the last Schneider Trophy was won by a Supermarine S.6B with a winning speed of 340.09 mph.  Through it all, the boundaries of aerodynamics, engine performance, materials and control had been pushed a little further.  And for those that doubted the efficacy of racing as a means of improving the breed, in less than a decade after the last prop was stilled at a Calshot Spit, UK, the descendants of these racers would be found in combat around the world:

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Macchi C.202-1

Supermarine Spitfire

And the R3C-2 that won in 1925?  You can still see it today hanging in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors