Aviation Advancement via Racing

By:      Norm Goyer

Delmar Benjamin flew a replica Gee Bee in airshows around the world.

Delmar Benjamin flew a replica Gee Bee in airshows around the world.

Aviation’s timeline has often been accelerated by wartime advancements. But there has been another form of accelerated advancements provided by air racing which didn’t involve guns, bombs or dog fights. In many cases, the improvements in air racing occurred first and were quietly absorbed into new warbird designs. Here are some “for instances” which are fun to read. During World War I and the subsequent 1920’s aviation scene, biplanes were the choice of engineers.  Going back to the box kite design, designers depended on struts and or cable bracing. The early Curtiss JN-4 Jenny even added small boxes in the form of king posts on top of the wing so they could strengthen outer areas of the long wings with their own “box kites.”  In 1913, the small French Deperdussin company designed an air racer which looked like an air racer of the 1930s, it was that advanced. It was a monoplane with round fuselage and streamlined engine installation including a P-51 Mustang spinner look-alike. But it was the Cleveland Air Races of the 1930s, which really advanced engines and airframes of aircraft with many innovations that ended up on the fighters of America, Germany, Japan,  England and Russia.

This replica Gee Bee R-2 is in the Fantasy of  Flight museum in Florida.

This replica Gee Bee R-2 is in the Fantasy of Flight museum in Florida.

Forward looking engine manufactures also realized the importance of using air racing as a testing ground for future designs. It was Pratt & Whitney, who in reality helped design the Gee Bee racers by loaning the Granville brothers an engine to install in their first “R” series design. The Granvilles placed the single row nine cylinder radial on a test stand and built the most minimum airframe they could in back of the borrowed engine. The marching orders to the designers and builders were were simple; place the cockpit as far back as needed to balance the heavy engine. Mold the rudder and cockpit into the vertical stabilizer. Use only enough wing area to keep the plane in the air with a full load of fuel and one rather skinny pilot. Bury the landing gear in streamlined wheel pants to cut the drag as much as possible. Then, cross your fingers and hope it takes off and is controllable enough to fly around the pylons. Lastly, find the best pilot you can so we can win the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race. And they  did, U S Army pilot Jimmy Doolittle who had already won the race in a Laird Super Solution biplane.

Jimmy Doolittle flying an R-2 Gee Bee won the 1932 Thompson Air Race.

Jimmy Doolittle flying an R-2 Gee Bee won the 1932 Thompson Air Race.

I had an early start with my aviation career, my dad took me to see the racing Gee Bees  being constructed and test flown at the Springfield, Massachusetts airport when I was a youngster. I saw Jimmy Doolittle test fly the plane. Years later, I was a Producer Director at a TV station located only a few yards from the same runway. I often had one of the surviving Granville Brothers as guests of various shows I was involved with.

The races held in 1932, were in many writer’s opinion, the turning point in air racer design. This was the year that Jimmy Doolittle, flying Gee Bee R-1 out flew every aircraft entered. This airplane would influence future military aircraft of many nations. After winning the Thompson, and breaking national air speed records, Doolittle flew the Gee Bee back to Springfield, Massachusetts, and told local newspaper reporters that he had high praise for the ship and the men who built her. The R-1 had a larger P & W 550 hp engine while the R-2 had a smaller P & W 530 hp engine. The aircraft were identical with the exception of the cowling change to accommodate the larger engine.

The complex landing gear and fairing helped reduce the drag on the R series of Gee Bees.

The complex landing gear and fairing helped reduce the drag on the R series of Gee Bees.

Here are some quotes as printed in the local papers. The Springfield Union of September 6, 1932 quoted Doolittle as saying, “She is the sweetest ship I’ve ever flown. She is perfect in every respect and the motor is just as good as it was a week ago. It never missed a beat and has lots of stuff in it yet. I think this proves that the Granville brothers up in Springfield build the very best speed ships in America today.”

The Union of September 10, said Jimmy Doolittle flew in yesterday from Cleveland in the R-11 (R-2), rolled it into the hangar at Bowles airport, patted the fuselage, and said, “Gee Bee’s are mighty fine ships.” Another Springfield paper of the same date quoted Doolittle as saying, “The ship performed admirably. She was so fast that there was no need of my taking sharp turns although if the competition had been stiffer I would have. I just hope Russell Boardman (another Gee Bee race pilot)  can take her around at quite a bit more than 300 miles an hour so you see my record may not last long after all.”

Of all the racing aircraft ever designed, it was the Gee Bee which initiated the largest changes in aviation design. Biplanes lost favor for high performance aircraft, open cockpits were covered with canopies and military engineers started looking for much larger engines to power their fighter aircraft. The Boeing P-26, The Japanese Kate, The Russian Polikarov all had roots back to the Gee Bee. The US Navy quietly noted that the Pratt & Whitney radial engines had a superb reliability record and proceeded to order aircraft mostly from Grumman with P & W radial engines. It was then that Navy pilots started extolling the virtues of Pratt & Whitney engines by telling anyone who would listen, “If it ain’t round, it ain’t sound.”

I cherish my memories of the Granville Brothers, the Springfield Air Racing Association and their outstanding R-1 and R-2 Flying Milk Bottles. and breaking national air speed records

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