By: Norm Goyer
The British aviation community received a good boost with the Supermarine S-6 winning the long running Schneider Cup Trophy. There was a huge depression slowing down the commerce of the world and England thought, and rightfully so, that air racing, and winning, was a great form of promotion. The upcoming race, which caught the eye of the British aviation industry, was the newly announced MacRobertson 11,000 mile event from Mildenhall, England to Melbourne, Australia. The problem was that no single British aircraft currently flying was capable of making the trip in record winning time. The de Havilland company accepted the challenge by offering to produce a limited run of 200 mph racers, if three were ordered, by February 1934. The sale price of £5,000 each would by no means cover the development costs. In 1935, de Havilland suggested a high-speed bomber version of the DH.88 to the RAF, but the suggestion was rejected. (de Havilland later developed the de Havilland Mosquito along similar lines as the DH.88 as a high-speed fighter/bomber.
DeHavilland did receive the needed three orders and started to produce the Comet. The interior structure consisted of a wooden frame covered with spruce plywood, then covered with fabric. A long streamlined nose held the main fuel tanks. The two cockpits were set low in the central portion of the fuselage which formed an unbroken line to the tail. The engines were essentially standard Gipsy Six used on the Express and Dragon Rapide passenger planes, tuned for best performance but with a higher compression ratio. The propellers were two-position variable pitch, manually set to fine before takeoff and changed automatically to coarse by a pressure sensor. The main landing gear retracted upwards and backwards into the engine nacelles. The DH.88 could maintain altitude up to 4,000 ft on one engine.
De Havilland managed to meet the tight schedule and flight testing of the DH.88 began six weeks before the start date of the race. Three distinctively colored Comets took their places among 17 other entrants ranging from a new Douglas DC-2 airliner to two converted Fairey Fox bombers.
The first take off was at 6.30 a.m. on October 20 with Jim and Amy Mollison at the controls of their own G-ACSP Black Magic. They made a faultless journey to Baghdad, and reached Karachi at around 10 a.m. on the second race day, setting a new England-India record. Problems began for the Mollisons when their landing gear failed to retract, and after returning Karachi for repairs they were again delayed by an inability to navigate at night.
The very familiar bright red G-ACSS was the property of Mr. A.O. Edwards and was named “Grosvenor House” after the hotel which he managed. The plane was flown by Charles W. Scott and Tom Campbell Black. When the Mollisons ran into problems at Karachi, C.W.A. Scott & Tom Campbell Black took over the lead and were first into Allahabad. Despite a severe storm over the Bay of Bengal, they reached Singapore safely, 8 hours ahead of the DC-2.
The bright red Comet took off for Darwin, but over the Timor Sea lost power in the port engine when the oil pressure dropped to zero. Repairs at Darwin got them going again, although continuing oil warnings caused them to fly the last two legs with one engine throttled back. Their lead was unassailable despite this, and after the final mandatory stop and more engine work at Charleville they flew on to cross the finish line at Flemington Racecourse at 3.33 p.m. (local time) on October 23. Their official time was 71 hours 18 seconds.
England had done it again, captured a major air race with a specially designed aircraft which proved to be unbeatable, similar to the Supermarines in the Schneider Cup Trophy Races. DeHavilland built a total of five Comets with several now undergoing restoration. In addition, a replica was built at Flabob Airport, near Riverside, California a few years ago and thousands saw it first hand at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In my opinion the Comet was one of the most beautiful aircraft ever designed.
- Crew: 2
- Length: 29 ft
- Wingspan: 44 ft
- Height: 9 ft
- Wing area: 213 ft²
- Empty weight: 3,000 lb
- Loaded weight: 5,550 lb
- Engines: 2, de Havilland Gipsy Six 285 hp each