And the models are not hobby-shop fare but meticulous, scale-model replicas of once famous prop aircraft that dazzled the world during Schneider Cup competitions of the late 1920s and 1930s. The races were sponsored by Jacques Schneider, son of the French armaments maker and an advocated of commercial seaplanes.
Those competitions starring the most advanced aircraft of the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Italy – led the development of the British Spitfire, the American P-51 and other fighter designs.
One-third the size of the originals with wingspans of about 8 feet, these custom-made replicas typically cost $17,000 and up. But the enthusiasts who gathered in mid-November at Lake Havasu City, Ariz. To re-create the Schneider Cup races have far more invested than money. Team Macchi, for example, all Californians from Lake Elsinore, spent eight painstaking months building its model.
There were some 24 models entered in the three-day, first-ever giant-scale Schneider Cup reenactment. The exquisite replicas detailed and finished to the exacting standard of museum models included Supermarines (2,350hp British racing seaplanes); a black-and-gold Curtiss 12-cylinder biplane modeled after the one that then Lieutenant Jimmy (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) Doolittle flew in 1925, perfect down to the last rivet head, turnbuckle and wing-skin radiator ridge, a petite and gorgeous blue 1913 French Deperdussin; a lumbering Sopwith Tabloid; and several Italian Macchis. (Designed by Mario Castoldi, the Macchi monoplanes finally beat the Curtiss biplanes in 1926 at Hampton Roads, Va.)
Most racers use hot two-cycle engines found in chainsaws or weed eaters. In fact, the reenactment sounded like a festival of chainsaws.
But one competitor, Cliff Adams who runs a steel fabrication plant in Los Angeles, wanted a four-cycle engine for his Supermarine S.6B replica. He wanted the smooth power pulses and steady, calibrated horsepower required to satisfy his sense of how the real Supermarine S.6B must have flown in 1931. And so, for the sake of flight realism, he had a jewel-like four-cycle aircraft engine handcrafted in his machine shops from scratch. His attention to detail is typical of how far enthusiasts are willing to go for the sake of realism. (Much of the $24,000 cost of Adams’ Supermarine model went into the unique engine.)
For historical technical source material, these flight enthusiasts rely on the Smithsonian Institution, the aerospace industry and Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.
They view and re-view videotapes converted from contemporary newsreel coverage of the races, to closely study how the real planes handled both on the water and in the air. Team Macchi even entered into a detailed technical correspondence with the Macchi factory in Italy.
Racers also rely on the experts among their own number. Bob Martin chairs the reenactment committee and is the prime organizer for these races. Formerly the executive director of the sanctioning body for the Baja 500 and 1000 off-road races, Martin has immersed himself in the history and technology of the Schneider planes.
Another expert is Robert Hirsch, who has amassed a private collection of 16,000 vintage photographs of race planes and was among the judges at the race. A third source of help is Jim Pepino, a scholarly engineer who publishes sheets of giant-scale plans.
Since the Schneider reenactment effort got underway, Pepino says he has distributed more than 70 sets of plans just for the Supermarine S.6B, so next year’s race will be even more hotly contested. This year’s competitors were all North American; next year Europeans are expected to join.
How did Team Macchi’s model do? After ten blistering laps, it seemed the MC.72 had the race won. The big red replica, radio-piloted by Richard Pasqualletto, pulled straight up into a spectacular vertical victory roll. It climbed and climbed, disappearing into the blinding eye of the Arizona sun. The crowd lost it for a moment, and evidently so did the pilot, for when the Macchi reappeared it was running full blast. In the millisecond before it hit the water, it appeared it just might pull out of the dive, but it did not. Team member Bill Coulter, a former marketing vice president for Del Taco, took off his Team Macchi hat, rubbed his brow, and said matter-of-factly, “Well. At least it was spectacular.” Other team members ceremoniously lowered the Italian flag Coulter had provided for the occasion.
A spectacular crack-up, but not unusual. Almost a third of the 24 entrants in this year’s race incurred some sort of damage, and a few were totaled. Such is the cost of competing in this high-tech, exacting pastime.
The winner this year, on accumulated points for scale quality, speed and authenticity of flying, was a 1927 Supermarine S.5 built by Robert Heitkamp and friends. An Alaskan from Juneau, he shipped the plane down the inland passage in huge, specially constructed crates.
Doolittle, now 93, did not attend, but he did autograph some of the posters promoting the race and sent them to Lake Havasu City from his home in California. These were distributed at the event to be treasured forever by the new Schneider racers.