Flying third-size scale models by remote control, aircraft buffs are recreating the Schneider Cup races of the 1920s and 1930s, the golden era of prop aircraft.
Doolittle’s disciples by Michael Gianturco
The RACING-RED Macchi model looked like an airborne Ferrari as it rounded the pylons at close to 100mph, roaring just 50 feet over the water. The six-member team that was racing her by remote control, all attired in Team Macchi T-shirts and hats was smiling. Its model of the original Macchi MC.72 which once topped 440mph and was the fastest propeller-driven seaplane that ever flew-was leading. It had not been a good competition for Macchis… three had crashed the day before.
Team Macchi and its competitors are not just a bunch of smart teenage kids flying airplane models over the park lake on Sunday afternoon. The men competing in this event are mature professionals. About half are licensed pilots of real airplanes.
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.
When prop planes ruled the skies
It’s been almost 60 years since the last running of the Schneider Cup air races, in 1931, but aviation enthusiasts will never forget them: They were arguably the most important air races in history.
The prize was nominally a baroque silver and bronze trophy, but the real payoff was the technology that led to the World War II fighter planes: The Spitfire, the P-51 and many other classic fighter designs were all directly drawn from the lessons learned from competing in the Schneider Cup races, which were held from 1913 to 1931. During that era, the top speed of the fastest planes rose from about 61mph to 440mph. Historians attribute this astonishing pace of technical progress to the Schneider Cup competition, held in the previous winner’s homeland. The English ultimately retired the trophy in 1931.
There were many remarkable moments in the competitions, but the most memorable occurred on Oct. 26, 1925, in the Chesapeake Bay below Baltimore. Jimmy Doolittle, then a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flew a Schneider race that changed the history of airplanes. Until then, racing pilots had never quite figured out how, exactly, planes should be made to go around the corners of the race course. There were three corners one marked by a lighthouse, two by pylons on barges. The pilots were trying to take these turns as one might corner a car on sheet ice; either take the corner fairly fast on a very wide radius, or slow down sharply, ease it around a tight radius, and then accelerate. Either way cost time.
Doolittle, who had earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from MIT, had calculated it wasn’t necessary to slow down to take the corners tightly in his Curtiss racer if the pilot could resist blacking out under the induced g forces of a steep banking maneuver. Doolittle had in mind a daring banking angle close to 90 degrees. He trained in an experimental Army centrifuge, and found he could withstand 8 g’s for the necessary few moments.
During the 1925 race, according to a British account, “As [Doolittle] banked round the home pylon at low level he held his plane in so tight that the officials on the judges’ stand felt the breeze from his propeller.” He won at 232.57mph, far ahead of the second-place finisher. But Doolittle’s technique would soon become standard.
The fully restored Curtiss R3C-2 Doolittle flew that day hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. With the Curtiss’ 12 cylinder engine, the Americans had defined a new standard for aircraft engine design, and the engine was widely copied. But the Curtiss was a biplane. And at the next race, the Italians unveiled a braced monoplane design. It finally beat the Curtiss biplanes in1926 at Hampton Roads, Va., and that historic race was essentially the end of the dominance of the biplane. M.G.