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No. 2233:
Gee Bee and Other Fast Planes

Today, we go for speed. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Air races began almost as soon as the airplane was created. And they continue today. But the 1920s and '30s were the age of the airplane race. Airplanes were fast enough to be terribly exciting, yet not too fast to race before spectators. They'd fly low, over a course marked by fifty-foot checkered pylons. Here, speed was no abstract number; it was visceral power, sound and motion.

Try to trace speed records today and you find yourself sorting through the history of four major trophies: The Pulitzer, which then mutated into the National Air Race, the Thompson, the Bendix, and the Schneider. And trophies they were -- great pieces of art deco sculpture celebrating speed with winged figures that might've stepped out of some Athenian frieze. 

The 1929 National Air Race in Cleveland represented an important ramping up of the whole business. Two modified military planes faced off against two civilian planes that'd been built in small shops. A civilian plane, aptly named Mystery, began the race by missing a pylon and having to recircle it. But then it gained time back, and it won the race. The military was humiliated.

We constantly tell one another that war drives technology. But one after another, the private sector walked off with those trophies. Airplane makers Edward and Zantford Granville, for example, set up shop in an old dance pavilion in Springfield, Massachusetts. They called their airplanes Gee Beesfor Granville Brothers.

Gee Bees were remarkable to see. The body was little more than housing for a huge Pratt-Whitney radial engine. That housing narrowed back into the rudder. The cockpit was tucked in front of the rudder at the back of the body. Gee Bees looked, for all the world, like flying beer cans. They were ferociously hard to handle and they carried so many pilots to their death. 

In 1931 Lowell Bayles flew his Gee Bee barefoot, better to feel the sensitive rudder controls. He dove from a thousand feet, pulled out at ground level, reached a record-breaking 300 miles per hour -- then lost control, lurched, and crashed. That cost him the record as well as his life. The next year, Jimmy Doolittle (of the famous 1942 Tokyo raid) won the Thompson Trophy in a Gee Bee. But the next four who raced in Gee Bees all paid with their lives.

So it went. The Supermarine seaplane won the 1931 Schneider Cup at 400 miles per hour. A few years later its design was modified into the famous WW-II fighter, the Spitfire. And, in 1933, an Italian Macchi-Castoldi seaplane set the astounding record of 440 miles per hour -- a record never beaten by any piston engine plane.

In 1939, the flamboyant Rosco Turner got to keep the Thompson Trophy after he'd won it for the third time. But that was the same year WW-II began. Fast flying now turned from fun into survival. An era ended. Only at the war's end did a German jet fighter finally exceed the speed of that Italian seaplane. 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

P. O'Neil, Barnstormers and Speed Kings. (Alexandria, VA, Time-Life Books, 1981): Chapters 3-5.

For more on the air races and the trophies, see:
For the Schneider Trophy 1913 to 1941, see:
For the Thompson Trophy 1930 to 1939, and 1946 to 1961, see: 
The Pulitzer Trophy ran from 1920 to 1925. These became the National Air Races in 1926 and continued until 1939. They tried to come back after the war in 1946 to 1950 and 1964. See:

For more on the quest for speed see Chapter 7, and more on the rate of airspeed increase see Chapter 8 of, J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).


Below, New England Air Museum replica of the original Gee Bee R1 in which Doolittle won the 1932 Thompson Trophy. Below it is the 1931 Schneider Trophy winning Supermarine tucked away in a dark corner of London's Science Museum (I wonder how many Londoners realize that its descendent, the Spitfire, helped to save their city in 1940?) (photos by JHL).  

Gee Bee R1