Faster and Farther

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2018 by hillermuseum

Jimmy Doolittle and the Curtiss R3C-2

Aeronautical Advancements Between the Wars
by Jon Welte

A century ago this fall – November 11, 1918 – the guns fell silent on the Western Front, bringing an end to the terrors of the Great War. Today remembered as World War I, at the end of 1918 it was known instead as the War to End All Wars – a conflict so horrendous that surely another could never succeed it. The moniker and the rationale behind it proved tragically false, but the mood in 1918 was one of optimism for the future, tinged with sad remembrance of the past.

Though no other continent suffered World War I to the extent that Europe did, the change brought by the conflict spanned the world. Aviation, still in its infancy in 1913, experienced a tremendous burst of innovation and development during the war years. When battle was first joined in 1914, the airplane was an oddity with no clear military role. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, control of the air had become an essential pre-requisite for a successful land campaign. The frail machines flown early in the war were quite similar in performance to the 1905 Wright Flyer, the machine Wilbur and Orville considered to be their first practical flying machine. In contrast, by war’s end a proliferation of advanced designs had developed, filling niches in the ecosystem of military aviation undreamed of just a few years earlier.

Military conflict on a grand scale proved to be a tremendous accelerant to the pace of technological innovation in flight. The United States did not join the conflict until 1917, and when it did its domestically-developed and built aircraft were utterly outclassed by contemporary British, French and German designs. The country that saw the invention of the airplane in 1903 did not send a single aircraft to fly on a combat mission in World War I.

Following the war, air racing quickly took on the role of catalyzing new developments in aviation. The earliest aerial speed competition was not a true race, but instead an organized set of time trials similar to an Olympic alpine skiing event. Sponsored by newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, the Gordon Bennett Trophy was first awarded to Glenn Curtiss in 1909. Curtiss sprang to fame by besting famed French aviator Louis Bleriot by mere seconds. Racing at Reims, France at a time when French aviation was both technically advanced and a source of intense national pride, the upset victory of the jaunty American was a jolt felt in aviation circles across the continent.

The Bennett Trophy was largely eclipsed by the Schneider Trophy after World War I. Established by Jacques Schneider, the Schneider Trophy was reserved for the world’s fastest seaplanes. Today the concept of a race for seaplanes seems absurd – the floats, pontoons and ship-like fuselages required for an airplane to operate from the water add enormous amounts of drag to an airframe. Until the late 1930s, however, the drag and weight disadvantages faced by seaplanes were modest compared to the challenges faced by landplanes. Absent a global network of paved runways, landplanes usually operated from open fields. Virtually every landplane mission in the first decades of flight would be considered an STOL (short take-off and landing) flight today. Seaplanes, in contrast, had access to much longer takeoff runs in the protected waters of harbors, lakes and bays. Freed from the constraints of making short/soft field take-offs and landings, seaplanes could be optimized for high performance.

The first Schneider Trophy races preceded World War I. The 1914 race was won by one of the first aircraft designed and built by the Sopwith Aviation Company, presaging its legacy of high performance fighter aircraft. Following the war, the race series resumed in earnest in Venice, Italy, giving emergent Italian aircraft designers a chance to shine. Italians won the race in consecutive years in 1920 and 1921. The rules of the Schneider Trophy competition stipulated that a team able to win three consecutive races would keep the trophy in perpetuity, giving the Italians an opportunity for an historic win in 1922. Standing in their way was a biplane flying boat constructed by a little-known aircraft manufacturer: the Supermarine Aviation Works.

Incorporated during World War I, Supermarine struggled to field an effective design and survived the war building components for Sopwith. After the war Supermarine found its niche building small numbers of seaplanes for the Royal Navy. A Supermarine airplane first appeared at a Schneider Trophy race in 1919, but sank ingloriously after striking debris on landing. Its 1922 entry, the Sea Lion II, remained afloat and dashed the hopes of the Italians, winning the competition and returning the trophy to the United Kingdom.

Throughout the 1920s, the Schneider competition inspired pilots, aircraft designers, and entire nations with the thrill of higher and higher speeds in a technology that seemed to have no limit. The United States, consigned as an aeronautical backwater during World War I, returned to prominence with a pair of victories in the 1920s, the second flown by James “Jimmy” Doolittle. The final competition was held in 1931, as a British team won a third consecutive victory to claim the trophy for all time. The aircraft that won each of the three final races were all developed by Supermarine.

Aeronautical technology accelerated at a breakneck pace throughout World War I and the racing era. Glenn Curtiss stunned the French by winning the Gorden Bennett Trophy in Reims at the blistering speed of 47 miles per hour. The Supermarine S6 that won the final Schneider race averaged 340 miles per hour just 22 years later. While seaplanes soon faded from importance, the knowledge gained in their development did not. Supermarine adapted what it had learned to build the exceptional Supermarine Spitfire, hero of the Battle of Britain. Rolls Royce, builder of the engines that powered the S-series racers, went on to design powerplants used in many combat aircraft, including not only the Spitfire but also the later (and most effective) versions of the North American P-51 Mustang.

Today, events such as the Reno International Air Races are largely for sport. Military aviation advances in response to perceived threats around the world, while developments in commercial flight stem from unending efforts by airlines to seek competitive advantages. In the time between the wars, however, it was the quest for racing glory that drove teams around the world to design, build and fly ever faster airplanes, transforming the technology of flight and inspiring a tradition of performance in aviation that continues to this day.

Aircraft of Air Racing’s Golden Age, Robert Hirsh, 2005
The Golden Age of Air Racing, S. H. Schmid, 1991
The Quest for Speed, Mike Roussel, 2016


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