history of air racing

Reims: the first air race

The Gordon Bennett Trophy


Gordon Bennett Trophy


1909 Voisin

Bleriot's cross-Channel flight excited Europe as nothing else had.  The City of Reims and the French vintners of the Champagne region decided to sponsor a week of aviation exhibition and competition, putting up large purses in prize money, the most prestigious being the International Aviation Cup, known as the Gordon Bennett Trophy, after its sponsor, James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant American publisher of the New York Herald and the Paris Herald.  The meet attracted the cream of European society, from royalty and generals to ambassadors and the merely wealthy, to the Betheny Plain outside Reims from August 22 to 29, 1909.  While there were to be many other such meets before and after World War 1, none would match Reims for grandeur and elegance or for sheer excitement. 

The major European manufacturers, all French, entered various events. There were 'planes by Bleriot, Voisin, Antoinette, and Farman, and even several French-built Wrights.  The Wrights themselves had passed on an invitation to race at Reims, which was awkward since the Gordon Bennett Trophy was crowned with a large replica of a Wright Flyer.  The Aero Club of America, which had sponsored the Scientific American trophy won by Curtiss a year earlier, turned to Curtiss.  Curtiss' June Bug was not as well developed a plane as the Wright machines (and possibly the Wrights were hoping to drive this point home if Curtiss failed at Reims) and while it was more maneuverable than the European planes, it was not nearly as fast. 

Curtiss worked feverishly to produce a more powerful engine and stripped down his airplane to give it greater speed.  The result was the Golden Flyer, which was a light version of his earlier planes and had a 50-horsepower water-cooled engine.  With virtually no time to test the engine or the airplane, Curtiss packed and was off to Reims.  When he arrived, he found that the accommoda­tions for the aviators set up by their manufacturers were as extravagant as those of the spectators. 

Elaborate cooking facilities, decorated hangars, fully stocked machine shops, trunks brim­ming with clothing, spare parts and backup planes, and a retinue of mechanics and helpers, all floated on an ebullient sea of champagne pro­vided by the sponsors.  Curtiss' spartan approach was a simple tent, a single plane, and two scruffily dressed mechanics. So surprised were the French that he instantly became a favorite. 

A brief but heavy rain on the first day turned the field into a muddy plain that was to affect take-offs throughout the meet.  But there were so many aircraft, built by every major manufacturer and flown by every famous aviator, that the crowd was kept enthralled for the entire week.  The early winners included Farman, flying one of his own planes equipped with the newly designed Gnome rotary engine, just beating Latham (flying an Antoinette) and Louis Paulhan (flying a Voisin) for the endurance championship; Latham, who won the altitude championship handily; and Eugene Lefebvre, flying a Wright Model A, who had the best qualifying round for the Gordon Bennett Trophy. 

Curtiss, aware that he had only one plane and precious few replacement parts, held back and worked on his aircraft in secret, trying to lighten it and squeeze out more power from the engine.  He knew that his plane was not as fast on the straightaway as the light, single-winged Bleriot XII, which was outfitted with a new 80-horsepower engine, but he had won many a motorcycle race on the turns with inferior machines.  

On the last day of the meet, the race was held for the Gordon Bennett Trophy.  It came down to a contest among Lefebvre, Latham, Bleriot, George Cockburn (a Scott flying a Farman plane), and Curtiss, now flying a machine he called the Rheims Racer, which was in fact a further stripped-down model of the Golden Flyer.  The course consisted of two six-mile (10km) circuits around tall towers, with each plane flying alone and timed.  Cockburn was the only entrant who failed to finish, his aircraft crashing into a haystack after a single lap.  The others thrilled the crowd with their sharp turns and with the drama of the race. During tests, Curtiss noticed that the field, drenched by the rains earlier in the week but now drying, had pockets of updrafts that tossed his lighter plane violently. 

He guessed (blindly, but correctly) that these updrafts would increase the efficiency of his propellers and could help carry him forward and keep him steady on the turns.  He abruptly notified the judges that he was going to race (fearing the updrafts would wane as the day grew hotter) and took off.  His flight was a bumpy one as he bobbed up and down trying to catch the updrafts while keeping his plane under control and taking the sharp turns.

It was an extraordinary feat of piloting, because when he landed, he had been timed at fifteen minutes and 50.4 seconds.  Lefebvre and Latham did not come close to that time, so French hopes rested with Bleriot, who decided to pilot his own plane, replacing Leon Delagrange, the lighter man who had flown Bleriot's planes throughout the meet.  Delagrange had not flown well and had nearly had a mid-air collision with Paulhan the day before.


Curtiss Reims Racer

The powerful Bleriot XII streaked straight across the sky and completed the first lap ten seconds faster than Curtiss, who watched from the sidelines, anticipating a second-place finish.  But Bleriot took the turn clumsily and swung wider than necessary.  He cruised to a perfect landing and the crowd, judging the French aviator's speed only on the straightaway, was certain he had won.  But his time was fifteen minutes and 56.2 seconds, 5.8 sec­onds longer than Curtiss.  Bleriot was left to wonder if his added weight was responsible for those extra 5.8 seconds, while Curtiss was hailed as "Champion Aviator of the World" in headlines from Paris to Dayton.

the Schneider Trophy

The Schneider prize for seaplanes was first announced by Jaques Schneider, the French Under-Secretary for Air, in 1911, with a prize of the then huge amount of 1,000 pounds. It was meant to encourage progress in civil aviation but became a contest primarily about speed.

In the twenties it was a spur to aircraft development and in the end was seen as a test of nation's strengths in aviation technology. It was largely due to the Schneider trophy that aircraft speeds rose from 150 mph at the end of the First World War, to over 400 mph in 1931. The race gave birth to the Spitfire and the Italian Macchi fighters and established the low drag liquid cooled engine as the fast fighter designers principal choice for power. A fashion that only died with the success of the German FW 190 and the American Corsair and Thunderbolt.

Britain won the trophy in 1914. After the war the first contest, in 1919, was declared void by the judges. In 1920 and 1921 the contest was won by the Italians. The rules said that any nation that won the trophy three years in succession could keep it. So it was a close run thing when the Britain's Supermarine SeaLion snatched victory by tactical flying in the 1922 race with a speed of 145mph.

The next year saw a technical revolution in the shape of the American Curtiss floatplanes with their in-line liquid cooled engines. The Curtiss won with a speed of 177mph. Mr C.R. Fairey of the Fairey Aircraft Company was so impressed with the new engines, he purchased some and fitted them to a new light bomber, the Fairey Fox. The Fox was so fast that no RAF fighter could catch it. An example of how the race was prompting aircraft development.


The 1924 contest was declared void since no other nation turned up to challenge the Americans. In 1925 R.J. Mitchell`s Supermarine S4 was entered but crashed before the race, the pilot was saved. The Americans won in an aircraft piloted by James Doolittle, who later went on to win fame with his audacious raid on Tokyo during WW2. The winning speed was 232mph.

The Italians came back forcefully in 1926 with their new sleek Macchi M39 winning at 246mph. The British were not ready to compete that year. In 1927 Mitchell`s new aircraft, the S5, was ready, in fact the British aircraft industry was there in strength with entries from the Gloster and Shorts companies as well. The effort was only made possible by the backing of the British Government, which also allowed the R.A.F. to participate in the form of serving pilots in the "high speed flight". Two S5s took first and second place and the winning speed was 281 mph.

After that all nations agreed that a two year gap was needed between races. Aircraft and engines were getting more complex and two years was needed to introduce innovations. So the next contest was held in 1929. However there was a crash of an S5 in which Flt Lt Kinkead of the High Speed Flight was Killed in 1928.

In 1929 Supermarine had the new S6 ready. This was powered by a new engine from Rolls-Royce called the "R" that was capable of producing the then staggering power of 1,900 horsepower. The Italians were determined to win the trophy that year, they had an engine of similar power but it weighed a lot more than the Rolls-Royce creation. The Supermarine won with a speed of 328 mph. However, not long afterwards, the British Government withdrew financial support and the British prospect for 1931 looked bleak.


Schneider Trophy winner 1929, F/O HR Waghorn, Supermarine S6

The extreme patriot, Lady Houston stepped in however and gave 100,000 pounds towards the costs. The R engine was boosted to 2,000 horsepower. Come the day of the race the Supermarine S6B was the only entry. It clocked up 340 mph to win, and one run was clocked at 379 mph, a new World speed record. It did not last for long however since the S6B broke it again two weeks later, raising it to a staggering 407 mph.

The Schneider trophy was therefore won outright by Britain. In the process many steps forward in aviation had taken place. 

the Pulitzer Trophy Races
1920-1925

The forerunner of the National Air Races at Cleveland was the Pulitzer Trophy Race established by newspaper publisher Ralph Pulitzer. The first race was held at Mitchell Field, Garden City, Long Island, New York, for four laps of a 29-mile course.  Thirty-eight pilots entered and took off individually.  Most pilots flew American-built Army deH.4 World War I single-engined bombers, along with Navy Vought VE-7’s and SE5A’s.  Only a few pilots were civilians. At the time of the first race, America's planes were getting a top speed of 180 mph while the French, who had become heavily involved with military aviation after World War I, built planes reaching speeds close to 200 mph. However, the Pulitzer series of races brought the winning average speed up from 156 mph in 1920 to 248 mph in 1925.

These Pulitzer races produced several other beneficial technological developments, but also perpetuated the mistaken belief that the biplane configuration had more potential for high speed than the monoplane. This belief may have put America as much as 5 years behind Europe in the development of the monoplane.

the 'Powder Puff' Derby

The First Women’s Air Derby was a transcontinental race that began in Santa Monica, California, and culminated in Cleveland, Ohio, for the 1929 Cleveland National Air Races. Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Louise Thaden, Bobbi Trout and other women aviators of the era brought international attention to women in aviation. That same year, The Ninety-Nines Women’s Aviation Organization was born… literally under the wing of an airplane in Cleveland.


Amelia Earhart

The history of The Ninety-Nines is deeply rooted in air racing. The Women’s Air Derby on August 13-20, 1929 gave women the opportunity to participate in an area of aviation that had been eluding them. Louise Thaden wrote:

“To us the successful completion of the Derby was of more import than life or death. Airplane and engine construction had advanced remarkably near the end of 1929. Scheduled air transportation was beginning to be a source of worry to the railroad. Nonetheless a pitiful minority were riding air lines. Commercial training schools needed more students. The public was sceptical of airplanes and air travel. We women of the Derby were out to prove that flying was safe; to sell aviation to the layman.”

Seventy women held U.S. Department of Commerce licenses in August 1929, but only 40 met the race requirements. Participants had to have 100 hours of solo flight including 25 hours of solo cross-country to points more than 40 miles from the starting airport. The pilot also had to hold a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) and an annual sporting license issued by the contest committee of the National Aeronautics Association (NAA). Each participant also had to carry a gallon of water and a three-day food supply.

Twenty women entered the Derby. The course took eight days to fly and navigate using only dead reckoning and road maps. Undaunted by route changes, sabotage, and death, 14 women completed the Derby with Louise Thaden finishing first. Other women who completed the race in one of the two plane categories were Gladys O’Donnell, Amelia Earhart, Blanche Noyes, Ruth Elder, Neva Paris, Mary Haizlip, Opal Kunz, Mary von March, Vera Dawn Walker, Phoebe Omlie, Edith Foltz, Jessie Keith-Miller, and Thea Rasche. Though out of the competition with two forced landings, Bobbi Trout also completed the course.


Bobbi Trout

Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes went on to win the prestigious Bendix Trophy Race on September 4, 1936 landing at Mines Field in Los Angeles in a bright blue Beechcraft Staggerwing C-17R. This was the first time that women had won the coveted Bendix Trophy. Laura Ingallas in her Lockheed Orion crossed the finish line 45 minutes later to win second place. Amelia Earhart and Helen Richey finished fifth. This was the second year that women were allowed to participate in the race that was started in 1931.

Prior to the Bendix Trophy Race, air racing officials just would not believe that women were skilled enough to compete against men. Women were encouraged to hold their own competitions. From this came competitions such as the Women’s International Free-For-All. Occasionally, women were allowed to compete with the men, such as the National Air Race and Transcontinental Handicap Air Derby, but any accident gave race officials one more excuse to exclude women.

Such a situation occurred with Florence Klingensmith’s fatal crash in a Gee Bee Y during the 1933 Frank Phillips Trophy Race in Chicago. That crash was the reason given for keeping women out of the 1934 Bendix Race. Protesting the decision, Amelia Earhart refused to fly actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open that year’s races.

Although women were not allowed to compete in major races until the1930s, many air races created separate divisions for the women. The women’s divisions were mirror images of the men’s divisions, and it was soon noted that the women’s times and speeds were very close to the men’s.

One of the all-women races was the Dixie Derby from Washington, D.C. through the southern states and up to Chicago. Another was the Women’s National Air Meet held in August 1934 at Dayton, Ohio. This race drew 20 women pilots for 20- and 50-mile free-for-all races.

During the 1930s, one of the more interesting races that made up the National Air Races was the Ruth Catterton Air Sportsman Pilot Trophy Race. This race, started in 1935, was not a speed race but a test of precision flying. Winners were the pilots that could navigate and pilot their aircraft the most accurately. Ruth Chatterton was an actress and private pilot, and agreed to sponsor the contest.

Under the leadership of the new Ninety-Nines president Jeanette Lempke, who was elected immediately after World War II, one focus of the Ninety-Nines became the rejuvenation of the women’s air races. In 1947 Mardo Crane, a former WASP, was chairman of the first All Woman Air Race on behalf of the Ninety-Nines. The race ran 2,242 statute miles from Palm Springs, California to Tampa, Florida. The first year, the race had two contestants; and in 1948, seven contestants.

The 1948 and 1949 Jacqueline Cochran All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race marked the formal beginning of the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR). Members of The Ninety-Nines Los Angeles chapter drafted the first real set of rules and regulations for air racing, and developed an official timekeeping system (the old system was honor based.) The AWTAR became affectionately known as the “Powder Puff Derby” using a reference to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby by Will Rogers.

In 1951 and 1952, in response to the Korean War, the AWTAR was called “Operation TAR” (Transcontinental Air Race) and was operated as a training mission to “provide stimulation as a refresher course in cross-country flying for women whose services as pilots might once again be needed by their country.”

The AWTAR became a major event with its own office and permanent executive secretary. A nine-women board of directors spent a full year preparing for each race. Safety was always a priority in the AWTAR, and gradually over the years, the message was clear to the public – women are good pilots.

During the 1960s, the prime interest and major commitment of The Ninety-Nines was air racing. In addition to the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, The Ninety-Nines embraced the All Woman’s International Air Race, or “Angel Derby.” The race was open to all women and The Ninety-Nines helped to organize and manage the race, aside from forming the largest core of enthusiastic contestants.

The last AWTAR was held in 1977. The end of the race was due to rising costs, diminished corporate sponsorship, and new levels of air traffic congestion.

Competition in the air is still important and continues with other races today. These races include the Palms to Pines Air Race, Air Race Classic, Sun ’n Fun, Great Southern Air Race, IlliNines Air Derby, U.S. Air Race and Rally, Garden State 300, Okie Derby, and the Mile High Derby. Another major event in recent years is the World Precision Flying Championship.

Thompson Trophy

The first of these events, the Thompson Cup Race, was added to the Nationals in 1929. The closed-course event for unlimited planes, sponsored by Cleveland manufacturer Charles E. Thompson, was an immediate success. Like the barnstorming events, the race provided breathtaking excitement for the crowd. In 1930, the name of the race was changed to the Thompson Trophy, but the importance of the event remained unchanged. From then until it was ended in 1939, the Thompson Trophy Race provided the climactic final event of each year's National Air Races meeting. It was also the premier closed-course race in the world.

The Thompson Trophy Race, as well as the other closed-course races, was among the most popular events with the crowds that filed into the grounds and filled the grandstands for the competitions. Although the courses varied in length and shape, the races were generally flown over a course of about 10 miles long with 50-foot-high pylons marking the turns. With their high speeds and wing-tip-to-wing-tip flying, the closed-course races were loaded with breathtaking action. Because the races were flown at low altitudes and around a closed course, the crowds in the grandstands could easily see much of the spectacle. All in all, the Thompson Trophy and the other closed-course races were spectator sport of the highest order.


The Thompson Trophy ward plaque. This one was awarded to first-prize winner Cook Cleland in 1947.

One innovation that the Hendersons brought to the Thompson Trophy and the National Air Races to make them more appealing to the crowds was the massed start for the closed-course events. Instead of taking off at timed intervals, as had been the custom at most closed-course air races before that time, the planes in the National Air Races took off together.

Lined up on the field side by side at about 100-foot intervals, the planes took off 10 seconds apart. Each cleared a staging pylon, which equalized the interval. And once the planes passed onto the course, each competitor was in his relative position on the course. The arrangement, unlike timed events, made competition wing tip to wing tip and helped make the events more exciting by allowing competitors and spectators alike to see just how daring the competition really was.

Death was not an uncommon occurrence in any form of air racing in the 1930s. Close flying, low altitudes, and high speeds, however, made the Thompson Trophy races particularly dangerous events. Death was a constant companion for the competitors, and each year the death of another competitor seemed to mar the event.

During the first Thompson Trophy Race in Chicago in 1930, a young Marine pilot, Captain Arthur Page, was leading the race and seemed well on his way to winning in his XF6C-6, an extensively rebuilt Curtiss Hawk fighter to which, among other things, an 800-hp Curtiss Conqueror engine had been added. Then, on lap 17, as Page was rounding the home pylon in front of the grandstand, his plane shuddered, went into a slow roll, and crashed. No one ever knew what happened to his plane. Charles "Speed" Holman, in a Laird "Solution" that had been completed only hours before the start of the race, went on to win. Page survived the crash, only to die from head injuries a few days later.

The legacy of death that was begun in that first race was to follow the Thompson Trophy for many years. In fact, death seemed to stalk the victors of the Thompson Trophy. Both 1930 winner Speed Holman and 1931 winner Lowell Bayles were killed in competitive crashes within a few months of their Thompson Trophy victories, and in 1933 winner Jimmy Wedell was killed in a non-racing crash in June 1934. On the eve of the 1934 race, only one former winner, 1932 champion Jimmy Doolittle, who had retired shortly after his victory, remained alive.

The prestige of the Thompson Trophy was, in itself, sufficient to assure the status of the National Air Races as one of the world's premier aviation meets.

the Bendix Trophy

In 1931 Cliff Henderson decided that the United States needed an annual cross country air race to promote and encourage the achievements of the US aviation community. The emphasis would be placed on reliability and endurance as well as speed. To this end Cliff Henderson managed to persuade businessman, Mr. Vincent Bendix, to back his ideas and the Bendix Transcontinental Trophy Race was born.

During the "Golden Age of Aviation" (mid-1920's to the late 1930's) the Bendix Race attracted many of America's most innovative and daring aviators, many of whom would win many aviation records over the years. After the war the event became a military event and for most people it lost it's pioneering appeal that had made it so popular in the early years.  

Up until the early 1930's, the race was completely male dominated and the races were seen as no place for women. Admittedly, it was mainly the male pilots who kept women from competing. The tragic death of Florence Klingensmith at the Frank Phillips Trophy Races in Chicago flying her Gee Bee racer lead to Henderson ruling women out of the 1934 finals. However, women could not be kept from competing for long and the ban was lifted in 1935 following increasing pressure from America's increasingly talented top female pilots. The only question left was, "were women up to the stresses and endurance demanded by the race?".

Each year in early September the aviation world has been thrilled by the roar of planes competing in the Bendix Trophy Race. This year the roar will be only a memory. The National Air Races at Cleveland themselves, of which the Bendix “Transcontinental Speed Dash” was always an exciting part, have been postponed from Labor Day to Armed Forces Day next May.

The Bendix as we have known it since its start nineteen years ago will not be there. Military jet planes alone, if current plans for inclusion of the “J” or jet division are carried out, will vie for the title of fastest-cross-country. Propeller-driven craft and their civilian pilots, it is now realized, flew their last race in 1949.

So, as we close our books on another colourful episode in the on-moving drama of flight, we see in retrospect, a story of great flyers and great airplanes which have characterized the Bendix classic through the years.

Proponents of cross-country air racing have long claimed for it the distinction of being the most practical of all the forms of the high-speed game. Only in these long-range grinds, they contend, do you encounter flying conditions comparable to what an airplane in everyday service must face. Such a contest is a basic problem of getting from one point of the country to another in the shortest possible time, which is, after all, the fundamental purpose of the airplane. Furthermore, it is the supreme test of the pilot’s skill in preflight planning and preparation and in-flight navigation. It was with these thoughts in mind that the late Vincent Bendix, manufacturer of aviation accessories, created the great race which bears his name.

For many years before the Bendix was established, civilian air racing had centred in the cross-country type of event. These were generally worked out on a handicap basis, taking into account the speed, power and range of the competing planes. But with the coming of the Bendix, these lesser races passed from the picture. For the Bendix was an all-out race for speed. No limitations were placed on the design or power of the airplanes, nor on the route which a pilot might choose to follow to accomplish his mission, As a consequence, this big race has always attracted the nation’s most colourful flyers and the fastest airplanes.

James H. Doolittle, who has left his imprint on so many of aviation’s annals, inaugurated the Bendix back in 1931 by flying from Los Angeles to Cleveland in 9 hours, 10 minutes and 21 seconds to win at an average speed of 223.058 miles per hour. This was shortly after Doolittle had retired from the Army Air Corps with the rank of major. While in the Air Corps he had established himself as the Army’s top-ranking speed pilot. Naturally that reputation followed him into civilian life, and he lost no time in proving his right to it.

Jimmie flew the only specially built racing plane entered in that first Bendix race. It was a small airplane by today’s standards, a bi-plane of just 21-foot span and 1,580 pounds’ weight. This was the Laird Super Solution. It was powered by the air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine of 510 horsepower. Actually, this racer was a refined version of the Laird Solution which won the first Thompson Trophy Race the year before.

Doolittle made refuelling stops at Albuquerque and Kansas City. At Cleveland he refuelled again and went on to Newark to break the transcontinental speed record at 11 hours, 16 minutes and 10 seconds. For winning the race he collected a purse of $5,000 plus an additional $2,500 for the cross-country record.

Of the eight planes starting in this race, six finished within the established time limit. Aside from the winning Laird, all of the finishing planes were commercial model Lockheed Orions and Altairs. Harold Johnson made the best time of this group, coming in one hour and four minutes behind Doolittle.

The Bendix has on occasion brought unusual distinction to the designer and builder of a racing airplane as well as to its pilot. This was particularly true in the case of James R. Wedell. Although this designer-pilot who built his own racing planes in a small hangar at Patterson, Louisiana, never won the big race himself, his airplanes figured prominently in it for a number of years. For instance, the three racers which he built for the 1932 races, each in turn won the Bendix. In fact, in that ‘32 event they finished in one-two-three order with James Haizlip, Wedell and Roscoe Turner capturing those respective positions.

Turner copped the trophy in ‘33 and Doug Davis flew Wedell’s own “Miss Patterson” to victory in ‘34. Wedell planes also took second money in both of these latter races and were the only entries to finish within the allotted time.

This transcontinental dash has not always been a Los Angeles to Cleveland affair, for on two occasions the National Air Races were terminated at the West Coast metropolis. That was in 1933 and again in 1936. In these years New York served as the starting point and the race was thus fully transcontinental in nature. Incidentally, this east to west crossing of the nation was considered much more difficult in those days because of prevailing head winds.

Up-and-coming Roscoe Turner scored the first major victory of his long and colourful career in air racing when he won that ‘33 event. His time of 11 hours and 30 minutes was an east-west record and evidence of the gruelling type of flying found in the Bendix of that time. It was reliable Jimmy Wedell who placed second to Roscoe. This was the race in which Russell Boardman lost his life when his big Gee Bee racer crashed on take-off after refuelling at Indianapolis.

The other east to west race, that of 1936, was strictly a “ladies’ day” affair and the slowest of all the Bendix contests. Louise Thaden with Blanche Noyes as her co-pilot flew a stock model Beechcraft biplane into the winner’s circle in less than 5 minutes under 15 hours. Laura Ingalls followed with a Lockheed Orion and Amelia Earhart took fifth position with her Lockheed Electra. Strangely enough, only commercial planes finished this race, with all of the special racers being forced out along the route. Even a big Douglas DC-2 finished in the money.

Of course that 1936 race was not the only Bendix in which the ladies have starred. Amelia Earhart was the first of her sex to participate, taking fifth position with a Lockheed Vega in 1935. Then the famous Jacqueline Cochran entered the picture with a third place in 1937. Jackie’s big year, however, came in 1938 when she won the contest under adverse weather conditions and against red-hot competition. She flew a civilian equivalent of the Seversky P-35. Again in the postwar races of 1946 and 1948 Miss Cochran proved her ability at the long-range game when she took a second and a third place in her P-51.

The only airplane ever designed for the specific purpose of winning the Bendix Trophy was Ben Howard’s “Mister Mulligan.” That was back in 1935. Although Howard had won his fame as a pylon duster, his job as a transport pilot for United Airlines forbade his participation in closed-course competition. So Ben made an all-out bid for the Bendix. With the aid of Gordon Israel, who is now an engineer for Grumman, he developed an airplane which was to introduce a new technique in transcontinental racing. “Mr. Muilligan” was designed to fly the course non-stop and at high altitude. Neither of these practices had been followed before that time. They were definitely a forward step in long-distance flying and they brought victory to Howard and co-pilot Israel.

This, by the way, was the closest of all Bendix races. Roscoe Turner flying his powerful Wedell-Williams, which was actually a faster airplane, had to make refuelling stops. He also flew at the then conventional lower altitudes. Yet he finished just 23 seconds behind Ben Howard.

“Mister Mulligan” was truly a fine airplane, for it not only won the Bendix but also the Thompson Trophy for Harold Neumann in a type of race for which it was not particularly well suited. It was a high-wing cabin monoplane, the direct ancestor of the Howard DGA-8, four-place commercial airplane of later years. Unfortunately, the “Mulligan” was completely destroyed in a crash landing which almost cost the lives of Benny and his co-pilot wife, Maxine, in the 1936 Bendix race.


Seversky (civilian race version of the P-35) 1937-38-39 Winner

The first man to repeat a Bendix victory was Frank Fuller, Jr. This sports man pilot got his name on the trophy in 1937 and 1939. Like Jackie Cochran, Fuller was well off in his own right and flew airplanes for the fun of it. He found the Bendix a real adventure. Fuller, too, flew a Seversky P-35. His 1939 time of 7 hours, 14 minutes and 19 seconds was the best of the pre-war records, an average speed of 282.098 mph.

During the war years of 1940 to 1945 there was no air racing. But those years produced the airplanes which were to be featured in the post-war Bendix. With surplus fighter planes available at less money than would be required to build a suitable airplane, the Bendix was assured of plenty of hot entries for its resumption in 1946. In fact, that race stands as the one having the greatest number of participants. Twenty-two racers actually made the starting line-up and seventeen finished. Of these, the majority were Lockheed P-38s. But the P-51 demonstrated its superiority when the four in the race took the first four places.

Paul Mantz, the Hollywood stunt flyer, took home the Bendix Trophy that year with the remarkable time of 4 hours, 43 minutes and 14 seconds or 435.5 mph. Mantz is undoubtedly the all-time master of cross-country air racing, for he went on to repeat his Bendix victory again in ‘47 and ‘48. In addition, he has broken more long-distance speed records than you can shake a stick at. His remarkable work with the P-51 is an outstanding page of Bendix history.

The last Bendix Trophy Race was flown in 1962. Captain Bob Sowers piloted an Air Force B-58 Hustler from Los Angles to New York in just 2 hours 56 seconds and won the race. This was quite a contrast to the first race in 1931 when Jimmy Doolittle in his Laird Super Solution flew from Los Angles to Cleveland in 9 hours 10 minutes, or to Louise Thaden's 1936 win from New York to Los Angles in her Staggerwing Beechcraft C-17R with a time of 14 hours 55 minutes.


North American P-51 as a Post War Racer 1946 to 1948 Winner

These postwar races have been notable for their close finishes. Mantz nosed out Jackie Cochran by a few seconds less than 10 minutes, in ‘46, beat Joe De Bona by a mere 1 minute and 18 seconds in ‘47 and edged out Linton Carney by 1 minute, 9 seconds in ‘48.

Then too, in that 1948 contest Jacqueline Cochran followed Carney in by only 10 seconds and Ed Lunken trailed her by 2 minutes and 39 seconds, a real whirl wind finish. These pilots all flew P-51s.

Fittingly, the last of the races for propeller-driven airplanes – 1949 - closed with an all-time record speed. Joe De Bona, flying for movie actor Jimmie Stewart, made the run in 4 hours, 16 minutes and 17 seconds at a speed of 470.136 mph.

It was with the post-war resumption of the Bendix Speed Dash that aviation’s newest important development came into the picture. Jet propulsion entered air racing. A special “J” division of the Bendix was set up in 1946 with a select group of military planes and pilots participating. These events have naturally been faster than the traditional civilian race and have made a spectacular showing. However, they have not as yet resulted in a race between the service branches. Rather, the Air Force and the Navy have taken turns at staging this classic event.

On the first two occasions, Air Force F-80s put on the show and then the Navy FJ-ls had a crack at it. Last year the Air Force’s Thunderjets succeeded in making the run in less than four hours! Major Vernon A. Ford piloted the winning ship in at an average speed of 529.614 mph, a time of 3 hours, 45 min., 51 sec. (one fuelling stop).

The very fact that a modern airplane can now negotiate this distance in so short a time is due in no small part to the engineering research and flying experience that have gone into the Transcontinental Speed Dash over the years.