The return to flight of D.H.88
Comet racer G-ACSS, at Old Warden on Friday August 1,
2014 (see page 46), marks much more than the return to the skies of a beautiful and iconic aircraft. It is also timely in coming just ahead of the 80th anniversary of the MacRobertson Trophy air race from England to Australia, which in October 1934 was justifiably billed as “the World’s Greatest Air Race.” Even today, in the comfort of a modern airliner, to make such a flight is still a reasonable test of endurance, involving at least 24 hours in the air and most usually a stop-off at a ‘hub’ airport in the Middle- or Far-East. Eighty years ago the challenges faced by competitors and organisers alike were immense. While the sun may ‘never have set’ on the British empire at the time, the 12,000-mile route passed through dozens of different countries, each one with its own laws and customs, languages and importantly climates.
Who was MacRobertson?
The idea of a race to conclude at Melbourne’s Flemington racecourse was devised by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne as part of the Australian city’s centenary celebrations and a prize fund of $75,000 was put forward by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian philanthropist, entrepreneur and confectionery manufacturer.
Robertson’s business, the MacRobertson Steam Confectionery Works, was the largest confectionery manufacturer in Australia and its owner was a keen supporter of adventure and aviation. He helped fund the first automotive circumnavigation of Australia and was awarded his knighthood for financing a combined British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expedition. In 1934, the year of ‘The Great Race’, he and pilot Horrie Miller co-founded MacRobertson Miller Airlines (MMA), which later became part of Ansett.
While a formula of weight, fuel used, engine horsepower, wing area and speed would be used to calculate the winner in the ‘Handicap’ category, for the overall winner pure speed was the sole arbiter. Participants were required to make compulsory stops at just five locations between England and Melbourne:
Baghdad in Iraq, Allahabad in India, Singapore, then Darwin and Charleville in Australia, but any other stops or breaks for rest, refuelling or maintenance were simply added to the elapsed times.
The leading contenders therefore planned to carry fuel and oil to allow unbroken flying between the compulsory stops, 2,530 miles for the Mildenhall-Baghdad leg and 2,300 miles from Baghdad to Allahabad, requiring an operating range which is still impressive today. For those who could, or did not wish to
ABOVE: Jack Wright and John Polando crewed Lambert Monocoupe 145, NC501W Baby Ruth, the smallest aeroplane in the race. They are seen here at Southampton on October 12, 1933 following arrival from New York on the ocean liner Olympic.
meet this feat, a further 22 optional stops were provided with stocks of fuel and oil by Shell and Stanavo. A maximum duration of 16 days was stipulated from start to finish.
By June 1934, the Royal Aero Club in England had received 64 entries and, while this was ultimately whittled down to 20 on the day of the start, such interest posed a major headache for the organisers. They simply could not find an airfield in England that ► could accommodate all the potential starters.
Heston, Hanwell and Croydon were either deemed too small or too busy with other activities, while Harmondsworth, Eastleigh and Gravesend were also inspected but found to be unacceptable. A further option was the newly completed de Havilland aerodrome at Hatfield, but the expense of erecting temporary hangarage was deemed prohibitive. It wasn’t until August 14 that the Royal Aero Club identified a potential location, on a brand new military aerodrome that was being built near Mildenhall in Suffolk.
The airfield was one of the first ‘expansion’ stations to be commissioned, with a grass take-off area allowing a maximum run of some 1,600 yards, extensive aprons and two brand- new, still unused A’-Type hangars. The RAF had been due to take possession on October 13, but this was deferred to allow the airfield to be used for the race start on Saturday October 20.
The range of aircraft entered for the great race was diverse as might be expected. British contemporary aircraft were expected to do well in the handicap category, including one of the brand-new de Havilland Dragon Rapide airliners, a Puss Moth, Airspeed Courier and Viceroy, Miles Falcon and Hawk Major, a British Klemm Eagle, and a Danish-registered Desoutter II. Finally, encapsulating the spirit of
English (and Australian) amateurism were three venerable ex-military Fairey biplanes.
More specialised types included a long- range Granville Gee Bee QED racer flown by the famed aviatrix Jackie Cochrane, a Bellanca racer, Lambert Monocoupe and a Dutch Pander S4 trimotor, but it was particularly noteworthy that the two largest aircraft to be entered were not purpose-designed racers, rather the latest American-built airliners. The Boeing 247D, named ‘Warner Bros Comet was being flown by one of America’s most high-profile air racers, Colonel Roscoe Turner, while the Douglas DC-2 airliner named ‘Uiver’ entered by the Dutch national airline KLM, had two of its most legendary Captains at its controls.
Koene Dirk Parmentier and Jan Moll had pioneered KLM’s routes from the Netherlands to the East Indies (now Indonesia) and were regarded as two of the greatest long-distance flyers in the world. In addition, the KLM aircraft was going to participate in the race carrying a complement of fare-paying passengers and carrying air mail, demonstrating that Europe to Australia airborne communications could be commercially viable.
Enter the Comet
Geoffrey de Havilland however, was determined that Britain should not be beaten by America or indeed, any other nation. For him, it was a case, not just of national prestige, but also commercial self interest.
The de Havilland company was on the crest of a wave. It was just in the process of moving from its original home of Stag Lane in Hendon to a purpose-made factory and airfield at Hatfield and the new Dragon Rapide was winning both accolades and orders from around the world, powered by Major Frank Halford’s latest evolution of the DH Gipsy engine line, the six- cylinder Gipsy Six.
Captain de Havilland was also well aware that a new airliner was also on his company’s drawing boards. The DH91 Albatross was being developed using moulded wood construction and air-cooled V-12 engines based on a further extension of the Gipsy Six design and de Havilland was determined to demonstrate this philosophy was superior to the American all¬metal, radial engined designs.
“We built the Comet racer because it looked as if American aircraft might be easy winners unless something out of the ordinary was designed” wrote de Havilland in his autobiography ‘Sky Fever’. The de Havilland company offered the racing Comets for sale at a nominal figure of five thousand pounds each, about £1,000 more than a new Dragon Rapide.
“They naturally cost us a lot more than that” wrote de Havilland “We got orders for three: from Amy and Jim Mollison, Bernard Rubin the millionaire racing driver and from A O Edwards of the Grosvenor House Hotel, whose pilots were CWA (Charles) Scott and Tom Campbell-Black.”
In creating the all-wood cantilever twin engined monoplane, Chief Designer Arthur Hagg had focussed on aerodynamic cleanliness, choosing a very thin wing section for low drag, but to provide the necessary strength in so small a depth, the wing was planked with spruce strips 2in wide, with the strips of one layer crossing further incident other than the loss of two minutes on its schedule.
As Sunday dawned, the Mollisons were the early leaders. They had made a faultless journey to Baghdad, and reached Karachi at around 10.00, setting a new England-India record. Then problems struck. The landing gear failed to retract, requiring a return to Karachi.
The Mollisons were subsequently forced to make an unscheduled refuelling stop at
Jobbolpore. In the absence of aviation fuel, they had to use lower-octane supplies from the local bus company, as a result a piston in the high-compression engine seized and an oil line ruptured. They limped on to Allahabad and retired.
The Mollisons’ demise handed the lead to Charles Scott and Tom Campbell-Black in Grosvenor House, which was the first aircraft to arrive in Allahabad. Despite being forced off course by a severe storm over the Bay of Bengal, they then reached Singapore eight hours ahead of Parmentier, Moll and their passengers in the DC-2.
Then as they headed across the Timor Sea to Darwin, the oil pressure gauge for the port engine dropped to zero. Scott and Campbell- Black throttled back the engine and limped on to northern Australia, where they considered repairs and even contemplated retirement.
Back in England, having received the news by cable, engine designer Frank Halford discovered that a London newspaper had an ‘open’ telephone line to Australia and used it to make contact with Scott. From their conversation Halford deduced that the fault lay not with the engine but with the gauge and told Scott to ignore the reading, but ‘give the engine a rather easier time’ once in the air.
That advice was heeded and after covering 11,333 miles from Mildenhall in 70 hours 54 minutes and 18 seconds, of which over 65 hours had been in the air, Grosvenor House crossed the line at Flemington Racecourse to win the race at an average speed of 158.9mph. Nineteen hours behind the Comet, the KLM DC-2 claimed second place ahead of Roscoe Turner’s Boeing, after its own late-race drama.
Lost in pitch darkness after becoming caught in a thunderstorm, Uiver ended up over the small town of Albury in New South Wales. Hearing the engine note, Lyle Ferris, the chief electrical engineer of the post office, went to the power station and signalled Albury in Morse to the plane by turning the town lights on and off.
Meanwhile Arthur Newnham, the announcer on the local radio station, appealed for cars to line up on the horse race course to light up a runway for the plane to make a safe landing.
In gratitude KLM subsequently made a large donation to Albury Hospital and Alf Waugh, the Mayor of Albury, was awarded a title in Dutch nobility.
As might be expected, many aircraft did not complete the course. Celebrations in Melbourne were muted after news was received that JKC Baines and Flying Officer HD Gilman had perished when their Fairey Fox G-ACXX had crashed in Italy. Other notable retirements included Jacqui Cochrane’s Granville Gee Bee at Bucharest and the Pander S4, which was destroyed at Allahabad when it collided with a car carrying lighting equipment and was consumed in the ensuing fire. Meanwhile J Woods and DCT Bennett’s
Lockheed Vega Puck overturned on landing at Aleppo in Syria.
For many crews, the excitement was not yet over. Having finished fifth in the race,
“Grosvenor House won with an average speed of i58.9mph” the de Havilland Rapide, ZK-ACO, Tainui continued south across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, making the crossing from Sydney to Palmerston, North Island in 12.5 hours.
The Cathcart-Jones and Waller Comet, having flown to fourth place in the race, took off again from Melbourne on October 26 to set a new out and back record for a return trip from England to Australia in 13 days 6 hours and 43 minutes. H. L. Brook meanwhile, on his return from the MacRobertson race in Miles Falcon G-ACTM flew from Darwin to Lympne in 7 days 19 hours and 50 minutes to establish a new solo Australia-England record However, the ultimate record surely must go to the venerable Fairey Fox I of Melbourne native Ray Parer. His first delay had come on the opening day, when he was forced down near Paris with a leaking radiator. Mechanical problems put him well outside the sixteen-day race deadline, but he pressed on. Parer eventually arrived in Melbourne, on February 13, 1935, almost five months after starting!