The Schneider Trophy
It began as the prize for a seaplane race. It ended as the symbol of a contest among nations that foreshadowed war.
- By Ron Dick
- Air & Space magazine, June 1988
Artwork by Ken Dallison
(Page 2 of 7)
The competition between the U.S. services in the early 1920s had produced a series of outstanding Curtiss racing biplanes—slim technological wonders produced by government funding, military rivalry, and public acclaim. Of far greater importance was the fact that the Navy team representing the United States’ debut at the 1923 Schneider race was composed of experienced, disciplined pilots and backed by a thoroughly prepared support organization. The Curtiss CR-3 floatplanes snagged first and second positions, with the winner, Lieutenant David Rittenhouse, averaging over 177 mph, a demonstration to Europe of the rapid strides U.S. aviation had made since World War I. The victor hosted the next competition, and now the Europeans had to face the prospect of competing on the other side of the Atlantic for the first time.
From then on, both flying boats and private efforts were outclassed. In light of such harsh realities, first the French and then the Italians decided to withdraw from the 1924 race at Baltimore. The British produced a promising contender known as Gloster II, but only five weeks before the race the little biplane porpoised savagely just after touching down, turned over in a wall of spray, and sank. With the last of the 1924 challengers gone, the U.S. Navy team could have flown sedately around the Baltimore course unopposed to claim their second win.
Given the extent of the U.S. preparations, which had also involved the loss of an aircraft, the despondent Europeans were astonished when the Americans canceled the race. The Royal Aero club at once cabled “warmest appreciation of the sporting action.” It ended up being much more than that. As things turned out, it could be argued that the magnanimity of the U.S. National Aeronautical Association prolonged the life of an extraordinary competition enough to indirectly influence events in the coming world war.
The British and Italians finally made it to Baltimore in 1925, and there were signs that they had learned lessons from their previous humiliations. U.S. dominance was correctly attributed to meticulous preparation by a professional team, fully supported in every way by its government. Although not yet prepared to go quite so far, the Air Ministry in London took first step and ordered aircraft from two companies for “technical development.” Gloster refined an existing biplane, but at Supermarine a young designer named Reginald J. Mitchell started from scratch.
Mitchell was till only 30 years old and virtually self-taught in aerodynamics, but he had been chief engineer at Supermarine for five years. He showed himself to be full of innovative ideas, as his first venture into floatplane design revealed. His Supermarine S4 was a beautifully proportioned midwing monoplane, and because it was known that wing bracing added considerably to an aircraft’s drag, he left the wings unbraced.
Regrettably, the S4 did not reach the starting line. During a trial flight severe wing flutter set in during a turn, and the aircraft crashed into the Chesapeake Bay. Mitchell was watching from the rescue launch at the time and was sure that the pilot, Henri Biard, had been killed. The designer was immensely relieved to see a very vocal helmeted head finally emerge from the water, but with typical Anglo-Saxon restraint he asked only, “Is it warm?”
With the S4 so dramatically removed, the U.S. team had little difficulty achieving its second victory. Lieutenant James Doolittle won for the U.S. Army, roaring home in his Curtiss R3C-2 at over 232 mph. The American public was looking forward to claiming the trophy permanently in 1926.
But the U.S. government was not prepared to support the rapidly escalating costs of any further development work, leaving the Americans with no new aircraft for 1926. Both Britain and Italy believed that because of the increasing complexity of the aircraft involved, the Americans would agree that it was only sensible to change the rules and run the contest every other year. However, with no funds available for further high-speed research, the U.S. authorities wanted to get Schneider competition over and done with. They insisted that the race be held as planned at Hampton Roads, Virginia.