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 3 of 7)
The British stubbornly refused to believe that this was the last word, but Benito Mussolini saw an opportunity to show the world that nothing was too difficult for a Fascist state. He instructed the Italian aircraft industry to “win the Schneider Trophy at all costs.” In the early part of 1926, nobody in the aviation world gave the Italians the remotest chance of success, but Il Duce’s exhortations and money were wonderful encouragements to the nations aviation industry.
With no time available to develop original ideas, Italian designers sensibly set out to improve on the work already done by others. At Fiat they had studied the Curtiss engines and were sure that they could provide a racing engine that would deliver the necessary power. The airframe to be built around Fiat’s AS2 engine was entrusted to Mario Castoldi at Macchi. An intuitive aerodynamicist, Castoldi had a flair for absorbing and adapting the best ideas of others. He drew heavily on the lessons of the Curtiss racers and the Supermarine S4 in designing his M39, a firmly braced monoplane that had very clean lines and was obviously promising.
But before they ever left Italy, the Italians lost their captain in an accident. And after their arrival in the States, they were dogged by a series of carburetion oil-cooling snags that lead to an engine failure and two fires.
The U.S. team fared even worse. Its morale was badly shaken by the loss of three aircraft and two pilots in the last weeks before the race, and the limitations of the aging Curtiss biplanes were revealed when the Italian pilot, Mario de Bernardi, got his M39 to perform reliably. Bernardi won handily at over 246 mph, and his telegram to Mussolini said simply: “Your orders to win at all costs have been carried out.”
Ironically, the intervention of a Fascist leader ended up providing the British with another chance to get properly organized. The Air Ministry ordered new high-speed aircraft from three companies: Supermarine, Gloster, and Short Brothers. This positive step was followed by another: the chief of the Air Staff, swallowing his misgivings about full Royal Air Force involvement in racing, asked the elite RAF High Speed Flight team to represent Britain. The scene was set for the final act of the Schneider Trophy drama.
The last three races of the competition were held in 1927, 1929, and 1931, a general agreement having finally been reached that at least two years were required between races for proper aircraft development. In the States, many people felt that an attempt should be made to achieve a third victory, but the manufacturers had had quite enough of experimenting and longed for more profitable ventures. Neither the Navy nor the Army was prepared to set aside further funds for racing aircraft, and the United States never again raced for the Schneider Trophy.
The French, who since 1919 had managed to get only one aircraft as far as two laps around the seven-lap course, could not compete in 1927. In 1928 the government ordered two racing seaplanes from the Bernard and Nieuport-Delage companies and formed a racing unit of the Armée de l’Air. New engines were proposed by Hispano-Suiza and Lorraine, but the work that was done came too late for the 1929 race. Though development continued in the hope of competing in 1931, the French continued to lag behind. On September 5, 1931, after crashes destroyed two aircraft and killed one pilot, France finally withdrew.
It was left to the Italians and the British to fill the center of the stage during the contest’s closing years. The principal Italian standard bearer throughout was Macchi. For the 1927 race in Venice, the company drew on the success of the M39 to build the slightly smaller and even cleaner M52, with the goal of reaching 300 mph. The M52 was fast and good-looking but extremely temperamental. To compound the Italians’ misfortunes, team member Lieutenant Salvatore Borra crashed into Lake Varese while practicing and died.