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 4 of 7)
The British approached the 1927 race with the first full backing of the government and the Royal Air Force. This meant that money was available to pursue several lines of research and development at once. The end product would be flown and supported by highly trained RAF personnel.
Mitchell had taken to heart the lessons of his ill-fated S4 and had seen the success of Macchi’s M39. Accordingly, the S5 wing was fully braced and also lowered to the bottom of the fuselage to increase the pilot’s field of view. Fuselage streamlining was improved, and the S5, much smaller than its predecessor, was expected to be up to 70 mph faster.
In many ways the 1927 race was less colorful than those of earlier years. Without private-venture entries, much of the silk-scarf dash seemed lost forever. There was no lack of excitement, however. The clash of two such professional racing teams mounted on purebred chargers was an exhilarating prospect.
The S5s justified their promise and finished first and second, the winner recording an average speed of almost 282 mph. The M52s were not as fast, and all three retired with engine trouble. Once the despondency of defeat was overcome, the Italians made determined preparations for revenge in 1929.
They had a number of weapons from which to choose. The Fiat C29 was an orthodox racing seaplane, but very small, having been built to take advantage of the firm’s new lightweight AS5 engine. The spectacular Savoia-Marchetti S65 had its tiny cockpit jammed in between tandem engines driving both tractor and pusher propellers; the tailplane was carried on twin booms. The revolutionary Piaggio PC 7, floating directly on its wings in the water, was urged onto its hydrofoils by a boat propeller. A clutch then transferred engine power to the air propeller for takeoff. Unfortunately, none of these aircraft was able to compete for the trophy. The C29 was destroyed in a crash, the PC7 was never able to rise out of the water and gain sufficient speed, and technical problems associated with the S65 proved too great.
In 1929, temporarily disgusted with Fiat’s engines, Macchi turned to an Isotta-Fraschini engine for its M67. This new marriage of airframe and engine proved irreconcilably unhappy. The pilots suffered from what they considered dangerous levels of exhaust fumes sucked into the cockpit while they were flying. The Italian team leader, Captain Guiseppe Motta, was killed when he crashed into Lake Garda at high speed, putting the Italians badly behind. The team arrived in England dispirited and sadly lacking in flying practice.
In England, Mitchell had decided that the reliable old Napier Lion engine had been pushed to its limit and a lot more power was needed. The only alternative was the Rolls-Royce. Earlier, the government had prodded Rolls-Royce into developing the Kestrel, insisting on a British engine to match the Curtiss D-12. Rolls’ managing director was not enthusiastic about aircraft engines, but the government again applied pressure, and the company finally agreed to cooperate. Starting with the Buzzard, a large relative of the Kestrel, Rolls-Royce produced the R engine, capable of turning out a reliable 1,900 horsepower, in only nine months.
Although similar in appearance to the S5, the S6 was noticeably bigger because it had to accommodate the R. It was Mitchell’s first all-metal aircraft, and to dissipate the great heat generated by its engine, it was covered with cooling panels. Well designed and meticulously prepared, the S6 inspired confidence among its RAF pilots. Then, at the eleventh hour, an incident occurred that could have handed the trophy to Italy.