On September 13, 1931, an aviation epoch came to an end. It was one of those rare days of English autumnal clarity, and the weather created a perfect setting for the vast crowds gathered on the beaches and cliffs of southern England to witness the last race for the Schneider Trophy. And because of a series of disasters that had befallen the competing Italian team, the onlookers knew the winner would be British. According to the rules, any competitor who managed to win the trophy three times in a row gained permanent possession of it. The Royal Air Force team, which had won the two preceding races, prepared to do just that for Britain.
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It was a pity that the French and Americans had long since dropped out, but the important thing was that this was a chance to wave the Union Jack and cheer British triumph. It was a triumph that had been a long time in the making, one that might well have been celebrated by another nation, and one whose true measure would not be taken until the dark days of World War II.
The Schneider Trophy produced results its founder never would have predicted. Jacques Schneider launched the competition to foster development of commercial seaplanes, but he lived to see his original conception changed dramatically by the inexorable forces of international rivalry. The son of a wealthy French armaments manufacturer, Schneider loved high-speed boating and became a notable driver of hydroplanes. After meeting Wilbur Wright in 1908 he became passionately interested in aviation, but a crippling hydroplane crash two years later kept him from flying.
Given such experience, it is not surprising that Schneider thought to use his wealth to leave his mark on the aeronautical world, and do so in a way that combined his two great loves. He believed that in the future, nations would be linked by hybrid vehicles that had attributes of both hydroplanes and flying machines. His vision turned out to influence aircraft design for many years to come.
At the banquet following the fourth Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup race for landplanes at Chicago in 1912, he announced La Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider. It would be an annual competition to encourage the development of practical aircraft capable of operating reliably from the open sea with a good payload and reasonable range. Schneider had no desire to spawn a family of freakish racing machines.
In light of later events it seems fitting that Schneider chose the Bennett banquet as the occasion for his announcement. The Gordon Bennett competition had been truly international, and by their very nature the races exerted political pressure on national authorities to become involved, sometimes against their better judgment. Simply put, while Bennett was there, it had to be won. When the French ended the competition in 1920 with their third successive victory, there was an almost official sigh of relief. But as the public’s attention turned increasingly to the Schneider, it became inevitable that the race should go to the swift rather than the practical.
The two pre-World War I Schneider Trophy races conformed to the founder’s intent: they were fought between aircraft entered by individuals or private companies. Most entries were hastily converted landplanes or were derived from existing designs. The races were suspended during the first world war, and by the time they resumed in 1919, the aircraft industries of the major powers, driven by wartime demands, had attained far higher levels of technological prowess. It did not take long for competitive flying to regain the place it had lost as the motivation for development, but until 1923 it seemed that Schneider’s dream would remain intact. The flying boats that dominated his race did indeed encourage the belief that the globe could be spanned.
The technology displayed at the Schneider races trailed the ingenuity of the aircraft industry, however, and there was little real competition. The Italians built the best flying boats, and other nations were not very interested in taking them on, even though by 1921 the winning speed was only 118 mph. Except for a disqualification in 1919 and the introduction of a chubby little British flying boat in 1922, the Italians would have won three in a row and so gained permanent possession of the trophy—a les than memorable victory, had they managed it then. Their failure saved the competition for greater things, and in 1923 the contest underwent an irreversible change.
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.