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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.

In Italy, yet another tragedy was being played out. The MC72 was clearly very fast and its mighty new AS6 engine ran beautifully on the ground, but in the air it suffered from tremendous backfiring at speed. The Italian team persisted in flying it to pin down the trouble, and two aircraft and two pilots were lost in violent accidents. After pleading in vain for postponement of the race until 1932, the Italian authorities made the sad decision not to compete in 1931.

Final confirmation of the French and Italian withdrawals came only one week before the race day, and the British found themselves in the same predicament that the Americans had faced back in 1926. It was certain that the British government would not be coerced into competing again, particularly since Lady Houston’s magic wand was unlikely to wave more than once. It was now or never.

The plan was to fly both S6Bs. The first, piloted by Flight Lieutenant John Boothman, would fly the required seven laps of the Schneider Trophy course. Assuming success, the second S6B, flown by Flight Lieutenant George Stainforth, would attempt to break the world speed record over a straight three-kilometer course.

Shortly after 1 p.m. the R engine roared to life and Boothman moved off into open water. A few minutes later the slim silver and blue S6B dove for the starting line. Seven laps later, the song of the Rolls-Royce engine as strident as ever in his ears, Boothman flashed across the finish line to record a race average of just over 340 mph. The British had won the Schneider Trophy.

To cap an almost perfect day and send everyone home happy, Stainforth hit 379 mph, a world record for any type of aircraft. Two weeks later, using a sprint version of the R engine generating more than 2,600 horsepower, he raised the record to 407.5 mph, thereby becoming the first aviator to exceed 400 mph.

Persistent even in defeat, the Italians invited British fuel wizard Rod Banks to advise them on carburetion in the AS6. He concocted a fuel mixture that the engine seemed to enjoy, and by 1934 the MC72 raised the world speed record to 440.681 mph, a figure that, for floatplanes, stands to this day.

With the achievements of the S6B and the MC72, the era of great international air racing came to an end. Jacques Schneider’s dream of world-shrinking “hydro-aeroplanes” had been realized in the very racing freaks he had wished to avoid promoting, but even he would have been impressed by the progress made in less than two decades. The best of the earliest racers, the Sopwith Tabloid, was flat out at 92 mph. Less than 20 years later the MC72 proved almost five times as fast. The standard Gnome Monosoupape rotary of 1913 weighed 250 pounds and produced 100 horsepower. Rolls-Royce’s R engine weighed more than six times as much but was over 26 times as powerful.

Of the four principal nations involved, France got the least out of the competition. The United States changed the character of the race and administered the shock that stimulated the rapid advances made in both Britain and Italy. But after the U.S. withdrawal in 1926, it began to lag behind Europe in development of engines and airframes for long-range, high-speed fighters.

The Italians gave the most in their determination to win the “Coppa Schneider.” They submitted entries for more races than anyone else, their designs were frequently the most imaginative, and they lost the most pilots—seven in all between 1922 and 1931. Ironically, the marvelous Fiat engines were forgotten, and in 1941 Castoldi had to turn to Germany to find a liquid-cooled engine for his fighters.

The British made the most of their experience. Mitchell’s work on the low-wing monoplane form, begun on the S5s and S6s, eventually led to the superb Spitfire. The Rolls-Royce R engine fathered the illustrious Merlin, which powered not only the Spitfire but also the Hurricane, Lancaster, Mosquito, and, as persuasive evidence of the effect of the U.S. withdrawal, the P-51 Mustang.

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