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.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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.”

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