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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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.

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.

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