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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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.

On the night before the race, a Rolls-Royce mechanic changing the spark plugs in the leading S6 detected a tiny spot of white metal on one plug. The supervising engineer confirmed the likelihood of piston failure. The rules forbade and engine change at this late stage but allowed the replacement of parts. The entire cylinder block would have to be removed in some manner, but how? The job would take an army of technicians.

Finally, someone remembered that a party of Rolls-Royce fitters had come to town to see the race. Summoned from their pre-race celebrations, they rolled up their sleeves and set to work. Shortly after dawn the engine was given a test run. It performed perfectly.

The night’s efforts could not have been better spent. Both Italy’s M67s were forced to retire during the race and were replaced with the M52, the fastest of the Italian backups. The RAF’s second string was disqualified for missing a pylon, but Flying Officer H.R.D. Waghorn and the repaired engine won the race at over 328 mph, with the M52 finishing second.

Now, with final possession of the Schneider Trophy within its grasp, the British government, as its U.S. counterpart had done, found the cost of competing prohibitive. Withdrawing all support, it left the defense of the trophy to private enterprise. The government of the day was socialistic, so the situation was a bit ironic.

Throughout the following year the government stood firm under the withering attacks of the British press and public. With £100,000 needed to develop suitable aircraft and prepare for the race, it appeared that Britain would join the United States in walking away from the competition. Then, when all seemed lost, a fairy godmother made her entrance.

Dame Fanny Lucy Houston was the eccentric widow of a shipping millionaire, and she had two commodities in abundance: money and a hatred for socialists. When Lady Houston was not lambasting the government in her magazine, the British Saturday Review, she was proclaiming her revulsion at its practices by means of a large sign mounted on her yacht, Liberty. Early in 1931 she sent a message to the British prime minister that read in part: “To prevent the British Government being spoilsports, Lady Houston will be responsible for all extra expenses necessary beyond what can be found, so that Great Britain can take part in the race.” Later, when she made it clear that she would personally guarantee the entire £100,000, the government changed its mind and authorized the RAF to enter the race for the third time.

The Italians, meanwhile, were more determined than ever, and this time their efforts were concentrated behind Macchi alone. Mario Castoldi returned to Fiat’s fold for his engine, and Fiat’s response was dramatic. The company upgraded two AS5 engines and bolted them back to back to form a single power unit 11 feet long. This monster was supercharged to give a phenomenal 3,000 horsepower, and to house it Castoldi built the MC72, perhaps the ultimate in racing floatplanes.

Naturally, Mitchell wanted more power for the latest version of his aircraft, the S6B. Rolls-Royce obliged by boosting the R engine to 2,300 horsepower. The resulting combination was both fast and reliable.

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