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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The effect of the competition, though, extended beyond the creation of just one engine. During this period, supercharging evolved into a fine art, and consequently, from the outset of the coming world war, aerial combat would routinely be carried out at altitudes considered remarkable only 20 years earlier. It might even be argued—and has been—that the very existence of new supercharger compressors enabled Frank Whittle to develop his turbojet.

Exotic fuel “cocktails” mixed by brilliant individuals like Rod Banks established the formula for volume production of aviation gasolines with anti-knock properties; these fuels enabled supercharged, high-compression engines to run at high power settings without the risk of detonation. Even the advancement of techniques for liquid cooling led to markedly higher fighter performance by the second world war.

Brute power alone would not have resulted in high speeds without parallel advance in the principles of drag reduction. Here, the Schneider Trophy races may have made their least recognized contribution. The earliest racers were bluff and squarish, but by the series’ end the airplane had been transformed into a sylph that barely distributed the air in passing. The fact that airplanes encumbered by huge floats could have attained more than 400 mph in 1931 is sufficient testimony to the competition’s role in the education of aerodynamics.

The Schneider Trophy trail was a strange and tortuous one. In encouraging the talents of such men as Reginald Mitchell and the Rolls-Royce engineers, the competition may not have remained true to Jacques Schneider’s conception, but it did lay some of the foundation upon which the Royal Air Force built its victory against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

This article first appeared in the June/July 1988 issue ofAir & Space/Smithsonianmagazine.

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