At the 1929 National Air Races in September, Walter H. Beech unleashed the Travel Air Type “R” monoplane that crushed the competition and ended dominance of the military biplane.
The relentless heat of a Kansas summer was in full force during August 1929 in Wichita – the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World.” The city’s aircraft industry was thriving thanks to a booming economy and the American people’s obsession with all things aeronautical. That obsession was put on full display every September when the week-long National Air Races (NAR) drew crowds that rivalled those of major league baseball.
In September of that year, the races were held for the first time at the municipal airport near Cleveland, Ohio. The airfield had sufficient acreage on the west side to adequately host the event without interrupting commercial and private air traffic operating at the east end of the airport. To accommodate the anticipated crowds and the arrival of hundreds of aircraft, a new airline terminal had been built along with hangars and support facilities. The city spent about $450,000 to bring the property up to standards necessary to properly support the races.
In addition to daily racing and exhibition events at the airport, an aeronautical exposition was held at the Public Hall, which cost the city a whopping $10 million to construct. The spacious interior of 200,000 square feet easily accommodated the large number of airframe and engine manufacturers as well as exhibits promoting service, component and support companies. The NAR also had, for the first time, its own official theme song titled, “On Wings of Love.” Lyrics for the song were written by Cliff Henderson, managing director of the NAR from 1928-1939.
One day before the races officially began, more than 300,000 people crowded into downtown Cleveland to see a massive, five-mile long parade of aviation-themed floats and flowers while military and civilian aircraft flew overhead. The 1929 NAR, however, would not be complete without its share of celebrities and dignitaries. These included Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Hugo Eckner (of Graff Zeppelin fame).
Of particular, major importance to the NAR that year was the Women’s Air Derby sponsored by the National Exchange Club. Up to that time women were not permitted to compete in the NAR, but a flood of objections turned the tide and officials welcomed the 20 lady flyers as contestants in a cross-country race. A majority of these women had limited experience as pilots, but a small number, including Earhart, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, Ruth Elder, Bobbi Trout, the Travel Air Company’s Louise McPhetridge von Thaden, and Germany’s Thea Rasche were veteran aviators and held numerous records for female pilots. It is interesting to note that as of September 1929, there were only slightly more than 100 licensed women pilots in the United States.
The nine-day speed dash began at Clover Field, Santa Monica, California, and traversed the Southwestern and Midwestern United States before terminating at Cleveland. Two divisions were created based on large or small engine displacement. Von Thaden flew a Type D4000 biplane powered by a 300-horsepower Wright J6-9 static, air-cooled radial engine, and won the event at an average speed of 135.9 mph. The great and much-beloved American humorist, Will Rogers, gave the race a new name; he dubbed it the “Powder Puff Derby.”
Three months before the NAR, Walter H. Beech, president of the Travel Air Company, had approved construction of two monoplanes designed specifically to win Event No. 26 – the prestigious “Free-for-All” competition to be held Sept. 2 in Cleveland. The 50-mile race around a course marked by pylons was considered the highlight of the NAR, and the premier event that everyone wanted to see. It pitted specially modified biplanes of the United States Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy against a field of vastly inferior civilian aircraft.
To commemorate the competition, Charles Edwin Thompson, president of the Thompson Products Inc., would award the winner a special trophy known as the Thompson Cup (for the 1930 NAR it was renamed the “Thompson Trophy”). In 1929 the National Aeronautic Association granted Thompson’s request to offer a permanent trophy each year for the Free-for-All event at the NAR. The striking trophy was based on the figure of mythological Icarus and stood 40 inches in height. It was made of pure gold and silver and was mounted on a solid marble base. A small model of each year’s winning airplane would be placed on top of the trophy.
In the previous five years, the military had dominated the NAR’s air races, but Walter Beech was determined to put an end to their winning streak. As time for the Cleveland races drew near, in Wichita the Travel Air factory was buzzing with activity as a small fleet of airplanes and a hand-picked group of pilots and mechanics prepared to depart for Ohio.
It was an exciting time as mechanics made last-minute inspections of each aircraft, filled fuel and oil tanks while pilots reviewed the planned route of flight northeastward. The aerial flotilla included the Type “R” monoplane registered R614K and her sister ship R613K. The former was powered by a specially built Wright J6-9 static, air-cooled radial engine rated at 420 horsepower, while the latter mounted a prototype six-cylinder, inline, inverted Chevolair engine rated at 150 horsepower.
In addition to the two racing ships that had been constructed expressly for competing in the NAR, a Type 6000B cabin monoplane and one of the first four-place Type 10 monoplanes would transport company president Walter H. Beech, engineer Herb Rawdon, mechanic Theodore “Ted” Cochran and other officials to Cleveland. After arrival both of the cabin ships would be placed on static display during the Aircraft Exposition.
Anxious to be on his way, Travel Air chief pilot Clarence Clark nestled into the cockpit of R613K and prepared to start the Chevolair powerplant. He had hoped to fly R614K, but that privilege had been reserved for Douglas Davis, a Travel Air dealer in Atlanta, Georgia, and a close friend of Mr. Beech. Davis was selected primarily for his experience in pylon racing and to provide the Georgian with publicity for the dealership. Davis had arrived at the factory only a few days before the scheduled departure. After a thorough briefing by Clark, Doug flew R614K for about 1.5 hours to become familiar with the speedy red racer. Although it was significantly faster than any airplane Davis had flown up to that time and demanded more skill than the biplanes he was accustomed to flying, his expressed endless enthusiasm for the monoplane that seemed to infect everyone, even Walter Beech.
The four airplanes arrived at Cleveland without incident. Walter Beech had prearranged hangar space on one side of the airfield, and upon arrival the two racers were quickly rolled inside and kept out of sight until the races began Aug. 24. The only people granted access to the hangar were Walter, Doug Davis, Ted Cochran and company pilot, Newman Wadlow. News of the “mystery ships” being hidden away quickly spread, and during the next few days Beech skillfully worked the press, giving reporters tantalizing tidbits of information without revealing key details about the airplanes.
Aug. 24, the first day of the NAR, witnessed thousands of people paying for tickets and crowding onto the grandstands to watch more than 40 racing events unfold throughout the week. In addition to people, one aviation journalist estimated that more than 400 aircraft of all types were on the airfield each day. Pilots from the Air Corps and Navy, which Walter suspected would be the only serious competition against Davis and the Wright-powered Travel Air, were busy attending to their mounts, both modified versions of existing biplane fighters then in service.
The Army’s contender was a Curtiss XP-3A Hawk featuring a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial engine that developed 450 horsepower, and special fuselage fairings to reduce drag. With an empty weight of 1,955 pounds, the XP-3A was about 500 pounds heavier than the 1,475-pound Travel Air Type “R.” It would be flown by Captain R.G. Breene. The Navy, however, brought a Curtiss F6C-6 Hawk to the NAR that was powered by a 12-cylinder Curtiss “Conqueror” rated at 435 horsepower. The landing gear and airframe received minor streamlining that was less exquisite than that of the XP-3A. The F6C-6 was placed under the command of Lieutenant Commander J.J. Clark.
As for Walter Beech, he was keeping his two racers out of the public eye. One day, however, he did allow Davis to take the ship aloft to perform a short but impressive aerobatic routine that raised eyebrows of both the crowds and the military aviators. One observer noted that, “The machine had such an enormous reserve of power that it seemed to travel in any attitude and direction, including upside down flight and flights vertically upward, quite normally and under full control.” Except for that brief exhibition, Mr. Beech was preserving his long-wing warrior for the one race it had been designed and built to win – Event No. 26 scheduled for Labor Day weekend, September 2. As the week went by speculation regarding whether the Travel Air could beat the best the Air Corps and Navy could offer reached a fever pitch.
Before sunrise September 2, Travel Air’s team was already busy preparing for the Free-for-All race. Although earlier that week the Chevrolair-powered Type “R” had already won a race with Doug Davis at the controls, the Wright-powered monoplane had been groomed for the big event since Rawdon and his associate, engineer Walter Burnham, began designing the speedster in 1928.
To assist with the pre-race checks, Walter Beech had made arrangements for a mechanic from the Wright Aeronautical Corporation to thoroughly inspect the J6-9 engine. He perused every aspect of the powerplant, checked the two magnetos, installed 18 new BG spark plugs, and readjusted the propeller blade angle to allow the engine to turn a maximum of 2,700 RPM. Finally, the fuel and oil tanks were filled to proper levels for the race.
Doug Davis was rested and eager to fly the scarlet Type “R,” but he knew that Event No. 26 would push both man and machine to their limits in an effort to claim victory and pocket $750. Sporting race No. 31 on both sides of the fuselage and the underside of the right wing, the racer was cleaned and polished to a brilliant shine. As time for the race drew closer, Walter Beech arrived at the hangar to meet Davis. After a brief chat between the two men, the Type “R” was rolled out of the hangar. Davis, who always flew wearing a white shirt and tie, climbed into the cockpit and prepared to bring the nine-cylinder “Whirlwind” to life. The start of the race was only minutes away.
Stay tuned to Part Two in the next issue.