At the National Air Races in September 1929, the Travel Air Type “R” monoplane turned the world of air racing upside down by conquering its military opponents, much to the delight of Walter H. Beech.
Douglas Davis climbed aboard the Type “R” racer and squeezed into the small cockpit. Time was of the essence as he quickly ran through a mental checklist: “Fuel ON, Magnetos BOTH, Throttle IDLE.” Davis motioned to the mechanic and yelled “Switches ON.” The propeller swung around and the mighty Wright J6-9 radial engine coughed to life, belching smoke from all nine exhaust stacks before settling into a staccato rumble.
It was September 2, 1929, the last most important day of the weeklong National Air Races (NAR). Tens of thousands of spectators filled the grandstands to overflowing as they waited for the start of Event No. 26 – the Free-for-All speed dash.
Davis taxied the Travel Air monoplane across the airfield and was directed by officials to the starting line directly in front of the main grandstand. Six other challengers were also taxiing into position, including Captain R.G. Breene in the Army Air Corp’s Curtiss XP-3A and Lieutenant Commander J.J. Clark in the U.S. Navy’s handsome Curtiss F6C-6. Walter H. Beech, watching closely from the sidelines, realized that the only other serious contender was Roscoe Turner flying a Lockheed Vega fitted with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine rated at 450 horsepower. The other two entrants stood little or no chance to win the race.
Beech and engineer Herbert Rawdon knew that the Army and Navy biplanes, as well as Turner’s Lockheed monoplane, were reasonably well matched against Travel Air’s low-wing Type “R.” The scarlet speedster, however, weighed in at only 1,950 pounds in racing trim – significantly less than its opponents – and had the distinct advantage of having been designed specifically for air racing around a pylon course. As a result, both Beech and Rawdon concluded that the contest probably would evolve into a duel between Davis and Breene.
Event No. 26 consisted of 10 laps flown around a triangular 5-mile course with turns marked by large pylons. The winner would be determined by elapsed time, not speed. As the final moments before the race ticked by, Davis sat snug in the cockpit, occasionally exchanging glances with Breene and Clark as NAR officials walked up and down the starting line ensuring that each airplane and pilot were ready.
Satisfied that all was in order, one official stood in sight of all the contestants and slowly raised the starting flag. For safety, the six airplanes would take off in a prearranged order at 10-second intervals. Suddenly, the flag dropped, Breene’s XP-3A was first, followed by Davis, Clark, Turner and the others. The ground trembled as engines roared and propellers blew up massive clouds of dirt and dust. The crowds roared, too, as they yelled in support of their favorite aviator.
As for Walter Beech, he just puffed away on his pipe, hoping that in less than 30 minutes he could begin collecting on a long list of lucrative bets he had made with friends and competitors during the week. If Davis won, Walter would be a rich man.
Captain Breene was leading the race as the racers approached the first pylon, followed closely by Clark and Davis. Between the first and second pylon the Travel Air flew past Clark, then Breene, and slowly began pulling away from the field. Davis knew he had to decide in advance how best to fly around each upcoming pylon – too high and his adversaries could regain the lead, too low was very dangerous, too tight risked colliding with the pylon and too wide would lose time.
As the race unfolded, Breene passed Turner and two other ships, as did Davis, but the Type “R” was stretching its lead over the Army and Navy ships with every lap. Breene and Clark, however, were flying their machines skillfully, rounding each pylon as tightly as possible at an altitude of only 250 feet. Breene also dove the XP-3A into each turn, but Davis deviated little from his planned altitude as he flew each turn and built a commanding lead.
As the race neared its conclusion, Davis feared he had turned inside of one pylon – a mistake that would cost him the checkered flag. With his heart pounding like a jackhammer, he whipped the monoplane around and flew back to circle the pylon. In his haste to complete the turn, he pulled back on the stick so hard that he momentarily lost his vision. Uncertain if he had negotiated the turn legally, Davis circled the pylon a third time before rolling wings level and continued holding the lead. The two Curtiss Hawks were fast and had been gaining on the red racer, but the Travel Air never relinquished its first-place position.
During the last minutes of the event Davis managed to stay ahead of Breene and the XP3-A, and took the checkered flag after completing 10 laps in 14 minutes five seconds and posting a maximum speed of 208.69 mph while averaging 194.9 mph. Breene placed second with a time of 14 minutes 42 seconds at an average speed of 186.84 mph. Turner beat Clark to the line for third place at a speed of 163.44 mph. After landing, Davis shut down the hard-working J6-9, clambered out of the cockpit to accept the Thompson Cup amid a thunderous roar from the crowds.
Two months after his victory at Cleveland, Davis recalled the pylon incident during an interview with The Atlanta Journal newspaper: “You know, there is a limit to what a man can endure when he is flying at high speed. When you pass the 200 mph mark you have to be careful on your turns. If you change direction too abruptly, blood rushes from your head and you go blind. That happened to me in the Cleveland race. Near the end I thought I clipped a pylon too closely. If I had failed to go around it my entry would have been thrown out of the meet. I had a long lead over the field, so I figured it would be better to circle the marker again and make sure I was around it. But this time I pulled up on the stick too quickly and everything went black. By the time my head cleared I was already past the pylon, so I circled back once more. This time I took a larger curve and made sure I was outside the pylon. The judges told me after the race I had made a good turn each time.”
In fewer than 15 minutes Travel Air’s so-called “Mystery Ship” had turned the world of air racing upside down. Russell C. Johns, a journalist for Aero Digest magazine, wrote that the speedster was “undoubtedly the most outstanding development among racing planes” adding that its victory “focuses attention on the whole matter of America’s status in pursuit of aviation and matter pertaining to radical changes in design that might help the Army and Navy keep up with progress.”
In the wake of Travel Air’s striking success in Event No. 26, military officials did begin thinking seriously about the monoplane and its inherent advantages of less drag and more speed. One year later, the Navy returned to Cleveland with a monoplane of their own – the reborn Curtiss F6C-6 that had been transformed into the XF6C-6 powered by a Curtiss Conqueror engine that developed 700 horsepower.
As for Walter Beech’s post-race activities, he is reported to have walked around the airfield collecting a few thousand dollars in bets. Travel Air mechanic Ted Cochran recalled that Beech “was going around the field taking up everybody’s bet. He had a wad of bills that would choke a mule and he was really happy.” Cochran estimated that Walter had won more than $60,000, which is highly improbable, although he did hand out $100 bills whenever the Travel Air team needed cash.
The Cleveland NAR was history. The “Scarlet Marvel” returned to Wichita triumphant but had little time to rest. Senior officials of Travel Air’s parent company, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, were anxious to capitalize on the racer’s sudden notoriety. The monoplane was refurbished in preparation for more racing as well as public appearances at local and regional “air meets” from coast to coast.
Although Davis would fly the airplane again, the ship was flown throughout the remainder of September and October by Clarence Clark and Ira McConaughey. After having its red and black paint cleaned, polished and buffed to a lustrous shine, the Type “R” was flown to the Kansas City International Exposition and placed on display for all to admire. In November Davis flew the airplane from New York City to his native Georgia to participate in the Atlanta Air Races. When asked if Curtiss-Wright would place the monoplane into production, Davis replied that the company did have plans to do so, but that a second cockpit would be added and the wingspan increased to reduce takeoff and landing speeds. Those plans, however, were quickly abandoned as the national economy entered an unrecoverable, inverted flat spin in the wake of the debacle on Wall Street in October.
During the air races in Georgia, Doug Davis flung the ship around the pylons in a crowd-pleasing demonstration of the airplane’s brute power. He followed that impressive routine with a dazzling display of aerobatics that included vertical maneuvers as well as rolls and loops. Later, Davis dove the Travel Air to an airspeed that he estimated approached 250 mph, then made a vertical climb to 3,000 feet.
A reporter for The Atlanta Journal summed up the aerial demonstration this way: “All who have seen the ship agree it is a marvel of the age, and many who watched it doing stunts over Candler Field hardly believed their eyes.” Such was the mystique of the “Scarlet Marvel.” It was perhaps Davis, however, who summed up the airplane best: “She’s a great little ship.”