The MacRobertson Air Race of 1934 marked the beginning of modern air travel and the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Aviation.
It was a time when daring—or simply dangerous—aviation events were concocted for the slightest of excuses. In the case of the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race it was nominally to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city of Melbourne, Australia. The sponsor for whom the race was named was provided this honour simply by putting up the £15,000 in prize money. Sir Macpherson Robertson—he preferred the more catchy ‘MacRobertson’—was an Australian confectionary baron who likely saw the unparalleled promotional opportunity for what it was: a means of getting his name, and subsequently his candy, on the lips of everybody from England to Australia and everywhere in between.
MacRobertson would accomplish this purely commercial objective simply by being the title sponsor for a race where entrants would depart Mildenhall, England and, as fast as they dared, make their way to Melbourne, Australia some 11,300 miles away. It was billed as the world’s greatest air race. It was a reasonable claim, given that few points in the world were farther apart than the race’s start and finish, and given the international field of entrants it would eventually attract.
For the dashing Geoffrey de Havilland, pioneering English aeronautical engineer and founder of the company that bore his name, the mere thought of such a race must have been utterly intoxicating—an air race from cold and rainy England to hot, dry, exotic and impossibly distant Australia. Entrants would, literally, depart in Fall and arrive in Spring a few days later. Of particular interest to de Havilland, perhaps, was that there was virtually no restriction placed on the entrants or the aircraft they flew. The race itself had just five checkpoints along the way: Baghdad in the Middle East, Allahabad and Singapore in Asia and thence onwards to Darwin and Charleville in Australia before reaching the finishing line in Melbourne. Between the required en route stops the teams could choose whatever route they wanted.
Whether it was intended, or not, the race was ultimately one which primarily tested efficiency and reliability of the aircraft rather than simply flat out speed. The aircraft which could do the most with the least would stand the best chance of winning. One which could fly roughly 2,000 miles without stopping for fuel could theoretically make just the mandatory stops and no others. Less time on the ground meant more time in the air which is where aircraft do their best work. It’s a principle that holds true today, as any ground crew in any modern airport will confirm as they are relentlessly pushed to shorten turnaround times for their aircraft.
Taking the parameters of the MacRobertson into account, Geoffrey de Havilland approached the board of his eponymous company and proposed an entirely new design which would not only enter the race but had a reasonable prospect of winning. It’s interesting to speculate on what de Havilland’s pitch might have been. The first part might have focused on the sheer romance and excitement of the event. Having set the hook, the second part would almost have to rationalize the money losing prospect of the development of such an aircraft. Part of the latter would be the refinement of techniques with more commercially viable applications such as passenger or cargo transport. Even better, it would equip de Havilland to bid on lucrative military contracts which were looming on the darkening geopolitical horizon of the mid-1930s.
De Havilland was allowed to proceed but with conditions the board might have hoped would kill the certain money pit before it ever started, but without leaving the board members with the blame. As such, in January of 1934, de Havilland publicly offered the new design to anyone who could come up with £5,000. However, the board further stipulated there needed be a minimum of three orders received by no later than the end of February of that same year, mere weeks from the date of the announcement. In the unlikely event three purchasers could actually be found in the midst of a worldwide economic depression, they were promised an aircraft capable of cruising in excess of 200 miles-per-hour and have a range in excess of 2,000 miles. In other words an aircraft, right out of the box, capable of winning the MacRobertson. Most importantly, de Havilland committed he would deliver race ready aircraft with time to spare prior to the race start in October of that same year.
It must have come as a shock to the de Havilland board when the required orders were indeed received by the nearly impossible deadline. Undoubtedly to Geoffrey de Havilland’s delight, the sleek race plane was well on its way to becoming a reality. Furthermore, it now also had a name: the DH.88 Comet. Now, all de Havilland had to do was deliver the three aircraft in the few short months remaining before the start of the race.
The Comet was going to deliver on the extravagant promises made by Geoffrey de Havilland not by adding things but by taking them away. First amongst these was aerodynamic drag, which is the force working in opposition to the forward movement of any aircraft. It’s caused by the friction of the air as it flows past the airframe. This drag can never be eliminated—it can only be reduced. However, within the limitations of physics the aircraft’s designer, Arthur E. Hagg, was on a mission to make the Comet as slippery as possible.
If a truly low drag airframe could be achieved, it would have an important direct consequence: it would enable the use of smaller, more fuel efficient engines which would be necessary to meet the gruelling speed and range requirements of the race. Even then, fuel was going to have to be squeezed into much of the empty space of the aircraft’s interior.
At the same time, none of these decisions could impact the prime objective. The Comet was designed to win the MacRobertson, not simply complete the route, so making the aircraft as fast as possible was an essential requirement of the design brief.
Designer Hagg started eliminating drag by drastically thinning out the Comet’s wing to make it as knife-like as possible in order that it slice through the air with a minimum of resistance. Hagg made it so thin it would be a challenge to design an internal structure strong and light enough to withstand the loads the aircraft would encounter. Undeterred by that reality, Hagg made things still more difficult by specifying a wing without any external struts or bracing wires which were common practice in aircraft at the time.
Also on other aircraft of the era, landing gear was typically fixed in a permanent ‘down’ position, which was out in the breeze where it could generate still more drag. With the Comet, the landing gear would be retractable. While in flight, the wheels would be brought up and out of the airstream and tucked below the twin de Havilland Gypsy Six engines, each with just 230 horspower. The engines and retracted landing gear were enclosed in engine nacelles located outboard of the fuselage on the wing. But this was not a modern, push button airplane: the air crew would have to manually turn a hand wheel 14 times each time they wanted to raise or lower the landing gear.
Finally, Hagg attempted to eliminate every protuberance from the airframe which stuck out into the airstream. The final design was a series of seamless, organic forms which not only optimized the reduction of drag but were also stunningly beautiful. The problem, of course, was in pursuit of a design which would deliver on his boss’s promises, the gorgeous aircraft was seemingly impossible to build.
The Comet’s designer Hagg, of course, knew what he was doing when he incorporated all the drag reduction features into his design. The Comet would employ a novel technique of laminating strips of wood of various widths and thicknesses into a mould which mirrored the final shape of the aircraft. Once all the layers had been applied and the glue had dried, the finished component was removed from the mould and was more-or-less ready to use. Known as stressed skin construction, it still required an internal structure but one with nowhere near the weight or bulk of more conventional construction techniques. The skin of the aircraft not only gave it its form, but its strength as well. It was brilliant, and except for the substitution of more modern materials like carbon fibre, a technique which is still used with today’s aircraft.
In one fell swoop, Hagg’s innovation enabled the demanding design of the Comet to actually be built.
Just six weeks prior to the start of the MacRobertson, de Havilland filled the three enabling orders for the Comet. The first, painted a vivacious red, was delivered to hotelier A. O. Edwards and named after one of his properties: Grosvenor House. The second was delivered to owners Jim Mollison and Amy Johnson who would also fly the aircraft in the race. It was painted pure black and named, inevitably, Black Magic. The third was delivered to Bernard Rubin, a successful auto racer. In a nod to his day job, his Comet was painted British Racing Green but, oddly, not given a name for the race like most of the other entrants. Undoubtedly to Geoffrey de Havilland’s great relief, all the Comets were tested and ready by race day to be included in a field of 20 entrants from six countries.
Hotelier Edwards hired the team of Charles W.A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black as the crew for the Grosvenor House. Long before the term had been coined, the two aviators were the ‘dream team’ of long distance aviation in the 1930s. Not only did they both look the part, they had extensive experience in flying long distances over remote terrain. Scott had relocated to Australia in the 1920s and was involved in the founding of Qantas, the Australian national airline which still exists today, of course. Scott set a number of Australian records during his tenure with the airline. He had also become somewhat obsessed with the England-to-Australia trip and set three speed records on the route prior to the MacRobertson. Campbell Black took something of a similar path to Scott. He helped build Wilson Airways, a flying service in Kenya in East Africa. He stayed with the venture until 1932 when he returned to England to be the personal pilot to renowned horse breeder and flamboyantly named Lord Marmaduke Furness.
Shortly after 6.00 am on October 20th, 1934 a crowd of 60,000 gathered at Mildenhall to watch the teams depart. Black Magic managed to get as far as Allahabad where it was forced to retire due to mechanical problems. Rubin’s Comet, piloted by Ken Waller and Owen Cathcart Jones, made it all the way to Melbourne to place fourth, in an elapsed time of 108 hours and 55 minutes. But the unparalleled star of the show was the Grosvenor House in the hands of Scott and Campbell Black. It shattered existing records and obliterated the competition, arriving in Melbourne in just 71 hours.
Notably, second and third place were taken by a Douglas DC-2 and a Boeing 247D piloted by Dutch and American crews respectively. These weren’t race planes. They were airliners. What became apparent was that for these airline-funded entrants the race was an early forerunner to the routine, safe, comfortable, globe-spanning airline flights we enjoy today. While they may not have won the day back then, it signalled the arrival a new era of air travel. It also signalled the beginning of the end of what’s now referred to as the Golden Age of Aviation.
It was just that nobody knew it at the time.
Despite world events sweeping past them, neither Scott or Campbell Black were in any hurry to give up their hero, silk scarf aviator status after the MacRobertson. Campbell Black died doing what he arguably loved most when his Percival Mew Gull, named Miss Liverpool, was involved in an accident while on the ground at Speke Airport. At the time, the plane and its pilot were being prepared for an air race from England to South Africa.
Scott’s story was even more tragic. He was deployed to Montréal, Canada during World War II where his long distance flying expertise was put to work with the Royal Air Force Ferry Command. While in Canada he met and married his third wife, Kathleen Barnesley Prichard. After the war concluded it seemed like Scott couldn’t come to grips with the fact the world had moved on and he hadn’t. He wound up in Germany in 1946 working with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the group tasked with reuniting families after the war. While in Germany, Scott met Margaret K. Wenner whom he intended to take as his fourth wife. It quickly became apparent that was not going to happen—the pair were still married to other people. Duly spurned, and perhaps with the thought of living in miserable obscurity in a world which didn’t care as much for silk scarf aviators, Scott took a pistol and fatally shot himself in the chest in April of that year.
The Grosvenor House has had a happier life. It was passed through a number of owners’ hands until, in 1965, it finally reached the loving embrace of The Shuttleworth Aircraft Collection located in Bedfordshire, England. After decades of restoration effort, it was made airworthy again and still makes display flights each year. At 85, the old girl still looks pretty good.
There was to be no 1935 MacRobertson Air Race. Or any other for that matter. It wasn’t that the public had lost its taste for candy, but like any addiction, the addict has to continually increase the hit to achieve the same high. When you have already raced from one end of the globe to another, where else is there to go? It was time for aviation to grow up and get a real job which it did just a few years later. So far as the once coveted MacRobertson trophy itself, it came to a surprising and sad but somehow fitting end. In the January 24th, 1941 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, it was reported that the hotelier Edwards had donated the trophy to the Red Cross. He provided specific instructions that it should be melted down to aid the war effort.
Like its astronomical namesake, the de Havilland Comet and the race in which it flew into history burned white hot in the public’s imagination, albeit ever so briefly. They defined a fleeting moment when aviation was still for aviators with grand dreams and before—as a direct result of events set in motion back then—the rest of us inevitably became grumpy passengers simply along for the ride and where arrival can never come soon enough.
But then, also like the astronomical namesake, as quickly as they had arrived both the plane and the race were gone, in what must have seemed like an instant.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon
I dedicate this to my late father, Patrick Gannon. In 1935, when Dad was just six years old, he saw the Grosvenor House when it was put on static display at Lewis’s department store in Manchester, England. It was a beginning of his lifelong love affair with the plane. A small model of it can still be found on his night table at my parents home. ~TCG