The Air Speed Record

Motoring enthusiasts should be conversant with the LSR, but are probably far less familiar with the ASR, if the World's Air Speed Record was ever thus condensed. So a short study of it may not come amiss. The LSR was of much interest, especially during the developing 1920s, when the newspaper-reading public was kept well aware of the activities of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Parry Thomas, Sir Henry Segrave and others, in the realm of absolute motor-car speed and the dramas associated with it. Today the interest has been sustained by the efforts of Richard Noble and Thrust II.

In contrast, the Air Speed Record, equally authentic, being homologated by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, received much less attention, and there was a popular fallacy that in the between-wars period racing aeroplanes were for some time slower than LSR cars. The rules governing this record were much the same as for the cars. The mean speed of two-way flights past the marker posts or towers was required, timed by hand-held stopwatches operated by qualified and accredited timekeepers, up to 1926, after which ciné-camera guns were substituted, at first in conjunction with one-fifth-second stopwatches but by the 1930s using tuning-forks accurate to 1/20th of a second. Later light-beams took over. The timed distance was usually a kilometre, but later 3 km. courses were used in Britain with more than one timed run in opposite directions.

By 1906 aeroplanes had become sufficiently fast for Santos-Dumont tithe timed at 25.65 m.p.h. at Bagatelle, in his Santos-Dumont 14, and the following year, the one in which Brooklands Track was opened, Henry Farman bettered this, doing 32.73 m.p.h. flying a Voisin biplane at Issy-les-Moulineaux. These were not ratified as official records, however, the first of which was not established, by Paul Tissandier, until 1909. He took his Wright biplane over the measured distance at 34.04 m.p.h., at Pau in France, where so much of the pioneer flying was now centred. Reims was another place where the early pilots gathered and the opening of an officially-recognised speed record brought with it much activity. In 1909 Tissandier's record was bettered three times, the celebrated Louis Bleriot beating the American Glenn Curtiss' pace in a Herring-Curtiss biplane by a considerable margin, going on to leave the record at an impressive 47.85 m.p.h. that summer. These new-fangled flying machines were far from impressive compared to the racing-cars that were circling Brooklands and Indianapolis, but speeds were creeping up. At Nice in the spring of 1910 Hubert Latham flew one of those delicate-looking Antoinette monoplanes at 48.21 m.p.h. and this cannot have pleased the Reims exponents, because less than three months later Leon Morane, using a Bleriot monoplane, a very popular aeroplane since the famous first-crossing of the English Channel, was timed to do 66.19 m.p.h., with 100 k.p.h. exceeded in the air for the first time. America, where heavier-than-air aviation originated, then took a hand, for the next time the speed record fell it was over Belmont Park in Long Island. New York, where Alfred Leblanc flew a Bleriot, first at 66.20 m.p.h., the following year (1911) at 69.48 m.p.h.

The low power of the unpredictable early aero-engines, unable to make much of the drag of low-loaded wings and square-shaped and often only partially-covered fuselages, must have been the cause of such low speeds, at a time when more than one Brooklands racing car was capable of over 100 m.p.h. Indeed, it was not until 1911 that an aeroplane exceeded 70 m.p.h. officially for the first time. The honour fell to Edouard Nieuport, in one of those promising Nieuport biplanes, which managed 74.42 m.p.h., to which Leblanc and the Bleriot replied with 77.68 m.p.h. However, things were hotting up. It was still in 1911 that the aerial target of 80 m.p.h. was attained, when Newport flew his biplane at Chalons at 0.82 m.p.h. above that figure, increasing this to 82.73 m.p.h. a week later.

From then, until the outbreak of war in 1914, it was the Deperdussin monoplane which was supreme in the field of sheer speed. These were the sporting aeroplanes of the time, and Jules Vedrines campaigned them in attacks on the World's Air Speed Record seven times between the beginning of 1912 and the autumn of that year, lifting the speed from 90.20 m.p.h. to 108.18 m.p.h., thus having the distinction of being the first pilot to achieve "the ton" (100 m.p.h.) in the air. Mostly he flew from Pau but one of his records was made over Chicago, Illinois. Maurice Provost, also flying a Deperdussin monoplane, went even quicker, taking the record from 111.74 m.p.h. to 126.67 m.p.h. at Reims in the summer and autumn of 1913. This was very quick and must have seemed so in an aeroplane of those times, the pilot sitting well up in the slipstream and the wind no doubt howling loudly in the bracing wires . . . At last the flying machine was coming into line with racing-cars in terms of maximum speed, but after 1913 the needs of the military stopped any further successful attempts on the ASR.

It has been said that the forced and rapid development of the aeroplane for war purposes retarded rather than furthered its cause. The fighting machines of the 1914 / 18 war needed manoeuvrability and rapid climb as well as speed, in spheres of action involving dog-fights, in which, as RFC pilot and writer Cecil Lewis has written, pilots won or lost, lived or died by their own skill and courage, the last warriors to enter the age-long lists of single-handed combat, with no Big Brother to tell them what to do. . . .

Safety, slow landing-speeds and, except in the case of bombers, which had not been fully exploited before the Armistice was signed (those four-engined V1500 Handley Pages intended for she bombing of Berlin never did so) carrying capacity had little place in a fighting aeroplane. The way in which speed increased under the pressure of war can be seen when it is realised that the last ASR of 1913 was improved on by a matter of more than 44 m.p.h. by 1922, whereas the previous biggest increase in the speed at which the record had been broken, after 80 m.p.h. had been exceeded, was less than 12½ m.p.h. and that was in the last of the attacks made prior to the war.

It is well known that after the war the Aircraft Industry was in a very precarious state, due to the run-down of the RAF and similar Forces in Europe. In this country companies such as Avro's, Hawker's, the Aircraft Mfg. Co. and others took to building car bodies and even making cars and motorcycles to try to remain solvent. There could not have been much money available with which to build special aeroplanes for attacks on the ASR hut there was always the hope that Air Force expansion might provide fresh business and presumably such record-bids as were made soon after things had settled down after the Armistice were mounted in the hope that good publicity would be achieved for the aeroplane manufacturers concerned.

It took until 1920 for that 126 m.p.h. of 1913 to be officially surpassed. In February of that year the celebrated pilot Sadi Lecointe broke Prevost's pre-war record and by now things were becoming much more exciting. Incidentally, it may be noted that up to that time French aeroplanes had broken the ASR 20 times. Lecointe flew a fearsome Nieuport-Delage 29 to a speed of 171.05 m.p.h. in France, at a time when the LSR stood at only 124.1 m.p.h., although admittedly this figure by the Big Benz had been established before the war. The new ASR did not last long. Just before the month of February ran out Jean Casale took a Bleriot monoplane into the air in France and pushed the record to 176.15 m.p.h. In fact, 1920 saw the record broken seven times but although 200 m.p.h. was the obvious target, this had not quite been accomplished by December, when Lecointe's Nieuport-Delage left the record at 194.35 m.p.h. His only successful challenger had been Baron de Romanet, whose Spad biplane, another racy-looking aeroplane, did 192.02 m.p.h. at Bug, breaking the other pilot's run of six successful record attacks.

Lecointe had another try at raising the ASR a year later but although the 210.64 m.p.h. his Nieuport-Delage biplane achieved was not ratified, it was regarded as an authentic run at over 200 m.p.h. The fact that the FAI had not ratified his speed must have rankled, because after waiting nine months, Sadi was up again over Villesauvage with the Nieuport-Delage 29 and this time his speed of 205.24 m.p.h. was officially approved, the first pilot to fly at over 200 m.p.h., a speed it took a car another six years to attain. The new ASR was done at Villa Coublay. The cockpit of the Nieuport was open, with faired headrest, the inter-plane struts of the 19' 6"-span wings were faired, and a 300 h.p. Hispano Suiza engine with a large propeller was used, the aeroplane presumably being that with which the same pilot had won the 1920 Gordon Bennett Trophy race at 168½ m.p.h. for the 186.4-mile course. The machine was, in fact, a war-time fighter design and with it Lecointe took the record to 211.91 m.p.h. a few days later, proving that his speed was no fluke.

America now joined in this race of pure speed. Late in 1922 Brig. Gen. William Mitchell flew a Curtiss HS D-12 at Detroit at a speed of 211.98 m.p.h., beating Lecointe by a narrow margin. This was apparently counted as the official ASR, whereas the same combination's later 243.94 m.p.h. was not. Lecointe could not let it rest there and he had one more, successful, attempt, flying the Nieuport at 233.03 m.p.h. in February 1923. After that the USA monopolised the ASR for the rest of the year. First Lt. Maughan's Curtiss R-6 seaplane did 236.59 m.p.h., after which different American Air Force Officers flying various Curtiss machines flew at Mitchell Field, breaking the record four times, although of these only the 266.60 m.p.h. runs by a Curtiss R-2 C-1 was accepted Internationally. But an aeroplane had exceeded 250 m.p.h. Incidentally, it was the close fairing round the notably clean outline of the Curtiss D-12 water-cooled engines that excited so much interest at this time, caused C. G. Grey of The Aeroplane to become so enthusiastic and pro-American that he lost all his British advertising for a time, and the Fairey Company to import such an engine, installing it in their sensationally quick Fairey Fox biplane, with beneficial results.

Before WW2 France took the ASR once more, when in 1924 at Istres, Bonnet achieved 278.47 m.p.h. in a Ferbois V-2. With speeds approaching 300 m.p.h. necessitating very high wing loadings it was becoming impossible to find any aerodrome big enough to take such fast aeroplanes, in those days of grass airfields, before the advent of long concrete runways and, indeed, the record was moribund from 1924 until 1927. So, in spite of the loss of pace caused by the high drag of floats, the ASR now moved into the preserve of racing seaplanes, built to contest the Schneider Trophy races.

The first of these to capture the ASR was Italian — the Macchi M-52, flown by Major Mario de Bernardi at Venice in 1927 at a speed of 297.83 m.p.h. All three of these Italian entries for the Schneider Trophy race having retired, it was necessary to do something to retrieve flagging Italian prestige. A modified propeller was used for the record attempt, which was over a three-kilometre course, and later de Bernardi unofficially exceeded 300 m.p.h. during sensational low-level flights. The following year, however, told by Mussolini to set a new record before Great Britain did so, a reluctant de Bernardi took a modified 1,000 h.p. Fiat-engined Macchi M-52bis over the Venice course and pushed the World's ASR to 318.64 m.p.h., the average for eight runs. Thus 300 m.p.h. had been attained in the air seven years before Campbell's "Bluebird" did this on land.

After this the initiative passed to Great Britain. Late in 1929, flying an R. J. Mitchell-designed, Rolls-Royce-engined Supermarine S.6, Sqdn.-Ldr. Orlebar took the record to 357.75 m.p.h. at Ryde, Isle of White, after F.O. Waghorn, AFC, had won the race at 328.63 m.p.h. in one of these machines, from a Macchi, M-52R. The Schneider Trophy was contested bi-annually and for the 1931 race Rolls-Royce developed the 36.7-litre 2,350 h.p. R-Type engine, amid much anxiety and drama (including fast runs by Rolls-Royce Phantoms between Derby and Calshott), which I wrote of in Motor Sport for July 1944 (copies available). These engineering endeavours plus Wing Comdr. Banks' fuel researches, enabled this country, with financial aid from the patriotic Lady Houston, to win the Trophy outright, the 1931 race being a walk-over for Flt.-Lt. Boothman, of the RAF High Speed Flight. He averaged 340.08 m.p.h. over the 220-mile Calshott course, no other entrant starting. A specially-fuelled version of the Rolls-Royce R-type engine, giving 2,530 b.h.p. was then installed in an S.6B, which Flt.-Lt. Stainforth, AFC, used to lift the ASR to 407.02 m.p.h. that September. (A later run at 415.2 m.p.h. was disallowed by the FAI). The wonderful R-type Rolls-Royce engine was also used to give Britain the LSR and Water Speed Record, enabling speeds of 400, 300 and 120 m.p.h. in the three elements to be exceeded for the first time.

Italy had again suffered humiliation with their Macchi-Castoldi MC-72 machines, which had again failed to fly, although had Great Britain agreed to the requested six-months postponement of the race, the outcome might have been different. As it was, Italy sought to gain revenge through the ASR. It took some three years to do this but in April 1934 W/O Agello set a new figure of 423.85 m.p.h. at Lake Garda and towards the end of the year had improved officially on this, leaving the ASR at 440.69 m.p.h. The engine used was the 51-litre Fiat AS6, with two V12 units in line, giving a 24-cylinder water-cooled, geared, supercharged installation of 3,100 b.h.p., driving two unconnected contra-rotating 8' 6" metal fixed-pitch propellers.

When I was at Fiat's Centro Storico in Turin some years ago I was studying their Macchi-Castoldi MC-72 and its remarkable engine when I heard a roar and was told that if I turned round I would see the machine breaking the ASR. This was true, for they had turned-on a film of it. Not only was it exciting to see the Macchi flashing across the screen but what was interesting was that, after he had landed, the great engineer and racing-pilot Francesco Agello had to climb out of the cockpit hastily and hang over the tail, until the motor-launches coming to his aid reached him, which might take some time in view of the Macchi's long landing-run. The reason was that once the engine had stopped the machine was nose-heavy and the swell could easily have caused it to tip up and sink. . . . In fact, although they did not require aerodromes, these racing seaplanes were not easy to fly. Their big floats might be excellent receptacles for fuel and coolant radiators but it was not easy to make them unstick from the water and if the pilot opened up the engine too much one of them could quickly dig-in, sinking the machine. At least a dozen pilots were killed in them, including W/O Dal Molin when trying for the ASR in a Savoia Marchetti S.65 in 1930, five in the racing Macchis and our Flt.-Lt. Kinkead in a Supermarine S.5 while attempting to break the ASR in 1928, and Lt. Brinton when practising with an S.5B in 1931.

The end of the Schneider Trophy race marked the close of ASR attacks for five years, until Germany entered the arena, no doubt encouraged by Herr Hitler as he had encouraged Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz in Grand Prix motor racing. By then high-speed fighters with retractable undercarriages were being rapidly developed and new, modern aerodromes existed from which wheeled-contenders could take-off and land. First of these German aeroplanes, all Daimler-Benz powered, to make its mark was a Heinkel He100-V8 (463.92 m.p.h.), after which the honours passed to Fritz Wendel and the Messerschmitt Bf109R, which had put the record to 469.22 m.p.h. by April 1939 and got it ratified.

The Germans were able to attach fighter-type nomenclature to these record-breakers, thus gaining extra prestige, because it implied how fast were the machines the RAF would have to face in war. There were attempts to retaliate. Italy looked to Fiat, who had developed a 35-litre, 2,000 b.h.p., V16 engine driving contra-rotating airscrews and installed this in a CS15 aeroplane expected to reach 525 m.p.h. before the props. ran out of "screw". It came to naught. In Britain two attempts were made to re-secure the ASR. One of these centred round two Heston racers, sponsored by Lord Nuffield. The result should have been exciting, to say the least, for the little wooden single-seater low-wing monoplane with a wing-span of fractionally over 32 feet and wheels retracting into it, was powered by a 2,300 h.p. version of the Napier Sabre engine. This was a pure racing aeroplane, with a duration of only 18 minutes and an estimated top speed of 480 m.p.h. Alas, after flying for only five minutes it was damaged in a crash-landing at Heston in 1940, caused by overheating and inadequate elevator control and the war prevented the second Heston Type 5 racer from being built.

Fortunately, however, the seeds had been well sown. Thanks to the work of Banks, Ellor, Mitchell, Sir Henry Royce and others, and the output at Derby and in the Shadow factories, the R-R Merlin engine was able to give the Hurricanes and Spitfires the performance required to win the crucial air-battle of WW2. All originating from racing and record-breaking. . . .

After that war stopped play. Afterwards the ASR was the preserve of Service personnel flying specially-prepared military aeroplanes. It was set first at 606.38 m.p.h. by Grp.-Capt. Wilson, AFC, at Herne Bay in 1945, flying a Gloster Meteor Mk.IV. Grp.-Capt. Donaldson. DSO, AFC, carried on this good work, at Rustington (615.78 m.p.h.) before America chipped in, leaving the figure at 715.75 m.p.h with a North-American F-86D Sabre by 1953. It took Sqdn.-Ldr. Neville Duke, DSO, OBE, DFC, AFC, to counter that. In a Hawker Hunter-3 he did 727.63 m.p.h. at Littlehampton, which Lt.-Cdr. Mike Lithgow, OBE, followed with 735.70 m.p.h. in a Supermarine Swift-4 in Libya, all in 1953. (Both pilots have written about their record attempts.)

The USA had further successful onslaughts and it took Peter Twiss, OBE, DSC, flying a Fairey Delta-2 at Chichester to first exceed 1,000 m.p.h. (1,132.0 m.p.h. in 1956) and he, too, has written a book about it. After this the ASR continued as the preserve of jet-propelled aircraft, Russia taking it at 1,483.83 m.p.h. in 1959 with a Sukhoi E-66, and 2,070.10 m.p.h. being achieved in 1965 by Col. Stephens in a Lockheed YF-12A. That was achieved taking off and landing on the earth. A speed of 4,000 m.p.h. was recorded (not as the ASR) by 1961, with 4,534 m.p.h. reached in 1967, by a piloted aircraft, in this case a North American X-15A-2, which had been lifted by the US Air Force to a rarefied atmosphere by a Boeing B-52, these X15s using liquid oxygen rocket motors. But this is hardly what I had in mind when you came in! — W.B.

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Airspur, an American domestic airline which operates Israeli-built, twin-boom "Flying Footballs" between Los Angeles and San Diego's Montgomery Field — a friendly and convenient general aviation airport — now has three Rolls-Royce Gem-powered Westland 30s in its fleet. These, to our knowledge, are not only the first British helicopters to enter service with an American operator, but the first ever to be sold to an American customer. Well done, Westland; keep it up! — G.P.