A Racing Driver's Aeroplane

I would not like to attempt to list all those personalities who have been associated both with motor racing and aviation; Voisin, the Farmans, Harry Hawker who gave his name to so many great aeroplanes, the number is legion. Fewer racing personnel have been associated with the construction of aeroplanes named after them. Captain D K M Marendaz was responsible for one or two Marendaz machines, and Sir Henry Segrave was associated with an aeroplane named after him. A famous racing driver’s aeroplane, in fact.

At the time Segrave was at the height of a talented career. His determination and skill had gained him many victories for Sunbeam and the STD organisation, encouraged and aided by the enthusiastic engineer Louis Coatalen. By 1930, when the aviation venture started, Segrave had broken the LSR twice, in 1929 with the Napier Lion powered Golden Arrow at 231.4 mph, for at which achievement he had been knighted.

It might be thought that all the famous racing driver did was to lend his illustrious name to an aircraft-building company. However, it must be remembered that Segrave had been an RFC pilot in the First World War, was a member of the British Aviation Mission to Washington in 1918, and in the year of that second LSR became Technical Adviser to the Aircraft Investment Corporation Ltd, a powerful financial organisation associated with Saunders-Roe, and having links with Blackburn Consolidated Ltd.

It was the AIC which commissioned Segrave to design the ideal private owner’s touring aeroplane, with adequate speed but able to land at a safe pace and remain airborne on one engine. Segrave was apparently appointed because of his awareness of how scientific use of low air drag or streamlining could obtain maximum performance from the power available. Cynics might say that Segrave was employed because of the publicity and prestige his name carried, as surely streamlining knowledge must have been available to Supermarine and others in building the Schneider Trophy racing seaplanes. This had, indeed, been applied to the very close fairing-in of the Napier Lion engine in the Golden Arrow car.

Whoever actually put it on the drawing board, the fact is that the Segrave aeroplane designed for the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company Ltd, at Brough Aerodrome in East Yorkshire, was an exciting aeroplane of very advanced design. The building of the prototype Segrave B1 was entrusted to Saunders-Roe, respected for their flying-boats and their “Consuta” system of laced wooden planking. This first aeroplane was a low-wing monoplane of wooden construction with a fully streamlined oval-section fuselage seating four, powered by two de Havilland Gipsy III 120 hp engines faired into the leading edge of the wing. The cabin was totally enclosed and only the fixed narrow-track undercarriage and cantilever tail-skid outdated this impressive little aeroplane. Officially named the Saro Segrave Meteor I, the popular designation was simply the Segrave Meteor.

With an all-up weight of 2948Ib this touring monoplane had a maximum speed of 132 mph, could cruise at 110 mph, had an initial climb rate of 900 ft/min, and on the larger of its two fuel tanks, holding 52 gallons, the range was a useful 450 miles. Following the customary performance testing at Martlesham Heath, G-AAXP was entered for the 1930 Kings Cup race, which had 110 entries. It had as its pilots Flt-Lt (later Sir Richard) Atherley and Flt-Lt Stainforth, of the RAF High-Speed Flight. Alas, soon after the start of the race a fuel system problem caused the starboard engine to run intermittently, and the promising Segrave tourer had to return to Hanworth… The race entry had been made by Major Holt of AIC Ltd and was clearly intended to obtain publicity for the Segrave, with the aim of selling the aeroplane. After a few recommended modifications it was repainted red, from all-white, and demonstrated at Croydon and Heston by the Corporation’s test pilot, Flt Lt J Armour.

The Segrave Meteor was well received at the Surrey Aero Club’s Gatwick Air Show, and Armour then flew it to Rome from Heston, via St Ingelvert, for a demonstration before Signor Balbo. It was apparently flown and approved of by Italian Air Force pilots, and the Italian Government signed a contract for Piaggio to build it under licence as a trainer. But it seems that only two were made. Having flown the prototype back, Armour acquired it for his own use but had to accede to the Director of the AIC, who took it over after overhauling at Brough and had its C-of-A renewed. After which Armour flew it in the 1932 King’s Cup race, only to have a fuel pipe break on the second day. It made a few more Continental business flights before being dismantled.

The sad element in this story is that Sir Henry Segrave had lost his life in 1930 at the end of his successful bid to break the Water Speed Record with Miss England II, powered by two racing R-R 1900 hp engines (98.76 mph). This happened only a fortnight after the Segrave aeroplane had first flown so if he was closely connected with its design, development must have been impeded. However, after it had been found necessary to return all Segrave parts to Brough, to give space at Saunders-Roe for many new projects, a metal version of the Segrave was started late to 1930, named the Meteor II. Two were built, with Saro-built plywood wings, and G-ABFP was flown in 1931 and rushed Gordon Selfridge Junior could use it for an Easter tour to Spain, co-piloted by R H McIntosh. Five other light aeroplanes accompanied the Segrave but alas it got no further than Perpignan. After quite considerable mods, it was found to handle well and could fly on either engine. But so much for the specified low stalling speed: at 69 mph this was by now regarded as high for this kind of aeroplane.

In an attempt to create interest in his company’s products, Robert Blackburn went on a long overseas trip in G-ABFT, piloted by A M Blake and accompanied by a Lincoln III and a Bluebird IV. Demonstrations were given in Brussels, Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade, and they continued to Athens and Salonika, for Greek military pilots to sample the trio. Unfortunately, the Bluebird was involved in a fatal accident. No orders resulted, and the perhaps too advanced Segrave was sold to British Air Navigation Co Ltd at Heston, equipped with Marconi radio and navigation lights, to be used as an air-taxi. In the end, however, Armour had his way, aquiring it and flying it in the 1932 Brooklands-Cramlington race, averaging 126.5 mph. That wasn’t the end, for a Miss Burnside bought it and flew it out to Kenya and back to Croydon. It was then used by Aircraft Exchange & Mart as a twin-engined trainer, and finally at Brough as a test-bed for the Cirrus Hermes IVA engines.

A third Blackburn Segrave I was converted into the Blackburn CA20 Segrave II for F Duncanson to test his patented single spar wing (G-ACMI), but none have survived. W B