Air: London/Australia - a long race in 1934

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Sixty years ago the aviation world was stirred by the presentation of a £500 gold cup and £15,000 in other prizes put up by the Australian chocolate millionaire, Sir MacPherson Robertson, for a race from England to Australia.

The race having been authorised, the problem was from where to start it. The Royal Aero Club decided on Mildenhall aerodrome in remote Suffolk, then little-known; when I drove past it some years ago the perimeter was sinister with the latest US Air Force bombers. . . This prestigious contest had brought in 65 would-be competitors, but the hazards of an 11,300-mile race in 1934 reduced this to 20 starters. Only De Havilland thought it worth producing special racing aeroplanes in the hope of winning it. To this end the Hatfield Company built three DH 88 Comets, offering them for sale at £5,000 each.

Racing driver Bernard Rubin bought the third Comet, which was green, a memory of his “Bentley Boy” days no doubt. The first Comet had been purchased by A O Edwards and named Grosvenor House in accord with sponsorship from that hotel, and painted red. Jim and Amy Mollison had secured the second Comet, calling it Black Magic, in keeping with its livery. Yet DH kept the design secret, so the buyers had not even seen the drawings. . .

The rest of the entry consisted of normal, if tuned-up, civil and military aeroplanes. There were civil-registered RAF Fairey IIIFs and two Mk1 Foxes, the American aces, Col Roscoe and Clyde Pangborn, relied on a big Boeing 247D, many were going in light aeroplanes like Brook’s Miles Falcon, Australian Jim Melrose’s DH Puss Moth, a Klemm Eagle, a Miles Hawk Major and Miss Cochrane’s Gee-Bee-like Grenville RD-H. There was even a DH Dragon biplane. Airspeed had a Courier and a Viceroy. A Pander S1 , a Lambert Monocoupé and a Lockheed Special Vega were also starting. It was the Dutch airline KLM that put in what appeared to be an improbable entry, a Douglas DC2 crewed by uniformed Parmentier and Moll, who flew a normal passenger service on the way to the start.

The splendid low-wing Comet monoplanes with two Gipsy Six-R 230 hp engines, retractable undercarriages and Ratier propellers were firm favourites; they had a cruising speed of over 220 mph. The props were set in fine-pitch by pressurising them with a bicycle pump for take-off and changed automatically to coarse pitch for cruising; but they could not be reset to fine pitch in the air, making landing tricky. I recall seeing a Comet circle Croydon several times at the end of a record-breaking flight for this reason.

The scenes at Mildenhall on the week before the start of the race on October 20 resembled those before a big motor-race. The scrutineers were troubled about the permitted take-off weights of the American machines and dispatched urgent queries to the USA. The Boeing was overweight with 950 gallons of fuel and the compulsory food and water rations; Col Roscoe said it would be alright provided the pilots stayed behind! The Bellanca was in trouble and soon dubbed The Shamrocket; it had been paid for with an Irish sweepstake and when it wasn’t allowed to start C G Grey, the outspoken and entertaining then-Editor of The Aeroplane, wrote “the silly English people who had bought tickets didn’t even get a fly for their money.” The Royal Aero Club sensibly refused to be coerced into making exceptions to its rules and Grey had some more fun, writing that “if the British Government had been equally firm and fair in 1921 Ireland might by 1934 have been a prosperous part of the Empire instead of a half-starved, impoverished part of two-thirds of this country,” adding, “perhaps when the Irish are tired of squabbling among themselves the British Government will appoint a commission to run their country and put the Race Committee of the R-Aero-C in charge.” A poignant comment, in view of the failure so far of the Irish peace-talks. (The R-Aero-C was liquidated in the 1970s but has been reformed in Leicestershire, while the Aeroplane continues publication as a monthly).

As the pre-race week unfolded, there was much drama. Rubin had had to get Cathcart Jones to take his place and his Comet damaged its undercart when landing with its wheels half-down. Herbert Broad set off in haste in the service Dragon to fetch spares. Meanwhile, car headlamps picked out the stricken machine in the middle of Mildenhall. Jacqueline Cochrane arrived in the dusk, her touchdown path lit by searchlights that “showed every blade of grass for 500 yards”; she still stalled in from some 50 feet. . . In practising, the Mollisons’ wing nearly touched and they went round again — that prop problem perhaps? In fact, they had gone round three times before landing when they first arrived. Scott and Black, pilots of the Comet Grosvenor House, who were to win outright, were very professional, even spending half-an-hour in turns swinging the props, to make sure of quick starts.

But, as with many racing cars, the Comets, built in eight months, were ready only a short time before the race began. The DH mechanics worked day and night, checking mixture strength, each night top-overhauling all the engines, and with a day to go the AID had still to approve the repairs to the green Comet’s damaged props by Fairey’s, and covers had to be made for the magnetos. The overweight wasn’t discovered until then. So the petrol people reduced the specific-gravity of the fuel and the new supply was rushed to Mildenhall in a fresh tanker and permission obtained to refuel within the hangar. Scott and Black hoped to fly non-stop to Baghdad but this involved a change of jets but no time for a test flight if this were done. On the last night experts were checking the mixture richness by the colour of the exhaust flames. And while this was going on, new oil tanks had to be made and fitted to all three machines. . . But it was done and DH apprentices polished the Comets just before starter George Reynolds — another motor racing link — flagged the Mollisons off at 6.30am on the Saturday, the starting-order having been drawn beforehand.

The importance of this race had been emphasised when, on the Friday, King George, Queen Mary and HRH The Prince of Wales (who came in his private DH Dragon) had inspected the aeroplanes and met the crews. Lord Londonderry, S-of-S for Air, and AOC Sir Brooke-Popham attended, flying there in two RAF Hawker Harts, the American Naval Air Attaché came in a US-Navy Chance Vought Corsair, other VIPs in a Stinson and an Atlas, and KLM flew in Anthony Fokker (and spares for their DC2) in a Fokker Tri-Motor. A crowd of some 65,000 came to see the start in a shell-pink sunrise, under a pale blue English sky. Roads blocked, many walked across the fields and climbed the hedges. But they obeyed the police and the Halton Cadets — hooliganism had not yet come into fashion! All the competitors got away, although the green Comet swung off-line and had to try again.

The rest is history. C W A Scott and Tom Campbell Black got to Melbourne first in Rubin’s Comet, in 70hr 54 min 18 sec, 178.9mph flying-time. The KLM DC2, expected to win the handicap (set to do 108 mph but able to cruise at over 180 mph), was second overall, the Turner/Pangborn Boeing third, the green Comet fourth. Scott and Black also won on handicap, the DC2 second, Melrose’s Puss Moth third. Ten retired, the Mollisons with undercarriage and engine problems, and sadly one of the old Fairey Foxes crashed in Italy, killing its crew.

Postscript:In 1935 patriotic Sir MacPherson Roberton came to England on the Otranto for the King’s Jubilee Celebrations and to receive his KBE. What he would have thought of the discourtesy shown to the Prince of Wales on his recent visit to Australia leaves little to the imagination. W B

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