An Occasional Section Devoted to Aeronautical Affairs

After the War, an “Aerial Derby”

In the beginning the aeroplane was an object of mystery and mistrust to most people, and those who flew them were regarded as “intrepid birdmen”, far removed from ordinary mortals. The war of 1914/18 changed that to some extent, as it did the idea that only the wealthy could afford motor cars. So many ordinary citizens had come into contact with the hitherto inaccessible flying machine, in the capacity of fitters, riggers, air mechanics and observers, if not quite so often in the exalted status of pilots, that after the Armistice aeroplanes were of much greater interest and better understood. Imagine, then, the interest that the first post-war “Aerial Derby”, as the leading air-race was known, should have aroused. Even those far removed from the fighting-line had become conscious of aeroplanes, due to the war. I remember as a very small boy living with my mother in South London, with my father away in Flanders (from whence he was not to return), being taken into the house basement in the middle of the night, along with many grown-ups, because, I was told, “a novice airman was up and might collide with the chimneys”. I also seem to recall the more hysterical women waving to our “gallant airmen”, when their machines flew low over the houses after an air-raid alert had sounded, or after a raid was over. Memory suggests the machines (Sopwith Camels possibly) were flying from the centre of London towards the South-West, but whether they were returning, from a zeppelin interception, to Kenley or Croydon or had taken off from somewhere like Chingford or Hornchurch and were heading for the coast, I shall never know.

What I am trying to say is that the aeroplane was regarded as an exciting aspect of life by 1918, so that one would have expected immense interest to be displayed in the first post-Armistice “Aerial Derby”, to be flown from Hendon in the summer of 1919. After all, even those of specialised tastes and rich enough to have attended aeroplane races at Hendon and motor-racing at Brooklands before the war, should have been excited by the news of this first post-war air-race, because there wouldn’t be a resumption of Brooklands racing until 1920 and, apart from a solitary speed trial in Middlesex and a South Harting hill-climb on the same day, there were no motoring thrills to detract from the “Aerial Derby”.

Admittedly, before it took place on June 21st, 1919, the first Atlantic crossing by an aeroplane had taken place, by the Rolls-Royce-engined Vickers Vimy, and a number of other long-distance flights had succeeded, proving the coming-of-age, as it were, of the aeroplane. But such feats were newspaper stories to all except the handful of persons directly concerned. So it might have been expected that the first important post-war air race would attract great attention, and so I decided to take a look-back at what happened. I would like to thank Richard T. Riding, Editor of Aeroplane Monthly, who generously placed archival material at my disposal.

There had been these so-called “Aerial Derbys” before the 1919 race. The first had taken place in 1912, won by Tom Sopwith’s Bleriot, at 58.5 m.p.h. In 1913 it was repeated, the winner being Gustav Hamel, who averaged 76 m.p.h. in a Moraine-Saulnier. In 1914, two months before war broke out, the third race in this illustrious series was a victory for the same make of aeroplane, flown by W.L. Brock. He averaged 71.9 m.p.h. Note, however, that these speeds were tame compared to what racing cars had achieved — at Brooklands lap speeds of over 100 m.p.h. were fairly common and by 1914 Resta’s V12 Sunbeam had lapped at nearly 114 m.p.h., while the Land Speed Record stood at over 124 m.p.h. However, the war greatly accelerated aeroplane performance and it might have been thought that those who had seen dog-fights between single-seater fighters over the Western Front might have been excited about post-war racing aeroplanes fighting it out above the peaceful English meadows and little villages, to preserve the freedom of which so many had lain down their lives.

In fact, it wasn’t quite like that! The Aeroplane bewailed the fact that “even the advertisement given to flying during the war has not convinced either the newspapers or the better classes of Society that aeroplane racing is as important as horse racing to the future of this country”. However, a quite good crowd assembled to see the first post-war event, HM Queen Alexandra (who in 1914 had asked to see a fast car lapping Brooklands Track although she was supposed to dislike aeroplanes) attended, accompanied by Princess Victoria and Gen. Sir Dighton Probyn, Claude Grahame-White meeting the Royal visitors. It was obviously intended that the race should attract spectators, because it didn’t start until 3.52 p.m. C.G. Grey, reporting the race for his paper, remarked on “many fine cars and some quite good people” being present, the latter accommodated in what he called “cattle-pens”, meaning the private boxes, while Flight referred to moderate crowds in the enclosures, gay gowns, and “bookies”. There was a proper scoreboard. The weather had been wet in the morning and a strong gusty wind continued to blow.

The race, called the Victory Aerial Derby, was over two laps of a course with turning points at Hendon, Kempton Park, Epsom, West Thurrock, Epping, Hertford, Epping again, back to Hendon’s No. 1 pylon, a distance of 189 miles. The Daily Mail, that strong supporter of aviation endeavours, gave a Gold Trophy for the outright winner, which was supplemented by Shell’s £500 prize, and there was a Sealed-Handicap, the winner of which received the Shell Trophy and £100, the petrol company giving other prizes as well. The starter was C.T. Glazebrook, the handicapper Major Ledeboer, and Maj.-Gen. Sir F.H. Sykes presented the awards.

The idea of fast aeroplances flying round the outskirts of London, some still on the secret-list, others flying for the very first time, should surely have aroused enthusiasm. Flight thought the event “an immense success in every way”, but Charles Grey, Editor of The Aeroplane, was less keen, saying that it was “on the whole quite a satisfactory effort, despite the best efforts of the Air Ministry to ruin it”. Anyway, for an hour before starting-time the competing machines were pushed and pulled into a line-up. There were 12 of them. Lt. Nisbet had a mainly-standard Martinsyde F4, with 275 h.p. Rolls-Royce Falcon engine, the type of biplane that held the Paris-London and other records. With it was Lt. Tait-Cox’s Nieuport Land Commercial No. 1, with 320 h.p. ABC Dragonfly engine, another almost standard machine but with the second cockpit faired over.

Major Draper (who achieved notoriety many years later for flying beneath several Thames’ bridges and who has written an excellent book) had a BAT Bantam (170 h.p. ABC Wasp) with its wing reduced in span and Clifford Prodger flew a normal BAT Bantam. Lt.-Col. Henderson, who formed the Brooklands Flying School, had wanted to race a Martinsyde F4 but the Air Ministry claimed it belonged to them, so he substituted an Avro two-seater biplane, powering it with the biggest Le Rhone engine, of 180 h.p. Marcus Manton (cousin of Grenville Manton who later joined Motor Sport’s Editoral staff and whose obituary we published last March) was to fly a DH4 Airco (375 h.p. Rolls-Royce Eagle) with the passenger’s cockpit faired over. Capt. Saint had a normal DH9 Airco three-seater (230 h.p. Siddeley Puma) and Major Smith a Bristol monoplane (110 h.p. Le Rhone). Two Graham-White Bantams (80 h.p. Le Rhones) were flown by Capt. Chamberlayne and Major Carr, and the smallest aeroplane in the contest was the graceful Avro Baby, piloted by Capt. Hamersley, its 35/40 h.p. Green engine dating back to 1910, it having been used in the original Avro biplane. The most powerful machine in the race was the Airco DH4R of Capt. Gathergood, which had a 450 h.p. Napier Lion engine, of the kind that was to power a number of LSR cars and Cobb’s Napier-Railton, in later years. The bottom wing had been cut down in span to reduce drag, although the uncowled engine had been raised in the flat nose and the radiator slung transversely below it. This was a machine built to race, and although it was said by C.G. Grey to drag itself along rather than float through the air like other DH machines, those who liked brute-force racing machines must have enjoyed seeing it in action.

That, then, was the race entry-list, one monoplane among the war-time biplanes. The Airco-Lion DH4R had been completed only the day before, arriving on race-morning with a brand-new engine and Manton’s DH-4 up for the very first time just before the start. The Avro Baby had flown in from Southampton that morning.

The morning also saw some spectators arrive by air, including a few Service pilots, a Bristol fighter, two 50 h.p. L & P machines each with three occupants, one a famous boxer, and J.H. James in a Nieuport Nighthawk, which was to give an excellent exhibition of aerobatic flying. That great pilot Harry Hawker, who a year later was driving the big V12 Sunbeam and an AC Lightcar at Brooklands, also landed, in his race-entered fast Sopwith “Snapper” (320 h.p. ABC Dragonfly), only to announce that he wouldn’t be starting because the Government said the engine was still their property! There were two more non-starters, Major Vaughan’s BAT, whose machine was taken over by Major Draper as his little BAT FK27 sports two-seater wasn’t ready, and Lt. Turner’s 5-seater BAT FK26, which had damaged its under cart.

So, at last, under the skilled direction of Bernard Isaac, the race started. After just under an hour and a half all the competitors had left, the Avro Baby being given a start of 85 min. over test-pilot Gathergood’s Airco DH4R. The sight must have pleased aviation enthusiasts, the Bristol monoplane with its red spinner, the Tait-Cock Nieuport painted in blue-and-yellow checks, the scratch DH4R with its prominent vertical exhaust stacks, and the exciting looking G-W Bantam, giving the flavour of real racing aeroplanes, while those contemplating crossing the Channel by the new Air Services (to start two months later, with a DH4A, between Hounslow and Le Bourget) must have been interested in the two Airco entries. After the competitors had left, the onlookers at Hendon were treated to parachute descents by Prof. Newall, or they could have joy-rides in Avros and Blackburn Kangaroos.

As the racing machines appeared at the end of the first lap Gathergood was seen to have made up all his handicap and the DH4R was in the lead, followed by the jazz-pained Nieuport that had started four minutes before him, and the Martinsyde F4. Manton was 4th, chased by Chris Draper who cornered very neatly in the “Skinned Bat”, finished in white with a black cowl over its engine. Major Carr’s single-seater G-W Bantam had come down at Hounslow with its Le Rhone engine in trouble, Prodger’s BAT Bantam had landed at Fairlop with a broken tappet-rods in its ABC engine, and the Bristol monoplane came in off-course, circled, and landed neatly, its Le Rhone engine misfiring. During the second lap the other G-W Bantam dropped out at Epsom, and the alleged fastest machine in the race, Tait-Cox’s Nieuport, retired at West Thurrock when its ABC Dragonfly engine, acquired inspite of Air Ministry bans, expired, with, it was said, nothing more serious than a punctured carburetter-float.

As the smooth-running Green engine had wafted the Avro Baby off on its second lap Gathergood had been close behind, almost lapping it. He came in the winner, at an average speed of 129.34 m.p.h., the DH Airco-Lion having been in the air for 87 min. 42 sec. Nisbet’s Martinsyde was second, and there was a very close finish for 3rd place between Manton and Draper, in that order. The Avro Baby deservedly won the Handicap, at 70.3 m.p.h. after a flight lasting nearly 2 hr. 42 min. It beat Draper and Nisbet in this section of the Aerial Derby and then went up and did some very polished aerobatics. The Henderson Avro, incidentally, averaged 75.22 mph.

Thus ended the 1919 Aerial Derby, Gathergood being carried shoulder-high from his aeroplane and presented to Queen Alexandra. The ranks of the pilots was a reminder of the recent war and I have no doubt the forced-landings caused crowds to collect, remembering how much excitement such happenings caused in the 1920s and 30s, and even do today. Except that some of them may have been on Service aerodromes. Does anyone remember them? C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, who criticised the poor catering and said the machines would have been 20 m.p.h. faster but for the Air Ministry trying to spoil the sport, was also cross that a Kangaroo and a G-W Avre carrying a parachutist were in the sky as the winning Airco DH4R came over the winning line, confusing those who had but a meagre idea of which aeroplane was which. . . .

The Aerial Derby was run again in subsequent years, but by 1924 the King’s Cup Race replaced it. It attracted such exciting racing aeroplanes as the Martinsyde Semiquaver, the Bristol Bullet, and the Gloucestershire Mars I-Bamel, etc. Although motor-racing at Brooklands and elsewhere seems to have been more popular, speed in the air soon left that of racing cars behind, as the accompanying tables show.

Nevertheless, I wish I could have seen those aeroplanes roaring and stuttering round the course, piloted by skilled, leather-clad, be-goggled men, in those early air-races. — W.B.