AIR: The race to Africa

Last year we published a look-back to the great Sir MacPherson Robertson England-Australia race of 1934, and so it seems reasonable to recall the England-Johannesbury race that followed it. In his leader about the latter event of 1936 C G Grey, the outspoken editor in those days of the The Aeroplane (to whom I introduced Motor Sport readers in April), opened with the words: “Poor rich Mr Schlesinger, Maeceanes of the Johannesburg race,” which seemed rather odd about a person who was putting up a decent sum of money to promote interest in aviation in Africa and do the Light Aeroplane Club of Jo’burg some good by having his race finish at their aerodrome, gate-money to be divided between that club and Rand Flying Club.

But CGG was no fool, and the reason he was sorry for the race-sponsor soon became clear: the Australian race had been something of a battle for supremacy between the aeroplanes of several nationalities eight British, four American, three Australian, two New Zealand, two Dutch and one Danish, in fact. The winner was one of the Comets built specially for the race by De Havilland, and this was no bad thing for British prestige, just as the second best (handicap) showing by a KLM Douglas DC3 airliner flown by its normal crew was a useful boost for that airline and the American aeroplane. Contrastingly, “poor rich Mr Schlesinger’s” race was to be all-British, in his desire to stir up Anglo-Saxon-cum Dutch emulation between it and the Union of South Africa. “A grave error,” observed CGG, either on Mr S’s part or because the R-Ae-C or someone had advised him to make this ruling on behalf of the British Aircraft Industry.

The result was that whereas the England-Melbourne race had 20 starters, the England-Jo’burg one had only 11 entries. This was because it had come at rather an awkward moment. In CGG’s words, “the Aircraft Trade is crammed to the muzzle with orders to meet the RAF expansion. What is the £400 prize compared to profits on war machines? Or the spiritual elation of winning against the moral uplift of helping to defend one’s country?” Having pointed out that the BA Double Eagle and the Miles Peregrine were designed and probably partially built before anybody in British aviation had heard of poor Mr Schlesinger, and that the Percival Mew Gull had been screaming rather than mewing about the sky for years before, and that the Miles Sparrow Hawk had been built for the 1934 King’s Cup Race, The Aeroplane said there was nothing new and so the race was a flop, so far as encouraging improvement in the design of British aeroplanes was concerned.

As it was, the RAF’s demands left no scope for building racing machines, But the irrepressible CGG could not resist saying that if Spain had not chosen to play Kilkenny cats with rival bands of Spanish gangsters running about offering wads of currency in exchange for anything with wings, some civil aircraft makers might have taken a mild gamble in building something to compete for the £4000 first prize. (The prize for winning Sir Macpherson’s race had been half as much again.) So no one worried much about the Jo’burg race, except the keen adventurous pilots who had entered for it. “A great pity,” thought CGG, “because if England had shown itself to be seriously interested and had made a great effort to compete in Mr S’s race, South Africa, Holland and others would have taken more interest in us afterwards. The South African Government choose to buy German aeroplanes for its air-mail service,” we were reminded, “and in the north there are minerals far more valuable than the utterly useless gold out of which Jo’burg was built and made its living, so that air transport there would become a Big Thing. The England-South Africa race might have been used to publicise new British machines. It was a chance missed. But praise is due to those individuals and manufacturers who had entered, with machines able to put up quite a good show, after fortifying them for the impending conditions.”

The Aeroplane consequently decided to devote 16 pages to the race before it started and to cover it fully in its next two issues, the pre-start issue including 1½ pages about the dispute that removed the finish from Mr S’s intended aerodrome to the Municipal Germiston Airport at the very last moment (“We await from S Africa the story of how it all happened,” thundered CGG), as much detail about each aeroplane entered as you might have got from a Brooklands car-racer hoping for a favourable handicap, maps, biographies with “mug-shots” of the crews, etc. So I feel justified in reminding you briefly of this long pre-war race, which, if it did not demonstrate the superiority of British aeroplanes over those from other countries, as the Australian race had at least showed how long mails ought to take from England to Jo’burg.

Although at this time the Imperial Airways Short Empire flying-boats had a top speed of 200 mph, they did not fly at night, so mails to South Africa took some five days or more if not delayed, a time factor which has not been improved upon nearly 60 years later. Whereas if special mail-carrying aeroplanes had been based on the racing machines, the time in the 1930s might have been a mere two or three days, recalling CGG’s saying that “Mail may be lost but never delayed, passengers may be delayed but never lost!”

The entries then, for this 6400-mile race, consisted of three Percival Vega Gulls, two Mew Gulls, Miles Sparrow Hawk and Speed Hawk, Clouston piloting the latter, Rose’s BA4 Double Eagle with two Gipsy Six II engines, a BA Eagle with one Gipsy Major motor, an RAF-crewed twin-engined Miles Peregrine and the four-up Airspeed Envoy for Max Findlay and Ken Waller, with two supercharged 350 hp Siddeley Cheetah IX engines, this 210 mph eight-seater taking two passengers in the race. Much fancied as the winner on handicap, it was one of the few machines to have radio and a very complete set of blind-flying and other instruments. In fact, there was only the one £4000 speed-prize, but Mr Schlesinger had put up a total prize fund of £10,000 with a complicated system of handicapping.

The race was billed frequently as London-Jo’burg, but in fact it started from Portsmouth Municipal Airport. Here the public was able to see the competing machines before the start at 06.15 on September 29, 1936. The knowledgeable, or those who bought The Aeroplane, would have known that the BA Double-Eagle had finished third in the King’s Cup Race at 181 mph and had since been rebuilt at Hanworth with long range fuel and oil tanks (range 1250 miles) new nose, a general cleaning up, and mudguards over the Dunlop tyres and brakes to keep mud off the Dowty retractable undergear. Also, they would be aware that the Sparrow Hawk was also a King’s Cup racer, developed as Fred Miles’s machine for the 1934 race and now with an extra fuel tank in its front seat, giving a total capacity of 100 gallons, a 170+ mph entry now with parachute and navigation lights. The Hawk Speed Six was another King’s Cup aeroplane flown by Ruth Fontes, sister of the racing driver, in the 1934 race and into second place by Tommy Rose in the 1935 event, at 184.5 mph. It had extra tanks and, to reduce drag, the undercart, with Palmer tyres and Bendix brakes, had been moved outboard. The engine was the high-compression racing Gipsy R. AU three Vega Gulls were King’s Cup machines, Charles Gardner having won the 1936 race at 164.47 mph in G-AEKE, the one that the Robertson race victor C W A Scott was to fly to Africa. Two of the Mew Gulls carried parachute flares. Mr Powis had test-flown the Peregrine but was too old a hand to give anything away about it to the press, but D W Llewellyn said he had left the generator off his Vega Gull to gain one mph. I hope these notes may be of passing interest to those who fly racing aeroplane today…

The race turned out to be even more of a damp squib than forecast. Only nine started, Lt Misri Chand’s Vega Gull and the Peregrine not being ready. And only one entrant finished, the Percival Vega Gull flown by the famous C W A Scott and Giles Guthrie, and entered by Sir Connop Guthrie. They took two days, 4 hrs 56 min (156.3 mph) or an overall average of 116 mph, in comparison with Flt Lt Rose’s record with a Miles Falcon Six that February 13 days, 17 hrs 37 min) and Amy Morrison’s record in May with a Percival Gull-Six (3 days 6hrs 26 mini. But records attempts finished at Cape Town, not Jo’burg.

Fuel feed problems forced Major Miller’s Mew Gull down 30 miles before Belgrade Control, and Capt Halse, a South African, overturned his Mew Gull in a forced landing at Salisbury when in the lead. The retirements were: the Double-Eagle with undercarriage trouble at Cairo; the Sparrow Hawk with oil leaks at Khartoum; Llewellyn’s Vega Gull, which crashed; and the BA Eagle which force-landed and broke its undercart in Bavaria. Clouston had many problems with the Hawk Speed Six but continued until he crashed it, and sadly that fast Airspeed Envoy failed to clear the trees when taking off from Abercom, killing Max Findlay and one of the radio operators. Not, unfortunately, what 69-year-old Mr Schlesinger had hoped would celebrate the Jo’burg Empire Exhibition and promote his new interest, Empire air-communications, after a successful business career as banker, newspaper proprietor, theatre-owner, fruit-grower, film-producer, insurance-magnate and founder of the African Broadcasting Company, which later he handed to the State.