The last Schneider
How Flight-lieut. Boothman won at 340mph
After all the delays and disappointments, the rumours and reports, the Schneider Trophy has been flown for the last time, and the famous objet d’art has passed for ever into the hands of England — or at any rate, the Royal Aero Club. The British team for the third successive time has swept the board, and this country now stands as the unchallenged producer of the world’s swiftest-moving aircraft. This is a very pleasant thought, and yet those of us who watched Flight-lieutenant John Boothman pilot his S6B round the course in the bright sunshine of Sunday, 13th of last month, did so with mixed feelings. Mingled with our admiration for the pilot and his magnificent machine, and our thrill at his terrific speed and devastating exhaust note, was a tinge of regret that the event would mark the end of the great contest which has gone on (with sundry interruptions) since 1913. And, of course, we still suffered from the disappointment of the last-minute withdrawals of the French and Italian teams.
Actually, this year’s contest was no contest at all in the absence of challengers; it was just a ‘fly-over’ victory, but a victory all the same, and the fortunate thousands who watched Boothman streak round on his seven laps — who watched from every conceivable vantage point — will never forget the spectacle.
Saturday, 12th September was the date originally fixed for the race, and from the early hours of the morning, which was grey, damp and unpromising from the first streak of daylight, the trek southwards began by road, rail and to some extent by air. Journeying by car out of London at 6am, one soon found oneself in a straggling stream of vehicles, some travelling fast and some slow, and some still with the lights on and mud-bespattered, which indicated a distant starting point.
In spite of the drizzle and early hour, everyone seemed cheery and eager and hopeful. Arriving at the coast in good time, one parked among a mass of other motors, and waited. A driving rain lashed in from the sea, blotting out the horizon and damping the ever-increasing crowds in body and spirit. And as the hours passed, for all our anxious attention to official announcements through the loud-speakers, we knew that, barring miracles, the Schneider would not be flown that day. Then came official confirmation — a ‘washout’ — and so back went the disappointed crowds who had waited in vain. It was hard luck for everybody and especially for the party (numbering 600) from Rolls-Royce that had arrived by special train to see the event in which its product was to figure so conspicuously; they had come from Derby, of course, and they went back without seeing anything.
But those who remained overnight were rewarded for their patience and seemingly blind optimism, for in contradiction to forecasts, Sunday arrived complete with blue skies, light winds and sunshine; after the previous day it seemed too good to be true. Someone judged the visibility to be 14 miles, and things seemed hopeful. Then, at about 10.30am, an Atlas with floats was seen cruising round the course, alighting and taking off again. It was Squadron-leader Orlebar and Squadron-leader Bailey having a look round. Later Flight-lieutenant Long took a Fairey Firefly round. It looked like business, especially as the S6Bs and S6A could be discerned by their pontoons. At about noon the pilots went out to their machines and an official announcement that the course was to be flown was duly broadcast. So we waited, speculating on what the results would be. There were many rumours, of course; people spoke glibly of 400mph and so forth.
It was arranged that Boothman should fly the first S6B and, if for any reason he failed to complete the course, Flying Officer Snaith was to take-off on the 1929 Supermarine — the S6A. Similarly, if he failed, Long was to make the attempt on the other S6B.
At two minutes past 1pm the starting gun went off and the comparative stillness, with the watchers rather tense, was broken by the indescribable noise of the Rolls-Royce ‘R’.
Before crossing the starting line, Boothman had to carry out the seaworthiness trial. This entailed a take-off, a climb to about 150 feet, a landing and a spell of taxying. With such a machine as the Supermarine and a full load of fuel this must be a very tricky business, but Boothman carried it through with consummate skill. Then he crossed the starting line and those who watched from a distance could see the machine as a mere speck, gradually enlarging as it flashed through space towards the first turning point.
No one seeing this blue-and-silver projectile streaking along can withhold a feeling of wonder and admiration. Think of the pilot jammed in his diminutive cockpit, his view ahead blanked off by cowling and fairing, with only the side panels of his windshield through which to look; think of the judgment and finesse required to take off and fly and turn this six-mile-a-minute monoplane. Anything else in the way of speed must seem child’s play.
So Boothman flew rounding St Helen’s Point and West Wittering in not-too-steeply banked climbing turns to roar down the Hampshire shore to Southsea and Gosport before turning again, glinting in the sunlight, at Browndown anchorage. He had completed his first lap; in a few moments came the report of his speed — 343.1mph for the 50 kilometres.
On his second lap h seemed to be flying a little lower, and we imagined that as a result of this his average would go up. Rounding each turning point with the same wide banked turns, he carried on with a faint trail of murky smoke hanging for a while in the blue, and the din of his engine seeming to fill the sky. With the completion of his second lap came the wireless announcement of his time again: it was 342.7mph — 2/5ths of a second less than the first lap time.
It was a little amusing or irritating — according to how one felt — to hear sundry comments from ‘experts’ in the crowd on Boothman’s cornering. Some seemed to think he was not banking steeply enough, while others (who had probably never held a ‘stick’ in their lives) explained that it was all a matter of force G. In point of fact Boothman turned as he did because, after much investigation, he had found it the best way to avoid losing speed.
Subsequent laps were all carried out with wonderful precision and regularity, their speeds being: 340mph; 338.3mph; 339.6mph; 339.4mph. The last lap was at 337.7mph.
As the pilot brought his machine out of the last turn he opened out full for a last gentle dive for the finishing line, and immediately he had done so a wild din of sirens and cheering mingled with the roar of his engine. Having thus done the trick, Boothman executed a final climbing turn, and the engine note died down to that peculiar cackle produced with open exhaust ports as he put her in a glide preparatory to landing. In the haze we got a last glimpse of him as he headed for the landing area, and again, as the floats touched, a mighty burst of cheering arose. A little later, and he was out of the cockpit and aboard HMS Medea to receive an overwhelming ovation. So ended the last of the Schneider contests.
Afterwards it was revealed that Boothman flew with instructions to make sure of winning the contest, and to run no risks, and “to fly to water temperature”. The pilot’s own prosaic report stated that for about a lap-and-a-half the temperature of the cooling water remained OK with the throttle wide open. Subsequently it began to rise, so he pulled her back a shade until the seventh lap, when he gave her full bore once again. Except for a slight tendency to fly port-wing low, he stated that the S6B behaved perfectly. Over Southsea he experienced rather severe bumps (which must be exceptionally unpleasant at six-miles-a-minute), so on the fourth circuit he turned away to avoid that area. On the sixth lap, he had some anxious moments; Homeric, the official floating headquarters of the Royal Aero Club, let off some smoke and he wondered whether this was a signal that he had finished and had thus miscounted his laps.
During the afternoon of the same day, Flight-lieutenant George Stainforth made a successful attack on the world’s speed record with the other S6B. He averaged 379mph for four straight runs over a course measuring 3km.