The World's greatest air race
Excited voices and the roar of piston engines shattered the dawn at Mildenhall. Car headlights illuminated the darkness of the surrounding fields. On 20 October 1934, it seemed the world had descended upon this usually peaceful English airfield. An unprecedented crowd 60,000 strong came to witness the start of the MacRobertson Air Race. Even King George V and Queen Mary had visited to wish the participants good luck for their gruelling 11,300-mile journey.
Twenty aircraft waited to take off, with the greatest pilots of six nations ready in their cockpits, competing for fame, prestige and a £10,000 first prize. The participating types varied widely but one elegant design stood out. Great Britain’s hopes for victory relied on the de Havilland DH-88 Comet, purpose built purely for the race. At 06:30 the flag dropped and at 45-second intervals the aeroplanes launched. The race was on. As the crowds drifted away, Mildenhall became quiet once more and their focus turned towards the finish line.
Sponsored by Australian businessman Sir Macpherson Robertson, the Royal Aero Club was engaged to oversee race proceedings. With no limit on aircraft size or power, competitors could compete for the speed race or best handicap performance. Along the route were five compulsory control points with the finish line at Flemington Race Course, Melbourne, where the victorious winner would fly low-level between two pylons.
TYPE MACHINE: Two seat monoplane
DESIGN PURPOSE: Long distance racing
WINGSPAN: 44ft 0in
OVERALL LENGTH: 29ft 0in
ENGINE: Two 230hp De Havilland Gipsy Six R six cylinder in line
WEIGHT (EMPTY): 2,840lbs
WEIGHT (LOADED): 5,320lbs
MAX SPEED: 220mph
RANGE: 2,925 miles
DE HAVILLAND SAVES THE DAY
The race announcement generated great excitement in the aviation world, with enthusiastic pilots searching for generous backers to sponsor suitable aircraft. The press quickly realised that no British aircraft in production had the speed or range required to win the race. With modern American transport aircraft likely to scoop the prize and potential British embarrassment looming, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland proposed to design and build a new aircraft capable of victory, at a sale cost of £5,000. His company gambled on underwriting the production costs, hoping to gain considerable prestige if their design should win.
Within weeks, three orders for the DH-88 Comet were submitted. Using an uprated version of the new Gypsy Six engine, they developed a streamlined twin-engine aircraft constructed of spruce plywood with a thin tapered cantilever high-speed wing. The aircraft had dual pitch propellers and a manually retractable undercarriage, state of the art features not seen before on British aircraft. To give adequate range, the long narrow fuselage would house three fuel tanks: two ahead of the cockpit and one behind. Sat in-line with dual controls, the pilots inconveniently shared just one set of instruments on the forward cockpit panel.
With time at a premium, de Havilland staff worked day and night to keep their promised delivery schedule. The aircraft were serious contenders, with a cruising speed of 220mph and a range of 2,900 miles. Painted an eye-catching racing red, Comet G-AC SS Grosvenor House made its first flight just eleven days before the race. Purchased by Albert O Edwards, Managing Director of London’s prestigious Grosvenor House Hotel, it would be flown by pilots Charles W A Scott and Tom Campbell Black.
The two pilots had met recently at the Royal Aero Club bar, quickly becoming firm friends. An ex-Royal Air Force pilot and current holder of the England-Australia record, Scott had flown for fledgling airline QANTAS, ferrying passengers and mail in Australia. Black learned to fly with the Royal Naval Air Service, later becoming a pioneer of East African aviation. After being selected to fly the Comet, Scott recalled, ‘We had a look at the machine on paper, and both of us realised that if the real thing could be produced in the workshop, then we had the right aeroplane for the job’.
Great Britain now stood a solid chance of winning, but victory was far from guaranteed. The race attracted aviation’s most competent pilots, and participating aircraft types ranged from small single engine monoand biplanes, competing primarily for the handicap prize, to larger state of the art transport aircraft. Chief amongst the competition was the Dutch KLM entry, flying the very latest passenger aircraft, the Douglas DC2. KLM were keen to demonstrate the possibility of a fast, comfortable and safe air service to Australia. Their immaculately uniformed airline pilots would follow their regular air route for much of the race, and carry three passengers and a bag of mail for the Dutch East Indies.
An American entry came with the new Boeing 247D. A commercial competitor to the DC2, they hoped the race would prove the aircraft’s pedigree. The other DH-88 Comets would also be a great threat to Scott and Black. Pilots Jim and Amy Mollison had purchased Comet Black Magic. A world famous aviatrix and first woman to fly solo to Australia, Amy was better known by her maiden name Johnson.
STAGE 1 - BAGHDAD
As many of the smaller aircraft struggled with bad weather over Europe, Black Magic forged ahead to reach Baghdad first at 7:10pm (all times GMT). The dust cloud from their take-off still lingered at 9:02pm when Grosvenor House arrived. Bad weather had forced an emergency landing at RAF Kirkuk, but by 9:33pm they left Baghdad to chase Black Magic. Next to arrive was the DC2, after seamless refuelling stops at Rome, Athens and Aleppo. After a spot of dinner, they departed Baghdad at midnight, closely followed by the Boeing that had narrowly escaped a close encounter with a mountain.
STAGE 2 - ALLAHABAD
Grosvenor House arrived first at 9:18am, 21 October, to be greeted by large crowds and blazing temperatures. The DC2 followed later with crew and passengers looking remarkably fresh. Departing at 3:15pm, they gained time on the Boeing, which landed at 10:26pm after struggling to find Allahabad. Their lead now well and truly lost, Black Magic arrived at 5:25am, 22 October. After landing at Karachi in record-breaking time, their departure was twice aborted with an undercarriage problem followed by the loss of a vital map. Their situation worsened when a compass discrepancy left them hopelessly lost. Landing in a field with near empty tanks, they sourced cheap fuel from a bus station. Upon arrival at Allahabad, they discovered six engine cylinder heads and pistons burnt out. Their race was over.
STAGE 3 - SINGAPORE
Now utterly exhausted, the Grosvenor House pilots arrived at 10:31pm on 21 October, having battled through thunderstorms across the Bay of Bengal. Disaster was narrowly avoided when fatigue caused Scott to make a heavy downwind landing by mistake. Engineers pronounced the undercarriage unharmed and they proceeded at 11:42pm. The DC2 still held second place, arriving at 6:44am on 22 October, followed by the Boeing at 2:28pm.
STAGE 4 - DARWIN
Grosvenor House headed to Darwin via Koepang. Scott recalled, ‘I hate and loathe the Timor Sea. If anything happens to the motor there, that’s the end of pilot and machine’. To their utter horror, halfway across, their port engine cut out. With only one engine to keep them safe, they were hugely relieved to sight land. Reaching Darwin at 11:08am 22 October, they were greeted by chaotic scenes. Vast crowds surged towards them and the press went wild at the incredible new record they had set. The pilots’ concern was solely for their engines. Two hours later, although still running rough, their engine was pronounced serviceable and they departed. Hoping to gain from Grosvenor House’s problems but now flying over unfamiliar territory, the DC2 landed at 11:00pm.
STAGE 5 - CHARLEVILLE
After briefly losing their way and terrified their engines may fail, Grosvenor House arrived at 10:40pm on 22 October. Extremely fatigued but with victory in their sight, they waited impatiently whilst engineers installed two new cylinder heads. They took off but returned minutes later with low oil pressure. Scott began to lose hope, knowing the DC2 was catching up, but at 12:59am they got underway determined to complete the race.
Victory at Melbourne!
Although the shortest leg, the final 787 miles to Melbourne felt neverending for the exhausted Grosvenor House pilots. Still concerned for their engines, they struggled to stay awake and alert taking ten minute turns on the controls. When the city of Melbourne finally came into sight, Scott gratefully dived down towards Flemington Race Course, oblivious to the roar of ecstatic crowds.
Scott and Black had reached Melbourne in an outstanding time of 2 days and 23 hours. Utterly exhausted but jubilant, they were soon positioned on a podium in front of expectant public and eager press. Macpherson Robertson announced: ‘You have thrilled the world… Your epic flight has manifested the courage and endurance for which British airmen are justly famed. The world is indebted to you for demonstrating aviation’s ability to draw closer the peoples of the earth’.
After speeches and handshakes the pilots were allowed to take the rest they so desperately needed. Good wishes flooded in, including a cable from the King: ‘The Queen and I warmly congratulate you both on your wonderful feat. We are very glad we saw you at Mildenhall before setting out on your great adventure, and trust that you are not unduly tired after the strain of the past three days’.
While Scott and Black were on the podium, others were still racing to the finish. After Charleville, the DC2 lost their way in darkness, and in desperation landed at Albury racecourse where the townspeople used car headlights to light an impromptu runway for them. Despite losing time, they secured second place on 24 October just a few hours ahead of the Boeing.