The Navy's Schneider Cup Racers

By Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Rankin, U.S. Marine Corps

Jacques Schneider, wealthy French aero-enthusiast, originated the races as a stimulus to seaplane design and the development of over-water flying. The competitions were sponsored by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale . An appropriate trophy, valued at some $5,000, was offered. One of the requirements of the contest was that the race be flown entirely over water for a minimum distance of 150 nautical miles. It was stipulated that the races were to be international in character, the nation winning the trophy three times in succession to become its permanent owner. In event but one nation participated in any race, a “fly-over” was to be declared winner for that year by merely having its entries fly over the course.

The first race was held in 1913, with France and the United States being represented, the U.S. entry being a privately sponsored enterprise. This race was won by France with a speed of 45.8 m.p.h., the winning pilot, Prevost, flying a Deperdussin twin float monoplane. The English won the race the following year when C.H. Pixton flew his tiny Sopwith “Tabloid” biplane to a seaplane record of 86.75 m.p.h. This country’s entry, again a privately sponsored enterprise, was forced from the race with engine trouble.

The races were suspended during World War I but were resumed in 1919. The competition was declared “no contest” when none of the aircraft entered completed the course.

The following year the Italian entry was the only one to survive the navigation trials prior to the race and it was flown over the course to claim the “fly-over” for Italy. Again in 1921 Italy was the only nation to qualify its planes and one of these was uncontested when it flew the official course to gain the second easy victory for the Italians.

In 1922 England again won, with Capt. H.C. Baird flying his Supermarine flying boat at a speed of 145.7 m.p.h. This was the first entry in these contests of Supermarine aircraft, the ships which were eventually to win permanent possession of the trophy for England.

Until this time, although increasing general public interest in over-water flying (which was, of course, of some importance in itself) the Schneider contests had actually contributed little or nothing to technical progress. From 1923 on, however, military and naval air bureaus, particularly in the United States, England, and Italy, began seriously weighing the value of the races as a positive means of developing aircraft designs for possible combat use.

In 1923, upon the advice of Jerome C. Hunsaker, one of the famous pioneers of naval aviation and one of the world’s greatest aeronautical engineers, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics entered the Schneider competition as a means of stimulating high speed fighter development. The Navy entries for this year consisted of two Curtiss R-3’s; a Wright NW-2; and a TR-3A, a Thomas-Morse design built at the Naval Aircraft Factory.

The R-3 was a cleanly designed streamlined aircraft powered by a 465-h.p. Curtiss D-12, liquid-cooled, V-type engine. An equal span biplane mounted on twin floats, it had a span of 22 feet, eight inches, and a length of 25 feet. The NW-2, the fastest plane of the group, was also a twin float, equal span biplane. It had a span of 28 feet and was 28 feet, five inches long. It was powered by a V-type, twelve-cylinder Wright liquid-cooled engine rated at 700 h.p. The fourth entry, the TR-3A, was considerably slower than the others, its Wright E-4 engine being rated at but 265 h.p. Entered as an alternate, it was used solely by the Navy pilots in familiarizing themselves with the course.

In this contest Great Britain and France each entered three aircraft. Italy entered two airplanes, but these were withdrawn a week or so before the race.

The competition was flown off Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, and, despite the loss of the NW-2, was an All-American affair from the very first. During the trials preliminary to the race, a propeller blade on the NW-2 broke and slashed through the craft’s pontoons, causing it to crash when the pilot, Lt. Frank Wead, USN, attempted to land.

Lt. David Rittenhouse, USN, flying one of the Curtiss R-3’s, won the race easily with an average speed of 177.38 m.p.h., while Lt. Rutledge Irvine, flying the other R-3, won second place with an average of 173.46 m.p.h. These were high speeds for those days and the design and performance of the Navy’s racers were the subject of much favorable comment in the world press.

Third place went to the only other contestant to finish, Capt. H.C. Baird of England, flying the same Supermarine flying boat with which he had won the Schneider Trophy the previous year. His average speed for the course was 157.17 m.p.h.

In 1924 the trophy was unchallenged and by the rules of the contest could have been claimed by the United States by default. It is a splendid tribute to the courtesy and sportsmanship of our services that this victory was not claimed. Had it been, this country would have gained permanent possession of the trophy, for the 1925 contest was won handily by Lt. James Doolittle, USA, flying the Army’s entry, a Curtiss R3C-2. Incidentally, this was the only year the Army entered the competition.

In this race, which was flown off Bay Shore Park, Maryland, (near Baltimore) this country was represented by both Army and Navy entries. The Army airplane, as a landplane (designated R3C-1), had won the Pulitzer Races a few weeks previous to the Schneider contest. Converted to a sea plane by the removal of its wheeled landing gear and the addition of twin floats, it was flown at an average speed of 232.573 m.p.h. to win the contest. An equal-span biplane with a span of 22 feet and a length of 20 feet, two inches, it was powered by a 619-h.p. Curtiss V-1400 liquid-cooled engine.

Basically the American design was but an improved version of the same Curtiss racer first developed in 1921 and which had reached the limit of its design possibilities. Through the years minor changes, such as improved streamlining and more powerful engines, were incorporated, but the design was fundamentally the same.

England had by this time launched an intensive research program on high speed seaplanes and entered both monoplane and biplane types in 1926. Second place was won by an English Gloster III, a twin float biplane powered by a 700-h.p. Napier Lion VII engine. Flown by Capt. Hubert Broad, it attained an average speed of 199.160 m.p.h.

Third place was won by Italy’s G. de Briganti, flying a Macchi M-33 monoplane flying boat at a speed of 168.444 m.p.h. His craft was powered by an American engine, the Curtiss D12.

The Navy entries this year, both R3C-2’s, sisterships of the winner, and piloted by Navy lieutenants George Cuddihy and Ralph Ofstie, were forced out on the last lap of the race.

The last Schneider event in which this country participated was held off Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1926.

Two members of the Navy’s 1926 racing team were killed prior to the contest, a tragedy which was to have a decided effect on the outcome of the race. Lt. Frank H. Conant, USN, was killed while flying a service machine from Washington, D.C., to Norfolk after having previously set an unofficial speed record of over 250 m.p.h. in a Navy Curtiss racer. Lt. Harmon J. Norton, USMC, was killed testing one of the R2C-2 airplanes.

This left Lt. G.T. Cuddihy, USN, as the only surviving member of the team. Lt. Christian F. Schilt, USMC, was then named to replace Lt. Norton.

The loss of Lt. Conant just ten days prior to the race seriously impaired our chances of victory. It was not until the very morning of the race that a replacement, Lt. William G. Tomlinson, USN, was determined upon. It was only then that the pilots knew just which airplanes they were to fly. Lack of opportunity for the pilots to completely familiarize themselves with their individual aircraft had as much to do with the U.S. defeat as did the fact that the airplanes were out of date by at least a year.

The English entries could not be readied in time, so the race narrowed to a contest between the United States and Italy. Italy entered three Macchi M-39 low wing monoplane seaplanes, each powered by an 800-h.p. Fiat V-12, liquid-cooled engine. The United States Government in the meantime had decided not to spend any more money for special research on racing types. Consequently, this country was represented by Navy pilots flying the three Curtiss R3C’s which had been flown in the Schneider contest the previous year. Two of these were modified by the installation of higher powered engines. The Army’s R3C-2, winner in 1925, had been transferred to the Navy, and, flown by Lt. Schilt, it captured second place at a speed of 231.363 m.p.h.

Of the other U.S. entries, the R3C-3, powered by a geared Packard V-1500 engine of 700 h.p. and flown by Lt. Tomlinson, was rated as the fastest of the U.S. aircraft. Unfortunately, it was wrecked during the navigation tests prior to the race. Lt. Tomlinson then qualified a standard service Navy fighter, a Curtiss F6C-1 Hawk, in order that this country might still be represented by three entries. It was a gallant gesture to fly a standard fighter in competition with especially designed racing craft. Tomlinson came through with a fourth place at an average speed of 136.953 m.p.h. in an airplane which was powered by an engine of but 435 h.p.

The remaining U.S. entry, the R3C-4, powered by a Curtiss V-15500 engine, piloted by Lt. Cuddihy, was averaging 242.16 m.p.h., which would have gained him an easy second place, when a fuel pump failure forced him from the race on the last lap and within sight of the finish line. First and third places were won by the Italians with speeds of 246.496 and 218.006 m.p.h., respectively.

As has been noted, neither the Army nor the Navy would finance the development of racing types for future contests. Among other things it was decided just about as much as possible had been learned from racing types, and the tremendous cost of developing such airplanes was claiming a disproportionate share of development funds.

The 1927 race was flown at Venice, Italy. Although the Army and Navy would not enter aircraft, the Navy generously offered to furnish transportation to Venice for a racing airplane which had been privately produced largely through the efforts of Lt. Al Williams, USN, who was to fly it with the official sanction of the Navy. Built by the Kirkham Products Company of Long Island, New York, this airplane was a well streamlined monoplane powered by a 1250-h.p., 24-cylinder, Packard X-type engine. The craft was completed shortly before the announced date of the contest, but there was not enough time left to “iron out the bugs” in the design. When the British would not agree to a postponement, the American entry was cancelled.

The last three Schneider races were won by Great Britain to give that country permanent possession of the trophy (the last victory being a “fly-over”). After the final British victory, several of the competing nations proposed that a new series of races be held for a second Schneider trophy, but then all agreed that the development of special racing types cost more money than could be afforded from the sums allotted for regular service types.

Although this country participated officially in the Schneider event for only three years, winning two firsts in actual competition, it did gain considerable technical data from the contests. In addition to the good will engendered by the Navy pilots, the races were of positive value in drawing the attention of the general public to our naval air program in that period following World War I when it was all too fashionable to criticize the services. More important, of course, were the research aspects of the contests, the results of which led to many important improvements and developments.

The Navy Curtiss racing airplanes introduced such innovations as thin wings, surface radiators, improved and cleaner streamlining, and high revolution, small displacement, liquid-cooled engines (features which were readily copied by others). The Navy’s Schneider racers, in fact, became the basis for later fighter design even after this country dropped from the competition.

In this latter connection, it is of some interest to mark that Mr. (later Sir) C.R. Fairey, founder of the well-known English aircraft manufacturing firm bearing his name and builder of the Firefly , Barracuda , and Swordfish fighters of World War II, was so impressed by the performance of the R-3 (1923) with its D-12 engine, that he took a number of engines of this type to England with him and secured licenses to build both the airplane and the engine. Two very successful Fairey military types, developed from the Curtiss design, influenced British fighter design for a considerable period.

The engine which Fairey built to Curtiss designs proved to be so successful that one of the D-12’s was given to the Rolls-Royce engine people and served as the basic design for a series of engines which was eventually developed into the Merlin engine used to power the Spitfire .

Mr. Reginald Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire , reported that he learned much from the Curtiss R-3, particularly from its engine installation and its general streamlined design. This knowledge was applied to his series of Supermarine racers and fighters which eventually culminated in the Spitfire .

Thus, in reporting the Navy’s participation in the Schneider races, it is not at all farfetched to remark that the old Navy Curtiss racer of 1923 was the great grandparent of the Spitfire , the most famous fighter of World War II.

Executive Officer, The Planning Officer, National Headquarters, Selective Service System, Colonel Rankin is a military historian and writer in addition to his official work and has been a frequent contributor to the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.



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