Navy and Marine Corps aviators flying high-speed seaplanes during the golden age of air racing showed the public the potential of aviation at sea. Beginning in 1926, in races held off Anacostia Naval Air Station, they showcased their advances for crowds in the nation's capital.
Eight of the Navy's newest high-speed seaplanes bobbed in the choppy waters off Detroit's Memorial Park on the afternoon of 8 October 1922, as an estimated 200,000 people lined the shores of the Detroit River and the southeast corner of Lake Sr. Clair waiting for them to launch; weather had forced a one-day postponement. Now, all was ready.
The first plane, a green Curtiss 18-T-1, flown by Navy Lieutenant Rutledge Irvine, took off at 1400, followed a minute later by Navy Lieutenant David Rittenhouse's black- and-white checkered Naval Aircraft Factory TR-3. Minute by minute, the remaining six launched until all eight aircraft were circling the 20-mile course laid out over the river and Lake St. Clair.
"A seaplane in night is ever a beautiful sight and: the beautiful markings of the entries, the barge pennants, the busy surface police craft all combined to make a lively and interesting picture," a journalist wrote.
What could attract such a crowd on a raw Michigan afternoon? It was the opening of the 1922 National Air Races in the golden age of air racing—that period from the end of World War I until the beginning of the Great Depression—and the seaplanes were competing in one of the most interesting events: the Curtiss Marine Trophy seaplane race.
During the 1920s, speed contests between aircraft captured the imagination of the populace worldwide. The Great War had proved to almost everyone's satisfaction that aviation had unbounded potential, and both military and civilians were intrigued by the possibilities offered by the rapidly growing technology of the air. Air racing was a showcase for new designs and equipment and a major attraction for a fascinated public.
The competition was intense, and the races loom large in the history of aviation. The annual Pulitzer Trophy race for land-based planes was America's most prestigious aircraft competition of the era. Europe's major event, the Schneider Trophy seaplane races, pitted the air forces of the world in fierce international competition. The Curtiss Marine Trophy seaplane race, however, was the sole domain of the Navy.
It was clearly the most unusual and least known of the great air races. Aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss established the trophy in 1911 to encourage the development of seaplanes and flying boats. In the early years, the event was not a spectacular success, probably because the trophy was awarded to the seaplane that made the longest flight while flying between two points—a form that failed to capture the public's imagination.
The trophy was awarded to a variety of recipients in the years prior to World War I. In 1915, Major Oscar A. Brindley, U.S. Army, won the award for flying a Martin Military Tractor hydroplane 443.72 miles, making several laps between San Diego and San Juan, California. In the two years that followed, the award went to civilian pilots and planes. Not until 1918 did a naval aviator win the trophy, when Lieutenant Thomas Clifford Rodman, U.S. Marine Corps, flew an H-11 carrying 11 passengers 670 miles in ten hours.
The event was plagued by indifference during its early years; by the end of the war, it was nearly forgotten. For three years, 1919, 1920, and 1921, the trophy was not even awarded. It seemed destined to languish in obscurity, and there was little interest in renewing the competition.
All this changed in 1922, when the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics, in partnership with the National Aeronautical Association, decided to revive the Curtiss Trophy. Taking a tip from the success of the other competitions, the Navy changed the former from one that focused on maximum range to one that emphasized speed and restricted entries to service aircraft. The Curtiss Marine Trophy became a free-for-all competition for seaplanes and flying boats with airspeeds in excess of 70 miles per hour.
To focus attention on the contest, planners made it the opening event of the 1922 National Air Races at Detroit. As redesigned, the race consisted of eight laps around a special triangular 20-mile course laid out over the waters of the Detroit River and Lake Huron.
By race day—8 October—one of the ten planes entered had been withdrawn, and another had been damaged while taxiing; eight planes, however, were ready to go.
The race emphasized speed but it thoroughly tested pilot and aircraft ability on the water. The race started with a water takeoff—no hitting that start in line-abreast airborne. In addition, contestants were required to land at the end of the fifth, sixth, and seventh laps, and taxi through a course laid out on the river between Detroit’s Belle Isle and Memorial Park. In all, it promised to be a challenging contest.
From the beginning, Marine Corps Lieutenant Lawson H. Sanderson was the clear favorite. Sanderson’s plane, a yellow Curtiss 18-T-1, was a special racing version of the Curtiss Model 18 triplane fighter, which had not had an auspicious career. Designed at the end of World War I, the plane, with its original Curtiss K-12 engine, had a reputation for breaking down. Such problems had, in fact, forced its withdrawal from the 1920 Pulitzer Trophy race. After that, the plane sat almost forgotten at the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory in Pennsylvania.
For the Curtiss Trophy race, the Navy decided to reintroduce the plane with floats and a more reliable Curtiss C-12 engine. It proved to be a wise decision. Sanderson took off sixth and set a blistering pace, completing the first lap with an average speed of 121.4 miles per hour, nearly three miles per hour faster than the early leader, Navy Lieutenant A.W. “Jake” Gorton, who had taken off fourth in his TR-1. On subsequent laps, Sanderson continued to widen his lead over the field.
Despite the organizers’ efforts to make the race a contest of speed, the 1922 race turned out to be a contest of endurance. By the end of lap four, two planes, including the one flown by David Rittenhouse—then in third place—dropped out with mechanical problems. By lap six, another three planes had retired. On Sanderson’s final lap, far out in front and seemingly on its way to victory, his engine coughed and slowed. The plane had run out of fuel, and Sanderson was forced to put down on the water. Victory went to Jake Gorton and his TR-1, one of only two machines to complete the entire 160-mile course.
From the 1922 race onward, the Curtiss Trophy race was an important training ground for Navy racing pilots. The following year, a Navy racing team led by first-place finisher Lieutenant Alford J. Williams, swept the top four positions in America’s premiere aviation contest, the Pulitzer Trophy race. All four pilots had been entered in the 1922 Curtiss Trophy race.
Curtiss Trophy veterans also went on to fly successfully in international air races, including the most important international competition of the period: the Schneider Trophy seaplane races. These were held at various venues around the world, and the Navy, in 1923, sent a team to challenge the best of this international competition at Cowes, Isle of Wight, on England’s south coast.
Jake Gorton, the 1922 Curtiss Trophy winner, was forced to withdraw during trials when a broken propeller blade pierced one of the floats of his Navy-Wright NW-2, causing the plane to sink. The remainder of the Navy team, however, more than made up for the loss. Lieutenant David Rittenhouse, who had been forced to drop out of the 1922 Curtiss Trophy race, flew his Curtiss CR-3 to victory and brought the prestigious international prize home to the United States. Adding to the American achievement, Navy pilot Rutledge Irvine, another 1922 Curtiss Trophy casualty, took second place in another Curtiss CR-3 racer.
Following the 1922 race, the Curtiss Trophy competition was held only semi-annually. No race was held in 1923, but the contest was revived again in 1924, at Miami, Florida, where Lieutenant V.F. Grant, flying a Vought VE-7H, covered the total distance of 200 kilometers at an average speed of 116.169 miles per hour, breaking the American seaplane record on his way to claiming the prize.
In 1926, the event took a major step forward when it was moved on a quasi-permanent basis to the nation's capital. Washington, D. C., was an ideal location for the contest. Ample facilities existed at the nearby Anacostia Naval Air Station, which had long served as a testing and research center for the Navy's Bureau of Aviation. It also was headquarters for the Navy's racing detachments. All in all, a more perfect home for the contest could not have been found.
The event quickly established itself as a major springtime ritual in the nation's capital. Each May, thousands of people gathered at Bolling Field, Anacostia Naval Air Station, Hains Point, and various other vantage points to watch the contest, which took place along a 20-mile course laid out along the Potomac River below Washington.
The event took on certain characteristics once it had taken up residence in Washington. In order to expand the competition to as wide a variety of aircraft as possible, the event was opened to a number of different classes of aircraft, each rated according to its type, horsepower, and speed. The fastest class was the fighters, and these speedsters tended to dominate the competition. Nonetheless, observation planes, torpedo bombers, amphibians, and trainers took part in the races as well, with the winner in each of these classes receiving a prize.
An air show dazzled the crowds before each race, with various Navy detachments performing such dare-devil antics as parachuting and stunt flying. The 1926 event, for instance, was preceded by a two-hour show-parachutists and a flying circus featuring flyers from Hampton Roads and Quantico, Virginia, and Lakehurst, New Jersey, thrilled the crowd. Similar shows and exhibitions preceded other Curtiss Trophy races as well. Throughout the Trophy's stay at the nation's capital, such preliminary shows became almost as important a part of the festivities as the race itself.
Inter-service rivalries between the Army and the Navy fueled much of the fiercest air racing competition of the 1920s, and, although the Curtiss Trophy race was restricted to naval aircraft, it nonetheless managed to develop an inter-service rivalry of its own.
No contest was held in 1927, but a record 19 planes were entered for the contest when they gathered again for the 1928 race. The high number of entries was not uniform throughout all classes, however. Since its previous meeting, the Navy had increased the number of classes for the Curtiss Trophy race from four to five, and many of this record number of entries were in the lower-performance classes.
In the prestigious fighter class, only two entries, both 450-hp Pratt & Whitney "Wasp"-powered Curtiss Hawks flown by Navy pilots, were scheduled to compete.The contest did not seem promising until a gray-haired, 47-year-old Marine flier, Major Charles A. Lutz, flew his Curtiss Hawk VF fighter powered by a 400-hp Curtiss D-12 engine from Brown Field at Quantico, Virginia, to Anacostia on the Thursday before the race was to take place.
On Saturday, the day of the race, Lutz proved that the oldest pilot in the contest was also the fastest pilot. He covered the 100 miles, five laps around the 20-mile course, in 38 minutes, 4.2 seconds, nearly a minute and a half ahead of his nearest Navy rival, Lieutenant Commander A. C. Miles. In addition, his average speed of 157.9 mph set a new speed record for the fighter class. For a last minute entry, Lutz had put on an impressive display.
Beginning with the 1928 race, the Curtiss Marine Trophy race became an annual event and rivalry between the Navy and the Marine Corps continued in subsequent meetings.
Unfortunately, Lutz did not return to defend his title in the 1929 race. Only weeks after his 1928 victory, the flyer was killed in a crash on take off during a flight from Washington to Nicaragua.
Despite Lutz's death, the Marine Corps was well represented in the 160 mph fighter class in 1929. In fact, Marine aviator Arthur H. Page, Jr., set the second fastest time for the competition, covering the 100 mile course with an average speed of 151.30 mph. He was later disqualified, however, for cutting inside one of the pylons. This action left second place in the event to another Marine flier, Captain James T. Moore.
Technology was the deciding factor in the 1929 race, and it clearly was on the Navy's side that year. The Navy's Wasp-powered Curtiss Hawk XF7C-1, flown by Lieutenant W. C. Tomlinson, was equipped with an experimental engine cowling designed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to improve the aerodynamics of large, air-cooled, radial engines used in most service aircraft of the period. It certainly improved the speed of Tomlinson's machine. When the contest was over, the Hawk, setting a blistering pace of 162.52 mph, had nearly lapped the remainder of the field.
Despite his disqualification in the 1929 contest, Page returned for the 1930 race, in which he was the sole Marine entry. Even at such long odds, he remained the favorite.
Generally, the excitement of the Curtiss Marine Trophy was the race itself, but the 1930 event proved different. The race was just ready to begin on the afternoon of Saturday, 24 May, and an estimated 10,000 people lined the Anacostia River. The aerial parade of 140 planes, a prelude to the seaplane race, had just ended when dark clouds that had been building in the skies west of Washington spawned a severe thunderstorm. Within minutes, the winds increased from seven to forty-two miles per hour and shifted direction violently and unpredictably, the temperature dropped a dozen degrees, and the water in the landing and take-off areas was whipped into white foam.
The weather made a shambles of the race preparations. One detachment of fifteenplanes had to be diverted to Baltimore's Logan Field to land. A scow anchored in the river to support one of the pylons marking the course broke loose and began drifting down river. Such havoc forced the postponement of the race until the following weekend, which turned out to be the Memorial Day weekend.
As a result, at least from the spectators' standpoint, that year's race probably was the most successful event of all. The holiday weekend attracted an estimated 75,000 people to the good vantage points along the Potomac. One District of Columbia police official stated that he "had never seen a crowd rivaling in size that at Hains Point."
The race itself was almost anticlimactic—Page dominated the event. Flying his Curtiss F6C-3 fighter, the Marine pilot covered the course with an average speed of 164.08 mph, 1.5 miles per hour faster than Tomlinson's 1929 record run.
Despite the event's popular success, the 1930 race marked the end of the Navy's sponsorship. Only months after his Curtiss Marine Trophy victory, Page, the only military entry of the 1930 National Air Races at Chicago, was killed when he crashed in his Curtiss XF6C-6 while leading the famous Thompson Trophy race—the incredibly dangerous closed-course air race for land planes. The investigation concluded that carbon monoxide had leaked into the cockpit and caused him to lose consciousness.
Page's death pointed out what many in the military had felt about air racing: the technical advances resulting from the sport did not justify the growing number of fatalities. The Navy withdrew from air racing competitions.
As an event made up entirely of naval contestants, the Curtiss Marine Trophy was particularly devastated by the decision. Without the Navy's support, the National Aeronautical Association tried to renew the race with private entries. The Schneider Trophy seaplane races, long the prize of the world's most prestigious air racing, had ended, and the Association hoped to promote the Curtiss Marine Trophy race as a substitute for the fabled international contest. But it was not to be. With the nation and the world in the throes of the depression, there was no sponsorship money needed to make the event possible.
The Curtiss Trophy races had come to an end but their legacy had an undeniable impact upon naval aviation's most formative years. For nearly a decade, they served as a training ground for naval pilots, a proving ground for planes and equipment, and a showcase that helped' sell naval aviation to an often skeptical government andpublic.
In the end, the Curtiss Marine Trophy races provided the golden age of air racing with its most distinctively naval air racing event. They were an important and exciting chapter in the history of naval aviation.
Mr. Pelzer teaches history at Wesley College in Dover, Delaware. He has written for Civil War Times Illustrated and Military History.