In 1920 the United States was eager for air races. Aerial combat in World War I had captured the public imagination. The airplane still possessed a wonderful newness. High speeds of aircraft were fascinating. All pilots were heroes straight from the pages of an adventure tale. Into this receptive setting, inaugurated as a stimulus to improve airplane design and performance, the Pulitzer Trophy Races were launched. From 1920 through 1925 these events, in addition to providing the general public, hungry for thrills, with a colorful show, were important in that they beneficially influenced pursuit and fighter plane design for several years to follow.
The races were sponsored, with the blessings of the Army and Navy, by Ralph Pulitzer, well-known American journalist. Events were open to all comers and to all nations and therefore were not restricted to service-sponsored entries.
Nevertheless, one of the few requirements imposed limited landing speeds to not more than 75 m.p.h. This virtually ruled out foreign contenders inasmuch as foreign racing plane designers for the most part did not follow the same safety concepts as American designers. Few of their craft had landing speeds that low. Although the races were not restricted to service-sponsored craft, they quickly became virtually an Army-Navy affair. Another cause of this situation was the fact that private enterprise could not afford the tremendous expense incidental to developing experimental racing designs.
The first race for the Pulitzer Trophy was flown at Mitchell Field, Long Island, November 25, 1920. Thirty-seven craft began the contest, which was viewed by more than 30,000 people, one of the largest crowds assembled for an air race in this country up to that time. The event was won by a Verville-Packard racer, the Army's first airplane built especially for racing purposes. Possessing a well streamlined design, this biplane was powered by a 638-h.p. water-cooled engine. The craft was constructed of wood and plywood with wings and moveable control surfaces covered with cloth. Originally built as an entry in the James Gordon Bennett Cup Races, it was forced out of that contest with cooling system troubles. Corrections were made before the Pulitzer event and it posted a winning speed of 156.5 m.p.h. With the exception of the Verville-Packard, the other entries were for the most part wartime pursuits, modifications thereof, or fighting craft developed too late to get into World War I combat.
Second place also went to the Army, a standard production pursuit, Thomas-Morse MB-3 biplane. As was the case with all planes entered in the Pulitzer events, this craft was powered by a water-cooled engine. Although of only 320 h.p., as compared with the 638-h.p. power plant of the winner, the MB-3 flew the race just two and a half minutes slower at a speed of 148 m.p.h. Third place was won by the civilian, Bert Acosta, who later gained fame as a racing pilot and also as a co-pilot for Richard Byrd on his epochal trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Acosta flew a war surplus Italian Ansaldo pursuit, one of the two entered in the competition. Fourth place also went to the Army. Lieutenant (j.g.) A. Laverents, USN, finished fifth, flying a production Vought VE-7 biplane.
Among the most interesting entries were two Navy Curtiss triplanes, each powered by an experimental 450-h.p. engine, and a Loening special high-wing monoplane. The triplane design occasionally was tried in this country for several years, spurred on no doubt by the performance of German Fokker and British Sopwith triplane fighters during the war. The Loening entry was designed and built by Grover Loening, a veteran contractor to both the Army and the Navy, who is perhaps best remembered for his design and development of the first successful amphibian plane. This racer was characterized by a fuselage deep forward which tapered aft to a knife edge. Its engine was exposed high in the nose of the fuselage. The cockpit was located between the wings and small windows in each side of the fuselage permitted the pilot to see under the wings. This ship was forced from the contest by a broken water line connection. It is significant that only one plane was forced from the competition by failure of the airplane structure itself. All other entries not completing the race were forced out by engine troubles, including a large number of failures in cooling and ignition systems.
The second Pulitzer contest was held at Omaha, Nebraska, on November 3, 1921. Beginning with this year the event became specialized because the high speeds posted would, for the immediate future, shut out all except racing craft and the faster pursuit and fighter planes.
The Navy ordered two identical fighters from Curtiss especially for the 1921 race. Constructed largely of plywood, these externally braced biplanes were each powered by a 400 h. p. engine. They were extremely clean, well streamlined craft. Eventually these planes were developed, through a series of racers, into the famous Curtiss "Hawk" pursuit and fighter planes of the 1920's and the early 1930's. Unhappily, an official Government decision prohibited Army and Navy participation in the 1921 Pulitzer contest. Thereupon the Curtiss organization borrowed one of the Navy racers and Bert Acosta, then a company test pilot, flew it to first pl ace at a speed of 176 m.p.h. Despite the fact that the Navy was not officially entered, it did have the satisfaction of seeing one of its planes win the event.
Official approval of service entries was again given for the 1922 races and from then on until the final event in 1925 the Pulitzer competition was strictly Army-Navy. The 1922 contest was flown near Detroit, Michigan, on October 14. Much of the course was over Lake St. Clair. Fifteen craft entered, of which five represented the Navy. These were a Bee-Line BR-1; two Curtiss planes, R-1 and R-2 (R-1 had been the 1921 Pulitzer winner); a hush-hush production named the "Navy Mystery Plane;" and a Thomas-Morse MB-7. Army's ten entries consisted of three Verville-Sperry low-wing monoplanes with fully retractable landing gear (a decided innovation at that time), two new Curtiss racers, the old Verville-Packard biplane which had won the 1920 Pulitzer race, two low-wing Loening R-4 monoplanes, and two Thomas-Morse TM-22's.
The Navy's Bee-Line racer was a low-wing monoplane design with fully retracting landing gear. The plane was unique in that the wings were covered with thin sheet copper under which water circulated in tubes, the wings doubling as an engine radiator. This arrangement broke down, forcing the plane from the race.
"The Navy Mystery Plane," flown by Marine Lieutenant L. H. Sanderson, was constructed to the design of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics by the Wright Aeronautical Corporation. It was built to test the Packard T-2 650-h.p. engine, of which great things were expected. A mid-wing monoplane with a small additional wing located just above the landing wheels, it was typed a "sesquiplane." Sanderson dropped out of the race on the next to the last lap because of engine failure. He had to make a crash landing in the lake and swim ashore. No stranger to misfortune, Sanderson just a week previously had been forced from the Curtiss Marine Trophy Race with almost certain victory in his grasp when he ran out of fuel.
First and second places were won by the Army's new R-6 Curtiss biplanes, Lieutenant Russell Maughan posting a speed of 205.8 m.p.h., and Lieutenant L. J. Maitland achieving 198.8 m.p.h. Navy Lieutenants H. J. Brow and AI Williams finished third and fourth, respectively, in the year-old Curtiss racers. The Navy had concentrated its hopes on monoplanes for this race, but their performance was so poor that monoplane design was largely abandoned and the biplane was to reign supreme for years to come in both the Army and the Navy.
Flown at St. Louis, Missouri, on October 6, the 1923 competition had seven entries. Navy entered four new racers: two Curtiss 500-h.p. R2C-1's and two Wright F2W's, of 700-h.p. each. Army entered no new planes, relying instead upon their first and second place winners of the previous year, as well as on one of the 1922 Verville-Sperry monoplanes.
Navy handily swept the 1923 contest, winning the first four places. Lieutenant Al Williams, in an R2C-1, was first with a speed of 243.67 m.p.h. Lieutenant Brow finished a close second in the sister ship at 241.78 m.p.h. Interestingly enough, these two airplanes were direct developments of the Army’s prizewinning planes of 1922. Lieutenant Sanderson was third in a Wright F2W at 230.06 m.p.h., and as he crossed the finish line he ran out of fuel and landed in a hay stack.
No new planes were entered in he 1924 race, which was flown on October 4 at Dayton, Ohio. The Navy was busily preparing for the famed Schneider Cup Race, which ironically enough was not flown because of lack of entries, and did not participate in the Pulitzer competition. All in all, the 1924 event lacked the importance of previous races. First place was taken by a Verville-Sperry monoplane which had been entered in the 1922 and 1923 races. The old Curtiss R-6 which had won the 1922 event gained second place. A Curtiss PW-8A pursuit, a standard production plane, finished third. Speeds were well below those of the previous year; the victor, at 215.72 m.p.h., was slower than the sixth place finisher had been in the 1923 event. The race was marred by a fatal accident, the only one of the entire Pulitzer series, in which Army Captain Bert Skeel was killed when his craft, the old 1922 second place winner, disintegrated in mid-air.
The sixth and final Pulitzer race was flown October 13, 1925 at Mitchell Field, the scene of the first contest. Navy and Army entered identical Curtiss R3C-1 biplanes, designed and built especially for this event. The Navy entered two Curtiss PW-8’s, while the Army entered a PW-8 and a Curtiss P-1. Of the six planes entered that year, the other four were standard production craft. Inasmuch as the two special racing planes were identical and the other planes were standard service types, it was obvious that the contest would be decided largely by piloting skill and sheer luck.
The Army R3C-1, piloted by Cyrus Bettis, won first place at 249 m.p.h., with Navy Lieutenant Al Williams flying the sister ship to second place at 241.7 m.p.h. Navy Lieutenant G.T. Cuddihy in a PW-8 was forced from the race by engine trouble. Army Lieutenant Dawson in the P-1, Marine Lieutenant Norton in the remaining Navy PW-8, and Lieutenant Cook in the Army PW-8 finished in that order.
With the gradual development of laboratory facilities for research, testing, and development, and with a growing accumulation of scientific data, the advantages realized from the design, construction, and flying of service racing airplanes did not justify the expense, risks, and uncertainties involved. Consequently the Government refused to finance further the development of special racing types. So ended one of the more colorful chapters in the history of the development of American aviation.
Colonel Rankin, a graduate of Marshall College and Eastern Kentucky State College, currently is Executive Officer, Office of the Chief Planning Officer, National Headquarters, Selective Service System. He has written numerous articles on aviation, military, and naval history.