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Lymburn's Historiography

Lymburn's Sawbones Column

Tom Lymburn is a well known aviation historian and air show announcer in the mid-west, and particularly well known in EAA circles, having attended EAA's AirVenture for over 35 years. He's also a long-time Sawbones team member, and can be found at the merchandise table at the Reno Air Races sharing his knowledge of aviation history and Sawbones while helping wife Sue sell Sawbones shirts, hats, and jackets. In this column, he shares some of that vast knowledge and detail as it pertains to Sawbones, the Hawker Sea Fury, and air racing.

(see Tom's Sources for each article summarized in the last group in this section titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Sawbones: A Biography

The aircraft we know today as Sawbones, serial number 37525, began life at Hawker with production contract number 53/1/012 for a batch of 25 single seat Furies ordered for the Iraqi Air Force. Powered by a 2550 hp eighteen cylinder Bristol Centaurus radial engine and driving a five blade Rotol propeller, these were de-navalized, with tail hook, catapult hook, and other naval equipment removed. Otherwise, they were similar to standard FB 10/11 fighter-bombers. Hawker referred to them as the Fury ISS (for Iraqi single seater) or “Baghdad Fury”.

These twenty-five were delivered to Iraq beginning in May, 1952, being ferried by Airwork Ltd. from Hawker at Langley, Buckinghamshire, to Blackbushe, to Nice, France, to Malta, to Mersa Metruh, Egypt, to Nicosia, Cyprus, and finally to Baghdad. Number 37525 was delivered to Iraq by November, 1953, and given Iraqi serial number 325. It had been painted in Middle East RAF scheme of dark earth and mid-stone upper surfaces with azure blue undersides.

Single seat Furies were assigned to No. 4 and No. 7 Squadrons of the Iraqi Air Force for counter insurgency work. For ground attack, the Fury was armed with four 20 mm Hispano Mk. 5 cannon, two 500 or 1000 pound bombs, napalm, or twelve three inch rockets. It could carry two drop tanks. Two seat trainer versions of the Fury were assigned to No. 1 Squadron at Habbaniya for conversion training. Fighter-bomber pilots were trained in the de Havilland Chipmunk, Harvard Mk. IIB, and the Hunting Provost T.53, before transition training on the Fury T.20.

While we don’t know the precise use that #325 had, we do know that from 1961, Baghdad Furies were used against the Kurds around Sulamaniyah, north of Baghdad. Furies of No. 4 Squadron were used for ground attack sorties in 1963-1964 and again in 1966. Heavy use of the squadron took place around Kirkuk. With the arrival of Hawker Hunter jets in 1964, the piston Furies began to be retired to storage and used as airfield decoys.

At least 20 Furies were stored at Habbaniyah Airfield in 1974. In 1979, Ed Jurist and David Tallichet recovered #325 as one of 27 airframes that were dismantled and shipped to the United States. For a time, they were stored in Orlando, Florida. No. 325 was registered with the FAA as N30SF, and listed with Jurist and Tallichet Vintage Aircraft International, of Nyack, New York. Tallichet, a former World War II B-17 co-pilot with the 100th Bomb Group, was known for saving aircraft from all over the world under the business names of Yesterday’s Air Force, and the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation.

Sawbones’ new life began in November, 1986, when it was registered to George H. Baker, American Aero Services, New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Baker, who was inducted into the Sport Aviation Hall of Fame on 16 October, 2009, was known for his Beechcraft T-34 restorations and his long support of EAA’s Warbirds of America. At the time of his induction, he had flown over 100 types of aircraft and logged over 20,000 hours.

Baker restored the aircraft using the fuselage of Iraqi Air Force #325, a Wright R-3350-26WD Cyclone 18 from a Douglas Skyraider, a four blade propeller, and parts from a Deutsch Luftfahrt Beratungsdienst TT.20 target tug that had been registered D-CACA. The target tug, the former Royal Navy VZ365, had been delivered as a trainer and repurchased by Hawker in 1957/58. It was modified to target towing and operated in support of the Luftwaffe from 1963 until retired in 1972. By 1974 it was derelict and being stripped for parts. It was acquired by George Baker in 1986 as a source of spares.

When completed, Baker had N30SF re-registered as N71GB. It made its first flight on 10 March, 1990, and was named Gee Bees Sky Fury. It was in Royal Australian Navy colors with “GB” on the tail and wore #71 beneath the cockpit. Wing tip smoke generators, guns, and drop tanks were noted when it appeared at Oshkosh that same year.

By April, 1997, N71GB had been sold to John Bagley of Rexburg, Idaho, and was flown as Southern Cross. Later, it was with Steve Patterson of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. It came to Dr. Robin Crandall, based at Anoka County Airport, Blaine, Minnesota in August 2008 and, appropriately, took on the nickname Sawbones. As Race #71, it campaigns each September as Minnesota’s representative in the National Championship Air Races Unlimited Class in Reno, Nevada.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Tom Lymburn

The Hawker Sea Fury

The Hawker Legacy

The name Sopwith conjures up visions of rotary engined Pups, Camels, Triplanes, One and a Half Strutters, and the superb Snipe that were so much a part of the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, and after 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force. After World War I, Sopwith begat Hawker. Based at Kingston-upon-Thames in the former Sopwith plant, Hawker, too, was known for fighters.

Starting with the 200 mph Rolls Royce Kestral powered Fury biplane of 1931, Hawker provided the Royal Air Force and countries around the world with interceptors. The two gun Fury, open cockpit fighter, and the two seat Hart light bomber with the same engine, were the forerunners of a series of Hawker fighters that endured into the Harrier era.

Under the brilliant leadership of Sidney (later Sir Sidney) Camm, Hawker produced the Hurricane, the RAF's first 300 mph monoplane fighter. A mix of steel tube, wood, and fabric, mated to the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the eight gun Hurricane first entered service with No. 111 ("Treble One") Squadron under command of Squadron Leader John Gillan in December 1937. The Hurry was the backbone of RAF Fighter Command under Air Marshall Hugh Dowding and Air Vice Marshall Keith Park during the Battle of Britain. Highly maneuverable, a good gun platform, and able to absorb great punishment, Hurricane pilots were credited with 658 kills during the Battle of Britain, with 132 attaining "ace" status.

After the Hurricane came the unsuccessful Vulture powered Tornado. The Vulture liquid-cooled inline was not one of Rolls Royce's successes. The heavy four cannon 2200 hp Napier Sabre powered Typhoon, the RAF's first 400 mph fighter followed. The Typhoon suffered through engine reliability problems, but evolved into a superb ground attack weapon with 2000 pounds of bombs or eight rockets.

Realizing the thick wing of the Typhoon restricted its performance, Camm redesigned the aircraft with a thin elliptical wing, a strengthened tail assembly and produced the Tempest V. The Sabre engined Tempest is best remembered for the 638 buzz bombs it shot down and for its success against the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Me-262. Twenty Me-262 jets fell to the 20 mm cannon of the Tempest.

On 23 June, 1942, the RAF and later Hawker were presented with a gift when Oberleutent Arnim Faber of JG2 mistakenly landed his Focke-Wulf FW-190A-3 at RAF Pembrey. The cleanly cowled BMW 801 radial engine with its efficient exhaust ejector stacks greatly influenced the design of the Tempest II with the 18 cylinder Bristol Centaurus sleeve valve radial, which saw RAF service post war.

In an effort to produce a lighter, smaller airframe, Hawker proposed the Fury to the RAF - effectively a smaller Tempest II. By now, it was the jet age and RAF squadrons were operating Gloster Meteors with de Havilland Vampires coming out of the factory. The RAF declined the Fury, but the Royal Navy, not ready for jets aboard its carriers, ordered the Sea Fury to complement its more fragile Supermarine Seafires and its rugged but slower Fairey Fireflies. Production Sea Fury FB 11 fighter-bombers carried four 20mm cannon and 2000 pounds of bombs or rockets. First seeing combat in Korea, they were used for combat air patrol. Lt. Peter Carmichael of No 802 Squadron, based on HMS Ocean, was credited with shooting down a MIG-15 on 9 August, 1952.

Hawker did strong export business with Furies and Sea Furies, with sales to Australia, Burma, Canada, Cuba, Egypt, Germany, Holland (where it was built under license by Fokker), Iraq, Morocco, and Pakistan. Royal Navy Sea Furies were retired in 1955, replaced by Hawker Sea Hawk jets, but two seat German target tugs continued in service until 1970.

The Sea Fury came to air racing in the early 1960;s. It was fast, airframes were plentiful, and it was capable of being modified. Powered by Pratt & Whitney R-2800, Wright R-3350, and Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines, in addition to the original Bristol Centaurus, Sea Furies have been raced by Mike Carrol, Sherman Cooper, Lloyd Hamilton, Howard Pardue, the Sanders family, George Baker - who built up what is now Sawbones,  and many other well-known racing pilots.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Tom Lymburn

Into Combat

Unlike its more famous predecessors, the Sea Fury saw little combat. Its namesake, the Fury biplane saw action during the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 against the fascists. Again, it saw combat with South Africa against the Italians during 1940. Finally, Yugoslavian Furies attempted to stop the Luftwaffe in 1941.

The Hurricane was in action from the beginning of World War II until the end. Typhoons, even with serious engine and structural faults, made huge contributions to the Allied advance after D-Day as ground attack aircraft. The Sea Fury’s immediate sire, the Sabre engined Tempest, showed its worth by shooting down 638 German buzz bombs and downing 20 Me-262 jets. Post-war Tempests with No. 213 Squadron and No. 6 Squadron duked it out in January 1949 with Israeli Spitfires, losing one to the Spits. 

The first Sea Fury action appears to have been with the Royal Netherlands Navy’s No. 860 Squadron aboard the Karel Doorman (formerly HMS Nairina) against insurgent guerrillas in the Dutch East Indies in 1947. Some Dutch Sea Furies were license built by Fokker.

In the Middle East, Egypt operated a few Furies in the conflict with Israel. Iraq, a major purchaser of Furies beginning in 1946, used theirs as ground attack aircraft against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Known as Baghdad Furies, Sawbones comes from survivors recovered in 1979 by Ed Jurist and Dave Tallichet. Pakistani Furies were used for “policing” duties on Pakistan’s northwest  frontier until being replaced in 1960. Burma also flew Furies for counter-insurgency operations from 1957 to 1968 when they were replaced by armed Lockheed T-33’s.

Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy Sea Furies were used for combat air patrol and ground attack during the Korean War joining Supermarine Seafire 47’s and Fairey Firefly V’s. The Fleet Air Arm’s No. 807 Squadron was first in action, paired with Fireflies aboard HMS Theseus. Between October 1950 and April 1951, No. 807 flew 2320 sorties, involving 5600 hours, most during difficult winter months. Ground attack was accomplished with 20 mm cannon and eight 60 pound rockets, and later 500 and 1,000 pound bombs. Other Royal Navy assets in Korea were No. 802r aboard HMS Ocean and No. 801 and 804 aboard HMS Glory. The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Sydney contributed No. 805 and 806 in support of land operations.

Combat between Royal Navy aircraft and Communist aircraft was rather rare, but on 9 August 1952, Lt. Peter Camichael flying Sea Fury serial number WJ232, shot down a MIG-15. Camichael was assigned to No. 802 Squadron aboard HMS Ocean. During World War II, Carmichael had flown Seafires with No. 889 Squadron and later Corsairs with No. 1834 Squadron in strikes on Japan. He was awarded a DSC for this action, the only kill by a British pilot over a jet flying a British piston engined aircraft in the Korean War. Soon after the end of the Korea War, Royal Navy Sea Furies began to be retired and by late 1955 had been replaced by jets. Royal Australian Navy Sea Furies disappeared by 1963. 

The Sea Fury’s last combat occurred during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the Batista government acquired 15 Mk. 11 and two T. 20 Sea Furies from Hawker in 1957. These became part of the new Cuban Air Force when Castro took power.

When the CIA backed invasion occurred, Cuban Sea Furies and armed Lockheed T-33 trainers went into action against Liberation Air Force Douglas B-26 Invaders and Curtiss C-46 Commandos. At least two B-26’s were shot down by Cuban Sea Furies and as many as five B-26’s were downed by T-33s. Sea Furies, attacking with rockets and cannon fire, forced the supply ship Houston to be grounded to keep it from sinking. Two Sea Furies were lost during the conflict, one destroyed on the ground by B-26’s and the other lost while attempting to intercept a C-46, when it stalled into the ocean.

After the Bay of Pigs, use of the Sea Fury dwindled, the final major use of Hawker’s last piston engined fighter being as target tugs in support of the Luftwaffe with Deutsche Luftfahrt Beratungsdienst beginning in 1958. These were finally retired in 1970.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Tom Lymburn

Wright R-3350 Cyclone 18

The R-3350 began life in January 1936 and the first engine was run in May 1937. Primarily associated during World War II with the B-29 Superfortress, the early R-3350 models suffered from poor manufacturing techniques, catastrophic backfires, overheating, mixture problems, and engine fires. Wartime versions, used on the B-29 and Convair B-32, were rated at 2200hp at 2800 rpm.

From the beginning, the R-3350 proved unreliable. It wasn’t until 21 October 1942, that the XB-29 finally made a 75 minute test flight. Test flight after test flight resulted in engine failures, sometimes fires. On 18 February 1943, disaster struck, when the second prototype crashed killing test pilot Eddie Allen, the ten man crew, and 20 people on the ground. At this point all 3350 powered aircraft were grounded. A Senate committee, led by future President Harry S. Truman, concluded that the engine was to blame due to poor quality control and inspection. This was not the full truth, but it marked the low point of R-3350 development.

Wright, Boeing, and the Army Air Force fought the “Battle of Kansas” to get the B-29 into action. Even when the Superfortress was sent into combat in China, the problems had not been completely cured. Some of the snags were partially solved by changes in engine operation, new engine baffles, better lubrication, and modification of the cowl flaps. Still, B-29 losses in the Pacific were more likely from engine failures than enemy action. Eventually, TBO for the R-3350 was increased from about 100 hours to 400. Wartime production from Wright plants in Woodbridge, NJ, and Cincinnati, OH, amounted to around 13,800. The Dodge plant in Chicago, built over 18.400 engines. Post war, manufacture was by Chevrolet.

Lockheed’s beautiful Constellation also suffered from problems with the R-3350 during its early days. This resulted in delayed production and groundings. Lockheed even went so far as to test the Connie with four Pratt & Whitney R-2800’s and offer airlines a choice of R-3350, R-2800, or Bristol Centaurus radials. All airline customers opted for the R-3350. The later R-3350 turbo compound engines while very powerful, earned the Super Constellation the nickname of “The World’s Best Trimotor.”

The Douglas DC-7 also suffered from reliability problems with its R-3350’s. Three engine “arrivals” were not uncommon. Although more expensive to operate that the earlier R-2800 powered DC-6, the DC-7 made money because it was faster, had a greater payload, and longer range than its older brother. In a bit of unusual foreshadowing, an ex-American Airlines DC-7B was raced in 1970 over a 1000 mile course at Mojave at an average speed of 325 mph. It carried race number 64 and was flown by Clay Lacy and Allan Paulson.

Post war military applications of the R-3350 powered Canadair’s CP-107 Argus maritime recon bomber that was produced from 1957 to 1960. Based on the Bristol Britannia, Canadair opted for turbo compounds instead of turboprops to get long range for overwater flights. The CP-107 had a range of 5900 miles. The Lockheed Neptune, flown first during World War II, was manufactured until 1962, with over 1000 built in the USA and Japan. Its Wrights were later augmented with a pair of Westinghouse J34 turbojets. Neptunes saw combat during the Falklands war with the Argentine Navy and in Vietnam. Last year (2016), a Neptune Aviation Services P2V based in Missoula, MT, operated against a fire near Susanville, CA, from Reno Stead before the races.

Fairchild’s C-119 Flying Boxcar started life with P&W R-4360’s, but changed to R-3350’s. Often with auxiliary turbojets added under the wings of atop the fuselage, these tactical transports served many air forces and later as fire bombers.

Martin’s Marlin, a twin engined anti-submarine flying boat, and the earlier four engined Mars, used by the Navy as a transport, were powered by the R-3350. Th Mars appeared at Oshkosh last year. It had been fighting forest fires since 1959, capable of scooping and delivering 7200 gallons of water!

The aircraft that “donated” its R-3350 to Sawbones, was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. First flown on 18 March 1945 as the XBT2D-1, the “Dauntless II” received excellent reviews from test pilots at Patuxent Naval Test Center. However, with the end of the war, production was seriously cut back, and due to changing Navy requirements was redesigned AD-1/A-1 and renamed Skyraider. Eventually, 3180 Skyraiders were produced in a multitude of versions for bombing, airborne early warning, electronic counter measures, night attack, and atomic bomb delivery. The “Spad” served in Korea, Viet Nam, and Africa. Now its engine races at Reno.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Tom Lymburn

Engine Changes?

Engine changes designed to increase performance are common. Some are successful, some not.

Both the Rolls Royce Merlin and Rolls Royce Griffon powered Supermarine’s war winning Spitfire. The prototype Spit, K5054, was powered by a 990 hp Merlin “C” when it was first flown by Captain “Mutt” Summers on 5 March 1936. By the time the Mark 20 series Spitfire left the factory, it was a Griffon of 2050 hp that propelled R.J. Mitchell’s elegant wonder.

Power for bombers changed with operational requirements. Over 11,400 Vickers Wellingtons, nicknamed “Wimpey” after a character in Popeye, were powered by four different engines. Early models used 1000 hp Bristol Pegasus radials. Mark II’s turned to liquid cooled Merlin X inlines. Mark IV’s used the American Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp. Most were powered by Bristol Hercules radials of over 1500 hp. All of Boeing’s production B-17 Flying Fortresses were powered by Wright R-1820 Cyclones, many engines built by Studebaker. Yes, there was an Allison V-1710 test model called the XB-38 and a fire bomber did fly with four Rolls Royce Dart turboprops (yes, a turboprop B-17!), but these were not production models.

What about the Sea Fury? Amazingly, all production Fury/Sea Furies built by Hawker and Fokker were powered by the Bristol Centaurus 18. However, two prototypes experimented with other options and racing Sea Furies have flown with three American engines.

As part of the testing program, Hawker produced prototypes powered by the 2239 cubic inch Rolls Royce Griffon 85 and the 2240 cubic inch Napier Sabre VII. Driving a six blade contra-rotating prop, the Griffon Fury first flew on 27 November 1944. Maintenance problems due to the complexity of the contra-rotating prop and the Griffon 85’s lack of refinement, left this a one off model. The Napier Sabre VII version flew in June 1946, and attained a top speed of 485 mph, the fastest of the Fury family, but the Sabre’s lack of reliability on the earlier Typhoon and Tempest V and VI, and the arrival of the jet age, doomed this version. Thus, the 2480 hp sleeve value Centaurus 18 became the production power plant of choice for carrier and land based Furies and Sea Furies.

The 3370 cubic inch Bristol Centaurus powered a number of British production aircraft, most pretty much forgotten today. The Sea Fury’s predecessor, the Tempest II, was too late for  World War II and spent its career assigned to post war RAF units of occupation in Germany, and exported to India and Pakistan. None fly today. Other Centaurus powered British aircraft include the Blackburn Beverley transport, Bristol’s Brigand, which saw action in Malaya against Communist guerillas, the Blackburn Firebrand strike fighter for the Fleet Air Arm, and the Vickers Warwick, the Wellington’s too late replacement. Not exactly household names.

The Wright R-3350 is one of the American engines that have powered Sea Furies around the racing pylons. Development began in 1936. Known in World War II as the power plant of the Boeing B-29, it suffered serious teething troubles from induction fires and detonation problems. Production during the war was assigned to Wright plants in Woodridge, New Jersey, and Cincinnati, Ohio, plus Dodge in Chicago. Post-war modifications solved the wartime problems and R-3350’s, many produced by Chevrolet, powered the Lockheed Neptune, Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, Douglas DC-7, and Lockheed Constellation. Canadairs’s CP-107 Argus maritime recon bomber was powered by four 3700 hp Turbo-Compounds. Sawbone’s R-3350 came from a Douglas Skyraider. Able Dog pilots found the R-3350-26 a reliable and sound engine for long over water flights.

The famous Sea Fury Dreadnaught races with a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 corncob engine of 28 cylinders. Too late for World War II service, it powered Goodyear F2G racers of Cook Cleland and Dick Becker in the Cleveland days. Post war it was used on the monster 230 foot wingspan Convair B-36, the B-50 (a B-29 upgrade), and the KC-97 tanker that served SAC for years until replaced by another Boeing product, the KC-135, the 707’s military brother.

Lately, Sea Fury Argonaut has switched to a Pratt & Whitney R-2800, one of the classic 18 cylinder radials best remembered for powering the P-47 Thunderbolt, the Grumman Hellcat, Bearcat, and Tigercat, and Vought’s bent wing Corsair. Douglas found the R-2800 to be a fit choice for its long serving A-26 Invader and the DC-6/C-118 transport.

Greater and more reliable horse power has always been the need of commercial, military, and racing aircraft. Many of the Golden Age racers simply added more power to get more speed. Wartime research to reach the magic number of 3000 hp, propelled development of the powerful radials and a not so successful series of “hyper” engines produced by Continental, Lycoming, Chrysler, Wright, and Pratt & Whitney.

As we watch and listen to Unlimited racers power around the pylons, it’s well to remember the pioneering work of engine builders before and during World War II. For example, Republic’s lightened XP-47J with a carefully cowled R-2800-57, broke the 500 mph barrier on 4 August 1944, at 504 mph, the first prop driven aircraft to exceed 500 in level flight.

Tom Lymburn

Air Racing

Air Racing History

Air racing has been part of aviation since the first frail biplanes and monoplanes made their tentative forays into the sky. The first air race was held at Reims, France, in August 1909. Louis Bleriot clocked the highest speed, 47.9 mph.

Beginning in 1910, the Gordon Bennett Cup races showcased dreamers whose quest for speed led them to make aeronautical leaps such as the superlative Deperdussin Monocoque Racer of 1913 that set a world speed record of 126.67 mph. This clean, mid-wing monoplane, with its 160hp Gnome rotary engine, foreshadowed the wood composite structures that were used in the Lockheed Vega and de Havilland’s Comet racer and Mosquito bomber of later generations.

Unfortunately, World War I and the prejudice of some in authority against monoplanes meant that aerodynamically clean, fast planes like the Deperdussin and the Bristol M.1C had to wait. The Royal Flying Corps went into action in 1914 with the 72 mph B.E.2c biplane.

After World War I, air racing resumed with the Pulitzer Trophy races and the revived Schneider Trophy race for seaplanes. Although handicapped by floats, the Schneider produced faster and faster racers with ever more powerful engines and higher octane fuels. On 29 September, 1931, RAF Flight Lieutenant George H. Stainforth piloted the Supermarine S.6B twin float seaplane, the creation of R.J. Mitchell of Spitfire fame, to 407.494 mph, the first aircraft to exceed 400 mph. This record was eclipsed on 23 October, 1934, when Italian Agello Desenzano hit 440.681 mph in the 3100 hp Fiat powered Macchi M.C. 72, also a twin float seaplane.

In the United States, race pilots like Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle, Steve Wittman, Art Chester, Benny Howard, Charles “Speed” Hollman, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy Wedell became household names. The Gee Bee, Wedell-Williams 44, Chester Jeep, Miles & Atwood Special, Mister Mulligan, Chief Oshkosh, the Hughes H-1, and the Laird-Turner Meteor dominated the news in the cross country Bendix Trophy races and the great Thompson Trophy pylon races. The improved designs and fuel research of this era advanced aviation greatly. Once again, war brought a halt to air racing.

With the end of World War II, racing was revived in Cleveland, Ohio. The Unlimited Class was now dominated by surplus fighters and featured higher and higher speeds. No longer were the Granville brothers, Jimmy Wedell, Steve Wittman, and Art Chester designing their own race planes. The planes and pilots had changed. Lightning, Airacobra, Kingcobra, Mustang, and Corsair replaced the purpose built racers that had dominated the Golden Age. Cook Cleland, Paul Mantz, Dick Becker, Tony LeVier, Jacqueline Cochran, and Tex Johnson were some of this generation’s pilots.

The Cleveland races, which included the return of the cross country Bendix and the pylon Thompson trophies, and the added Sohio and Kendall trophy races, were a great success, but succumbed to the outbreak of the Korean War and the loss of the highly modified P-51C Beguine flown by Bill Odom that crashed into a house killing Odom and a mother and her child.

Although Formula One racing continued after the demise of the Cleveland races, Unlimited racing had to wait until revived in Nevada in 1964. Other venues for the “heavy iron” have been attempted, but it is Reno, Nevada that has become home of the National Championship Air Races.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

The Bendix Trophy Race

While Reno fans are familiar with pylon racing, from 1931 to 1949 cross country racing was dominated by the Bendix Trophy Race.  These long distance races were sponsored by industrialist Vincent Bendix.  Most of the races were between Burbank, California and Cleveland, Ohio, and flown from west to east.  Two races did fly from New York to Los Angeles.  The goal was to encourage the design of aircraft that were fast, reliable, and able to fly long distances.  When the Bendix races began in 1931, the total purse was $15,000.  Not bad during the Great Depression.  Bendix races required great planning.  Some aircraft were designed to fly with lots of fuel to avoid stops, while others required landing to tank up.

Jimmy Doolittle won the first race in 1931 flying Matty Laird’s Super Solution biplane at an average speed of 223 mph, completing the flight in 9 hours, 10 minutes, and 21 seconds.  For this he won $7500.  The Super Solution was powered by a 535 hp P & W Wasp Junior and was capable of straight line speeds of 265 mph.  Doolittle was unusual in the 1931 race, as all other finishers were flying Lockheed Orion, Altair, or Vega monoplanes.

The first woman pilot to enter the Bendix was Amelia Earhart in 1935.  She finished 5th.  However, in 1936, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes in a Beech Staggerwing won the Bendix at 165.35 mph, finishing the 2466 miles in 14 hours, 55 minutes, and one second.  The great Jackie Cochran won the 1938 race in a Seversky SEV-AP-7, a version of the P-35 fighter, at 249.77 mph, flying the 2042 miles in 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 31 seconds.

Speed was secondary to time in the Bendix, so in 1935, one of the greatest race planes of all time, Benny Howard’s DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan” won by beating the second place finisher by 23.5 seconds due to Roscoe Turner needing to make refueling stops in his Wedell Williams.

During World War II, the races stopped, but in 1946, the Bendix Trophy Races resumed, dominated by surplus military planes.  Lightnings, Mustangs, Kingcobras, a Martin Marauder, a Douglas Invader, a Corsair, even a de Havilland Mosquito, flew the California to Cleveland race.  Drop tanks were part of the race.  Some aircraft were modified with “wet” wings.  The 1946 Bendix included a total purse of $24,000.  The fastest times in the post war Bendix races were set by Mustangs, Joe DeBona winning the 1949 race at a speed of 470.136 mph, covering the 2008 miles in only 4 hours, 16 minutes, and 17 seconds.  The 1949 Bendix was the last piston engined race due to the Korean War.  

Distance and cross country speed records drew pilots from all over the United States.  In the 1928 pre-Bendix New York to Los Angeles Air Derby, Hastings, Minnesota, native Nick Mamer (1897-1938) entered a Buhl Air Sedan, but was forced out of the race at Rawlins, Wyoming.  In August 1929, along with co-pilot Art Walker, Mamer set a distance record using in-flight refueling of 7200 miles in a Buhl.

During the 1946 Bendix races, two Minnesotans participated.  Walter Bullock (1899-1986), enshrined in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1988, flew a Lockheed F-5G (photo recon version of the P-38L) named the “Minnesota Gopher II” to 9th place at an average speed of 355.908 mph, completing the 2048 miles in 5 hours, 45 minutes, and 21 seconds.  His airplane, race #50, was sponsored by another member of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, Angelo De Ponti.  Bullock’s Lightning, N70005, was purchased from the War Assets Administration from their Kingman, Arizona, surplus base.  

Another Minnesotan, William “Lee” Fairbrother also flew a Lightning in the 1946 Bendix.  Fairbrother, a former RAF test pilot, was a Northwest Airlines pilot from 1942 to 1970.  Bearing race #58, and registered NX69800, Fairbrother finished 16th at an average speed of 325.255 mph, with a race time of 6 hours, 17 minutes, and 54 seconds.  It, too, had been purchased from the War Assets Administration’s Kingman, Arizona, storage site.  Fairbrother went on to race a Mustang, race #21, in the Cleveland pylon races, participating in the Kendall and Sohio races.  

While speed has been a goal of pilots since flying began, records for distance, endurance, and altitude have also been part of pioneering pilots’ dreams.  The great Bendix Trophy races captured a big part of those dreams.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

Thompson Trophy Races. Part II – Post War

During the “Golden Age” of air racing (1929 to 1939), the Seversky P-35 was the only purpose built military aircraft to race.  Frank Fuller, Lee Miles, and Jackie Cochran raced Alexander de Seversky and Alexander Kartveli’s all medal radial engined single seat fighter, primarily in the cross country Bendix, where their long range gave them an advantage.  Jackie Cochran won the 1938 Bendix at 249.77 mph and Fuller won the 1939 Bendix at 282.10 mph.  They were less successful in the Thompson pylon races.

Pre-war Thompson racers had been the products of creative designers and builders, essentially home-builts, that followed the small air-cooled inline engine formula – the 250 hp Menasco powered Howard DGA-4 Ike for example – or the powerful radials, like Roscoe Turner’s Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Meteor, that won the 1939 Thompson at 282.54 mph.  All that changed when the Cleveland races resumed after WWII.

The availability of surplus fighters after World War II, plus a cadre of trained military pilots changed the face of unlimited air racing.  Wartime fighters benefited from a number of positives.  Fighters were designed with all metal monocoque construction which meant strength and less weight.  They were designed and tested from the outset to absorb 12 plus G’s for combat, something most prewar racers were not.  Since seeing the enemy meant survival,  pilot visibility was excellent.  Instruments, especially engine monitoring gauges, were superior.  Because they were manufactured in large numbers, spare parts and engines were available at a 

reasonable cost.  Flight performance was, for the most part, known and predictable.

As for cost, well, read em’ and weep.  According to historian William Larkins’ research in War Assets Administration records, in January 1946, there were 851 Lockheed Lightnings available for sale, complete with a Limited Type Certificate for an average price of $1250.00.  How about a Corsair?  779 were available, again, $1250.00.  A Mustang, also with a Limited Type Certificate - $3500.00.  Then again, $700.00 for a Bell P-39 Airacobra (remember Tex Johnson in Cobra II that qualified for the 1946 Thompson at 409.09 mph?) wasn’t a bad deal.  So, with low prices, available airframes and engines, the Cleveland Air Races resumed in 1946 with the P-38, P-39, P-51, P-63, F4U-1, and FG-1D suitable for racing the pylons.

Twelve aircraft qualified for the 1946 Thompson, with the afore mentioned P-39Q Cobra II leading the way flown to victory by Alvin “Tex” Johnson, the same “Tex” Johnson who rolled the prototype of Boeing’s new 707 airliner over the Gold Cup speed boat race during the August 1955 Seattle World’s Fair.  Cobra II was the product of Bell engineers who installed a late model Allision V-1710, a P-63 King Cobra four blade propeller, and gave the P-39 a major airframe clean up.  Other notables who flew in the 1946 Thompson included Steve Wittman in a P-63C, Tony LeVier in a P-38, and Cook Cleland in an FG-1D.  Cleland would be heard from big time in 1947.

The 1947 Thompson would be the year of the Goodyear F2G Super Corsair.  Cook Cleland and Dick Becker would dominate the field, both qualifying in the 3000 hp R-4360 powered Super Corsair at over 400 mph.  Cleland took first at 396.13 mph and Becker second at 390.13.  Cobra II, now flown by Jay Demming, pulled third at 389.84.  The R-4360 is familiar to race fans today as the powerplant of Dreadnaught of Sanders racing family fame.  A pair of Cleveland era F2G’s made a reappearance at the Reno races after restoration by the late Bob Odegaard of Kindred, ND.  

Anson Johnson won the 1948 Thompson in the highly modified P-51D Race #45 that had the belly radiator removed and the cooling system installed in the wings.  He finished the race at 383.77 mph.  It should be pointed out that both Super Corsairs, once again flown by Cleland and Becker, qualified over 400 mph, but suffered engine failures during the race and had to drop out.  Cobra II, now flown by Charles Brown, qualified first at 418.30 mph, but also had to drop out due to mechanical problems.

The last of the Thompson races is remembered for the crash of the highly modified dark green Mustang, Beguine, flown by Bill Odoms.  With the radiators moved to the wing tips, Beguine was fast, but Odoms was not very experienced in single seat fighters.  On lap two of the race, he over corrected on a turn, entered a high speed stall, and crashed into house killing himself and two people on the ground.  First through third places went to Goodyear Super Corsairs, but the lasting memory of the 1949 race was the loss of life.  

Although races for 1950 were planned, a combination of the start of the Korean War and the fear of further loss of life, ended the Thompson Trophy Races and the glory days at Cleveland.

(for the sources used for this article, see the end of this page titled "Lymburn's Sources")

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Franks, Richard A. The Hawker Sea Fury. Valiant, 2013

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O’Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Time Life, 1981

Voderman, Don. The Great Air Races. Bantam, 1991

Engine Changes

Green, William. Fighters. Vol. 2. Doubleday, 1968

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Lymburn's Sources II

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Berliner, Don.  Unlimited Air Racers.  Motorbooks, 1992.

Christy, Joe.  Racing Planes & Pilots.  TAB, 1982.

Grantham, A. Kevin.  P-Screamers:  A History of the Surviving Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1994.

Mendenhall, Charles A.   The Air Racer.  Specialty Press, 1994.

Phillips, Edward H.  Laird Airplanes:  A Legacy of Speed.  Specialty Press, 2002.

Vorderman, Don.  The Great Air Races.  Bantam, 1991.

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Berliner, Don.  History’s Most Important Racing Aircraft.  Pen & Sword, 2013.

Berliner, Don.  Unlimited Air Racers.  Motorooks International, 1992.

Green, William.  Fighters.  Volume 4.  Doubleday, 1967.

Huntington, Roger.  Thompson Trophy Races.  Motorbooks, 1989.

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Oakes, Claudia M.  Aircraft of the National Air and Space Museum.  Smithsonian Institution