The Greatest Air Race of All Time Which Helped Give Us the Global Airline Industry
It was a dark, stormy night in October 1934 when the residents of Albury, a small town in New South Wales, Australia, were awakened by the drone of an aeroplane droning overhead. Endlessly it circled above the iron grey clouds, searching for a place to land. Any aeroplane lost in a storm was cause for concern, but the residents of Albury knew that this was no ordinary aeroplane. The KLM DC-2 desperately circling their town was at the end of an extraordinary journey which had taken it across three continents from England to the Australian outback – a distance of more than 18,000 kilometres. And now she was in trouble, barely 200 kilometres from the finish line of the MacRobertson Cup – the greatest race in the history of aviation.
The 1934 MacRobertson Air Race was conceived by Sir Harold Gengoult Smith, Lord Mayor of the Australian city of Melbourne, as part of the city’s centenary celebrations. Not only would such a grand sporting event place Melbourne on the world stage and lift the spirits of the Australian people in the depths of the Great Depression, but would also help stimulate advances in commercial air travel and bind the British Empire closer together. An editorial in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus expressed Smith’s vision:
“In an age of extraordinary mechanical progress one takes many things for granted; but flight halfway across the world seems too remarkable for analysis. If the present conquest of speed be maintained at the present rate an air journey to England in these days will become commonplace. And Australia, that vast land over the edge of beyond will become part of a great world.”
The race was sponsored by philanthropist and confectionary giant Sir Macpherson Robertson, who had already donated an extraordinary sum of £100,000 (a few million today) towards various centenary projects. Sir MacPherson agreed to provide the £15,000 prize money for the race on the condition it be named after his MacRobertson Confectionary Company and be organized to be as safe as possible.
The race proper was organized by the British Royal Aero Club, and the rules were simple. Any pilot from any country could participate, and there was no limit on aircraft size, crew size, or engine power – though no new pilots could join the aircraft after takeoff. Competing aircraft would take off from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England and land at Flemington Racecourse outside Melbourne. There were five mandatory stops along the way at Baghdad in Iraq, Allahabad in British India, Singapore, and Darwin and Charleville in Australia, and 22 optional stops with fuel and oil provided by the Shell and Stanavo companies. Pilots were otherwise free to choose their own routes, though landing anywhere other than the 27 designated stops would incur a time penalty. Every aircraft was also required to carry 3 days’ emergency rations, life rafts and flares, and the most up-to-date instruments and radio equipment. There were two main prize categories: one for the fastest aircraft, with a prize of £10,000; and one for best performance with a prize of £5,000, awarded to any aircraft completing the race within 16 days and based on a handicap formula.
The thrill and glory of the race attracted a veritable who’s who of 1930s aviation royalty. Early favourites to win were Jim and Amy Mollison, a married couple known the world over as the “Flying Sweethearts.” Each a record-breaking pilot in their own right, in 1930, Amy Mollison – then Amy Johnson – had become the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia – a distance of some 18,000 kilometres. In 1932 she and co-pilot Jack Humphreys became the first to fly from London to Moscow in a day and broke the world speed record between Britain and Japan via Siberia. Jim Mollison had also broken speed records flying from Australia to England, Ireland to New Brunswick, England to Brazil, and England to South Africa – a record later smashed by Amy Johnson. In 1932 Mollison met Johnson aboard a commercial flight in Australia, proposing to her only eight hours later. They married on July 29 of that year.
Other well-known Commonwealth competitors included Captain Tom Campbell Black, a Kenyan coffee plantation owner who had famously rescued German WWI flying ace Ernst Udet from the Sudanese desert; Flight Lieutenant Charles Wilson Scott, an Australian aviator who had set numerous speed records across the outback; and Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, the first pilot to fly across the Pacific Ocean. The youngest competitor – and one of only two to fly solo – was 21-year-old Australian Jimmy Melrose, who had just completed a record-breaking flight from Australia to England and entered the race to make the return journey.
Much of the playing field, however, was made up of Americans, who included among their number such legends as Roscoe Turner, a flamboyant air racer who famously flew with a lion cub named Gilmore aboard; Clyde Pangborn, the first pilot to fly nonstop across the Pacific Ocean; Wiley Post, a one-eyed aviator who had twice circumnavigated the globe by air; and Jacqueline Cochran, an accomplished aviatrix who would later become the first woman to break the sound barrier and for a time held more aviation records than any pilot in history.
At the time the race was announced, almost all the aircraft best-suited to the task were American-built. These included the brand-new Boeing 247 airliner Warner Brothers Comet flown by Roscoe Turner, Clyde Pangborn, and Reeder Nichols; and the Douglas DC-2 flown by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Of all the competitors, the KLM aircraft – christened Uiver or “Stork,” was probably the most unusual. Crewed by Captain Koene Parmentier and First Officer Johannes Moll, the aircraft would be flown as a regularly-scheduled commercial flight with three passengers and 25,000 letters aboard, and would land at all 22 official refuelling stops along the route. Despite this handicap, the sleek airliner soon became the new favourite to win the race.
But the tables quickly turned when, in early 1934, the British de Havilland Aircraft Company announced it would custom-build a new aircraft specifically for the race and offer it at a reduced price to any competitor who ordered one before the end of February. Three orders were immediately placed, and on September 8, 1934 – barely a month and a half before the race – the first de Havilland DH.88 Comet took to the skies. Sleek and futuristic-looking, the two-seat Comet pioneered the lightweight laminated-plywood construction technique that would later be used to great effect in the wartime De Havilland Mosquito light bomber. Powered by a pair of de Havilland Gipsy Six R engines, it was capable of speeds of up to 380 km/hr and had a range 4,700 kilometres, allowing to fly nonstop between the mandatory refuelling stops. The first Comet, dubbed Black Magic, was sold to Jim and Amy Mollison; the second, dubbed Green ‘Un, to O. Cathcart Jones and K.F. Waller; and the third, dubbed Grosvenor House, to Tom Campbell Black and Charles Wilson Scott. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith was also offered a Comet, but turned it down as uncompetitive. He instead acquired a Lockheed Sirius 8A which he named Lady Southern Cross, but en route from Australia to the start line in England the aircraft developed structural cracks, knocking Kingsford Smith out of the race. Supercharger trouble also forced American competitor Wiley Post to withdraw before the start of the race, leading him to focus instead on breaking altitude and transcontinental speed records – and for more on this, please check out our previous video The One-Eyed Barnstormer Who Invented the Space Suit.
In the months leading up to the race, the original pool of 64 entrants from 13 different countries was gradually whittled down to a final roster of 20 competitors representing Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand. The journey would be treacherous for even the most experienced pilots, with insurance company Lloyd’s of London giving the competitors 1 in 12 odds of dying during the race. The challenges involved were perhaps best summed up by a TIME Magazine article, which described the race as:
“…[requiring] night and day flying over country perilous with jagged mountains, snake-infested jungles, deserts, hurricanes and typhoons. The toughest stretch may have been across the Syrian Desert where blinding sandstorms sometimes rise 20,000 feet and huge kitebirds menace aerial navigation. Not much easier was the 2,210-mile jump from Allahabad to Singapore, with its Bay of Bengal water hop nearly as long as the North Atlantic.”
Yet despite these dangers, on October 20, 1934, 60,000 spectators gathered at RAF Mildenhall to watch the first aircraft, Jim and Amy Mollison’s Black Magic, roar off the start line. The great MacRobertson Air Race had begun. The day before, Sir MacPherson Robertson, the event’s sponsor, sent a message of encouragement to the competitors:
“The magnificent response by all the leading airmen in the world, who have so generously come forward to make this event the greatest race in the history of aviation, is very gratifying to the Air Race authorities in Australia.The full growth of aviation must be world wide, and the international support that the race has evoked since its inception convinces me that such a contest must help to broaden the mutual basis for friendly exchange of services and understanding between nations, quite apart from its great value in quickening the airmindedness of their people. I express the feeling of all Australians in wishing you a safe and speedy flight to Melbourne, where a warm and hearty welcome awaits you.”
Right out the gate, the Mollisons in Black Magic lead the pack. However, despite making three additional stops along the way, Uiver landed in Baghdad only 8 hours behind Black Magic, making it clear that she would be a formidable opponent. Uiver also had other advantages. The de Havilland Comet was built for speed above comfort, and the Mollisons arrived in Baghdad half-deaf, hungry, and very tired. Uiver’s crew and passengers, on the other hand, were described by one reporter as being “fresh as a daisy,” allowing the DC-2 to quickly refuel and pull into the lead. Uiver led to Athens, followed closely by Americans Turner, Pangborn, and Nichols in Warner Brothers Comet. The Mollisons in the faster Black Magic soon overtook them, but became lost over India and were forced to land at Jubulpur. No high-octane aviation fuel was available, forcing the Mollisons to refuel Black Magic with ordinary automotive petrol. By the time they reached Allahabad, the low-grade fuel had destroyed their engines, knocking them out of the race.
Meanwhile, competitors began dropping like flies. British pilots H.D. Gilman and J.K. Baines were killed when their Fairey Fox aircraft crashed near Palazzo San Gervasio in Italy; Jacqueline Cochran’s Granville Gee Bee R-6H was irreparably damaged on landing in Bucharest, Romania; Australian pilot J. Woods’ Lockheed Vega crashed on landing in Aleppo, Syria; and Dutch pilot G.J. Geysendorfer’s Pander S4 was destroyed in a ground collision in Allahabad. By the second day the race had turned into a three-way contest between Uiver, Warner Brothers Comet, and Grosvenor House, which had pulled into the lead in Singapore.
Now came the most treacherous part of the race: a 3,300 kilometre leg across the Timor Sea to Darwin in northern Australia. Though far ahead in the lead, for a time it seemed as though Grosvenor House might be knocked out of the race when a low oil pressure indicator forced Scott and Campbell-Black shut off one of their engines. Limping along on one engine, they barely made it to Darwin before their fuel ran out. However, an inspection of their engines revealed no faults, so Grosvenor House carried on towards Charleville, landing just as Uiver reached Darwin. After refuelling, Scott and Campbell-Black took off again on the final 1,500 kilometre leg of the race, but once again their oil pressure dropped and they were forced to return to Charleville. With Uiver hot on their tails, for hours mechanics struggled to find the fault in the engines. When once again nothing could be found Scott and Campbell-Black decided to chance another flight and took off once more for Melbourne. The journey proved a gruelling one. Neither pilot had slept in nearly three days, forcing them to pass off the controls every ten minutes in order to stay awake. But finally, at 3:34 PM on October 23, 1934, Grosvenor House crossed the finish line at Flemington Racecourse, having flown the 18,200-kilometre course in only 70 hours, 54 minutes, and 18 seconds. Scott and Campbell-Black were awarded the MacRobertson Trophy in the pure speed category and £10,000 in prize money. Though they had also technically won the handicap category, official race rules dictated that no aircraft could win more than one prize, meaning that Uiver was still poised to take second place. But en route from Charleville to Melbourne the Dutch aircraft ran into trouble, resulting in a legendary incident that would all but eclipse Grosvenor House’s historic achievement.
Soon after taking off from Charleville, Uiver ran into a violent electrical storm and lost radio contact with Melbourne. Circling aimlessly in search of a break in the clouds, Uiver found herself over the town of Albury on the Victoria-New South Wales border. The residents of Albury, who for the past three days had been closely following the race on their wireless sets, immediately recognized the drone of the DC-2 and, realizing she was in trouble, immediately leapt into action. Lyle Ferris, the chief electrical engineer at the post office, ran to the power station and switched the town lights on and off to spell out the word A-L-B-U-R-Y in Morse Code while announcer Arthur Newnham at radio station 2CO Corowa called for residents to line up their cars along the local racecourse to form a makeshift runway. Though Captain Parmentier later recalled seeing the Morse Code signal through the clouds, due to extreme turbulence he was unable to read it. However, soon after he spotted the makeshift runway and, low on fuel, decided to attempt a landing. At 1:15 AM on October 24, 1934, Captain Parmentier successfully landed Uiver right down the middle of Albury Racecourse. As Radio 2CO Cowora employee Cleaver Bunton later recalled:
“It was a remarkable piece of aviation that the plane got down safely, literally missing trees and stumps by very small margins. The amount of people who got to the racecourse was remarkable not only were cars there in big numbers but there was also a colossal crowd of people there to. It was fortunate actually that the racecourse was waterlogged as a result of the heavy rain we’d had. It saved the plane from overrunning. There is no doubt in the world that it would have overrun had it not been waterlogged as it was.”
Unfortunately, this mud also prevented Uiver from taking off again. But once again the residents of Albury leapt into action. Two ropes were attached to the aircraft, and together some 100 people managed to haul Uiver out of the mud and onto drier ground. Stripped of all non-essential items including luggage, letters, passengers, and two crew members, later that morning Uiver was able to take off and complete the final leg of the race. She arrived in Melbourne with a total flying time of 90 hours, 18 minutes, and 51 seconds – clinching second place and the handicap prize. Over the next 14 days, eight more competitors would cross the finish line. In third place was the Boeing 247 Warner Brothers Comet, with a total flying time of 92 hours and 55 minutes, followed by the De Havilland Comet Green ’Un. Jimmy Melrose, the only competitor to complete the race solo, arrived on October 30 with a total flight time of 10 days, 16 hours, placing second in the handicap category.
The MacRobertson Air Race was an unqualified success, dramatically demonstrating the feasibility and potential of long-range air travel. It was not lost on aircraft designers and airline managers that the second and third-place winners were modern all-metal monoplane airliners, and Douglas Aircraft would draw on lessons learned during the MacRobertson Air Race to design the DC-3, the first airliner to turn a profit carrying only passengers and one of the most versatile and successful aircraft ever built.
The remarkable rescue of Uiver also forged an unbreakable bond between the town of Albury and the Netherlands, who in gratitude for the town’s assistance made a large donation to Albury Hospital and awarded the town’s mayor, Alf Waugh, a title in Dutch Nobility. And when on December 20 of that year Uiver crashed near Ar Rutba, Iraq, killing all on board, Albury residents took up a collection to build a memorial in the Netherlands to the victims of the crash.
But perhaps the greatest legacy of the MacRobertson Air Race was in how it fired the world’s imagination and enthusiasm for aviation, setting the stage for today’s globe-spanning airline industry. As Sir McPherson Robertson stated in a radio address on the second day of the race:
“Never in the history of aviation has there been such a line up of aviators and never in the history of the world has there been such an aerial contest.”
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McCullough, Bruce, Tom Campbell Black, 1899-1936, Pioneer Aviator, https://web.archive.org/web/20080724170047/http://www.tomcampbellblack.150m.com/
The MacRobertson Melbourne Centenary Air Race, Conditions of Entry and Instructions to Control Points and Check Points, https://web.archive.org/web/20080821150726/http://www.jamesmccullough.0catch.com/
The MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, Uiver Memorial DC-3 Restoration Project, https://www.uivermemorial.org.au/race.html
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