In case you missed it, and most of us did, the Golden Age of Air Racing drew the largest crowds of any sporting activity…with the possible exception of the Roman Coliseum. People came out in droves, often enduring stifling heat and glaring sun, to be able to watch uncommon, ungainly and unbelievable aircraft take off, turn left and whine around a group of pylons at speeds people had never seen before. The first international air race took place in France in 1909. There were three monoplanes in that event and several biplanes. For the United States, it all began in 1910 when Louis Paulhan and Glenn Curtiss squared off at Dominquez Hills in California. The frenzy continued until WWI shut them down. They started up again in 1920 with the Pulitizer Trophy, not to be confused with any kind of achievement in literature. There was also the Bendix Trophy and the Schneider Trophy. However, it was the Thompson Trophy, introduced in 1929, that captured the most attention and biggest crowds.
During the roaring 20’s the various competitions involved a lot of biplanes, but they were quickly phased out once the first Thompson Trophy race was held in 1929. The Laird Super Solution became one of the last biplanes and the only one to ever win a Thompson Trophy. From the late 20’s until 1939, when the Second World War brought them to a halt again, the boldest and most adventurous group of pilots took off in planes, many of which were built by individuals, like Steve Wittman, setting new speed records with almost every race while up to a half million people cheered them on.
The pilots were heroes, aerial gypsies, with a stature and flair surpassing today’s quarterbacks and baseball stars. The planes they flew were designed to push the envelope for speed and maneuverability. For the most part, the flying machines were engines with just enough surfaces behind them to be able to control direction and altitude. Cockpits were an afterthought with little attention given to pilot comfort or visibility. For most of them, the turn to final was the last time their pilots saw the airport.
This was before anyone understood flutter or control compression. They probably didn’t know that much about accelerated stalls in tight turns. Some of the designs returned year after year, having undergone significant upgrades in the months between air racing seasons. Other designs appeared once and were never seen again. Experimentation and innovation were the passwords of the day with radical results. Technology was on a mission. There were accidents, too. It was risky business, to be sure, but therein was the excitement…and the glory. The Cleveland Air Races became the Super Bowl of the era, where the most skilled and daring pilots flew around pylons.
There were other races, set along straight courses or running between two cities. Some were short; some were quite long, taking days to complete. The longest and perhaps the most exciting was the 1934 MacRobertson race from London to Melbourne, which was open to anything that flew. Drawing international attention, 60 entered, 20 took off, 11 made it to the finish line.
The winning time over the 11,300 miles was 70 hours, 38 minutes and 18 seconds.
The winning aircraft was one of three de Havilland Model 88 “Comets” designed and built for that one race in only ten months. The Brits threw themselves into the program, knowing they were up against some formidable competition from the United States, which entered a copy of their new transport, the Boeing 247. KLM also entered the U.S.-made DC-2. The Red Comet, purchased/sponsored by Grosvenor House Hotel finished nearly a day ahead of the DC-2, which was almost three hours ahead of the B-247. No other race had ever involved so much distance or captured the attention of the entire world. It came close to Lindbergh’s feat in terms of coverage and response. It’s hard to believe that the Spirit of St. Louis was built only seven years earlier than the Comet. The advances in performance were astonishing.
Bill Turner had known about the Comet’s victory and admired it for most of his life. A former law school dean, Turner used his retirement years to run Repeat Aircraft at Flabob Airport. He struck on the idea of building a replica of the scarlet Comet to commemorate the 60th anniversary (1994) of the famous race. You have to wonder if Turner was testing his own sanity when he approached Tom Wathen, who was then the head of the world’s largest, leading detective/security agency, seeking the financial backing it would take to get a replica Comet airborne.
Wathen, who was also aware of the Comet’s legacy, had harbored his own passions for flight since his childhood. He earned his private license in 1958, at age 27. In the decade that followed, he bought, restored, and sold 11 Ercoupes. He subsequently undertook the restoration of a Piper PT and then bought Volmer Jensen’s VJ-21 which he flew home and from Louisiana to California and restored. Tom has earned ratings for single, multi, land, instrument along the way and logged about 5,000 hours. His current ride is a Glastar. He used to own Glasair Aviation, but sold it this past summer to the Chinese.
Turner may have been a little surprised when Tom gave him a “go-ahead”, based on the assumption that the Comet could be used to promote Pinkerton’s. And so the work began.
Building the replica Comet turned out to be considerably slower and undoubtedly far more expensive than the original prediction. Turner spooled up with a half-dozen men in his large hangar at Flabob. With the help of Ron Paine, an 80-something year-old who had been active in air racing, they were able to locate and obtain copies of the original drawings from the RAF at Farnborough. Years earlier, Paine had participated in refurbishing one of the Comets that had been mounted on a stand outdoors. With England’s damp climate, the all-wood racer had deteriorated significantly and required a lot of rebuilding. It gave Paine a lot of insight that was very helpful to the Turner/Wathen program. Paine also provided invaluable assistance when he located the most critical part of any replica project: engines.
Tom related the story of how John Lyon was driving Paine across Pioneer Airpark at EAA when the elder gentleman peered into one of the ancient hangars and shouted “stop!” Much to Lyon’s surprise (and horror), Paine jumped out of the car as spryly as his age would permit, stepped over the crowd restraining tape and walked up to the de Havilland Rapide that was parked back in the corner. Pulling a pocket knife out, he proceeded to undo the cowl and then erupted with enthusiasm: “That’s it. That’s the engine we need.” That put Wathen in the position of having to approach Paul Poberezny to negotiate an engine swap, the deal hinging on swapping two brand new Gypsy Six’s (223 hp) that were original equipment on the Rapide and were used in modified form on the three Comets. The Gypsy Queen II’s (210 hp) were an upgrade of the Six and had hydraulics that could control constant speed propellers. The Comet prototypes lacked hydraulics and had French props. The Ratier automatic two-position propellers relied on 80 psi of air to hold the props in flat pitch for takeoff. Once the aircraft reached 150 mph in cruise, a small circular door in the spinner was forced open and the compressed air was released, allowing the prop blades to drop back into cruise position. There was no way to re-compress the blades once the air was gone. That meant that going around after a bad final approach was going to be a real challenge and indeed, one of the Comets was nearly lost when the pilot had to abort his landing.
Hydraulics were also used as a replacement for the retraction wheel that required 14 cranks to bring up the landing gear. One of the original test pilots had lost track of the counts and had the gear collapse on him when he landed. So an electro-hydraulic power pack from a Cessna 210 was used in place of the manual crank. The gear itself was a weak link in the original Comets and could not take much of a side load, so Chuck Ritchey redesigned the gear and Ken Brock made up the stronger version.
The original wing had some severe stall response due to the absence of any washout. Consequently, three degrees of washout were built in and it does seem to have made a significant difference in handling. The 44’ one-piece wing is all wood, built with tapers and curves that make it a carpenter’s nightmare. Though thin and strong because of the layups, the wing lacks the strength to carry fuel tanks so three of them are tucked into the fuselage. The 29’ fuselage (which stands over 12’ tall) is also made of laminations of plywood strips laid at down at angles. It keeps the airframe light and incredibly strong.
The project required considerably more time, effort and money than originally anticipated, but Tom Wathen did his part to see it through and Turner’s crew eventually ran out of things to do with it. So it was time to go flying. It’s obvious to anyone that the cockpit is so far back and at such an angle that the Comet, like all the other racers, is an exercise in flying blind on final approach.
When Tom had the Comet flown to the EAA Convention in 1994, the replica generated a level of interest that made the huge investment all worthwhile. What a magnificent example of one of the most distinguished and milestone aircraft from the Golden Age of Air Racing. De Havilland revisited the Comet configuration when it came time to design the Mosquito Bomber of WWII. The lineage is conspicuous.
Some time before the Comet was finished, Tom ran across some photos and then managed to actually see Roscoe Turner’s Meteor, which won the Thompson Trophy Race in 1938 and 1939. In that final race, the Meteor averaged slightly over 283 mph. Tom decided he had to have a copy of it. So he went to Bill Turner and suddenly there were two replica racers being constructed in Repeat Aircraft’s hangar. Flabob Airport was in a time lock and peaking in terms of the number of projects underway by the industrious members of EAA Chapter One. It was truly an exciting time at this sleepy little countryside airport.
Except for the power plant the Meteor was considerably smaller in scale than the Comet, but apparently not a whole lot easier to build. Like its predecessor, it took more time, effort and expense than originally budgeted. There are no plans for the Meteor, so Tom and his crew went out to the Smithsonian, where the original resides, and did a program of reverse engineering. They were allowed to dismantle everything that would come apart easily, measure, photograph and then return the parts to the whole. It took some time, effort and a lot of guesswork, but they put together a copy that is the spittin’ image of the prototype.
Roscoe Turner had begun designing the original Meteor in 1936 working with the University of Minnesota Engineering Department for drawings and then contracted with the Lawrence Brown Aircraft Company to build it. When he showed to fly it, things just didn’t seem right (the aircraft was way over its projected weight) and he wound up having the aircraft moved to Matty Laird’s shop in Chicago. After some significant mods the final airframe emerged with a 25’ wingspan that was all wood and a length of 24’3” that consisted of a steel tube, fabric-covered fuselage and tail group. Turner wanted to replicate the original engine, a Twin Wasp Sr., of 1830 cu. In. and 1,000 horsepower. Keep in mind that the Meteor would have about 2/3’s the wingspan and 554 more hp than the original Comets. Tom Wathen boosted that to 754 extra hp, by selecting a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 off a DC-3 that develops 1200 horsepower! You sure don’t want to sneeze on takeoff. With all the metal up front, Turner’s Meteor had a wing loading of over 58 pounds per square foot and like the typical racers of the age; it was virtually blind on approach and touchdown.
Dave Morss was hired to do the initial flight testing on the replica, but it was Skip Holm who finally left the airport pattern and really wrung it out. He described it as a delightful aircraft to fly.
Roscoe Turner first entered the Meteor in the Thompson Trophy Race in 1937. Being strapped for cash, as usual, he sought out a sponsor and dubbed his aircraft the Ring Free Meteor in recognition of the money provided by the MacMillan Oil Company. In 1938 it was identified as the PESCO Special in honor of the Pump Engineering Service Corporation. And then in 1939, it became Miss Champion, recognizing a contribution from Champion Spark Plugs. That’s the name and logo that Tom Wathen selected for his replica. Tom had his replica flown out to Oshkosh in 2003, the year that EAA honored Flabob Airport and Chapter One with a special exhibit. That exhibit included 10 historic aircraft from Flabob, along with a re-appearance of Tom’s Comet.
Tom Wathen’s love of things that go fast led him to overlap the Meteor project by purchasing a work in progress, Stanley Rackliff’s reproduction of the Schoenfeldt Firecracker. Stanley, a member of EAA Chapter One at Flabob, was too big to ever sit in the Firecracker, but that didn’t seem to slow him down. Knowing he’d be piecing together a notable air racer from the Golden Age was sufficient motivation. Unfortunately, he died before he could complete the project.
At the time Bill Turner was up to his elbows in Meteor and so Tom turned the project over to Pat Halloran who promptly moved it to his own hangar at Colorado Springs. Pat found a willing father-and-son team in Bruce and Evan McCombs who had the tools, expertise and dedication to finish the project.
The Firecracker began life as the R-4, designed and built by Keith Rider for the 1936 Nationals. It had a steel tube and fabric fuselage and a plywood covered wing. It started out with Menasco B6S Buccaneer, 489 cu. In. engine. Roger Don Rae flew it the first year, handily winning the Shell Speed Dashes with a speed of 226 mph. He finished third in the Thompson Trophy Race.
In late 1936, Bill Schoenfeldt acquired the craft, renamed it The Firecracker, and hung a new Menasco C6S-4 Super Buccaneer on it with 544 cu. in. All that power was controlled by an 18’ symmetrical airfoil wing and a 19.5’ fuselage and it reached pylon speeds of 260 mph. The pilot’s perspective on final approach is virtually blind. For two more years, the diminutive racer took a series of first, second and third place trophies in the various races around the country, before the war turned all the racers into hangar queens. Unfortunately, in the years that ensued, a number of parts of the original Firecracker were removed for use on other aircraft. The original parts that remained were supplemented with some non-airworthy replacements and the mock up of the original resides in the Planes of Fame Museum at Chino, CA.
Menasco’s are just not available today in the racing configuration that was used for the original Firecracker, so Tom’s crew substituted a Ranger. Otherwise, it’s a pretty close copy of what went around the pylons in the late 30’s. Tony LaVier served as Bill Schoenfeldt’s pilot for two years and General Pat Halloran (USAF ret.) has logged the most hours in the replica with over 60 to his heroic credit.
What may be the final chapter in Tom Wathen’s healthy obsession with Golden Age Air Racers began back around 2000 when Bill Turner took some time off from the Meteor to begin fabricating a full scale fuselage, based on plans for an RC model of the sleek Caudron C-460. Designed and built by the French in the early 30’s, it was the most impressive and only foreign racer ever admitted to the Thompson Trophy and Greve Trophy races. It was a quantum leap in technology and was part of the reason the French were invited to participate in our most famous races. The aircraft they sent over was one of seven models the Caudron factory engineers designed and built for air racing. It wasn’t the fastest of the seven, having finished third in the Coupe Deutsch races in 1934 and then second in 1935.
This particular model, like the others, had an all wood fuselage and wooden wing. The wing was very thin and had a relatively high aspect ratio that allowed it to make steep, tight turns around the pylons without losing much airspeed. The Caudron was the first entry in the Thompson and Greve races with retractable landing gear. Because of the thin wing, the gear had to be moved aft of the spar and then the wheels were stored in the belly of the fuselage.
The French began opening eyes at the National Air Races, where Michel Detroyat easily won the 550 cu. in. qualifying event at just over 273 mph…47 mph faster than the second place entry. In the next race, for the Greve Trophy, Detroyat pulled ahead of Harold Neumann with an average speed of 247 mph, 22 mph faster than Neumann. Though Detroyat had brought over a larger engine for the Thompson Trophy Race, he left it on the ground, knowing he didn’t need the extra power. Sure enough, his 330 hp, 485 cu. in. Renault Bengali engine produced more speed than Keith Rider’s 750 hp R-3 along with all the other entries. On one of the laps, Detroyat rounded the pylons at 301 mph. He won every race he participated in. That triggered some unsportsmanlike responses from the pilots. Roscoe Turner led off with such a big stink that it was the end of foreign participation in all American races.
When he decided to recreate the Caudron, the only plans the Wathen/Turner crew had available were for a model airplane. That left too much to chance, so Tom did some digging and found that a set of plans was entombed in the air museum at Le Bourget. Tom flew over to Paris to see if he could make copies of the plans. When told he could, the archivist added that he would have to pay for them. Tom swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “How much,” he queried, expecting some sort of whopping royalty fee. “$28.” Tom flew home with his plans and a big smile.
Unfortunately, Bill Turner did not live to see the Caudron fly. He succumbed to cancer several years before completion of the Caudron. Tom commissioned Tony Furukawa to build the wooden wing and then he turned the rest of the project over to Mark Lightsey at AeroCraftsman. Predictably, the world supply of Renault Bengali engines has been swallowed up, so Tom and Lightsey settled on a Czech LOM M337CE engine which has similar dimensions, weight and reasonable power (250 hp).
Today, the four replicas, which are the only airworthy copies of the famous Comet, Meteor, Firecracker and Caudron, are hangared at Flabob Airport, which Tom also owns, in Riverside, CA. On every third Saturday of the month (except December) the four racers are pulled out for public display as part of a Flabob Open House program. To see the Wathen collection of Winners is to get in touch with one of the most exciting chapters of our aviation heritage. We all benefit from Tom’s commitment to recreate these wonderful airplanes. They’re worth a trip.
Author’s note: my thanks to the late Jack Cox and his Sportsman Pilot magazine, which provided much of the background information for this article.
The Tom Wathen
Few people in aviation have the commitment and financial wherewithal to actually preserve and advance aviation in a significant way. Tom Wathen is one of those fortunate people who can and has done both. In a series of events that can best be described as serendipitous, Tom retired from Pinkerton’s in 1999. He then set about establishing the Wathen Center. He needed a home for the Center and learned in 2000 that Flabob Airport, home to an incredible list of homebuilding designs and accomplishments, was up for sale. Though it appeared the historic site would fall to developers, Tom convinced the owners of the airport that he wanted to improve and maintain the land as an aviation facility. The family worked with Tom to make that possible and with timing that can identified as a quarter past the eleventh hour, Flabob Airport came under the protective wing of the Tom Wathen Center.
Soon thereafter the 3200 foot runway was widened and resurfaced. Taxiways were recovered and extended to the full length of the runway. Many of the taxiways and much of the ramp space was paved for the first time. The airport café was refurbished, new hangars were built and a fuel farm was installed with self-serve gas pumps. A large, new hangar went up to celebrate EAA Chapter One’s 50th anniversary. The welcome mat went out and began attracting new business for the airport. Today there are over 19 active businesses on Flabob property. These include the Tom Wathen Center, Flabob Airport Preparatory School for middle and senior high school students, AeroCraftsman, Air Executive International, Clean Relief Portables (don’t ask), Far West Aviation, Flabob Aero Club, Flabob Airport Café, Jan’s Fabric covering, Luscombe Silvaire Aircraft Co., National Paving, Northwest Aviation, Poly Fiber Aircraft Coverings, Rogers Aviation, Robert Jordan, SC Modifications, Stoffel Aviation, Tabor Plumbing, and Wrenchware.
The high school and recently added middle school are charter school operations that incorporate aviation into the curriculum wherever possible, including literature, science and math classes. This past spring, the school’s annual science fair awarded its top prize to a pair of creative individuals, Anthony Mosallam and Jonathon Deming, who succeeded in putting together a turbine engine from scrap auto parts, that actually runs…very loudly!
In addition to the school, the Foundation backs 4 to 6 aviation academies each year that cater to middle and high school students. Many of the students are also involved in restoration projects that focus on a Stinson 108 and a Stits Skycoupe. This follows the successful student restoration of an Aeronca Chief that was flown to AirVenture in 2008.
In setting a record among EAA Chapters, Flabob pilots have flown over 12,000 children as part of the EAA’s Young Eagles program. Quite a few of those kids have gone on to earn their pilot’s license.
Perhaps the most important element in the Wathen Center’s emerging programs is the conspicuous attitude reflected in Flabob’s renewed take on life: You are welcome here. Young and old visitors to the airport find themselves on the receiving end of a very gracious, hospitable group of people who are passionate about aviation and are eager to share that passion. All we need now are a few hundred more Flabobs.