Racing to the Land Down Under

With innovation, drive, and undeniable luck, the de Havilland DH–88 "Comet" and its
pilots claimed the MacRobertson Trophy
- by Lane Wallace

It's 4 A.M. A cold, predawn breeze cuts sharply across the desert airport ramp, causing all of us to shiver uncomfortably in our grubby jackets and jeans. We haven't had a good night's sleep or a decent meal in almost a week. The fatigue among the crew members has become almost palpable, weighing down their tired steps and etched in deep circles under their eyes. As I think about all the other people in this Nevada town who are now blissfully asleep, snuggled down into warm, soft beds, I wonder what's wrong with all of us that we're out here, freezing our tails off and struggling against short tempers, mechanical failures and exhaustion, instead. What could possibly be worth all of this discomfort? The answer, of course, sits in front of me—a powerful, streamlined, blue-and-silver race plane that we all know is hot, sleek, and fast enough to win the top spot in the National Championship Air Races here in Reno...if we can get its newest engine problems ironed out in time for the race start and if the engine will then hold together long enough to cross the finish line ahead of the competition.

I look at the spotlight-lit plane, which was badly damaged in a landing accident just four days before the qualifying deadline here at the races, and shake my head. "This is crazy," I say to myself.

After four days of 20-hour work shifts, the crew had finally managed to get the racer repaired. Then, as it taxied out to fly to Reno, the racer's tailwheel collapsed. So a couple of mechanics had simply propped the racer's tail up on an empty fuel barrel and wired the tailwheel down so the plane could fly to the races in time. When a reporter asked about the racer's chances when it arrived at the race site, a pilot who'd worked on the plane wiped sweat off his forehead with a grease-stained hand, shook his head with a determined grin and answered, "Shoot! If we have to, we're going to win with the tailwheel hanging down!"

Such is the nature of air racing.

I'm right, of course. It is crazy. But racing was never about caution, whether it was Romans careening around the coliseum in their chariots, Olympic marathon runners pushing through 26 miles of pain, car drivers hurtling toward the wall at the Indy 500, or pilots vying for fame and glory in the air. For a race pilot and crew whose sights are set on achievement or gold, every other consideration pales when weighed against the lure of the prize. With the tailwheel down, without time for a proper test flight, with a questionable engine, with minimal sleep, with a plane running so rough the instruments are unreadable...they'll do whatever it takes. If the engine'll go, they'll throw caution to the wind, put the throttle to the firewall, and take off, full speed ahead.

"There was nothing like the lure of an all-out, first-one-there-wins air race..."

I think about that cold morning in Reno as I walk around a replica of the de Havilland DH–88 "Comet" that won the biggest, longest air race anybody ever ran—the 1934 MacRobertson International Air Race, from London to the southern coast of Australia. This sleek, red plane, with a frontal profile like a bullet with thin, razor-like wings extending outward in slender acknowledgement of the need to stay aloft, and two streamlined engine pods hanging from the wings like aerodynamic drop tanks, would have been the 1934 equivalent of my blue-and-silver Reno racer. It would have been the thoroughbred performer in the pack—the plane with the sexiest look and fastest speed, but a high-strung filly that would also have been more likely to cause trouble before crossing the finish line.

The Comet was actually built specifically for the MacRobertson Race—a contest devised by an Australian businessman who wanted to encourage air commerce and flights linking Australia with the rest of the British Commonwealth. Pilots had already proven it was possible to fly between England and Australia—the Smith brothers accomplished the trip in a Vickers Vimy as early as 1919. But only a few hardy pioneers had attempted the trip in the years between 1919 and 1934. Long-distance air travel was still an unconquered frontier, and there was nothing like the lure of an all-out, first-one-there-wins air race to draw entrants, enthusiasm, world headline attention—and possibly future airline routes—to the "Land Down Under."

In 1934, most of the world's air racing was taking place in the United States, where the annual Bendix cross-country and Thompson Trophy closed-course pylon races were driving the development of new designs and better engines even as they created a new breed of pilot folk heroes. But even the Bendix races covered less than 2,500 miles. A speed race from England to Australia would cover more than 11,000 miles over three continents, into unknown weather, with no navigational aids and few known airfields along the way. To call it a daring proposition was an understatement. But that was also its appeal to pilots, to manufacturers, and to the world at large. This was the biggest show anyone had ever organized, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And the winner would gain much more than just the £A10,000 (Australian pounds) that was being offered as the prize.

The fledgling Dutch airline KLM entered a Douglas DC–2 into the race to prove the viability of their aircraft and operations over long distances and to start laying the groundwork for the network of support stations they would need for routes to Asia and Australia. The H.J. Heinz Company sponsored a Boeing 247 airliner in the race as a way of garnering publicity for the company and its line of food products. Geoffrey de Havilland, on the other hand, saw the race as an opportunity to showcase and sell de Havilland airplanes.

"The Comet was the first British-built aircraft to incorporate
retractable landing gear, landing flaps, and variable-pitch propellers..."

When the race was announced, several British aircraft manufacturers talked about building new aircraft specifically for the race. But none committed to the idea, and no available British plane would be a formidable match for U.S.-built planes like the Boeing and Douglas transports or the Vega built by Lockheed. "You know, we can't stand by and let this race be run without any British effort," Geoffrey de Havilland finally declared, ordering his engineers to begin work on a purpose-built plane for the race.

The result was the DH–88 "Comet"—a plane that was remarkable in numerous ways. To begin with, three copies of the plane were designed, built, and flown in less than 10 months. The Comet was the first British-built aircraft to incorporate retractable landing gear, landing flaps, and variable-pitch propellers—all new innovations at the time. It was made entirely of wood, except for the engine and the landing gear. To keep the internally-braced, cantilevered wings as thin as possible, the plane was designed to carry all the fuel in the fuselage—most of it in front of the cockpit. This meant the pilots sat extremely far back in the plane's fuselage, giving them almost no forward visibility. The visibility was poor at all times, but it got worse on takeoffs and landings, when the nose was higher and the two engine pods blocked what little peripheral view of the runway the pilots might otherwise have had. Fortunately, most airports at the time were still open fields, which gave the pilots a larger target to hit.

Lee Edwards, director of the Grosvenor House hotel,
christens the "Grosvenor House" DH-88 Comet.

De Havilland had promised that the Comet would be capable of flying at least 200 mph and have a range of at least 2,600 miles. To get that kind of speed, however, the designers had to modify de Havilland's new, six-cylinder Gipsy engine to allow it to put out additional horsepower. By changing the cylinder heads and valves and raising the engine compression ratio, de Havilland's mechanics raised the Gipsy Six's horsepower from 185 hp to 223 hp. But although the engine modifications gave the Comet a top speed of 230 mph, a souped-up engine is also more likely to overheat or suffer other problems as a result of running harder—as all the Comet pilots discovered during the MacRobertson race.

For the plane to lift a heavy load of fuel on takeoff and still get top speed in the air, the Comet's designers realized that they also needed to outfit the race plane with another new piece of technology—a variable-pitch propeller (equipped, in essence, with both a "low" and a "high" gear). The Comet was finally built with a French propeller that could only be adjusted once per flight (from low to high), because de Havilland's engineers decided that the more-capable American designs were too heavy.

The Comet's designers were obsessed with keeping weight down on the plane, because the Comet was going to have a maximum of 445 horsepower at its disposal. The twin-engine DC–2 that was racing against the Comet had 710-horsepower engines on each side. In order to fly faster on lower horsepower, the Comet had to employ a much more streamlined and efficient design and be as light as possible.

Like any other race plane, the Comet's fast, streamlined design also entailed some tradeoffs in handling characteristics. Its approach speed was 95 mph, even with the use of the split flaps under the wings. And the Comet's elliptical wingtips, while reducing drag, made the aircraft very susceptible to violent wing-tip stalls. As a result, a pilot might find the airplane dropping a wing and snapping over to one side or the other right before landing or yawing severely left or right after touchdown—behavior that taxed the skills of even de Havilland's test pilots. After suffering through a particularly wild landing that left the Comet on the wrong side of the airfield, one test pilot reportedly just left the plane where it was, commenting in disgust, "If it behaves like that they can come and fetch it back."

"As I look at the replica of that winning Comet, I shake my
head at the dedication or foolishness—or both—of its pilots and crew."

De Havilland originally planned to have all three Comets it was building for the MacRobertson race completed more than a month before the race deadline. But construction took longer than they expected, and the bright red "Grosvenor House" Comet, which ended up winning the race, flew for the first time a mere 11 days before the race start. In fact, de Havilland's mechanics were still making last-minute changes to the plane's fuel and oil systems the night before the race.

As I look at the replica of that winning Comet, I shake my head at the dedication or foolishness—or both—of its pilots and crew. The plane was an unproven design that incorporated highly modified engines and a number of brand-new technologies. By all rights, the Comet should have gone through an extensive test program to iron out any problems before its crew launched on an 11,000-mile, all-out speed dash. But a race deadline is an immovable object, and the MacRobertson Race would only be held once. There would be no "next time." So with only three and a half flight hours on the plane, and a grand total of seven practice landings between them, pilots C.W.A. Scott and Tom Black simply closed the canopy, fired up their engines, and took off for Australia.

Originally, 64 airplanes had entered the race, but not all of them made it to the starting line. In the end, a total of 20 planes departed England's Mildenhall airfield on the morning of October 20, 1934. Race officials divided the race into six legs ranging from 787 miles to 2,530 miles in length. A number of backup check points were also set up along the route, which ran from Mildenhall, England to Marseilles, Rome, Athens, Aleppo, Baghdad, Karachi, Allahabad, Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Darwin, Charleville and, finally, across the race finish in Melbourne, Australia.

The pilots' race strategies differed from plane to plane. Like the Hare in Aesop's legendary fable, the Comet pilots aimed to make as few stops as possible, pushing their purpose-built racers as hard as the planes would allow. The KLM DC–2 crew, like Aesop's Tortoise, opted for a more conservative approach. Because KLM wanted to prove the reliability of long-distance airline travel, the DC–2 wasn't modified with any additional fuel tanks, and the crew flew at normal power settings. But the DC–2's proven design and conservative approach meant that the Douglas airliner was much less likely to have mechanical trouble than the high-strung Comets.

The first mandatory stop was Baghdad, which Scott and Black intended to reach in a single leg. But they ran into horrible weather over Turkey, and by the time they were over Syria, it was night, they were low on fuel, and they were completely lost. It looked as if they might be out of the race. But suddenly Scott sighted an airfield below them, which turned out to be the Royal Air Force's emergency landing strip at Kirkuk.

Ready for Racing: Pilots Charles Scott and
Tom Black prepare "Grosvenor House" for its greatest flight.

"We're getting away with it!" Scott yelled gleefully to Black when he realized what was below them. "We're in the race with a chance!"

The two landed, refueled, and took off again, landing in Baghdad just as one of the other Comets had departed. They landed again in Allahabad, refueled and, only 47 minutes later, were back in the air, bound for Singapore. By this time, the other Comets had run into mechanical difficulties, and Scott and Black held the lead. But they were tired and facing the two most difficult legs of the trip, the weather report for the Singapore leg was so bad that Scott didn't even want share it with Black...and the DC–2 was only a few hours behind them. If the Comet got off course or had one mechanical problem, the DC–2 could easily overtake them.

The Comet had flight controls in both the front and back seats of the cockpit so the pilots could take turns flying. But the conditions en route to Singapore were so bad that Scott and Black both had to keep their hands and feet on the controls keep the plane upright and on course. When they reached Singapore, Scott was so tired that he landed downwind—which could have spelled disaster in the landing-challenged Comet. But the two pilots lucked out again, landed safely, and took off only one hour and 11 minutes later for Darwin, Australia.

The leg from Singapore to Darwin was the one Scott dreaded the most. He'd flown it before on previous record flights to Australia and had noticed how many sharks prowled just below the surface of the Timor Sea—the almost 900 miles of open water that lay between Singapore and Darwin. Scott described his feelings about that stretch by saying, simply, "I hate and loathe the Timor Sea. If anything happens to the motor there, then that's the end of pilot and machine."

So imagine the adrenaline rush that Scott and Black must have felt when, flying in the darkness at only 1,000 feet under the clouds, halfway across the Timor Sea, the oil pressure on the Comet's left engine dropped to zero. The demands that had been put on the Comet's modified engines were beginning to take their toll. Black throttled the engine back and flew to Darwin on the one remaining good engine. At Darwin, mechanics checked the engine but couldn't find anything wrong with it. What to do? The Dutch DC–2 was only 8 hours behind them. To attempt any intensive engine rebuilding would be to give up the lead, and possibly the race.

The DH–88 Comets faced tough competition from
Roscoe Turner's Boeing 247 (foreground) and KLM's DC–2.

So once again acting "heedless of the risks," Scott and Black decided to take off with reduced power on the left engine, and fly on one engine the rest of the race. Both of them would readily have admitted that it wasn't the smartest thing they'd ever done. But a really smart pilot probably wouldn't have taken on the race in the first place. They were in Australia with victory almost in their grasp, and there was no tomorrow.

Once again, their luck—and their one remaining good engine—held. The two pilots were so tired that each of them could only fly for 10 minutes at a stretch before the other one would have to take the controls. They lit cigarettes to try to stay awake, took one puff, threw them out the window, and lit some more. Foggy-headed with sleepiness, they got lost on the way to Charleville, even though Scott had flown over that area many times. They finally found a railroad, followed that into Charleville, repeated their risky takeoff procedure one more time, and finally staggered across the finish line in Melbourne on one engine—70 hours, 54 minutes, and 18 seconds after departing the airfield in Mildenhall, England.

The MacRobertson Race did, indeed, focus the attention of governments and aircraft manufacturers to the possibilities and payoffs of long-distance airline travel. But when asked about the flight, Scott replied tersely that it had been a lousy experience and "that was praising it." When pressed about which part had been the worst, he responded, simply, "The whole lot."

Scott and Black had worked hard and suffered tremendous discomfort, but both pilots knew they'd also been lucky. "Seldom has any engine had such a grueling test as our faithful starboard motor," Black said. "We knew it, and our hearts seemed to beat in tune with its throbs."

Yet I don't believe Scott and Black were so naïve as to expect anything less than the discomfort, risk, and adversity they faced in the race. They were both very experienced pilots. Scott had flown with the RAF, and Black had begun the first commercial air service in the challenging wilds of East Africa. Black had also taught famed aviatrix Beryl Markham—who became the first pilot to fly solo east to west from England to North America—how to fly.

"Scott and Black raced the Comet because it was the sexiest,
sleekest, and most powerful long-distance racer in existence..."

But why would experienced pilots such as Scott and Black willingly take on the discomfort and risk of a venture as arduous as flying an unproven race plane halfway around the world? Part of the reason may have to do with the uncertain nature of aviation at the time. To even be a pilot in the early 1930s took someone with a kind of daring personality, willing to take on a few risks in return for the right reward. There weren't secure, good-paying airline jobs yet. Pilots were struggling to survive, and the money and acclaim that would come with a major race victory would open doors and offer a kind of financial stability a pilot couldn't find elsewhere.

And yet, I think Scott and Black's strongest motivations came not from without, but from within. Adventurers, explorers and race pilots seem to be driven in large part by a simple, irresistible, and unquenchable desire to challenge, stretch, achieve, and win. For in the end, the decision to go comes down to factors far removed from any rational logic or analysis. It comes down to a burning desire to take on the mountain for the sake of taking on the mountain; to be the first, the fastest, or the best, simply for the sake of it. Scott and Black raced the Comet because it was the sexiest, sleekest, and most powerful long-distance racer in existence, and because the idea of racing to Australia was just ludicrous enough to be tantalizing. And the lure of the challenge was probably a greater draw for them than the lure of the prize money or fame.

To people for whom such a challenge quickens the heart, even something as inherently crazy as air racing makes a kind of internal sense—even if they can't explain it to anyone else. When asked why she took on the risk of flying the Atlantic, Beryl Markham shrugged and replied, "Each to his element. By his nature a sailor must sail, by his nature a flyer must fly." Indeed, if anyone had asked Scott and Black why they'd taken on the challenge of the MacRobertson Race, they probably would have come up with the same answer George Mallory gave in 1923 when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest—an attempt that, in the end, cost him his life. "Because," Mallory answered simply, "it's there."