Bring Back the Brute

A GeeBee racer in flyable condition? Don’t do it.

Gee-Bee R1, Jimmy Doolittle, 1932 National Air Races, speed record
Jimmy Doolittle is dwarfed by the monstrous, menacing Gee Bee R-1 Super Sportster. NASM (SI 77-11856)

ON A SPRING DAY IN 2001, I met several other volunteers in the basement of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, surrounded by a stack of construction drawings. Bob Greenaway, a retired Navy machinist mate, was spearheading the museum’s building of a Gee Bee R-1, using original plans from the New England Air Museum in Connecticut, which had built its own reproduction in 1990 with help from Pete Miller, the airplane’s co-designer.

In the early 1930s, the five Granville brothers, led by Zantford, enjoyed a modest success with the design of a small biplane, but the Great Depression killed off business. To spur innovation, oil companies and aircraft suppliers offered prizes at air races across the country. Zantford gambled the company’s future by building airplanes capable of winning that cash. Working with Pete Miller, a young aeronautical engineer, Zantford created a radical airplane. Sporting tiny wings, a fuselage shaped like a tear drop to minimize drag, and a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine, the R-1 was designed to approach 300 mph at a time when Army Air Corps aircraft could barely reach 200 mph.

Setting up shop in an abandoned Springfield, Massachusetts dance hall, the Granville brothers and about a dozen employees built the R-1 and its sister ship, the R-2, in 90 days. The R-1 was designed to win the 1932 Thompson Trophy pylon race, and with Jimmy Doolittle at the helm, it did; the R-2, with a smaller engine and increased fuel capacity, was designed for the Bendix Trophy cross-country race.

We had chosen to build a Gee Bee during a museum volunteer meeting. In 2000, Allan Palmer, at the time the museum’s executive director, wanted a rare, colorful airplane that would attract visitors. The volunteer craftsmen, mostly World War II veterans old enough to remember the glory days of America’s air racers, enthusiastically chose the Gee Bee R-1. No original R-1 or R-2 exists; most of the Granvilles’ racers crashed.

To save time and money, the Granvilles used some off-the-shelf parts for the racers. Ford Model T steering rods were used in the aileron controls, shift knobs from a 1928 Chevy proved handy on the throttle quadrant levers, and a 1931 Indian motorcycle throttle handgrip became the R-1’s control stick handgrip.

On a limited budget, we had to be as resourceful as the Granvilles were. Three of us launched the project by hand-planing long lengths of spruce and gluing them together to form the laminated fore and aft spars of the Gee Bee’s wing, just as the Granvilles had in 1932.

All aircraft sheet metal work was done by hand in-house; the wheel pants and wing root fillets were shaped by hammers and mallets around wooden molds; the engine cowlings were shaped around concrete molds. Faithful to the original design, the wings consisted of laminated-spruce spars, mahogany plywood ribs, and laminated-spruce wingtip bows, the curved end of the wing. Craftsmen fabricated wing hardware on donated metal-working machinery, some of which dated to World War II. The wings were constructed to airworthy standards, but all the intricate workmanship was lost to view when the wings were covered in a 1/16th-inch mahogany plywood—remarkably thin, yet we still had to soak it in water to render it pliable enough to conform to the wing structure.

Prior to World War II, flying wires—external bracing that supports the wing—were common, but a set for our reproduction would have cost $5,000. Dutch Foltz, a 93-year-old craftsman and former Ryan Aircraft tool-and-die maker, worked with other volunteers to fabricate a set of streamlined stainless steel Gee Bee flying wires on the museum’s equipment.

Another challenge was the lack of a large oven to soften plastic for the canopy. Retired Air Force Master Sergeant Vito Altieri came up with a low-tech solution. He placed a plywood mold of the canopy into a modified 55-gallon steel drum and put a flat sheet of plastic atop the mold with weights along two edges. Altieri sealed off the open end of the steel drum and inserted a heat gun into a lid opening. When he turned on the gun, the 400-degree air softened the plastic, and the weights and gravity did the rest.

Visitors touring the Gee Bee construction project wondered why the volunteers put so much effort into making the reproduction airworthy if the museum had no intention of flying it. The volunteers believe no job is worth doing unless it’s done right. Said Allan Palmer, “If you’re not building the airplane using original plans, materials, and techniques, you’re building a coffee-table ornament.”

By the spring of 2007, most of the construction work was completed and the racer was moved to the hangar annex to be painted. The volunteers, most of whom were in their 80s and 90s and were veterans of museum restorations and reproductions, including the Spirit of St. Louis twice, milled about the space the airplane once occupied, impatient for another job. We’ve got a few more years of work on a reproduction of a Boeing P-26 Peashooter, restoring a Vought F4U Corsair, and dealing with wood rot on a Wright Flyer reproduction. 

Robert Bernier, a former Navy pilot, flies for American Airlines.

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