In the early days of aviation in the thirties, racers were faster than military aircraft, says Ed Maloney, founder of the Chino, California. "That's unheard of today, but in those days, the Gee Bees and Travel Airs—some of these aircraft were flying rings around the military fighters." In fact, at the Walter Beech's famous Travel Air Mystery Ship did fly a ring: Pilot Doug Davis cut a pylon and had to return to circle it. He still beat a U.S. Army Curtiss Hawk to take first place.
The Golden Age racing aircraft in the Planes of Fame museum represent an era when technology was pushed forward, not by government contracts or corporations, but by small airplane companies and individuals, driven by prize money and the thrill of the race. Among the original aircraft in the museum is Keith Rider's R-4 Firecracker that Tony LeVier piloted to win the 1938 Greve Trophy in a closed-circuit speed race. With steel tube frame and retractable landing gear, the Firecracker was a low-wing speedster with a very long snout to house the six-cylinder, in-line Menasco C6S-4 Super Buccaneer engine. LeVier won the 1938 race with a speed of more than 250 mph.
The museum also displays the first Greve trophy winner—a 1934 Miles & Atwood racer—and Keith Rider's 1938 R-6, the Eight Ball. Replicas of Golden Age racers include the beautiful Howard Hughes H-1 and the Army Lt. James Doolittle won the 1932 Thompson Trophy.
Of course no racing collection would be complete without a Gordon Israel built a pair of racers, "Mike" and "Ike." The museum owns a replica of "Ike," which in 1932 reached 191 mph in the Thompson Trophy race and placed seventh. (Howard had a sense of humor, but the racing community had to take him seriously. In 1935, his darned good designs won a grand slam: the Bendix, Thompson, and Greve trophies.)
Maloney has acquired 17 racers altogether. "We try to cover most of the periods," he says. "We start with a 1910 Curtiss Pusher and then go from there over the years." Four of the aircraft are replicas of the great Schneider Cup racers, winners of the international seaplane races held between 1913 and 1931: the Deperdussin that won the first race in Monaco; the Curtiss R3C-1 that Doolittle flew to victory in 1925 (the aircraft, outfitted with landing gear instead of floats, won the 1925 Pulitzer race as well); Italy's Macchi M.39, which won the 1926 race; and the Supermarine S6b that took the cup in 1931, when Great Britain retired the trophy, having won three races in a row.
"We in the United States had the opportunity to retire that race," says Maloney. "We won in '23, and then Doolittle won in '25, so we only had to win one more. But it didn't work out that way." In the intervening year, 1924, other countries were unable to send racers to the competition. By the rules of the race, the United States could have raced only U.S. aircraft that year, and that would have made Doolittle's win in 1925 the final victory. Instead, says Maloney, "We stood down until we could get some competition. The British didn't do that in '31; they said, if nobody can make it, that's their tough luck."
Maloney had hoped to reconstruct the aircraft that might have reclaimed the trophy for the Americans—the Mercury raceplane that Navy Lieutenant Alford J. Williams commissioned to represent the United States in the 1929 event . The Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia built the racer but bungled its construction, Williams told a Senate committee the following spring, and he couldn't compete in the race. Parts of the overweight seaplane ended up at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, where Maloney saw them in the early 1950s. When he checked back years later, he found that the Institute had scrapped the remaining parts.
Maloney and the Planes of Fame museum continue the racing tradition by sending the museum's Lockheed T-33 jet trainer to be the pace plane at the Reno, Nevada. The museum's first T-bird started flying that role in 1990; in recent years, the museum acquired a Canadian-built T-33 to do the job.
"The airplanes at Reno are getting faster," he says. "The original T-33 had a J-33 jet engine. The Canadians built them under license and they used the Rolls-Royce Nene, and it has a lot more thrust. We felt that we should update our T-33, so we acquired one with a Nene engine.
"With that first T-33 we were in the first trial [jet] race they had up in Reno and Steve [Hinton] entered our T-33. Jimmy Leeward had a MiG-17. His swept-wing MiG-17 was much faster than the straight wing T-33. And to boot he had an afterburner. There were probably six or seven L-39s.
"Leeward was in the lead, Steve was second, and the L-39s were way, way in the back; they couldn't keep up. They went around the pylons and on the last lap, Jimmy turned his afterburner on." Maloney laughs, "Steve thought, 'oh, the heck with you' and he pulled out of the race. I'll never forget that."
After that trial, the race excluded jets with swept wings or afterburners.