Simanaitis Says

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WHEN LAST we visited the Schneider Trophy seaplane races (virtually yesterday,, the Italians had choice of venue for the 1920 event, the fourth of an eventual 11 competitions. They chose Venice.

But why seaplanes in the first place? Curiously, the reason was technical, not a matter of spectacle. As aircraft became more powerful, they got larger with heavier fuel loads. With this came a need for longer take-off and landing space.

As an example of this, a U.S. entry in the 1920 James Gordon Bennett Cup competition, the Curtiss-Cox Cactus Kitten, had to withdraw because field length at the Ville-Sauvage Aerodrome was insufficient. See

Water then became the perfect venue, provided it was a sufficiently broad expanse of essentially unlimited length. Indeed, by the 1920s, Schneider Trophy aircraft were accelerating perhaps a mile before going “on step,” and another half-mile before lifting off. Not that the pilot wasn’t occupied—some would say terrified—during this extended process.


Flying boat vs. pontoons, biplane vs. monoplane. The 1922-winning Supermarine Sea Lion II above; the 1929-winning  Supermarine S.6 below. These and other images from Schneider Trophy Racers. See


Dictates of aerodynamics suggested that a float plane would be quicker than a flying boat. However, the immense torque reaction of powerful engines—some exceeding 1000 hp—could cause one float to plow under. A pilot might end up pointlessly circling in the water.


The Mercury, designed by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, rode extremely low. A 1929 non-starter, the Mercury would submerge its left wingtip even in taxiing and barely lifted off despite its 1100 hp.

As an engine’s power rose, so did the requirements for its heat rejection. Water cooling had replaced the air cooling of earliest Schneider Trophy powerplants. American Curtiss and British Supermarine entries used radiators integrated into the wing surfaces, both to maximize radiator area and minimize drag.

By the way, as another technical requirement beginning in 1921, the winning aircraft had to remain afloat, without assistance of any kind, while tied to a buoy for six hours.

What had begun as aero-club privateers evolved into national entries, typically with military support and occasionally a one-country show. The Italian Savoia S.12 and Macchi M.7bis were Schneider Trophy winners in 1920 and 1921, respectively, with other countries being non-starters both of these years.


The 1922 Naples venue, lapping toward Mt. Vesuvius and back.

In 1922, a Supermarine Sea Lion II took the trophy. It and the earlier Italian winners were derived from World War I fighters.

The winning U.S. Navy Curtiss CR-3 in 1923 was more than that, a dedicated racer from the start. Also, “racing improved the breed.” The 1923 Savoia S.51’s hull design was later adopted in the company’s 1924 S.58 fighter.

The 1924 event, scheduled for Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, never came off. This time, for a variety of reasons, England, France and Italy chose to withdraw their entries, thus leaving the U.S. as the sole competitor. Its National Aeronautic Association notified the parent organization, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, that it was cancelling the 1924 Schneider Trophy competition: The U.S. had no wish to compete against itself, as the Italians had done in 1920 and 1921—and the Brits were destined to do in 1931.

In 1925 at Chesapeake Bay, U.S. Army Lt. Jimmy Doolittle showed there was still room for innovation—even once airborne.


Doolittle’s flight analysis helped him win in 1925.

Doolittle reasoned that, in rounding a pylon, speed was more important than altitude. This observation and the performance of his Curtiss R3C-2 placed Doolittle first in the 1925 Schneider Trophy competition, the first and last time the U.S. Army entered a seaplane speed contest.


Lt. J.H. Doolittle and his Curtiss R3C-2. The black insets are surface radiators on its wings.

But there’s more to come with the Schneider Trophy competition. Tomorrow, in the third and last part, expect to see technical innovations, a world record that still stands—and an exploitation of “Three Times And It’s Mine.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on June 16, 2013 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , .
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