Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Gee Bee's Moment of Glory

The Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1.

     I mentioned the Granville Gee Bee in Monday's column about the USS Zumwalt because it was an example of a cool airplane: my favorite, in fact. I figured it was pretty obscure, and was pleasantly surprised when several readers chimed in their agreement, one sending me a photo of his mailbox, built to look like a Gee Bee. I mentioned to another that I had written an article about the Gee Bee, many, many years ago, and he went in search of it online, even though I told him it predated the Internet and he wouldn't find it. 
     He didn't. While I am not a big fan of sharing juvenilia, I try not to frustrate readers either. So I tramped down to the basement and dug this up, from a publication called Nostalgia Scrapbook, dated April, 1986. Its utter mediocrity can be forgiven—I was 25, and hadn't learned the importance of banishing cliches from your writing.
    The notes in my folder are interesting. How did I get these photographs, in the years before the Internet? Effort. I called the Smithsonian. And the Cleveland Public Library Photo Collection. And the Berea Historical Society (my hometown was next to the airport where the air races were held). The Bettman Archive, the Springfield (Mass.) Library and Museum. Finally, I ended up getting them—I was proud to make this leap—from the archive at United Technologies, which owned Pratt & Whitney, the makers of the engine for the Gee Bee.
    I also phoned Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, at his home on Cass Street in Monterey, California, to produce an utterly mundane biography that I will spare you here, so don't ask. Having taken the American hero's time—he led the famous first bombing raid over Tokyo during World War II—I should have come up with something better. But we all have to start somewhere.
     After World War One, aviation left its wire and wood infancy and burst into a giddy adolescence. In the '20s and '30s speed was king and the various air races—the cross country Bendix Trophy, the Schneider Cup for seaplanes, the 100-miles closed-course Thompson Trophy—were enormously popular.
     The nation viewed the planes, and their pilots, with intense interest. But, of all of the famous racing pilots, and all the famous racing planes, no pilot gained more acclaim than Major Jimmy Doolittle ... no plane neared the notoriety of the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster. 
     Thus, it was a special moment in the annals of air racing when the famous pilot, who had flown so many planes, and the infamous plane, which was to claim so many lives, came together for a few days during the 1932 National Air Races in Cleveland.
     The Gee Bee had burst onto the scene the year before, at the 1931 races. Nicknamed "the flying milk bottle" and "the bumblebee," the yellow and black Spirit of Springfield, flown by Lowell Bayles, roared around the triangular Thompson course at what the New York Times called an "exceedingly fast time" of 236.239 mph, 35 mph faster than the winner of the year before.
Zantford Granville
     "Exceedingly fast" is an apt description; the plane was definitely faster than it was safe. The chunky racer had tiny wings—75 square feet of wing area to lift 2,280 pounds of plane—and a stubby tail to reduce drag from wind resistance.  
     Into this plane, no longer than a subcompact car, was dropped a massive engine—an 800 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp T3D1—twice as powerful as usually put into a plane that size.
     As one observer noted, the Gee Bee had "no center of gravity."
     The pilot of the Gee Bee in its first victory was also its first victim. In December, 1931, Bayles sought to top his Thompson win by grabbing the speed record set by the French in 1924. During the attempt the right wing of his Gee Bee buckled, sending the plane into the ground at 300 mph.
     Fragments of the plane were thrown 600 feet. An unforgettable newsreel of the crash shows the fiery explosion hurling Bayles' flaming body from the wreck. The cause of the crash was never determined, but experts at the scene guessed the extreme stress simply ripped the tiny plane apart.
     It was odd that this volatile plane should find itself in the hands of a cautious pilot such as Jimmy Doolittle. Having learned to fly on a Curtis Jenny in 1918, Doolittle first came to national attention in 1922 when he attempted to cross the country by air in less than a day. Doolittle was a skilled, professional pilot and won many contests, including the Schneider Cup in 1925 and the first Burbank-to-Cleveland Bendix Trophy in 1931.
     A strange twist of fate put Doolittle in the Gee Bee for the 1932 races. He already had a plane—a Laird Super Solution—but while training in Kansas, a week before the races began, the Laird's retractable landing gear jammed up in flight. Doolittle was forced to make a wheels-up landing, damaging the plane enough to make competition the next week impossible.
     Meanwhile, Russell Boardman, the pilot of the Gee Bee R-1 went into the hospital after he spun out in a different Gee Bee.
     Zantford Granville, whose little factory in Springfield, Massachusetts produced the Gee Bee, called Doolittle on August 27 and asked if he would pilot the R-1 in the races.
     Doolittle knew the reputation of the plane—he had seen the film of Bayles' death—but he needed a plane and the Gee Bee was the fastest thing in the air. He flew to Springfield August 28 to pick up the R-1, and left for Cleveland the same day.
     During practice runs, the Gee Bee's temperamental nature began to show. Doolittle needed all his skill to keep the plane under control—it had a tendency to do sudden snap rolls.
     "It was the touchiest plane I had ever been in," Doolittle later recalled in his autobiography. Flying it was like "balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger."
     September 1 the races began with the "Shell Speed Dashes." Planes needed to average 200 mph around the course to quality for the Thompson race. Doolittle's average time on his first run was 293.193 mph, breaking the old land speed record by 15 mph.
     But, on landing it was discovered that race officials had not install a barograph on the plane. The device measured altitude, and was required to make a speed record official.
     September 3 dawned hot and muggy, the sun hidden by high clouds. It was a perfect day for flying, except for a slight ground haze and an 8 mph crosswind over the course.
     Doolittle had not planned to fly—he had already qualified, and thought he might burn up the Gee Bee's engine before the big race. He watched other pilots make their runs.
     William N. Enyart, a race official, walked over to Doolittle and told him that, if he wanted, there was time for him to make a flight. Doolittle calmly nodded, and walked over to where Granville and officials of the Pratt & Whitney Engine Company were already fussing over his Gee Bee Super Sportster R-1.
     Doolittle flew once over the course, then turned out a mile over Lake Erie, returning with the throttle full out, just 50 feet above the ground, barely clearing a grove of trees.
     After maneuvering to avoid a passing squadron of Army planes, Doolittle threw his Gee Bee over the course, "flashing past the watchers like a meteor."
     When he landed, after six laps, he had set a new official world's speed record: 296.287 miles per hour.
     The Thompson race, two days later, was almost anti-climactic. A crowd of 50,000 people in the stands, plus thousands more on tops of cars, clinging to trees, and dotting hillsides beyond the airport, saw Doolittle beat the fastest field ever assembled for the races, including Lee Gehlbach in the sister Gee Bee, the R-2.
     It was Doolittle's last race. Perhaps, it was flying the cantankerous Gee Bee. Perhaps it was the fact that photographers hovered around his wife and children during the race, waiting to snap their reaction should the plane crash. But, after Doolittle flew the plane back to Springfield and "gratefully got out," he announced that it was time for aviation to leave the "thrills-and-spills era ... and give attention to safety and reliability." Doolittle was finished with air racing. he was, however, to go on to other, even more thrilling exploits.
     A Gee Bee never again won a race, although three more men died before this fact was borne out. The R-1 flown by Doolittle rolled over and crashed during the 1933 Bendix Race, killing Russell Boardman. In 1934, Z.D. Granville was killed attempting to land his Gee Bee in Spartansburg, South Carolina and the last Gee Bee, the Spirit of Right, crashed in the 1935 Bendix Race, killing its pilot.
     The Gee Bee's speed record lasted exactly a year and a day, until broken by James Wedell in his Wedell-Williams 44 at the 1933 Nationals. 
     As Doolittle predicted, the days of the great air races were numbered. Racing was suspended at the outbreak of the Second World War, and though efforts were made to resume it afterwards, planes were now too fast to fly around pylons. Also, the war had handed the development of aviation technology over to the military and big business, which did not want to display their newest planes in public spectacles.
     But, we are left with the memory of a brief, amazing era; of splendid planes, like the muscle-bound Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, and of brave pilots, like Jimmy Doolittle.




  1. I know nothing of aerodynamics, but if a there were such a thing as an Art Deco plane design, that would be it.

  2. I suppose it's natural to be critical of one's early work, but I found this quite enjoyable to read.

  3. OK, Gee Bee fan; thanks for your well-researched story from long ago! My father (a pilot) saw the Gee Bee run at the Cleveland Air Races and always said they were a "Death Missile." But here's some amazing flying from 1999 at the EAA in Oshkosh from Montana rancher Delmar Benjamin in his Gee Bee. He's doing some maneuvers here that strain credibility!

  4. The surplus fighters of WWII were definitely too fast to fly around pylons. There were even more crashes after the races resumed following the war.And the countryside around Hopkins Airport was beginning to become suburbia. It was one thing to fly over (and crash into) pastures and prairies and woodland...but totally another to skim over rows of houses at what must have looked and felt treetop height, and at speeds that were double those of the Thirties. It was not a question of if...but when. Finally, on Labor Day weekend of 1949, the inevitable happened.

    A hot pilot named Bill Odom lost control of his souped-up P-51 Mustang, which was not much more than a dragster with wings, and dove straight into a Berea tract house at 400 MPH, burying himself and his plane deep into the earth, and killing himself and the home's two occupants...a young mother and her the fiery explosion that followed.

    The towns around the airport soon banned racing in their airspace, and that was the end of air racing in Cleveland. Since I live directly under the main glide path for planes landing at Hopkins, that crash was one of the first things I learned about when I moved to the area. And later still, I worked just around the corner from the accident site. There's no marker or monument that I know of, but I've never needed one.

    i found this story to be quite informative and interesting. As a former proofreader and copy editor, I have dealt with writers twice as old as 25 who weren't even half as good as you were, and you were not that long out of J-school. It's not about the age of the writer, it's the innate skills and talents they possess and bring to the page. Some wordsmiths are already hitting the ball out of the park while still in college, and some old veterans never have and never will. Don't kick yourself in the ass so much.


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