It's the 75th anniversary of the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race. More specifically, it's the 75th anniversary of the day the race was won, 23 October 1934. The winners were C. W. A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black of Britain, who took just two days and twenty-three hours to cover the 18200 km from London to Melbourne. They flew in a de Havilland DH.88 Comet, named Grosvenor House, a beautifully streamlined twin-engined monoplane which was specially designed for the race. So a triumph for British aviation, then?
Well, if you've been reading the debate on a recent comments thread, you'll know it's not quite as straightforward as that. Scott and Black did win, but in second place was the Dutch-owned, US-designed Uiver, flown by K. D. Parmentier and J. J. Moll. True, it took 19 hours longer to fly the race route (albeit with an emergency stop at Albury, on the NSW-Victoria border). But that's pretty impressive when you consider that Uiver was a Douglas DC-2 -- an airliner, not designed for speed but for economy and payload. It even carried passengers for most of the race, and made many more stops than required by the race rules, as it was also blazing an air route for KLM. The Dutch actually won the race on handicap. Third was another American airliner, a Boeing 247D. The fastest British equivalent in the race was a New Zealand-owned DH.89 Dragon Rapide, which took nearly two weeks to complete the course.
Present-day arguments aside, what did contemporaries think of the result? The British (and Australian) press mostly celebrated Scott and Black's win. For example, the Melbourne Argus had this to say:
Where the pioneers walked, Scott and Black ran. Perhaps the finest evaluation of their victory is found in the lot of the other competitors. Some of them were still in Europe when Darwin revealed itself like the Promised Land to the weary victors. Even the mammoth Dutch airliner, flown by the light-hearted Parmentier, was hundreds of miles behind. Flying-Officer Gilman and Mr. J. K. C. Baines had crashed to a burning death. The nearest Americans were a continent away. The whole world opened its eyes in amazement.
In a representative International race a British aeroplane, flown by British aviators, has triumphed. That is a selfish reason for jubilation, and the result cannot fail to enhance the prestige of Britain in the air. 1
But the Argus was not blind to the significance of the Uiver's performance:
The others, however, flew bravely and well. They are all in the vanguard of the new age, Parmentier perhaps most of all. For he rode the skies in this great race like the unruffled pilot of a tourist airliner, allowing his passengers, between chicken sandwiches, to watch three continents unfolding beneath them. Could any more striking contrast be imagined than the weariness and exhaustion of Scott and Black and the pleasant excitement of Parmentier's passengers, who flew in the world's most notable race as tourists? All these men and women have been true to a fine tradition; and, although two lives already have been lost, a great advance has been made, lifting the horizon to an astonishing future. 2
Australians, being so used to isolation, might be expected to celebrate its erosion (the Argus pointed out that only seventy years earlier, it could take up to a hundred days to get from London to Melbourne; even as recently as 1931 the best time by air was 10 days). Whether it was thanks to British technology or not was secondary. But back in Britain, the usual self-congratulations in the press stood against more pessimistic comments. Even before the race, the Daily Mail thought the Comets (two others flew in the race) were marvels, but added that
The unfortunate fact, however, is that the aeroplanes of the Royal Air Force are a whole generation behind them in design and speed. 3
J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, a Conservative MP who was the first person to get a British pilot's licence (in 1910) claimed that the 'England-Australia race has opened the eyes of the world [...] to the lamentable position, from the technical point of view, of English aviation' 4.
It is true, of course, to say that we won the race, but we won it with a machine that was built especially for the race, and although it redounds to the credit of the De Havilland Company that they not only won the race, but also designed and produced the machine in seven months, they would, I think, be the first to admit that it was a machine built for one particular job, and that, in a broad way, it was a speed copy of a commercial American aircraft. 2
He pointed to two specific innovations becoming common in the United States, but virtually unknown in Britain: retractable undercarriages and variable pitch propellers (which the Comet did actually have).
As a final, somewhat-elliptical example, consider the cartoon at the top of the race, from the Saturday Review (15 December 1934, 514). The Saturday Review also lamented Britain's performance in the MacRobertson air race, but this is another air race, one in which Britain is very definitely lagging: the race for airpower. Britain's air force is shown to be behind those of Germany, the Soviet Union, France, Italy, the United States and Japan. And this was a race which had to be won ...
A note on 'MacRobertson': there's no such name, as far as I know. It was the nickname of Macpherson Robertson, a Melbourne confectionery king, and the name of his company. Aside from giving Australia the Freddo Frog and the Cherry Ripe, he also gave generously to support Melbourne's centenary celebrations in 1934. The air race was part of these celebrations: the first prize was £10,000. He also has a chunk of Antarctica named after him. But in his home town about the only trace of MacRobertson's name is a high school for girls, which is popularly known as Mac.Rob. Sad to say, the great air race itself seems to have been forgotten today in Melbourne, except here at Airminded and at Vintage Aeroplane Writer, JDK's new blog.
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- Argus, 24 October 1934, 6.
- Daily Mail, 2 October 1934; in Arming in the Air: The Daily Mail Campaign (London: Associated Newspapers, 1936
- J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, 'British aviation: a lament', Empire Review, December 1934, 328.