The great air race

The air power race. Great Britain also ran. Saturday Review, 15 December 1934, 514

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.5

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.


  1. Argus, 24 October 1934, 6

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Daily Mail, 2 October 1934; in Arming in the Air: The Daily Mail Campaign (London: Associated Newspapers, 1936 

  4. J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, 'British aviation: a lament', Empire Review, December 1934, 328. 

  5. Ibid. 

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9 thoughts on “The great air race

  1. Erik Lund

    Let me just say here that the DC-2 was a great plane, Parmentier a great pilot, etc. It's the "woe is us/America teh roxxors!!1!" stuff that gets me. It's not necessarily wrong for the fall of 1933 specifically, when you have to look to the effects of the 1928/9 American aviation investment bubble, but it has demonstrably distorted technical history* and threatened (modern) science policy.

    *Notably in minimising the importance of early aviation plastics and reduction gearing.

  2. Post author

    Fair enough. I'm usually more interested in perceptions of reality than reality itself, however. And if "woe is [British aviation]" is not necessarily wrong for late 1934, well, that's the period we're talking about; so any statements made along those lines can't necessarily be read as being for or against any particular metanarrative :)

  3. JDK

    Dear Brett,
    Thank you very much for the references. Can I now claim to be 'writer by appointment to an historian living in Melbourne, Australia'? :D

    The other links on ABC Albury radio station (the current incarnation of what was, in 1934, the 2CO radio station, which was vital to saving the aircraft...) are worth exploring; there is a very entertaining radioplay 'Flight of the Uiver' there, which is a good forty minute entertainment when you need to cluster the family around the radiogram. See: http://www.abc.net.au/goulburnmurray/features/uiver/ Better still you don't have to listen to me answering questions before the play!

    I will be returning to the McRobertson Air Race on my blog, having stood on the airfield and racecourse at both ends of the race (and on Albury's racecourse!) and written on and examined several of the aircraft that flew in it, I find that it is one of those stories that actually has more to it than even the myth, at times.

    Regards

  4. Erik Lund

    1933? 1934? I am otherwise totally eccurate.
    We have a pretty complex metanarrative by now, though, don't we? Read _Flight_ and _The Engineer_ and get one, read _Aeroplane_ and _Engineering_ and get another: apologetics versus panic. Plus we have a dialogue between now and then.
    So if the historiography goes back to the well, why does it pick out the panic instead of the apologetics? Why have generations of serious historians of interwar aviation neglected something as basic as the Air Office Estimates in favour of _Daily Mail_ alarmism? (And skewed right and left as prophecy or warmongering, to taste?) Even as I ask, it occurs to me that maybe I have a theory of social criticism as nagging. There is no correlation between car accidents and clean underwear, but you should always put on clean underwear in case you are in an accident.

  5. Post author

    Because panic was the dominant discourse at the time, not apologetics. I'd guess that far more people read a single issue of the Daily Mail than ever even looked at a copy of the Air Estimates. Outside of the specialist press, there were few outlets for a sunny view of the aviation industry. One big exception was the Daily Express, where you can find headlines like 'Air trails Britain is blazing. Foreigners buy our speed machines', and which liked to rubbish the knock-out blow fears of the Rothermere press. And admittedly the Daily Express was the biggest-selling newspaper for much of the 1930s. But it's atypical, I would argue. Today I've been looking through the Observer, and it keeps lining up people like PRC Groves, FH Sykes, Norman Macmillan to tell its readers how their civil aviation is falling behind, their planes are too slow, we must emulate the Americans, and so on. It's less in extreme in the rest of the press, but tending in the same direction. So it's one thing to argue that this perception was wrong, but it was the perception.

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  7. Angus

    "The Dutch actually won the race on handicap."

    Yes, because of a race rule that said an entrant could only win a single prize. Grosvenor House actually won the race on handicap too, but couldn't claim the prize. I mention this as a point of fact, not to detract from the significance of Uiver's performance, which was considerable.

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