Seaplanes and silly dreamsCallum Ruddock
The ‘Century of Flight’ took another tentative step forward on the 31st December of 1908. Man’s relationship with aviation having begun only 5 years before, the very same Wright brothers cautiously took to the blue over Le Mans, furnishing themselves with the Michelin Cup aloft in Wilbur’s outstretched arms, held up to the sky which they had made their own. The Prix d'Aviation Michelin, the first air race, signalling the dawn of the ‘pioneering age’, and for Man to have flown 124.7km over the azure main - testament to how exciting the 20th century was to be.
Two years later, somewhere on the quayside of Port Hercule, Jacques Schneider climbed aboard his gleaming hydroglisseur. Suave and enthused by what he had seen at Le Mans, he launched into the Mediterranean, only for a muscular gust to upend his vessel and leave him unable to pursue his own flying career. Ever determined, the heir to an arms empire would instead play patron, lending his name to the development of flight itself. Over dinner in 1912, at the Aéro-Club de France meeting in Chicago, Schneider proposed the Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider. A great float plane trial, the finest the world had ever seen, with the stage of competition set to drive forward innovation and bring vast passenger laden aeroplanes into reality.
Schneider’s philosophy was simple, as planes grew accustomed to the sky, they would begin to ferry passengers, and as they grew bigger, the growth in demand would necessitate more space. Ports, with their bulky infrastructure already in situ, could easily play host to aircraft as well as the familiar ocean liners. Great flying boats might one day soar across the sea, serving polite meals, presented by polite hosts, dressed in polite clothing. New heights of usefulness reached. Jaunts across the Atlantic would be made safer, faster, and more comfortable. Schneider’s idea, however much a gamble was plausible, and as no one had much confidence in his prediction, he put down the cash prize of 25,000 francs himself.
He also wanted a trophy worth the same; cast in silver and bronze, and set on a large marble base. It depicts Neptune, immersed in the swell, head pointed upwards to meet the kiss of a winged figure swooping down from the big blue above. An array of ugly brown octopuses and crabs surrounded the spectacle, their inclusion serving to confuse a sleek Art Deco scene. A trophy that looked as heavy as it was. As bold and brash, as built and brazen, as impudent as the race itself. The kind that pilots wanted to compete for.
For those that did, the rules were simple. Fly fast over water in a triangular pattern, no less than 150 nautical miles. Do so in a seaworthy seaplane. Do so as quickly as possible. Each team could enter a maximum of three aircraft every year; the winner would then host the next annual contest, and any nation that won the event three times within five years would get to keep the trophy in perpetuity. He imagined at the heart of it, something quite magnificent, men in planes moving quickly.
And it was magnificent. The first race took place over the Baie de Roquebrune – between Monte Carlo and Cap Martin in April 1913, with entries from Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. Casting a picture-postcard silhouette onto the sea, the primitive planes flew like chopping boards balanced on knife tips, pushed forward by a pathetic wisp, desperately fragile and almost unflyable.
The New York Times ran with ‘1913 AIR RACE WIN AT 44.7 – MILE SPEED’. Maurice Prévost took the cup for France in his Gnôme powered Deperdussin Monocoque as thousands watched from under Monaco’s arched promenade. An instant success met with rapturous applause, international press attention, and a commitment to a float plane future.
Forward another 18 years, a million people and their packed lunches line the Solent to watch Lt. John Boothman fly a smooth 340mph in his Portuguese blue Supermarine S.6B – the fastest man in history. The pace of change so swift that those wrapped up in the rush did not see their achievement as anything more than fitting; Man having started the century at 29mph, over the course of thirty years, managed 12 times faster.
This lust for speed had been met in a suitably British fashion. It would not have been an English race without a blast of rain, and an absence of Italian sun to bless the spectating mob. Nor would it be England without a last-minute hiccup. At the eleventh-hour the Government withdrew funds leaving Britain without a sponsor. The race was rescued by a Miss Lucy Houston of Lambeth, South London. A chorus girl, Britain’s then second richest woman, who had married mostly wealthy men with sundry titles, and hated the socialist powers that be; she was well suited to egotism and happily volunteered £100,000.
The starting signal was HMS Meadea at 1.02pm, a ropey old minelayer whose deck gun fired two minutes late, followed by a spurt of white smoke as Boothman’s Rolls-Royce engine slowly opened up. First sky, then sea, a flash of shoreline, and a tight bank left. Shrubs, trees, boats, home, a church, blurred dots below. Over the top of a packed ocean liner, the FS Colombie (offering the glamour of Paris – Le Havre – Spithead), then down on over the Solent straight pushing harder still.
Under the horizon just past HMS Glorious, Britain’s newly minted aircraft carrier, then again past hundreds of yachts from far and near, weaving around sailors clasping binoculars on glossy committee launches. The throng lingered in the sound of it all. Ground crew’s mouths slipped open and newsreels kept rolling, as Boothman pulled back on his stick, disappearing for a moment before rising up and tearing past Calshot Castle over a relived crowd; victory on these here Isles.
It was not meant to be such an easy victory. Mussolini had spent big to make the Empire easy on the eye. His charred terracotta-coloured planes, untamed beside their domesticated Anglo-French cousins, were the most beautiful of all and the only true contenders to the British Cup.
Mario Castoldi’s Macchi M.C.72, was meant to match Supermarine’s offering. Potent and elegantly brave, proudly sporting a snubby nose and a drooping tail balanced atop four spindly struts. It dragged itself along with two contra-rotating propellers, stacked one in front of the other. An innovative design that took advantage of Fiat’s new AS-6 engine; capable of pumping out a ferocious 3,100hp–a frightening prospect considering the rest of the fuselage was made of wood.
In the end, perhaps too formidable or just over engineered, the Italians pulled out with engine problems. As did the French, whose brilliant participation was expected and whose loss was felt. Both teams sought a rescheduled flight; this being Britain, their requests were amusingly overlooked. The British would face themselves alone.
Romantic they might have been, polite they were not. Schneider’s pilots were in the main ‘rough diamonds’. Former fighters turned heroes of the sky. Men that battled with their mortality openly; defined by numbers, speeds, heights, and distance travelled. They either went the fastest or they didn’t. Flew the highest or didn’t. Where a small mistake meant death, flight was pure only at the limit. A profound fleeting beauty is found then, as machine rides on air, and man rides machine.
This ethos also applied to landing, which to do safely required the pilot to accept its inevitability. Boothman came down hard, motored around a bit, then climbed aboard HMS Meadea for a glass of water and a single ‘hip hurrah’ delivered eagerly by the ship’s crew. With that the cup was Britain’s for a third time and the Schneider Trophy came to an end. The development of seaplanes stopped. Jacques never did see his grand flying boats, but his rivalry proved a point; a good race could push Man forward and at great speed, sometimes into hard objects.
Troubled by their loss, it was the Italians who would come to triumph. Agello went onto set the world float plane speed record in 1934. Somewhere in the vast skies over Lake Garda, he managed 442mph with his matchstick Macchi M. C. 72. A feat that stands to this day and which cannot be overstated; such a speed is simply immense given the then state of technology. A record that was achieved only through brute force, relying on a design that was so outrageously simple the engine practically pulled the plane along irrespective of the pilot’s wishes.
Schneider would not survive to see Agello’s record run, nor would he witness the race above Venice in 1929 or over the Solent in 1931. The demand for weapons collapsed after the First World War. Penniless he passed on the 1st May 1928 at his home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, looking out over the waters he had tried to overcome. A clipping from his obituary featured in a Royal Aero Club bulletin read:
‘By his death France loses one of its most distinguished aviation enthusiasts, and a man who gave as great an encouragement to aviation as any man in the world.’
Infused with the purest of passions, competition would bring Schneider’s life to an end. No matter how noble a dream, it was inevitable Schneider’s aeroplanes would be used to wage war. They are of course just machines.
Having been extensively trailed and raced, Boothman too took an easy retirement with Bomber Command. RAF through and through, I am not sure a man like that could have passed onto anything else. Despite having gone on to receive an OBE, a CBE, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de guerre, made commander of the Legion of Merit, and mentioned in Dispatches, he likely thought of Calshot in 1931 as his greatest triumph.
I often fantasise about seeing planes racing in that way they did, though for now I am content just remembering. Schneider’s trophy was not special in that it was the only air race, but it was the best. There was of course the Pulitzer, the Thompson, and the Bendix, nothing came close to the men, their machines, and the trophy’s allure.
Plenty were and are still genuinely inspired by it, me included. Flying is quite natural for humans you see. We dreamt of it, and made it happen just so that we might imitate the birds. Something about it is pure enough that, though I cannot fly, I need only close my eyes and imagine at first a winding sound, gaining pitch, before an engine bursts into life. Roaring, then throbbing, it hums at a happy tempo; ready to stretch its legs and take to the sky. I feel the touch of canvas, wood, and brushed aluminium, of planes I have not met, engineered from sinew, birch, and ore. I sense their weight (or lack thereof), the ridiculousness of their existence–that we built a machine to pluck us from the ground.
Jacques Schneider was laid to rest at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris. His trophy sits in Kensington waiting for someone deserving enough to claim it. And I dream of a return to Schneider whilst I remember the team of 1931 on Lady Houston’s yacht - smiling as they did - in the knowledge that they really were the fastest bunch in the world.