This week marks the 80th anniversary of the historic MacRobertson air race, put together by the Royal Aero Club. The race was from Mildenhall in Suffolk, all the way to Melbourne, Australia. On the 20th October 1934 at 6:30am, 20 aircraft left Mildenhall, marking the start of the race.
Though numbers were down on the planned participant list, which was initially 60 aircraft strong, there was still an impressive spread of types.
The aircraft ranged from the small open cockpit Hawk Major trainer through to the Dakota predecessor the Douglas DC-2, which had a full set of passengers and mail. All other manner of aircraft filled the gap in between; including a number of aircraft purpose built for the race, such as the de Havilland DH88 Comet.
The build up to the race is well documented in clippings from “The Aeroplane” magazine from the lead up to the race, with an article published giving instructions on the best days to watch arrivals and build up flights.
This even included maps showing how to get to the airfield and the best places to stay locally. It is interesting to look back and see how similar the enthusiasm was 80 years ago for such events.
The only real rules for classification in the race was that the distance must be covered within 16 days, including compulsory stops at: Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland.
The aircraft were launched based on their ability and fuel load as well as their planned first stop. Though the first compulsory stop was Baghdad, a number of aircraft planned to stop earlier and as such were given an earlier departure slot. DH88 “Black Magic” G-ACSP, flown by Jim and Amy Mollinson (formerly Amy Johnson), was the first aircraft to depart.
On the first day of the race the clear leader was the Mollinson Comet, however due to filling up with poor quality fuel in Jubbulpore, the aircraft burned its engines out enroute to Allahabad on the second day. They were unable to finish the race.
This meant that another DH88, G-ACSS “Grosvenor House” took the lead of the race, having been the fourth aircraft to depart, and went on to win the race overall, despite flying the final leg with one of the engines throttled back.
Flown by C.W.A Scott and Campbell Black “Grosvenor House” completed the 11,300 mile journey in 71 hours. Arriving on the 23rd of October at 5:34am GMT.
Interestingly the aircraft to finish second, albeit 20 hours behind, was the Douglas DC-2 from KLM, an impressive feat considering it had a full set of passengers.
The Douglas was followed in three hours later by a Boeng 247D “Warner Bros. Comet”, flown by Roscoe, Turner and Clyde Pangborn.
The rest of the qualifiers were made up by; DH88 G-ACSR, Miles Hawk Major ZK-ADJ, Airspeed Courier G-ACGL, Puss Moth VH-UQO, Desoutter OY-DOD and Dragon Rapide ZK-ACO. The other eleven aircraft either arrived in Melbourne outside the 16 day time limit, or didn’t make it at all.
Without doubt the Macrobertson air race was an important moment in aviation. With the Douglas DC-2 finishing in second it is certainly clear with hindsight where the future of air transport was headed.
With this year marking the 80th anniversary of the race, and this page, mostly focusing on the modern operation of vintage aeroplanes I wanted to take a look at what is still left of the Macrobertson air race and what became of the participants.
The most public and arguably important survivor of the Air Race is the winning aircraft, DH88 Comet G-ACSS. The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden has kept the Comet in excellent condition since the 1980s.
After a long absence the aircraft returned to flight in August this year. (You can read my thoughts on this historic moment here.) It is fitting that, 80 years on after winning the race, “Grosvenor House” took to the skies again, and it is a thrill to be able to see a real piece of history flying.
G-ACSS is not the only DH88 to have survived through the years however. At Derby airport there is a well-established project to restore “Black Magic,” the Comet that didn’t complete the race, back to flying condition. Work is progressing well and perhaps we can now look forward to soon seeing a pair of DH88 Macrobertson participants together.
Derby is also home to a replica build project for the third DH88 in the race, G-ACSR, which was destroyed during the war. This particular Comet broke the record for Melbourne and back, having completed the run to Melbourne it returned to England with the newsreel of the finish.
With this replica project there is every chance that we may one day be able to watch three DH88 comets flying together, what an exciting prospect! Details of both the Comet projects at Derby can be found here.
What of the second place aircraft, DC-2 Uiver? Well the aircraft sadly crashed later on in 1934, but it is commemorated by another DC-2, which flies in the same colours and wears the registration PH-AJU, keeping the memory of that important aircraft alive.
The Boeing 247D that actually came third in the race is sadly no more, however an example on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington wears the Marking of NR257Y, the race aircraft.
There is only one Miles Hawk Major remaining, which is in airworthy condition in the UK, I’ve added some pictures here to give an example of the type.
Following a series of epic flights during the 1930s the Puss Moth VH-UQO was eventually registered in the UK in 1936, however it was written off during the war.
The race desoutter eventually joined the Finish air Force after the race, beyond that I cannot find anymore of its history.
As you can see, aside from the two Comets, there are in fact no survivors of the race aircraft, it is quite fortunate that the race winning aircraft was preserved and is still flying all these years.
Though original participants are thin on the ground, as can be seen from above, examples of the types do still exist and many still fly. With this in mind the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden put on a fantastic recreation of the race at their season finale airshow on the 5th October this year. (a full review can be found here.)
I have once again included one Peter Baughans (hdvsmedia.com) brilliant videos showing this section of the display. It was a wonderful tribute, especially as the original race winner was there to lead the pack around.
I must confess that before the Comet took to the skies I only had a very basic knowledge of the race, but in the past few months I have done some research and tried to find out as much as I can about the aircraft that took part.
This was largely thanks to an excellent publication on the race put together by the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at London Colney, which provides a collection of magazine articles from the race build up, well worth a read if you are interested in more details of the race.
Hopefully this post has been interesting for some of you, I’ve tried to capture the essence of the race without going to deep into the details to mark this historic anniversary.