Now here is a great way to spend less than 10 minutes – enjoying the sights and sounds of the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, which took place in October 1934 and created the legend of the De Havilland DH.88 Comet.
The race was devised by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne as part of the great Australian city’s centenary celebrations, and a prize fund of $75,000 was put up by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer, on the conditions that the race be named after his MacRobertson confectionery company.
The race was organised by the Royal Aero Club and would run from Mildenhall airfield in East Anglia to Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne. There were five compulsory stops in Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland – but between these points the competitors could choose their own routes. A further 22 optional stops were provided with stocks of fuel and oil by Shell and Stanavo.
The basic rules were: no limit to the size of aircraft or power or to crew size, but no pilot was permitted to join the aircraft after they had left England. Each aircraft had to carry three days’ rations per crew member, plus floats, smoke signals and efficient instruments. There were prizes for the outright fastest aircraft, and for the best performance on a handicap formula by any aircraft finishing within 16 days of the outright winner.
Take off date was set at dawn on October 20, 1934. The announcement of the race and the generous purse ensured that 60 entries were registered, but of these only 20 made it to the start line. Among them was the trio of purpose-built designed de Havilland DH.88 Comet aircraft, which were planned as soon as the MacRobinson race was announced. They were pre-sold to customers at a cost of £5,000 -each – significantly less than the cost of designing and building these advanced aircraft – because the de Havilland company felt that such a ‘loss leader’ was worth it if it ensured a British victory.
Against the Comets, the stiffest competition was expected to come from the advanced American all-metal passenger airliners, such as the Douglas DC-2. Nevertheless the field featured aircraft of every size and type by the time the race got underway.
First off the line, watched by a crowd of 60,000, were Jim & Amy Mollison (nee Johnson) in their Comet named ‘Black Magic’, and these two celebrated aviators were early leaders in the race until forced to retire at Allahabad with engine trouble. This left the scarlet Comet named ‘Grosvenor House’ and flown by Flight Lt. Charles Scott and Captain Tom Campbell Black well ahead of the field. This racer went on to win in a time of less than 3 days, despite flying the last stage with one engine throttled back because of an oil-pressure indicator giving a faulty low reading.
The third Comet was the green-painted example that was bought by the celebrated aviator and racing driver, Bernard Rubin. This aircraft had no name, but its colour scheme evoked strong memories of the Bentley team of which Rubin had been a key member during its triumphs at Le Mans. Originally Rubin was to have flown with K.F.H. Waller but he was taken ill, so Waller instead flew with O. Cathcart-Jones.
“The Green ‘Un”, as Rubin’s Comet was known, finished fourth in the race to Melbourne, but more significantly it picked up the very newsreel footage you see here and flew straight back to Britain, setting a new round-trip record in to the bargain!
Perhaps more significantly in the development of popular long-distance air travel, the second and third places were taken by passenger-carrying airliners, with the KLM-operated Douglas DC-2 Uiver gaining a narrow advantage over Roscoe Turner’s Boeing 247-D, both completing the course less than a day behind the winner.
The most dramatic part of the race was when the Uiver, hopelessly lost after becoming caught in a thunderstorm, ended up over Albury NSW. The townsfolk responded magnificently – an engineer at the power station signalled “Albury” to the plane by turning the town lights on and off, and an announcer on radio station 2CO Corowa appealed for cars to line up on the racecourse to light up a runway for the plane. The plane landed, and next morning was pulled out of the mud by locals to fly on and win the handicap section of the race. In gratitude KLM made a large donation to Albury Hospital and Alf Waugh, the Mayor of Albury, was awarded a title in Dutch nobility.
Here all the footage shot for the British newsreels has been assembled for your viewing pleasure. It makes for a spine-tingling spectacle almost 80 years later…