The great air race to Melbourne
The 1934 MacRobertson Trophy
By Gert Jan Mentink1 September 2019
In the London to Melbourn Air Race of 1934, daring pilots exceeded the boundaries of contemporary aviation. In a world dominated by the Great Depression, the race formed a welcome distraction, closely followed by millions of people.
The race was held in October 1934 as part of the centenary celebrations of the city of Melbourne, with the goal of bring Australia and Europe – and in particular, of course, the motherland, Britain – closer together. The idea of the race was devised by the mayor of Melbourne, Harold Smith. A prize fund of AU$75,000 (£10.000, worth about £2 million today), was put up by Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer, on the conditions that the race be named after his MacRobertson company, and that it be organised in the safest way possible.
Organised by the Royal Aero Club in London, the race ran from RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia to the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, a distance of approximately 18,200 km (11,300 miles). There were five compulsory stops, at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville; otherwise competitors were free to choose their own routes. A further 22 airfields were provided with stocks of fuel and oil by Shell and Stanavo. The Royal Aero Club put some effort into persuading the countries along the route to improve facilities at the stopping points. Aircraft were required to carry three days' rations per crew member, floats, smoke signals and decent instruments.
There were prizes for the outright fastest aircraft, and for the best overall performance by any plane finishing within 16 days, calculated against a 'handicap speed' which considered, among other things, the payload carried and the rated power of the engines. The handicap speed formula can be found on the website A Fleeting Pace by Terry Mace who argues that the handicap classification was full of flaws.
In the weeks and days before the race, the field of 63 entries whittled down to 21. The aircraft which made it to the start included three purpose-built de Havilland DH.88 Comet racers, two of the new generation of American all-metal passenger transports, and an eclectic mix of older racers, light transports and old biplane bombers. Eventually only twenty aircraft took off at dawn on 20 October 1934, with Irishmen 'Fitz' Fitzmaurice and 'Jock' Bonar deciding to stay on the ground after an argument with the organisation on the weight of their purpose-built Bellanca 28‑70 racer Irish Swoop.
First off the starting line, waved off by the mayor of London and a crowd of 60.000 people, were Jim and Amy Mollison in their DH.88 Comet G‑ACSP Black Magic. The starting sequence did not matter much, as the small time differences were to be nullified by regulated time on the ground in Singapore. Managing a non-stop flight, the Mollisons were also the first to arrive in Baghdad, where they took a bath and gave an interview to the press before taking off again. The scarlet Comet, G‑ACSS Grosvenor House, left Mildenhall as third, but pilots Scott and Campbell Black had to return to the airfield as one of the engines gave trouble. Having fixed the malfunction, they made good progress towards Baghdad but landed too far north in Krkuk. G‑ACSS was refuelled there and still arrived at Baghdad as second.
Most of the aircraft had limited range and made refuelling stops in Rome, Athens and Aleppo. The KLM DC‑2 PH‑AJU Uiver, carrying mail and a a couple of adventurous passengers, did this too but surprisingly the airliner still arrived in Baghdad in third place. The Boeing 247 flown by Roscoe Turner and Clyde Pangborn passed through Rome and also reached Bagdad by the end of the first day. The two almost lost their precious Boeing there as they experienced windshear during their landing approach.
They were followed by the second Dutch team, flying the sleek Pander S.4 PH‑OST Panderjager. Chosing a more northern route, its crew, Geysendorffer, Asjes, and Pronk, had been forced to make a precautionary landing at Halle, near Leipzig, as a piece of aircraft linen had detached. Quickly repaired, PH-OST flew to Athens and then straight to Baghdad. Next to arrive there was the third Comet, G-ACSR, flown by Cathcart Jones and Waller. They too had planned to fly non-stop to Baghdad, but had also missed their mark, landing at Dezful, some 200 km further south. After a quick refuel they still made it to Baghdad on the first day.
Others had bigger problems. Jaqueline Cochran and Wesley Smith Pratt made a stop in Bucharest where they damaged their Granville R‑6H, NX14307 Q.E.D. – the last of the Gee Bee racers – during landing. For them the race was over. Neville Stack and Sidney Lewis Turner ran into bad weather over France and put down their twin-engined Airspeed AS.8 Viceroy G‑ACMU in Paris. They eventually quit the race at Athens on the third day, blaming the manufacturer for the aircraft's brake problem.
Navigation proved to be difficult for some: Geoffrey Shaw managed to fly his British Aircraft Eagle G‑ACVU to Catalonia in Spain! The best performance among the slower contenders was by Malcom MacGregor and Wesley Walker, who reached Athens on the first day in their unmodified Miles Hawk, ZK‑ADJ.
Still in the lead, the Mollisons in the black Comet made a fuel stop at Karachi on the second day of the race. But from there their luck seemed to have vaporised. Once again airborne after a rather slow refuel, the undercarriage did not seem to retract completely and they returned to the airfieId. When they took off again, the isse still seemed to persist. It turned out to be a matter of a loose wire! When this was finally fixed, they lost their way over India in thick fog and eventually landed at Jabalpur. Unfortunately only low octane fuel was available there. This had a detrimental effect on the performance of the Comet's engines, and one of the Gipsy Sixes even quit on the way into Allahabad. Repairs on the engine here took so much time that the Mollisons had to give up.
Meanwhile Grosvenor House managed a dircect flight from Baghdad to Allahabad, taking the lead in the race. The scarlet Comet even reached Singapore that day. The KLM crew made fuel stops at Jask in Persia and Karachi before reaching Allahabad as second. In the heat of the race, a passenger was left behind when they took off again, and they had to turn back, loosing precious time. From Allahabad they flew to Calcutta and from there to Alor Star, Malaya. By the end of the second day, the DC‑2 Uiver was on its way to Singapore.
When the Pander Postjager PH-OST landed at Karachi, it turned out that the Dutch pilots had overtaken Roscoe Turner's Boeing 247. But their fortune did not last. When they approached Allahabad, the Pander's left mainwheel failed to come down, and two of the propellers sustained damage. Although practically out of the race, the crew did not give up. Captain Geysendorffer went to Calcutta twice to have the damaged parts repaired – traveling 2,000 miles by train! When the Postjager finally departed late at night on 26 October, it struck an unlit tractor on the runway. A fuel tank was ripped open and the aircraft burnt to ashes. Fortunately, the crew and the tractor driver escaped unhurt.
Meanwhile on the second day the Boeing 247 was considered missing as there was no longer any radio contact. But then, by the end of the day, the aircraft suddenly showed up in Allahabad and, with two of its rivals grounded, it was now in the number three position. The green Comet, flown by Cathcart Jones and Waller, landed soon thereafter. They had stopped at Karachi to fix a malfunction after which Allahabad was reached without further delay.
In the back of the field, a fatal accident took out the Fairex Fox biplane, G‑ACXX. Harold Gilman and James Campbell Baines had reached Marseilles on day one, and had flown to Rome on the second day. Continuing their journey eastwards they crashed near the town of Palazzo San Gervasio, 70km southeast of Foggia, and Gilman and Baines were both killed in the crash. They were the only casualties of the race. Lockheed Vega G‑ABGK Puck overturned on landing at Aleppo on this second day of the race, but Australian pilots Jimmy Woods and Don Bennett walked away from the wreck.
The leading scarlet Comet developed trouble in one of its engines while heading for Darwin. Scott and Campbell Black managed to reach the Australian coast on one engine, and the engine was repaired at Darwin. They then took off again for Charleville, where another repair was performed. Despite flying the last stage with one engine throttled back because of an oil-pressure indicator giving a faulty low reading, Scott and Campbell Black were the first to reach Melbourne after 71 hours of flying in Grosvenor House. They were the outright winners of the race.
Meanwhile the Dutch DC‑2 arrived in Australia from Batavia (now Jakarta), the terminus of the KLM line from Europe. One of the most dramatic events in the race was when Uiver crew got lost in a thunderstorm after its take-off from Charleville at night. The townsfolk of Albury in New South Wales responded magnificently to an aircraft in distress. Lyle Ferris, an engineer of the post office, went to the power station and signalled 'A-L-B-U-R-Y' in morse code by turning the town lights on and off. And Arthur Newnham, the announcer on the local radio station, appealed on car owners to drive to the racecourse and illuminate a runway for the plane. The DC‑2 landed safely.
The next morning, the KLM airliner was pulled out of the mud by the helpful locals. But Captain Parmentier was reluctant to take off from the short, muddy racecourse. So he decided to leave two of his crew members and the passengers behind, although this was considered to be against the regulations, and meant a lower handicap rating. Flown by Parmentier and second pilot Moll, Uiver managed to take off from the racecourse and arrived at Melbourne almost 20 hours behind the scarlet Comet.
They were in still second place! Roscoe Turner's Boeing 247 was suffering oil leakage and, trailing smoke during the final stage of the race, landed at Flemington a few hours behind its Douglas rival. The green Comet needed 15 hours longer still.
The number five, the humble Miles Hawk ZK‑ADJ, took a full week to arrive, and only nine aircraft completed the race in the required 16 days. It is interesting to note that the scarlet Comet came first in both the speed and handicap classifications. Since each participant could claim only one prize according to the rules, the KLM crew got the handicap prize and is thus widely believed to have won the race on handicap.
Of course the victory of the Comet was proof of what a dedicated racing plane was capable of. But perhaps more significant in the development of long-distance air travel were the second and third places taken by airliners. The KLM DC‑2, which even carried a couple of passengers, gained a narrow advantage over Roscoe Turner's Boeing 247, and both finished less than one day behind the winner.
The finishing order, the aircraft and their fate
|Speed race:||1st place, in 71 h 0 m|
|Handicap race:||1st place|
|Aircraft:||DH-88 Comet, G-ACSS Grosvenor House|
|Crew:||Charles Scott, Tom Campbell Black (Britain)|
|Flying time:||65 h 24 m|
Comet G‑ACSS was the outright winner of the race. The aircraft also finished first in the handicap race, but the crew could only claim one prize. Grosvenor House returned to the United Kingdom after a triumphant tour through Australia, and was then taken on charge by the Air Ministry and flown to Martlesham Heath for evaluation. Repainted silver it flew with the military serial K5084, but was written off after a heavy landing. It was however rebuilt to participate in several races and record attempts under various names. The aircraft claimed fourth place in the 1937 Istres-Damascus-Paris race, and later the same year it lowered the out-and-home record to Cape Town to 15 days 17 hours. In March 1938, Arthur Edmond Clouston and journalist Victor Anthony Ricketts made a return trip to New Zealand covering 26,450 miles (42,570 km) in eleven days. G‑ACSS was then abandoned at Gravesend where it spent WWII.
In 1951 De Havilland apprentices statically restored the aircraft for the Festival of Great Britain. It was given to the Shuttleworth Collection in 1965 and restored to flying condition first at RAE Farnborough and then at the British Aerospace works at Hatfield, culminating in its first flight in almost 50 years on 17 May 1987. On 28 October 2002 the Comet suffered a landing accident at its home base Old Warden Aerodrome. Research showed that as originally designed the undercarriage legs were liable to failure under certain conditions. Modifications were implemented and after successful test flights in 2014, Grosvenor House is now a regular performer at the frequent Shuttleworth air displays.
|Speed race:||2nd place, in 90 h 13 m|
|Handicap race:||2nd place (winning handicap prize)|
|Aircraft:||DC‑2, PH‑AJU Uiver|
|Crew:||Koene Dirk Parmentier, Jan Moll, Bouwe Prins, Kees van Brugge (Netherlands)|
|Flying time:||83 h 9 m|
After various festivities and a promotional passenger flight over Melbourne on 31 October, Uiver started its return flight to Holland. Large crowds gathered during its passage through the Netherlands East Indies, and during welcome ceremonies at Schiphol on 21 November and at Rotterdam - Waalhaven three days later. Parmentier and his crew were national heroes! All four were awarded a Dutch nobility title, as was Alf Waugh, the mayor of Albury. In in gratitude to the town's citizens, KLM made a sizeable donation to the Albury hospital.
PH-AJU briefly served on the airline's European network, and made a proving flight to Cairo to prepare the introduction of the DC‑2 on the Amsterdam to Batavia route. Then on 19 December it took off for a special Christmas mail flight to Batavia but the next day, 20 December 1934, Uiver crashed in the desert near Rutbah Wells (now Ar Rutba, Iraq), and all four crew and three passengers were killed.
|Speed race:||3rd place, in 92 h 55 m|
|Handicap race:||Did not compete|
|Aircraft:||Boeing 247D, NR257Y Warner Bros. Comet||Race number||5|
|Crew:||Roscoe Turner, Clyde Pangborn, Reeder Nichols (United States)|
Recognising that the new breed of twin-engined metal aircraft were more suitable than traditional racers for the epic race to Down Under, famous racing pilot 'Colonel' Roscoe Turner had hired this new Boeing 247D from United Air Lines. Turner returned NR257Y immediately after the race, and as NC13369 it hauled passengers for United until early 1937 when it was leased to Western Air Express. It was then acquired by the new Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) as a flying laboratory. It was donated to the Smithsionian Institution in 1958. After a period of storage, it was restored with money donated by United, going on public display on 1 July 1976. It can be found suspended from the roof of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington DC.
|Speed race:||4th place, in 108 h 13 m|
|Handicap race:||Did not compete|
|Aircraft:||DH.88 Comet, G-ACSR|
|Crew:||Owen Cathcart Jones, Ken Waller (Britain)|
|Speed race:||5th place, in 7 d 14 h|
|Handicap race:||5th place|
|Aircraft:||Miles M.2F Hawk Major, ZK-ADJ|
|Crew:||Malcolm McGregor, Johnnie Walker (New Zealand)|
|Flying time:||118 h 5 m|
|Speed race:||6th place, in 9 d 18 h|
|Handicap race:||4th place|
|Aircraft:||Airspeed AS.5 Courier, G-ACJL|
|Crew:||David Stodart, Ken Stodart (Britain)|
|Flying time:||100 h 24 m|
|Speed race:||7th place, in 10 d 16 h|
|Handicap race:||3rd place|
|Aircraft:||DH.80A Puss Moth, VH-UQO My Hildergarde|
|Crew:||Jimmy Melrose (Australia)|
|Flying time:||120 h 16 m|
|Speed race:||8th place, arriving on 31 October|
|Handicap race:||7th place|
|Aircraft:||Desoutter Mk.II, OY-DOD|
|Crew:||Michael Hansen, Daniel Jensen (Denmark)|
|Flying time:||129 h 47 m|
|Speed race:||9th place, arriving on 3 November||Handicap race:||6th place|
|Aircraft:||DH.89 Dragon Rapide, ZK-ACO Tainui|
|Crew:||Jim Hewitt, Cyril Kay, Frank Stewart (New Zealand)|
|Flying time:||106 h 51 m|
|Result:||Not classified, arriving too late on 20 November|
|Aircraft:||Miles M.3 Falcon, G-ACTM|
|Crew:||Harold Brook (Britain)|
|Result:||Not classified, arriving too late on 24 November|
|Aircraft:||Fairey IIIF, G-AABY Time and Chance|
|Crew:||Cyril Davies, Clifford Hill (Britain)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Paris, France. Reached Melbourne on 13 February 1935.|
|Aircraft:||Fairey Fox Mk.I, G-ACXO|
|Crew:||Ray Parer, Godfrey Hemsworth (Australia)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Calcutta, India|
|Aircraft:||Monocoupe D-145, NC501W Baby Ruth|
|Crew:||Jack Wright, John Polando Warner (United States)|
|Result:||Not classified, crashed on take-off from Allahabad, India on 26 October 1934|
|Aircraft:||Pander S.4 Postjager, PH-OST Panderjager|
|Crew:||Gerrit Geysendorffer, Dick Asjes, Pieter Pronk (Netherlands)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Allahabad, India|
|Aircraft:||DH.88 Comet, G-ACSP Black Magic|
|Crew:||Jim Mollison, Amy Johnson (Britain)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Bushehr, Persia|
|Aircraft:||British Aircraft Eagle, G-ACVU The Spirit of W. Shaw & Co Ltd|
|Crew:||Geoffrey Shaw (Britain)|
|Result:||Not classified, overturned on landing at Aleppo, Syria on 21 October 1934|
|Aircraft:||Lockheed DL-1A Vega, G-ABGK Puck|
|Crew:||Jimmy Woods, Don Bennett (Australia)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Athens, Greece|
|Aircraft:||Airspeed AS.8 Viceroy, G-ACMU|
|Crew:||Neville Stack, Sidney Turner (Britain)|
|Result:||Not classified, quit race at Bucharest, Romania|
|Aircraft:||Granville Gee Bee R-6H, NR14307 Q.E.D.|
|Crew:||Jacqueline Cochran, Wesley Smith Pratt (United States)|
|Result:||Not classified, crashed near Palazzo San Gervasio, Italy on 22 October 1934, both crew killed|
|Aircraft:||Fairey Fox Mk.I, G-ACXX|
|Crew:||Harold Gilman (Australia), James Campbell Baines (Britain)|
The original article was published in Scramble Magazine. It was revised and updated for AirHistory.net.