Aircraft Profile #51. Gee Bee Racers
The position of the Gee Bee racers in aviation history is unique. If one considers the 1931 and 1932 Super Sportsters to be essentially one basic design, it is safe to say that no single model in air racing history has ever made such a spectacular entrance upon the scene or attained such a dominant place in the memory and affection of the racing enthusiasts. This is all the more remarkable because the significant racing history of the three most famous machines lasted barely more than one year. Other designs, notably the contemporary Wedell-Wiiliams series, turned in dependable performances year after year and amassed a far greater total of winnings. However, the Wedell-Williams is relatively unknown today while the stubby Gee Bees are almost invariably the first machines that come to mind whenever the spectacular 1930 39 period of American air racing, generally referred to as "the Golden Years", is mentioned.
AMERICAN AIR RACING
An understanding of how the phenomenon of the Gee Bees could come about can be obtained from a review of the previous decade of air racing in America. Aeroplane races had become a very popular spectator sport both in Europe and in America in the years before W.W.I, and was, in fact, one of the major public activities in those years when aviation had not yet become a significant part of the military and commercial scene. The major aircraft-producing countries of the world, most notably France, conducted race meetings and specific annual contests that were to become world famous. W.W.I, of course, put an end to such sporting activity,
While many races were held in Europe, they were quite different from those in America, where a combination of technical, economic, and geographic circumstances peculiar to that large nation soon produced the phenomenon of the annual "National Air Races". By the mid-1920s, this had become an established institution that covered a period of a week to ten days and included competitive events for pilots possessing practically any known kind of aeroplane and the urge to enter it in competition, Of course, the unlimited power events
THE GRANVILLE BROTHERS
The name "Gee Bee" is a spelling-out of the initials G.B., standing for Granville Brothers Aircraft, Incorporated. There were five brothers in the management of a firm that had developed out of an itinerant aircraft repair business founded by Zantford Granville at Boston, Massachusetts, in 1925. Caught up in the spectacular growth of aviation that followed Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris in 1927, the business expanded to the point where it became a formal corporation engaged in the manufacture of commercial aeroplanes at Springfield, Massachusetts. The first product of this new firm was the Gee Bee Model "A", a small two-seat biplane that differed from its contemporaries only in the seating arrangement, which placed the occupants side-by-side in a single cockpit instead of in the traditional two tandem cockpits.
THE GEE BEE SPORTSTERS
The trends established by recent American racing-places influenced the next Gee Bee design, the Model “X" "Sportster"
The new Gee Bee Model "X" was intended as a relatively low cost and docile sporting machine and was not intended to be a racer. However, circumstances soon made a racer of it. The "Sportster" was designed to meet full commercial licensing requirements and many were sold with "standard" licences, free of the limitations and restrictions imposed on all-out racers. The machines that were used for
The structure was strictly standard for the time, with welded steel tube fuselage and tail surfaces and wooden ribs and wing spars with fabric covering over all. The basic aerodynamic and structural concepts of the "Sportsters" were retained for all succeeding Gee Bee designs.
While originally known as Gee Bee Model "X", the single-seaters soon became known by other designations to distinguish them by powerplant. Model "D" used inverted in-line engines such as the 95- or 125hp Menasco, the 110hp Cirrus, or the 135hp Ranger. Model "E" used the 110hp Warner Scarab radial. The first of the line, still called Model "X" and powered with the Cirrus, was entered in the 1930 American Cirrus Derby by Lowell Bayles of the Brinton-Bayles Flying Service, also of Springfield. This was quite different from the usual concept of an air race, being in the form of a tour for aeroplanes powered with any of several variants of the sponsor's basic engine. The participants were to fly a 8920km route from Detroit, Michigan, the motor capital of the country, penetrate the Deep South and as far west as Los Angeles, and then return to Detroit. This event was conducted independently of the National Air Races and was intended to demonstrate to the public the dependability of modern commercial aircraft, particularly those powered with
The successful showing in the Cirrus Derby resulted in booming business for the little Granviile shop, and minor variations of the prototype soon rolled out of the door. None of these machines was a true production article, however. Each was built practically as a custom model and refinement of the basic design became apparent as each succeeding airframe look shape. These are pointed out in the photographs while specifications for all of the Gee Bee monoplanes are presented in a single table at the end of this Profile.
THE SENIOR SPORTSTERS
With a successful line of single-seaters in production, it was logical that the basic design be expanded to a two-seater. This was done with the Model "Y", two of which were built. The first, registered NR-11049, was merely a logical expansion of the "X". Span was increased 1.5m and the fuselage was lengthened 1.35m to accommodate the extra cockpit, larger fuel lank, etc. For racing purposes, the front cockpit could be covered over to reduce drag. The original powerplant was a 300hp Pratl & Whitney "Wasp Jr.". This was good enough to result in a first place in the Aerol Trophy Race for women in the 1931 National Air Races for Maude Tait.
The second Model “Y”, registered NR-718Y, was originally powered with a 215hp Lycoming R-680 radial engine and was used as an engine test-bed by Lycoming. It was purchased in 1933 by a new owner, Art Knapp, who installed a 420hp Wright J-6-9 "Whirlwind". This, too, was a good lady's machine, being flown to second place in the women's Free-for-All at the 1933 Chicago races by Florence Klingensmith, at a speed of 304.35km/h. She was killed in a later event at Chicago when the “Y" began shedding wing fabric and then broke up in the air. The first "Y" was lost under slightly less spectacular circumstances - a propeller blade came off during a flight over the ocean near New York City. The resulting vibration soon tore the engine from its mounting and the plane spun into the Atlantic.
During their brief racing careers, both of the "Y"s demonstrated a technical trend that was characteristic of American racing planes in the 1930s. A single machine would enter the races several years in a row but would be practically a different aeroplane each time. This was because extensive modifications were frequently made to improve streamlining and enable older designs to catch up with the latest improvements introduced on the newer models. The most common change, of course, was to put in an engine of greater horsepower. While the added power did increase the top speed, it also introduced other problems that all too often spelled the doom of the
THE SUPER SPORTSTERS
Since the Sportsters had done so well as racers without actually being designed for the purpose, it was logical for the Granvilles to consider the development of a pure racer that would be capable of going after the bigger prizes in the unlimited power events. While the company and the individual owners of Gee Bee aircraft had been able to meet the costs of entering the small machines in the races, it was recognised that the cost of an unlimited racer was beyond the resources of the small firm, especially in the second year of the World-Wide economic depression that had already forced some old established aircraft manufacturers into bankruptcy. Consequently, a syndicate known as the Springfield Air Racing Association was formed in July 1931, to finance the development of the new racer.
MODEL "Z". This was a direct descendant of the "X" and "Y" models, using the same general lines and construction details. However, it leaned more heavily on a particular feature of the 1929 Travel Air "Mystery Ship" than had any previous Gee Bee other than the second Model "Y". The cross-section of the fuselage was enlarged to match the diameter of the radial engine and continue the lines of the new N.A.C.A. cowling aft for improved streamlining. Prior to the appearance of the Travel Air, the cylinders of radial engines projected beyond the fuselage line and drag rings or cowls, when they were
The combination of a heavy engine and a short fuselage was responsible for another unconventional feature of the new Gee Bee. To offset the weight of the engine, it was necessary to move the pilot considerably aft of his normal position on or just behind the centre of gravity. He ended up so close to the tail, in fact, that it was a simple matter to integrate what would normally be the streamlined headrest behind an open cockpit into the vertical fin. A seemingly new feature of the Model "Z" was the use of a completely enclosed cockpit for the pilot. This had appeared on racers as far back as 1920, but had not been accepted
Another characteristic of racing planes the world over, especially new models, is that they are seldom ready sufficiently in advance of the race to permit a careful programme of testing and adjustment. The fact that the Gee Bee "Z" made its first flight on 22nd August 1931 when the races were scheduled to start on 29th August, is a production miracle because design and construction had only begun early in July! Fortunately, there were few teething troubles for the new model.
Painted yellow and black in the now-traditional Gee Bee pattern and assigned racing number 4, the hope of the Springfield Air Racing Association was christened "City of Springfield". With this name and a painting of prominent Springfield buildings on each side of its nose in gold, the short but spectacular career of No. 4 opened with four first places in four events entered at the National Air Races and a new record in the speed dashes. Two pilots flew the stubby little speedster -designer Bob Hall winning the General Tire & Rubber Co. Trophy at 305.168km/h and a mixed Free-for-All at 357.843km/h. Lowell Bayles, pilot of the original Model "X” in the previous year's Cirrus Derby and one of the major stockholders of the Association who had "bought in" for the specific purpose of flying the new racer, won the Goodyear Trophy at 331.66km/h; the major event, the Thompson Trophy Race, at 380.34km/h;
With the major races over for the year, the Granvilles and the Racing Association turned their thoughts to another try for the land-plane speed record. The Model "Z" had shown that it could do no more with the original “Wasp Jr." engine, so the logical step was taken - a larger 1340 cubic inches Pratt & Whitney "Wasp", normally rated at 450hp but boosted to 750hp, for the record attempt, was installed. Because of the larger diameter, it was necessary to fit a larger cowling that changed the forward lines of the machine. It was flown to Detroit for the record attempt, and several dashes were made that exceeded the record, one to a dazzling 505km/h. For various technical reasons, however, it was impossible to complete the four passes required on a single flight. One attempt failed through no fault of the aeroplane - the recording equipment failed so the record flight could not be declared official.
The last attempt, on 5th December 1931, made headlines by being a spectacular failure. When the plane was passing the cameras at maximum speed, it is believed that the cap on the fuel tank came off, shattering the windshield and startling or injuring Bayles, the pilot, so that he made a sudden movement
THE R-l AND THE R-2. Although the loss of Bayles and the Model "Z" was a blow to the Association, the record of the aeroplane's performance, and its profits, proved the design to be sound. With full expectation of being able not only to duplicate but exceed the 1931 performance record, the Association decided to build not one but two new models for the 1932 season. The improved versions, designed without the services of Bob Hall, who had joined a new racing association, were designated R-l and R-2. Except for powerplants, the two were aerodynamically and structurally identical. The R-l, registered NR-2100 and carrying racing number 11, was powered with a "Wasp" boosted to 800hp while the R-2, with registration NR-2101 and racing number 7, carried a smaller "Wasp Jr." delivering 550hp. The R-2 had increased tankage since it was planned for use primarily as a cross-country racer while the more powerful R-l was a pylon racer. The R-1 became the most famous of all the Gee Bees and its pictures are used most
Construction of the "R"s was very similar to that of the "Z" and its predecessors except that in the interest of greater strength and improved airflow the wings and horizontal tail surfaces were covered with plywood. The landing gear struts were faired in like those of the later Sportsters and the modified versions of the "Y”. Both the overall length and the wingspan were increased over those of the "Z” but the fuselages were even fatter and the pilot was moved still farther aft and closer to the tail. As originally built, the traditional vertical fin was non-existent on the R-l. The cockpit canopy faired directly to the top of the rudder in a horizontal line. While this was an oddity of configuration, the rest of the features being in the established Gee Bee tradition, the R-1 did have a most important new feature - a propeller with controllable pitch. Previous racers had all used fixed-pitch designs which had to be set at a compromise adjustment to accommodate the important take-off as well as the high speed performance. A propeller that could be readjusted in flight gave both better take-off performance and a higher top speed.
The first flight was made on 13th August 1932. The pilot was Russell Boardman, who had become the major stockholder and manager of the Association. As a result of directional instability on this Sight, a small vertical fin similar to that of the Model "Z" was added and the rudder area was increased. Boardman was to pilot the R-l in the
The 1932 Thompson was to be the only race that the R-1 would win. It was improved for the 1933 races through the installation of a larger Pratt & Whitney "Hornet" engine delivering 900hp and the rudder area was increased. Since the National Air Races were to be held in Los Angeles that year, with the transcontinental Bendix Trophy Race starting in New York, the R-l was entered in the cross-country as well as the pylon event. Russell Bourdman had recovered from his 1932 injuries and was the pilot. When taking-off from Indianapolis, Indiana, his first fuel stop on the route, the R-1 suddenly went out of control and crashed upside down. Boardman succumbed to his injuries a few days later and the career of the R-l was ended in its
Because of its smaller engine, which resulted in a more sharply tapered cowling, the R-2 could be distinguished from the R-1 by this feature as well as by its different numbers and the arrangement of the unique "Pair of Dice" insignia. Since it was completed several days after the R-l, the R-2 benefited from the R-1 test flight and had the extra fin and rudder area, added before it flew. It was entered in the 1932 Bendix Trophy Race, which started in Los Angeles and ended in Cleveland. Piloted by Lee Gehlbach, who had beaten the original Gee Bee Model “X" in the 1930 Cirrus Derby, the R-2 was leading the field when it was forced down at Rantoul, Illinois, by an oil leak. Since it couldn't be repaired in a reasonable time, Gehlbach flew on to Cleveland with the cockpit canopy removed so that he could see around the oil-covered windshield. In spite of the delay and reduced speed, he was placed fourth. The same pilot and plane were placed fifth in the Thompson Trophy Race, a creditable performance considering the lower power when compared to the winning R-l and some of the other contestants. The R-2 was also placed third in the Free-for-All for aeroplanes powered with engines under 1,000 cubic inches (the "Wasp Jr." displaced 975 cubic inches). These were the only places taken by the R-2 in air racing.
Like the R-l, the R-2 was improved for the 1933 season. It inherited the original "Wasp" engine and cowling
THE R-l /R-2 COMBINATION.
Another amazing facet of American air racing is the many miracles of reconstruction that were accomplished. While both the R-l and the R-2 were reduced to apparent junk in 1933, enough usable parts of each remained to form one complete new airframe. A major asset was the complete 1932 wing of the R-2, which had been stored since the replacement was installed. This wing was mated to the repaired R-l fuselage, which had been lengthened two feet in the process and fitted with a larger tin and rudder. A "Hornet" engine was installed as in the 1933 version of the R-1, but a closer-fitting cowl was used which necessitated a row of distinctive bumps to accommodate the cylinder rocker boxes. This hybrid machine was given the registration and racing numbers of the R-2, but did not carry the now famous dice insignia nor the S.A.R.A. initials of the Springfield Air Racing Association, that organisation having been dissolved. The Granville organisation itself undertook the
In 1935 the machine was acquired by a new owner-pilot, Cecil Allan, who undertook further modifications, including the construction of an entirely new and larger wing. Because of this and other changes, the Granvilles objected to the use of the name Gee Bee in connection with the aeroplane. Allan flew it to Los Angeles for the start of the 1935 Bendix race, but crashed and was killed on take-off. This tragic event ended the era of the Gee Bee racers. All of the special racers had been destroyed, and if any of the little Sportsters survived at this lime, they were never again seen in a major air race. The Gee Bee firm, too, was gone, having become bankrupt and subsequently sold following Zantford Granville's death early in 1934. While there was to be one more aeroplane to carry on the name, it was neither a true racer nor a true Gee Bee.
As a parallel to some schemes that the Granvilles had for developing a line of commercial aircraft out of their racers, a design for a long-range, high-speed two-seat sporting model known as the Q.E.D. (Quad Erat Demonstrandum, Latin for "So It Is Proven") was laid down in 1933 and completed in 1934. While usually called a Gee Bee, the Q.E.D.
The one race to which the Q.E.D. was suited was the unique Mac Robertson race from England to Australia, held in 1934, and it had been designed with this event in mind. Before flying in that race, however, it was entered in the 1934 Bendix, which started in Los Angeles. Pilot Lee Gehlbach was forced down with cowling trouble at Des Moines, Iowa, and arrived at Cleveland too late to place. The Q.E.D. was not entered in any of the pylon events that year. It fared little better in the MacRobcrtson even though it turned in
In 1936, the big green two-seater was entered in the Thompson Trophy Race at Los Angeles but was forced out by engine trouble after completing 10 laps of the 15-lap course. It was not entered in any race in 1937 but did try for the Bendix again in 1938. The "Never Finish" jinx ran true to form and pilot George Armistead was forced down at Winslow, Arizona, by a combination of weather, radio, and powerplant troubles before the race had got well under way.
While this misfortune ended the formal racing career of the last of the Gee Bees, it was not quite the end of the line. One of Mexico's most famous pilots, Francisco Sarabia, bought the Q.E.D., repainted it, and placed it under Mexican registration. At first, it seemed that the change of ownership had broken the jinx, for Sarabia set a new record for a non-stop flight from Mexico City to New York City on 24th May 1939, covering the 3782km in 10 hours and 47 minutes. The jinx prevailed, however, for on his return flight, starting from Washington, D.C., Sarabia was killed when the engine quit on take-off. A rag left inside the cowling had been sucked into the carburettor, choking the engine.
Peter M. Bowers, 1965.
All the World's Rotorcraft