As we advance well into the 21st century, the continuous evolution of aviation presses on.
Advances today are not as dramatic or monumental as those of the middle of the previous 100 years. Stunning developments in materials and electronics are today's cutting edge. Risk is now more financial that physical. With this in mind, one cannot but reflect back to the Golden Days of aviation, when advancing the science if aviation was accomplished at great risk to life and limb. It seems appropriate to reflect upon events and things that were very special in the world of aviation in the dark and harsh years of the Great Depression. During this time, recreational and sport aviation struggled in a dismal economy. Yet, there were many men, and women, who had the money, talent and ambition to strive for new achievement. Much of this achievement was expressed in air racing, and the 1920s and 1930s were the sport's watershed decades. The words Gee Bee were, in the early 1930s, synonymous with sport and racing aviation. By early 1931, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Granville Brothers Aircraft Company produced several excellent sport aircraft. Their Gee Bee Models X, C, D, and E Sportsters, and the Model Y Senior Sportster gained valuable national attention. Ultimately, however, it would be the outrageous Gee Bee Models Z and R Super Sportsters that would make the Gee Bee name legendary or to some, infamous.
Gee Bee Sportster Model D. This particular D model was powered by a Menasco C-4 , making 150 hp. This aircraft was a race winner and had been flown by many of the era's well know race pilots. It was destroyed in an aerobatics accident in 1936. (National Archives)
Encouraged by racing success of the Sportsters, the Granvilles formed the Springfield Air Racing Association (SARA) to finance a dedicated racing plane. They had but one idea in mind: Competing in and winning at the 1931 National Air Races held in Cleveland. Winning there meant more than gaining prestige; rewards included prize money with which to pay their work force and earn the stockholders of SARA a dividend. The prize money available at Cleveland’s NAR was sizable. Simply stated, the lure of profit and glory was too great to resist in the depths of the Depression. With only a narrow time window for designing, constructing and testing the new racer, Chief Engineer Bob Hall and his draftsmen quickly began to generate drawings. Actual component fabrication and framework tube welding began in late June. the new racer had to be ready for test flights in just 60 days. It was a daunting task, but the Granville boys met the challenge.
Painted in a stunning two-tone pattern of black and yellow, the Model Z was a tiny aircraft relative to its contemporaries. Here, the Model Z warms up prior to its qualification run at the National Air Races in 1931. (Bodie)
On August 21st, the freshly painted Gee Bee Model Z was rolled out of the GB shop to the cheers of expectant onlookers. Resplendent in its black and yellow colors, the racer had the appearance of a world beater. Christened "The City of Springfield", the Granville’s Model Z was dominated by its Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine neatly cloaked in a newly developed full NACA cowling. In appearance the Model Z was somewhat startling with its remarkably short, bottle-shaped fuselage tapering to what was optimistically referred to as a fin and rudder immediately aft of the cockpit,
itself positioned behind the trailing edge of the wing. The vertical stabilizer fin protruded barely six inches above the small canopy enclosure. A non-retractable main landing gear was completely faired with what then were referred to as "pants" in that era. A simple, but rather prominent tail skid protruded like a bone from the aft fuselage structure. Engineer-pilot Hall took the new speedster up for its maiden flight after the precursory run-up, applying power tentatively to avoid unexpected actions. Accelerating smoothly across the grassy field, the Z-plane responded aggressively as more power was applied, surging into the air. Hall discovered that this extraordinary plane required only minor trim and power adjustments to maintain its balance. Hall was proving his abilities as designer and test pilot, no mean achievement.
Viewing the Model Z from the left front shows the close fitting NACA cowling surrounding the Wasp Jr. and the fixed-pitch propeller. This photo was taken back in Springfield, with the two automobiles emphasizing the Gee Bee's ultra-sleek appearance relative to the era in 1931. (Bodie)
Upon its arrival at the site of the National Air Races, the Gee Bee was an instant sensation. As planned, piloted by Lowell Bayles, the Z was entered in four races, winning all with remarkable ease. Yet, the most prestigious event was to come. The Thompson Trophy Race was the event for which the Model Z was built. In preparation for the race, the 535 hp Wasp Jr. engine was reconditioned overnight. Along with the Model Z (NR77V), the Granvilles entered a Model Y Senior Sportster with Bob Hall at the controls. Taking off at ten second intervals, the field of 18 aircraft lunged into the
Ohio sky. After Jimmy Doolittle’s Laird Super Solution started smoking and lost power, Bayles and the Model Z simply ran away from the field, winning at a record average speed of 236.239 mph. Hall managed a fourth place in the Model Y. Jimmy Wedell came home second in his own WedellWilliams. (In many respects, at the other end of the ‘30s decade we had a modernized Gee Bee Z in Earl Ortman’s Marcoux-Bromberg R-3 racer with its Twin Wasp Jr. having 60 percent more cubic inches displacement and nearly double the power.)
Bob Hall waiting to take off for a race. Hall won two races flying the plane he designed at the 1931 National Air Races. Bayles would win the Thompson race. The tiny relative size of the plane is evident by using Hall's head as a reference. Bob Hall would go on to be the Chief Engineer for Grumman Corporation. (Library of Congress)
The overwhelming success of the Gee Bee racers at Cleveland had earned well over $12,000 dollars in prize money, a significant amount when you consider the cost of a new Ford was approximately $500 in Detroit. The mood back in Springfield was jubilant. SARA now wanted to add the World Speed Record to its list of accomplishments. Attempts at this had been thwarted at Cleveland due to problems with timing equipment and engine woes with the P&W Wasp radial. In preparation for a new attempt, the Z was fitted with a much larger 800 horsepower Wasp Sr. engine enclosed within an outlandishly large NACA cowling. Finally, in November, Bayles flew NR77V to Michigan’s new Wayne County Airport, southwest of Ford’s Dearborn enclave. Bayles suffered several aborted speed runs due to engine trouble. However, being encouraged by a single high-speed pass at better than 314 mph, the bold pilot was determined to gain the record. Taking off shortly before 1 P.M. on a bleak December 5th, the Gee Bee climbed to just over 1,000 feet. Bayles headed for the start line with the throttle fire-walled. Diving down to just under 200 feet, the Model Z flashed into the speed trap.
In a frame from a Universal Newspaper Newsreel recording of Lowell Bayles world speed record attempt, Bayles primes the 800 hp Wasp Sr. in preparation to start the powerful radial. Minutes later, Bayles would be dead and the Model Z destroyed in a fiery crash at well over 300 mph.
As several newsreel cameras turned, mid-way down the course something happened that has never been fully understood. Racing along at just over 300 mph, the Gee Bee suddenly pitched up. The right wing failed and folded. In a flash, the little racer snap-rolled twice and slammed into the ground between a narrow roadway and Michigan Central Railroad tracks paralleling the course. The wreckage, converted into a fireball, tumbled for several hundred feet, hurling Bayles from the cockpit. Rescuers arrived to find Bayles lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the road north of the new hangar.. He was past any earthly help, having lived just 31 years. Stunned, the Granvilles searched for the cause of the crash. Repeated viewing of newsreel crash footage revealed some object streaking toward the windshield an instant before the Gee Bee broke up. With recovery of the object – the fuel tank cap – along with Bayles’ goggles on the course, this seemed to establish an unproven, but tangible explanation. The assumption was that the Model Z’s exposed, unsecured centerline fuel cap probably came loose and smashed through the windscreen, striking Bayles in the face. His natural reaction on the stick over-stressed the wing and resulted in its failure (when the Gee Bee R-1 and R-2 were designed, the gas caps were recessed and covered by an access door). Recently, aircraft collector Kermit Weeks invited Engineer and flutter expert Leon Tolve to investigate the Model Z's aileron design and concluded that without balance masses, the Z would have an aileron flutter issue above 240 mph. Mr. Weeks owns a replica Model Z.
This Frame from the 1931 newsreel shows Bayles and the Model Z taking off on the fatal speed run. When comparing the cowling surrounding the Wasp Sr. engine to that of the Wasp Jr. fitted to Z for the NAR, the increased diameter of the engine is quite apparent. The additional 265 hp were required to break the existing world speed record.
Everyone associated with the Granville operation was terribly saddened by Bayles’ death. Loss of the Model Z was a serious financial blow. Adding to the general mood of the Great Depression, Bob Hall resigned to design his own plane for the 1932 race season. Zantford Granville assumed Hall’s duties and engineer Howell W. Miller replaced Hall on the design team. He soon proved to be as valuable as Hall had been.
These two frames from the newsreel show the Model Z in a violent right roll, the right wing having folded up and broken away, taking the right-side landing gear with it. A split second later, the Gee Bee slammed into the ground, disintegrating in a brilliant, but brief fireball. What remained of the wreckage tumbled along for several hundred yards. Bayles was killed almost instantly, barely having time to grasp that his end was at hand.
Early in 1932, record-distance pilot and businessman Russell Boardman purchased a controlling interest in SARA. He promptly set the Granvilles to the task of designing two larger and faster airplanes. These were to be designated the Gee Bee R-1 and R-2. (for GB, the company). Quickly, the new design was put on paper. Miller calculated that the lowest possible drag characteristics could be obtained by designing the teardrop fuselage with a specific fineness ratio of 3.0 to 3.5, creating a very short, rotund airplane. Due to the 4.5-foot diameter of the proposed engine, the fuselage taper would be dramatic. To achieve a properly located center of gravity (c.g.), the pilot would have to be placed as far aft as possible (during a later interview, Jimmy Doolittle pointed to a center of gravity miscalculation as a probable handling culprit). Quite foolishly, someone believed a round fuselage could serve as fin area. Therefore, minimal stabilizing fin area was provided. Concern over another wing failure led to a new wing design incorporating Haskelite plywood as a covering , replacing fabric used previously. As with the Model Z, the non-retractable landing gear was fully streamlined. Wind tunnel testing with models revealed that overall stability would be marginally acceptable. Both airframes would be identical with two major exceptions. Power for the R-1 was to be provided by a big Pratt & Whitney Wasp Sr. engine generating about 800 horsepower for pylon racing. Since the R-2 was to be used for distance racing, it incorporated a larger fuel tank and a smaller, lighter, less powerful 530-hp. Wasp Jr. engine. Unlike the Model Z, these planes would have controllable-pitch propellers.
Standing in all of its glory, the Gee Bee R-1 Super Sportster sits in the sun at the 1932 NAR at Cleveland. Unlike the Model Z for its 1931 Thompson win, the larger R-1 was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Sr. radial, producing just over 800 hp. Also unlike the Model Z, the Super Sportster would not have good flight stability and were a handful to fly. So much so, that their reputation for being dangerous would become legend. Aside from a smaller diameter cowling, the R-2 carried the No. 7, whereas the R-1 carried No. 11. (Bodie)
As planned, R-1 was completed first and was rolled out for its maiden flight on August 12th, 1932. Delayed by discovery of a fuel leak, Russell Boardman finally got the new racer airborne by midafternoon. Immediately, he realized that the rudder area was entirely too small. The R-1 fishtailed badly for lack of vertical stabilizer area, but was not uncontrollable. Flying over to Bowles Airport, Boardman managed a safe landing. By August 16th, stabilizer area was added and rudder area was increased. While flying to the airport in his own Model E Gee Bee for more R-1 testing, Boardman decided to impress bystanders with an exhibition of aerobatics. In the process, he misjudged height and crashed his Model E Gee Bee. Injuries were such that he would not recover in time for the National Air Races in September. On August 22nd, the R-2 was rolled out. It incorporated all changes made to the R-1. SARA had selected famed race pilot Lee Gehlbach to fly the R-2. He completed a few test hops before making the transcontinental flight to Burbank, California, to compete in the Bendix Trophy Race. Meanwhile, word had reached Springfield that Jimmy Doolittle, winner of the 1931 Bendix Trophy and the 1925 Schneider Trophy, had crash-landed his Laird Super Solution. It would not be possible to repair that plane in time for the major NAR events. On August 27, Zantford called Doolittle and offered him the R-1 ride. In less than 24 hours, Doolittle arrived in his Shell Oil-owned Lockheed Orion, Shellightening . After a succinct series of questions and answers, Doolittle climbed aboard the R-1, taxied to the runway and took off, climbed out of sight and did not return. About three hours later, Western Union delivered a telegram to Zantford. It was from Doolittle. He was already in Cleveland. Unusually bad weather delayed the start of the Bendix several times. Early on the morning of August 29th, the race began with Roscoe Turner being the first away en route to Cleveland. Lee Gehlbach in the R-2 Gee Bee quickly established a very competitive pace. Unfortunately, his chances for winning literally went up in smoke as a severe oil leak developed a few hours short of Rantoul, Illinois. He landed at the Army’s Chanute Field nearly blinded with oil, with an oil-covered windscreen and nearly empty oil tank. A brief inspection of the R-2 revealed that the leak could not be repaired easily. Incredibly, Gehlbach decided to continue. He filled the oil tank and removed the canopy cover so that he could poke his head out to see. Flying at reduced speed and with amazing skill, he nursed the oil-soaked "milk bottle" to Cleveland in fourth place, eighty minutes behind winner Jimmy Haislip (an outstanding and gutsy performance.) The R-2 was repaired (oil leak and retrieved canopy), allowing USAAC (Reserve) pilot Gelhbach to race it in the "Free-For-All" event. Both Gee Bees would be flown in the Thompson race.
Jimmy Doolittle poses with the Gee Bee R-1 on the ramp at Cleveland. During the National Air Races, Doolittle would set a world speed record for Landplanes, and dominate the Thompson Trophy race with complete ease.
Doolittle and Zantford Granville had agreed to save the R-1 for the Thompson race. The only prior flights would be in the Shell Speed Dash. After two trouble plagued attempts, Doolittle finally completed the required four consecutive passes on-the-deck and established a new World speed record of 296.287 mph. for landplanes. Doolittle startled everyone when he announced that he had not used full power, but took it easy to save the engine for the Thompson. September 5th dawned with the huge Labor Day crowd beginning to arrive before sunrise. The culminating event of the day would be the Thompson Trophy race. At 5 P.M., the competitors lined up on the north end of the field. It proved to be a smooth, uneventful start. Within seconds, the dominance of Doolittle’s R-1 became apparent as he flew a high line to avoid slipstream wakes, passing others with alacrity. As the former Pulitzer and Schneider race winner flashed past the home stretch pylon to begin the second lap, he was well out in front. At the end of the tenth and final lap, the R-1 had nearly lapped all entrees twice. Only Jimmy Wedell would avoid being lapped officially. Doolittle had set a new record average speed of 252.686 mph that would stand for four years. Gehlbach came home in fifth place. With Doolittle’s skill and courage, the Gee Bee R-1 had achieved its greatest and only successes,. Winning the Thompson and setting a Landplane Speed Record would be the only bright lights of the 1932 race season. The mechanical woes experienced that year would presage the remarkably bad luck that would dog Granville racers thereafter.
Doolittle 's R-1, No. 11, is towed/ pushed to the winner's area after his epic win in the 1932 Thompson Trophy race. Doolittle set a record average speed that would stand until the 1936 Thompson. Had the R-1 been raced exactly as configured in 1932, it would have won the next three Thompson races, barring breakdown. (Bodie)
For the 1933 season, the R-1 received a new Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine while the R-2 was transfused with the Wasp Sr. from its sister. A new wing was designed for the R-2, incorporating landing flaps for the first time. Both planes were fitted with larger rudders as the Granvilles struggled to improve the design’s still marginal directional stability. Both Gee Bees were entered in the Bendix and Thompson events. However, neither would complete the transcontinental Bendix race. With the National Air Races being held at Los Angeles, the race would begin at Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island. Boardman manned the R-1 and Russell Thaw started in the extensively reworked R-2. Landing at Indianapolis, Thaw dug in a wingtip. As he contemplated how to fix the damage, Boardman arrived in the R-1. Refueled and refreshed, Boardman roared off the field. Barely 40 feet above the sod runway, the R-1 suddenly rolled inverted and slammed upside-down onto the ground. Russell Boardman was dragged from the wreckage with a broken neck and a fractured skull. Thaw threw in the towel on the spot; Boardman died two days later. After the wing of the R-2 had been repaired, Thaw flew the Gee Bee back to New York and left it there. Zantford Granville arranged for Jimmy Haizlip to bring the Gee Bee over to Springfield where he made a few subsequent orientation hops at Bowles Airport. On one final approach, he side-slipped the R-2 a few degrees as he crossed the field threshold. With unexpected swiftness, the right wing dropped and dug into the earth. In an instant, the Gee Bee cart-wheeled several times leaving nothing but a battered fuselage. Haizlip, only slightly banged up, bolted from the wreck at full speed. Later he would comment on the Gee Bee’s tendency to "try and bite herself on the tail." His routine
side-slip had blanked off airflow to the right horizontal stabilizer, inducing an unexpected roll too close to the ground for recovery.
As modified for the 1933 season, the R-1's rudder was given an increase in area. For the Bendex, the R-2 would be flown by Russell Thaw. Thaw suffered a landing gear problem after landing at Indianapolis, damaging a wing tip. The R-2 would not be a contender as the repair would take at least two days. Later, when Boardman took off from Indianapolis, he made a rookie mistake . Horsing the R-1 into the air at a speed too slow to counter the engine and propeller torque., the R-1 rolled inverted and pancaked upside-down. Boardman suffered serious head and neck injuries, dying the next day. The favorite to win the Thompson would not be competing. (Bodie)
Preparing for the 1934 race season, the Granvilles worked hard to combine what remained of Boardman’s mangled R-1 and the R-2’s surplus 1932 wing to construct a new hybrid R-1/R-2 Gee Bee racer. Lengthening of the fuselage by inserting an 18-inch fuselage segment behind the cockpit was expected to improve directional stability, and a more traditional rudder featured a trim tab. In jest, R-1/R-2 was christened the "Long Tailed Racer," and was registered with the Bureau of Air Commerce as NR2101. During the lull between the 1933 and 1934 National Air Races, the Granvilles were approached by well-known racer Jacqueline Cochran about building an endurance racer for the upcoming Londonto-Melbourne race. The tiny Granville factory produced an aircraft of more normal proportions but still with a Gee Bee "family" appearance. This Model R6H carried two in tandem and was powered by a 600-hp. Wasp engine. Prior to delivering the plane to Cochran, the Granvilles decided to enter the big Gee Bee in the 1934 Bendix event. Lee Gehlbach would pilot the plane, named the QED, for "Quad Erat Demonstrandum," in this pre-eminent cross-country event/test flight.
Lee Gehlbach's bright green QED was a favorite to win the 1934 Bendex. However, engine trouble intervened and the QED found itself on the ground in Iowa. (National Archives)
However, disaster would not go on holiday. Before flying off to the NAR, the Granvilles’ new pilot, Roy Minor, took the hybrid R-1/R-2 Gee Bee up for a final test hop. On his landing approach, Minor floated far down the field, touching down with little runway remaining. The Gee Bee promptly ran off the apron into a ditch and did a complete somersault before landing on its wheels. The damage was not severe, but it ended any chance of racing in the prestigious Thompson event. That left only the QED to compete in 1934. It was entered in the Bendex as No. 77. It failed to get beyond Des Moines, Iowa before engine troubles ended its bid for a win.
Francisco Sarabia's rechristened QED set a new record for the flight from Mexico City to New York. After a visit in Washington, Sarabia suffered an engine stoppage after take off over the Potomac. Crash-landing in the river, Sarabia drowned before being rescued. The aircraft was recovered and restored. It is now on display in Mexico. (National Archives)
It proved to be a pivotal year for the Granvilles, ending on a sour note. SARA withdrew its financial support for the troubled company after Minor’s wreck. The death of Zantford in another landing accident in February dealt the most serious blow. Later in the year, Cecil Allen purchased the R-1/R-2, modified the wing and installed a larger fuel tank. Entered in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, Allen crashed the Gee Bee, named "Intestinal Fortitude", straight into the ground shortly after takeoff from Los Angeles County, killing himself and destroying the last Super Sportster. A few months later, Cochran’s QED (No, 46) was leading the London-to-Melbourne race before dropping out with engine failure at Bucharest, Romania. Back in America, it would fail to finish the 1935 and 1936 Bendix enduros as well. Finally, after being sold to Mexican flyer Francisco Sarabia, the QED, registered XB-AKM, lived up to its potential for once. Resplendent in its gloss white paint, the large racer shattered Amelia Earhart’s non-stop Mexico City-to-New York record. Sarabia then flew on to Washington, D.C., to deliver a personal letter from the Mexican President to President Roosevelt. As Sarabia took off for the return flight, the QED’s engine quit and he was forced to crashland into the Potomac River. Stunned by the impact, Sarabia drowned before rescuers could get him out of the cockpit. Hoisted from the river by the U.S. Navy, the QED was later disassembled, crated and shipped to Sarabia’s family in Mexico. Today, a nicely restored QED is displayed in a small museum in the little town of Ciudad Lerdo. As of time of this writing, only two other original Granville built aircraft are known to survive, both of these being Model A biplanes. No other original Gee Bee racers currently exist, leaving the QED as the only authentic surviving example of the innovative Granville Brothers’ charismatic, remarkable and outrageous Gee Bee racers.
Copyright © 2009 Corey C. Jordan