Race planes of the 1930s' - The Bellanca 28-70

By Willie Bodenstein


In May 1934, Col. James "Fitz" Fitzmaurice, former commanding officer of the Irish Free State Air Force signed an agreement for a new aircraft called the Bellanca 28-70 in which he intended to compete in the 1934 MacRobertson Race from England to Australia.

The MacRobertson Trophy Air Race (also known as the London to Melbourne Air Race) took place in October 1934 as part of the Melbourne Centenary celebrations. The race was devised by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sir Harold Gengoult Smith and the prize money of £15,000 was provided by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer, on the condition that the race be named after his MacRobertson confectionery company and that it was organised to be as safe as possible.

Organised by the Royal Aero Club, the race ran from RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia to Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, approximately 11,300 miles (18,200 km). There were five compulsory stops, at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland; otherwise, the competitors could choose their own routes.

The basic rules were: no limit to the size of aircraft or power, no limit to crew size and that no pilot could join aircraft after it left England. Aircraft had to carry three days' rations per crew member, 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. The initial field of over 60 had been whittled down to 20 starters.

Fitzmaurice's racer that he christened the Irish Swoop, did not exist but was going to be designed and built specifically for Fitzmaurice for the princely sum of $30,000 by Giuseppe Mario Bellanca.

Of conventional construction, Bellanca's design turned out to be an aircraft with typical Italian flair. The long-streamlined fuselage frame might have been of wood with fabric covering but the purposeful profile, topped by an extended canopy did not look like anything then built. Another unusual aspect was Bellanca's use of top and bottom braces for the low wing.

On 1 September 1934 with the start of the race now only slightly more than a month away, Fitzmaurice and his co-pilot, Eric "Jock" Bonar took the 'Irish Swoop' up for her first flight. The initial flight showed problems in aileron controls that necessitated a modification. Following a successful second test flight, the aircraft painted as "race 29" was crated and shipped by sea on the liner SS Bremen for offloading at Southampton.

However, this was not to be and she only went onto dry land at Bremerhaven in Germany. To add to their problems, the ferry flight was problematic, with a cracked cowling forcing a landing at Amsterdam. When she eventually arrived at the start, the MacRobertson race rules committee considered her not "race-ready". A more serious problem was then discovered; designed for a fuel capacity of 400 gallons, a total of 600 gallons of fuel were aboard the Bellanca and it thus exceeded its design specifications. The committee subsequently imposed a penalty that limited its fuel to 120 gallons. Fitzmaurice, unwilling to sacrifice his fuel load, withdrew the Irish Swoop hours before the race.

Recertified for its new configuration, Fitzmaurice and Bonar on 29 October 1934 set off from London to Baghdad, a distance of 4,100 km / 2546 miles, intending to set a new record. However, bad luck kept on following the 'Irish Swoop' when over Belgium, problems with a fairing and the cowling caused an end to the attempt.

The 28-70 was shipped back to the US to finish its tests, but was badly damaged in a landing accident on 15 April 1935 when a gust of wind flipped the aircraft on its back during a proving flight. She was rebuilt with a 900 hp P&W Twin Wasp and redesignated the 28-90. She was then purchased by British long-distance air racer Jim Mollison for $28,000, who used the her for a new transatlantic speed record.

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