Race planes of the 1930s' - The de Havilland DH.88 Comet

By Willie Bodenstein


The de Havilland DH.88 Comet was a British two-seat, twin-engined aircraft built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company. It was developed specifically to participate in the 1934 England-Australia MacRobertson Air Race

Photo by Willie Bodenstein

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. This was 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 which was approximately 11,300 miles (18,200 km). There were five compulsory stops: - at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland. The competitors could also choose their own routes.

Photo from the Flight magazine archive / commons.wikimedia.org

The basic rules were: no limit to the size of aircraft or power, no limit to the size of crew and no pilot could join aircraft after it left England. Aircraft had to carry three days' worth of rations per crew member, floats, smoke signals and had to be fitted with 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.

De Havilland saw the construction of the DH88 as a prestige project and an entry into modern techniques so it built three designed around the specific requirements of the race for the race. These were sold at a discounted price of £5,000 per aircraft to private owners.

The company's experience with all wooden aircraft stood it in good stead and so it was no surprise that the DH.88 was another wooden wonder. The result was a twin-engine, low wing aerodynamically sleek aircraft. The use of metal was confined to high-stress components, such as the engine bearers and undercarriage as well as to complex curved fairings such as the engine cowlings and wing root fairings. Powering the DH.88 were two of the company's 230 hp (170 kW) Gipsy Six R, air-cooled six-cylinder inverted inline engines, each driving a 2-bladed Rattier propeller and which proplelled the DH.88 to a maximum speed of 237 mph (381 km/h, 206 kts).

On 20 October 1934, all three Comets lined up at Mildenhall, Suffolk in the U.K. for the 6:30 am start of the race. Jim Mollison and his wife Amy were the only crew who managed to fly the first leg to Karachi non-stop and in the process, set a new record for this leg. Engine problems later forced them out of the race.

The third Comet, G-ACSR, was flown by Ken Waller and Owen Cathcart Jones. They overshot when reaching Baghdad, had an 'oil on' departure and more engine trouble later. They eventually were the fourth aircraft to arrive in Melbourne.

Photo by Sam Hood State Library of New South Wales / commons.wikimedia.org

C. W. A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black flew G-ACSS named Grosvenor House. They arrived at Baghdad after the Mollisons had left but took off again after a fast half-hour turnaround. This time it was Scott and Campbell Black who missed Karachi so they flew non-stop to Allahabad. There they were told they were the first to arrive. They had more problems but remained in the lead and eventually crossed the finish line at Flemington Racecourse at 3.33 p.m on 23 October. Their official time was 70 hours 54 minutes 18 seconds.

G-ACSS served a stint in the RAF, where after a heavy landing, she was sold written off and sold as scrap. She was rebuilt and fitted with Gypsy Six series II engines and then flew in a few attempts to set new long-distance races. She was successful in lowering the out-and-home record to the Cape to 15 days 17 hours. In March 1938, she flew a return trip to New Zealand covering 26,450 mi (42,570 km) in 10 days 21 hours 22 minutes. She set four more records.

Photo by Willie Bodenstein

The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden acquired her in 1965 and in 1972 she was re-registered under her original identity for restoration to flying condition. She is regarded as "one of the most significant British aircraft still flying".

Two more Comets were built. In total, fourteen records were set or bettered by the wooden wonders.

Classic Aircraft

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