Top 10 Racing Seaplanes

 

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The most beautiful machines in sporting history were the unforgiving brutes designed to win the Schneider Cup for seaplane racing. Dangerous, glamorous and with international pride at stake, the racers were fire-breathing monsters operating at the absolute limits of what was technologically possible. In the ten years from 1921, the Schneider record speed doubled, from 205mph to 470mph. The final figure of 470mph was also a staggering ten times faster than the first race winner of 1913. 

 

The world of racing seaplanes is a very limited one so when I was asked to put together a piece about the top 10, the first thing I did was bend the rules and include flying boats. Even so, this really only leaves Schneider Trophy (more properly ‘Schneider Cup’) contestants, with an oddball excursion thrown in for variety. First held in 1913, Schneider’s intent for his eponymous trophy was that it should encourage the development of reliable, safe, waterborne aircraft. This being seen as a more practical proposition in those early days of sparsely distributed random muddy airstrips for land-borne planes. The First World War arrived a year later immediately rendered the concept anachronistic, with surviving members of the air forces emerging from those dark days educated with all they needed for setting up a more formal land based aviation network, equipped by an industry that had developed from inspired geniuses and lunatics into fully mature and generally competent businesses. However, the Schneider Trophy carried on, and it developed into an arena for government funded racers. It was finally won in perpetuity by Great Britain in 1931. The selection of aircraft for this list could have simply been made based on the number of wins and increase in performance over previous winners, but where’s the fun in that? Instead I have made my selection based on historical significance, success, flair and aesthetics.

 

10. Savoia S21 

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This is a fictional aircraft but please bear with me. Porco Rosso is a film from that doyen of anime, Studio Ghibli, and although an animated fairytale of sorts it is multi-layered and well regarded by those who know about this sort of thing. The plot is based around 1930s ‘air pirates’ in a pseudo-Mediterranean setting with some of the aircraft being clearly based on Schneider Trophy competitors (in particular those of the two main protagonists). There are fictional aspects to suit the storyline but, even so, the aircraft maintain a close visual relationship to the source material. Porco Rosso’s S21 is obviously inspired by the Macchi M33 of 1924 and arch villain Donald Curtis flies a Curtiss R2C-2. As the hero’s mount it has to be the ‘S21’ that gets the vote for inclusion here.  This film introduces this extremely appealing subject to a wider audience in a colourful and entertaining way. It’s clear that whoever drew these has a real love of the aircraft and as such it cannot help but encourage interest in this period of aviation history, and the Schneider Trophy in particular. If I’ve learnt anything about anime fans it’s that they can be a tad obsessive, so you can guarantee a fair number will dig deeper into what lies behind the designs. It’s the education of a wider public – almost through subterfuge – that earns this aircraft a place on the list and, if nothing else, it’s the best porcine aviation based animation you may never have seen!

9. Macchi M.39

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America had shown the old countries the way with regard to what was required to win the Schneider Trophy in its later years, with the CR-3 in 1923. In 1926, the USA was on the cusp of winning it forever. The Italians retorted by showed how they had learned from the American success with the Macchi M.39. As the Curtiss had set the model for success before it, the M.39 refined this further and introduced the basic aircraft configuration that would be followed by all subsequent winners. Castoldi had studied the entrants in 1925 and applied what he’d learned to his new design, concentrating on attention to detail around the streamlining and packaging. The other aspect embraced was government backing; Il Duce’s regime funding it and creating the Reparto Alta Velocita (High Speed Unit) as the team to uphold Italy’s honour. The M.39, with its Fiat AS2 engine, was the first to hold the fuel in the floats and crystallised the classic late 20’s design (albeit as an all-wood construction)

The key features were a faired in cockpit with minimal height screen, low monoplane wing, surface radiators and minimal external bracing. There were problems at the start with the aircraft being difficult to handle, both on the water and in the air, but the initial development programme at least got these to a point where they were manageable. There were also problems with the inlet duct causing a reduction in engine power, something that would reoccur with a number of later aircraft as the limits of testing and knowledge were pushed further. In this case it was solved whilst out in America for the race where the M.39 was finally able to show its class and grab the win, vanquishing the biplane as victor to the history books forever.

8. Piaggio Pegna PC7

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The Piaggio Pegna PC7 manages to clamber so far up the list simply by being so inherently audacious and, given it was such an ambitious design, having come so close to flying. Pegna had been creating various wild schemes for some time and in 1928 his persistence was rewarded with a contract from the Italian government for two examples of the PC7. Sadly there were too many novelties and too little time to develop them, but the PC7 wasn’t simply a madcap scheme. The overall driver for the design stems from the use of hydroplanes instead of floats or a conventional hull, an approach which required with numerous additional, and very complex, features. Pegna had been actively researching hydroplanes during the First World War and returned to them as a way of reducing weight and drag. The problem of creating a ‘vane design’ that would work well when on the water and in flight occupied quite a bit of time. There was also the matter of how you deal with the low lying propeller at the front. This was solved by installing a clutched variable pitch water propeller in the back and a clutched drive to the main prop up front. The latter also had a cunning device to ensure that when stopped it would always be with the propeller blades across the aircraft (the position shown in the photograph above).

All of which allowed for a slim, low-sitting, fuselage-hull without wing tip floats. The nose was extraordinarily long and the pilot located pilot well back toward the fin. Both PC7s were completed but an inherent instability during take-off, and the passing of the race itself, meant they never actually flew. Instead they simply became beautiful, visionary, and utterly glorious cul-de-sacs.

7. Gloster Napier VI

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The Gloster Napier VI only came about because of the decision to change the Schneider Trophy into a biennial event after 1927. At the time, Gloster were shaping up to develop their series of good but not quite good enough biplane racers a little further. Meanwhile, the aero-engine manufacturer Napier were reconciled to the Lion engine finally being outclassed. However, an additional year of preparatory time was enough to spur both airframe and engine designers to greater ambition. The result was VI with its supercharged version of the W-12 engine. Two aircraft were built and, with their gold painted fuselages, the type soon became known as the ‘Golden Arrow.’ If nothing else the looks promised much. Even by Schneider Trophy standards, the new type had a small fuselage and highly polished finish. In fact many still view this as the most handsome aircraft ever to be built in pursuit of the trophy. The slim wings (with their hint of the elliptical) had a ‘kick up’ at the root to provide an aerodynamically efficient junction with the fuselage revealing the extreme care with which the type was designed. The supercharger, designed under contract by British Thomson-Houston, was fed by three carburettors which in turn were fed by air from three separate intakes. It is here that the key to the VI’s failure lay: the engines could not be made to run consistently under race conditions, a problem generally attributed to the related inlet ducting. The tendency to cut out during high speed turns was especially dangerous in the racing environment. The Gloster VI may never have competed because of this, but N249 momentarily snatched glory in 1929 when it set the world speed record at 336.3mph. Sadly for Gloster, the Supermarine S6 topped this a mere two days later, but at least it had earned its brief place in the sun – and validated Henry Folland’s masterly, but flawed, design.

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6. Supermarine Sea Lion II

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Supermarine first entered the Schneider Trophy in 1919 with the Sea Lion and, truth be told, it hadn’t gone at all well. They returned with the Sea Lion II in 1922 and this time they were far more successful, taking the win in Naples. Sea Lions I and II are related but its not quite so simple as one being a development of the other.

Supermarine had built and supplied three aircraft to the government in support of a bid to supply single-seat fighter flying boats during World War I. After the cessation of hostilities they bought them back, possibly with a view to selling them onto wealthy individuals for ‘sports’ flying. What two of them actually ended up being used for was forming the basis for the racers, the small single-seat hull being an ideal starting point. The Sea Lion II had the more convoluted evolution of the two, passing through an intermediate phase before emerging as the aircraft that would finally race. New wings and a new tail got it match fit, while swapping the engine for a development of the Napier Lion W-12 didn’t do any harm for its chances of success either. Whereas the Sea Lion looks a little ‘square rigged‘ to our eyes the Sea Lion II at least has the streamlined nose the modern eye expects. The latter aircraft makes it onto the list for one very special reason though, and that is by it being the last flying boat to win the trophy. There were flying boats that came later and flew faster but this was the last time an integral hull was proven as giving the best solution to building a waterborne racing aircraft. As such it is arguably both the last and the ultimate of its kind.

5. 1913 Deperdussin

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The first Schneider Trophy was held in 1913 and the Deperdussin earns its place in the top 10 by being the first winner. However, the reason for inclusion does go a little deeper.

The intent of the race was to promote the reliability of seaplanes and flying boats, thereby improving the breed. This is why, right up to the end, competing aircraft still had to carry out sea worthiness and taxiing trials. It was never simply an outright speed contest. Deperdussin entered a number of slightly different aircraft in the inaugural competition although only one made it to the start line. With a wood ply monocoque forward fuselage to which were attached just the single set of wings, this was an aircraft far removed from the Wright Flyer of only a decade before. Up against a Morane-Saulnier and a couple of Nieuports, the surviving Deperdussin came in first due to various problems befalling the other competitors. 1914 saw a near doubling of the winning speed and a similar level of attrition before the clouds of war halted flying for sport (other than blood) in Europe for the following four years. By the time the contest resumed in 1919, the sustained – desperate – military funded development of aviation had brought a relatively high level of reliability with it.

The game had changed, and manufacturers were compromising a little too much for teh sake of outright speed, and the initial objective for the Schneider Trophy had been undeniably diluted. The Deperdussin and 1914’s Sopwith Tabloid stand then as the only winners that had to be designed as a complete package, to struggle to be superlative across the complete range of disciplines originally demanded by Jacques Schneider.

4.  Supermarine S5

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Italy well and truly established the way forward in 1926, and R. J. Mitchell, who would later create the Spitfire, responded with the audaciously sleek S5, designed for the 1927 Schneider Trophy contest in Venice. The gentle waters of Venice would reverberate to the fire-breathing majesty of the fastest and most beautiful machines in existence.

Conforming to the new norm for success, this was a design both supported by the government and benefiting from extensive testing in government funded institutions. In addition the RAF formed its own High Speed Flight to provide the team that would enter on Britain’s behalf. The S5 though took the principle of reducing drag to obsessive levels of detail. The radiators were of the surface-type mounted on the wings and the fuel was held in one of the floats, removing the need to find room for it in the fuselage. The oil was also cooled by surface radiators but this time mounted on the fuselage sides. Although this basic architecture had been a feature of the M.39, Mitchell saw beyond that design and realised it unlocked a potential for dropping the cross sectional area to minuscule proportions. Napier helped by cleaning up the Lion, and Mitchell packaged it so tightly that the cam covers formed the external surfaces of the aircraft. The fuselage behind this was tiny, the pilot only being able to get into it by half turning until his shoulders were below the cockpit edge. The overall result was that the S5 had a clear advantage over its opponents even before the propellers turned. The S5 seemed to fly well with no particular indication of vices but despite this Flight Lieutenant Kinkead lost his life while attempting to set a speed record in 1928. The S5 succeeded in 1927 and was so good that two years later it only lost second place to Italy’s M.52R by a trifling two mph.

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3. Curtiss CR-3

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Up to 1923 the development of racing water-borne aircraft had followed a process that veered between seaplanes and flying boats, but which was still a recognisably evolutionary path (excepting the leap forward in technology that came with WWI). The Curtiss CR-3 that won in 1923 indicated a step change from this and became the pattern for how people went about winning the Schneider Trophy from then until the competition’s conclusion in 1931. It is apparent from photos of the CR-3, when compared with its peers and predecessors, that it was a very clean design, reduced to what at the time must have seemed to be the smallest overall package. The others are obviously racing aircraft in that they are small with a large engine but this has the look of every aspect having been reviewed and pared down individually. The major mechanical components were similarly optimised in support of this. The engine, Curtiss’ own D-12, was superlative. Later, even Italy went on to source examples to power its own racers, and the Reed patent metal propeller also became the default fitment for serious contenders. It was the perfect storm to be faced by its fellow competitors.

The other key change the CR-3 brought with it was less obvious but equally important, it was ordered by the U.S. Navy to enter into the contest. This was now essentially a government backed endeavour and from here on a private venture would no longer have the money or resources to win the competition alone. It could be argued that up to this point companies had entered to promote themselves and also, perhaps, to fly the flag for their country. Now it was a straightforward matter of national prestige with all the hopes and pressures that brought with it.

2. Macchi-Castoldi M.C.72

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Although conceived to contest the 1931 Schneider Trophy, the M.C.72 ruled itself out by being too late however it did go on to set an outright speed record that stood for five years. The journey to success wasn’t easy though, with Fiat’s A.S.6 24 cylinder engine being the main culprit. The A.S.6 is one of those pieces of engineering that seems half inspired and half insane: take two highly strung V12 race engines and bolt them back to back, having one drive one element of a contra-rotating prop and the other drive the second, with no direct link between the separate throttles for each half of the combined engine. Surprisingly, all this wasn’t the main source of the problem but rather it was the inlet tract, all the way from the carburettor inlets to the cylinder ports. The way the problem generally manifested itself was through backfires and these caused a number of failures which included the splitting of the supercharger casing. Ultimately this caused the deaths of two pilots, Monti and Bellini, and led to the M.C.72 being a no-show at the 1931 event. A protracted development programme, aided by advice on fuel mixtures by Britain’s Rod Banks, eventually brought just enough reliability to allow record attempts to be made. An ultimate speed of 440.68mph was set in 1933, only being bettered in 1939 (by a German landplane), and it’s still the case that no piston-engined seaplane has travelled faster. The proportions dictated by the long engine made it a magnificent looking aircraft. It may have failed in its original aim but the M.C.72 is a worthy runner -up.

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1. Supermarine S6 Series

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R.J. Mitchell realised that the S5, along with the Napier Lion, would not be competitive in the race of ’29. The replacement S6 was late to the starting gate, being delivered on August 5th with the competition starting on September 6th. This was partly down to prevarication by the government and RAF, something that would also blight the 1931 attempt, but mainly it was the difficulty in getting the new Rolls Royce R type engine to run reliably. Despite this, it stormed to victory in a 1929. When the S6 followed this with a second win in 1931 Britain got to keep the Trophy forever.

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In a further flourish of glory, it achieved an ultimate speed record of 407.5 mph shortly thereafter. Admittedly there were no other competitors in 1931 –  but before the race it was decided that a minimum increase in speed had to be met for a win. This was never simply a case of turning up and claiming the prize. There’s also the minor matter that when you enter a race you need to ensure you’re there at the start, having something faster later rather misses the point. Two wins, numerous records and a speed increase of 80mph over its short life are reason enough for the S6 to claim the top spot, but take a moment to look at it as well. There is a lean beauty that comes with the pursuit of aerodynamic cleanliness, the aeronautical equivalent of high cheekbones and in this case it’s perfectly accentuated by the blue and silver paint scheme. The legacy is rather important too, lessons from the S6 and R were applied to the Spitfire and Merlin. Simply sublime on all counts.

By Actuarius

 

 

 

 

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4 comments

    • Actuarius

      I think it would be a toss up between the Macchi M67 (it really should have been a serious contender), the Savoia S.65 (almost but not quite as insane as the PC7), and the Supermarine S4 (the clear beginning of a dynasty that became legendary).

  1. Ed

    Lots of great information about one of my favorite subjects- float planes and flying boats. I just finished a bunch of images related to those wonderful machines that you can see on my alter ego AutoEAC Instagram page—https://www.instagram.com/p/CCFBQhXB6eF/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

  2. chiccogallus

    An original and undamaged Macchi MC72 is exhibited at the Vigna di Valle Museum, near Rome. In my opinion, if you went to see it in person, you would change this ranking.

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