By Stephen Caulfield
Fire-breathing monsters, deadly fireballs and earth-shattering noise, there has never been a sport as exciting as air racing. We take an adrenaline-scorched run through the Top 11 racing aeroplanes.
11. Bleriot Type XI / Curtiss No. 2
When was the first air race held? The day the second aeroplane was built. From modest beginnings, it rapidly grew in prestige and scale. No mistake, air racing has been a serious business since the pioneering era of flying. This mad new sport drew huge attention, at stake was a brace of trophies and substantial prize purses often posted by circulation-hungry daily newspapers. Racing proliferated and quickly entered the popular culture almost as soon as the first powered, heavier-than-air machines were available. Races would draw crowds by the tens of thousands. Many got their first, unforgettable, sight of aviation at races featuring craft like these two. Aviation pioneer and founding father of the American US aircraft business Glenn Curtiss locked horns with his French equivalent Louis Bleriot at early air races in France and California. They flew in aeroplanes of their own invention, the Bleriot Type XI and Curtiss No. 2.
Maximum speed: depends
Spiritual equivalent: Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart
10. Travel Air 4000
What do you call a woman flying a plane? The pilot.. or ‘aviatrix’ if you’re in the 1920s. The superlative Travel Air 4000 is remembered as the winning machine in the Women’s Air Derby of 1929, with Louise Thaden at the controls. Thaden departed Santa Monica, California for Cleveland, Ohio, with twenty other entrants. It would become an arduous nine-day test of women and machines. One flyer would even lose her life. Along the way, there would be all the hazards of early cross-country flying: navigation errors, bad weather, mechanical failures, engine fire – as well as a possible incident of sabotage.
As we might expect given the year, these trials were accompanied by much sexist commentary. In spite of how many perceived the pilots, they achieved a remarkable feat completing (and surviving) this epic race.
The aeroplanes themselves were also stars. Travel Airs worked hard during Hollywood’s golden age, finding their way into many a popular flying-themed feature. Appearing at the close of the great barnstorming era, the Travel Air 4000 had a brief moment to shine and it did so with incandescent glamour. They remain examples of what lovely things biplanes can be.
Maximum speed: 120 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Great Lakes Sport Trainer
9. Hughes H-1 Racer
A streamlined all-metal low-wing monoplane, with an enclosed cockpit, powerful radial engine and a retractable undercarriage was absolutely cutting edge configuration when the H-1 appeared in 1935. Only the Polikarpov I-16, then the best fighter in the world, could boast such a sleek combination of technologies, but Howard Hughes was never a man to do things by halves. This racing plane was also, in many ways, the most advanced aeroplane of its time. Huge efforts were made to make it as aerodynamically efficient as possible, Hughes even pioneered the use of individually machined flush rivets to keep the aluminium skin as smooth as possible. Everything was done in the name of speed, and it paid off. Hughes smashed the world landplane speed record in the H-1 in1935, clocking an impressive 352.39 mph (567.12 km/h). This was the last time an air speed record would be held by a private citizen and the last time it ended with a crash in a beetroot field. Had this been developed into a fighter, USAAC would have had a worldbeater, but for some reason (Hughes believed a reactionary fear on new technology) they declined Hughes’ overtures. Instead, the United States would enter the War with mediocre indigenous combat aircraft, and not have a world-class fighter until the P-51 of 1942.
Maximum speed: 352 mph
Spiritual equivalent: everything from the IAR 80 to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
8. Granville Gee Bee Models R & Z
Air racing is a bit of a blood sport. Testimony to that is the Gee Bee family of racers. Freakishly superlative, they were simply too hot to handle. The following footage from 1931 may cause distress to some viewers.
Maximum speed: 294 mph
Spiritual equivalent: everything from the Boeing P-26 Peashooter to the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A
7. Caudron-Renault C.450/561
The two decades between 1919 and 1939 were mad rollercoasters of high hopes, heartbreak and nihilism for the entire continent of Europe. Perhaps that explains some of the attraction to air racing during those years? Or perhaps air racing was just very exciting. It certainly was exciting when it involve the Caudron, this long-nosed French classic looked very fast even when sitting still on the tarmac waiting to race. Not a rivet on these aircraft is wasted on anything other than turning tightly and going as fast as possible for as long as possible. The Caudron’s claim to fame is the Coupe Deutsche de la Meurthe races. By 1936, entrants in this event were reaching speeds of 300 mph across a thousand-kilometre run, a considerable increase from the first race in 1912 covering one hundred kilometres with a best speed of 75 mph. The Caudron also gave rise to a lightweight fighter family– the C.710 series.
Maximum speed: 310 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Messerschmitt Me 209
6. De Havilland DH-88 Comet
Some extroverted racers roar around the pylons thrilling the crowds, others are lonely soloists performing feats of navigation and endurance out over the dangerous seas, mountains and deserts. The Comet was an utterly elegant example of the soloist. Every time this pretty thing left the ground it seemed to set new records. In fact, the word ‘pretty’ hardly does justice to the most beautiful manmade object ever made. Its supreme achievement was the 1934 England-to-Australia MacRobertson Trophy Air Race. Barely half a dozen were built, including modern replicas, yet the impression this aircraft left on aviation is remarkable. The Comet is an achingly gorgeous marvel that perfectly encapsulates the look and dynamism of the Art Deco era in living breathing flying form.
Maximum speed: 237 mph
Spiritual equivalent: DH-98 Mosquito
5. Hawker Sea Fury
The finest British prop fighter ever built and probably the most potent from any nation, the Sea Fury demands your respect. Built at the zenith of the prop fighter age it was (and still is) one of the fastest piston-engined and blessed with extremely fine handling characteristics. It was an obvious choice for air racing. A dozen or so Sea Furies have been active at the National Championship Air Races held near Reno, Nevada for decades.
These racing Sea Furies have unique colour schemes and are significantly modified. At various times they have sported clipped wing tips and rudders and lowered cockpit canopies to reduce drag. Also, their original sleeve-valved Bristol Centaurus powerplants were swapped out years ago for more reliable Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Majors. Remember, this engine produces 4,300 horsepower compared to the Centaurus’s output of 2,520. It was hardly weedy before this soup-up, even with the Centaurus, a Sea Fury was already one of the fastest piston-engined aircraft ever built!
Maximum speed: 403.274 mph (2019 Reno Unlimited Gold category winning speed)
Spiritual equivalent: Grumman Bearcat
4. Scaled Composites Model 158 Pond Racer
Warbird enthusiast Bob Pond was horrified at the use of increasingly rare warbirds like the Bearcat, Corsair and Sea Fury in the dangerous world of racing. The enormous stresses placed on modified airframes and engines by racing (to say nothing of crashing) struck Pond as reckless and wasteful. Pond, looking for a solution, turned to aviation freethinker Burt Rutan to build him a prop-driven hot rod that would match the excitement of the old warbirds. Commissioned in the late 1980s the resultant machine was a single-aircraft project powered by two supercharged Nissan automotive racing engines. Sadly, a fatal crash after an oil leak terminated the programme early on, though there was a ton of potential in this exciting design.
Maximum speed: 400 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Lockheed P-38 Lightning
3. North American P-51 Mustang
Individual Mustangs have been absolute legends of air racing since 1945. Tweaked here and there, the Mustang remains a natural racer. Clean aerodynamics, near laminar-flow wings and a Packard-built version of the Rolls Royce Merlin contribute to its beastly good performance. Fifteen thousand were built during the war and afterwards, a handy supply of them and their bits and pieces was available. There was also a community of technicians and enthusiasts able and more than willing to support air racing. Among competition warbirds only the North American T-6 Texan/Harvard has outnumbered the Mustang.
A Mustang named ‘Voodoo’ is currently the world’s fastest piston engine plane. It hit a 531.64mph average over two runs in 2017. Hurrah for Merlins! Though due to a clerical quirk the Bearcat still holds the record despite it being slower. Did it have a normal Merlin? Not a very normal Merlin no. It was apparently producing 3100hp (and it broke). I think the key to the Mustang is how slippery it is. And they did a load of fluid dynamic work on the record plane to improve the streamlining further, it has an altered wing profile for instance that apparently raises the critical Mach number allowing for an extra 28mph. The clerical quirk was that Rare Bear flew 528mph in 1989 and garnered the ‘unlimited’ piston engine record. That class of record no longer officially exists, having been replaced by 23 weight categories each with its own record holder. The Mustang gained a record in its own category of 531 but for the ‘unlimited’ record to be declared null and void it had to exceed the previous speed by over 1%. Thus it is the fastest aircraft ever flown but didn’t break Rare Bear’s record. Incidentally, the 531 was an average over two runs – the first run was clocked at 554.69mph (!) over 3kms. That’s pretty quick. The record was flown at about 100 feet!
Maximum speed: 554 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk. 24
2. Zivko Aeronautics Edge 540
An Edge 540 can climb at ferocious 3,200 feet per minute, which is 400 feet per minute more than a Messerschmitt Bf-109G-6 fighter of World War II. It can turn through a rather alarming 420 degrees in one second. For 15 years the Red Bull Air Races jazzed up the world of air racing and instigated a revival of the sport among the wider public, before its sad ending in 2019. Red Bull’s pylon races combined aerobatics and timed runs over water in exotic locations (and London’s Docklands) with a crowd slightly on edge from the ingestion of free energy drinks. Yes, there was a lot of hype, but the most common aircraft during Red Bull’s heyday was very much the real thing and the pilots were some of the best in the world.
Maximum speed: 260 mph
Spiritual equivalent: Yakovlev Yak-3
1. Condor Aviation White Lightning
The White Lightning is the first electric aircraft to appear in a Hush-Kit Top 10, and there are many other amazing things about this machine, too. Not only does each set of props contra rotate, but each of the motors driving them also does too! The White Lightning is a heavily modified version of a Cassutt Special, a hot little racing number in its own right. The White Lightning debuted at the Dubai Airshow in 2020 ahead of a much-anticipated all-electric air racing series.
Industry giant Airbus had thrown its weight behind the Air Race E World Cup before the plague ruined everyone’s fun. Expect to see more of the White Lightning, and its potential rivals, as the world returns to some kind of normalcy.
Maximum speed: 300 mph
Spiritual equivalent: K5054