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The Gee Bee R1: A 1930s Airborne Hot Rod From Hell And The American Hero Who Tamed It


The Gee Bee R1: A 1930s Airborne Hot Rod From Hell And The American Hero Who Tamed It

This was the fastest machine in the world in 1932. It had 45-mph on Sir Malcom Campbell’s land based monster, it had 172-mph on Gar Wood’s boat that packed four massive Packard airplane engines and let’s not even waste our time on locomotives of the day. It was piloted by a talented, daring man who a decade later would become one of America’s greatest war heroes and it was constructed by a group of brothers during a 90-day thrash in an abandoned dance hall in Springfield, Massachusetts. The plane was a hot rod of the highest order before the phrase was coined. The machine was called the Gee Bee R1 and it was destined to become a race winner, a widow maker, and one of the most celebrated planes of the great era of air racing in America.

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The Granville Brothers Aircraft Company was founded in 1925 and in 1929 began producing airplanes in the vicinity of Springfield, Massachusetts. After planes became a proven commodity during WWI, hundreds of small aviation companies sprang up all over the country. Much like the wide open automobile industry in the early 1900s, if you were someone with engineering and manufacturing acumen who could rustle up the cash to start a business you could become an airplane manufacturer. The result of this was a great rush of advancement in airplane technology and a great many dead pilots who met their end at the controls of planes employing construction techniques and materials that engineers didn’t fully understand yet. The studies of advanced aerodynamics and aeronautics were in their infancy and scant few people had a real handle on one, let alone both of those fields.

Despite the fact that they started their company at perhaps the worst possible time in American history, the brothers managed a success with their first design which was a bi-plane that carried the unimaginative name of “Model A”. The men sold and built nine of those which amounted to more than one third of the 24 planes the company would construct before sliding under the financial waves in 1933. Of those 24, historical records exist to prove that 16 of them crashed. While that sounds awful, we’re not sure how that track record stacks up to other small manufacturers of the era. Many companies produced one plane, which crashed and put them out of business. Maybe 16 out of 24 shouldn’t be viewed as being all that bad for the late 1920s/early 1930s.

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By 1930 their business was in dire straits due to the Great Depression, so the Granville brothers were looking for a way to make money to keep their operation afloat. Air racing was all the rage in the late 1920s and into the 1930s with the “Thompson Trophy” races held in Cleveland, Ohio being among the richest. The men thought that if they could construct a plane to win that event, the prize money and fame they’d gain from the win would help to vault their business back to health. Incidentally, Thompson Products, the sponsor of the race would later become known as TRW.

With that thought in mind, they set to work on a class of planes dubbed the “Super Sportsters”. The first one of these was built for the 1931 running of the Thompson Trophy and was called the Model Z. This plane won the event with Lowell Bayles at the controls and with power from a 535hp Pratt and Whitney radial engine ran 267 mph to set the top speed of the event. The pilot and crew collected a sizable $7,500 dollars in prize money and the future looked pretty bright.

Because the plane was only a few MPH short of the speed record for land based planes (sea planes were held to a different standard) the Granville brothers repowered it with a 750hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp Senior engine with the hopes of taking the record once and for all. Lowell Bayles was again at the controls for the speed runs in Michigan. During one of the attempts, Bayles came down from 1,000 ft into the measured speed zone when all of a sudden the plane pulled up violently, one of the wings sheared off and it cartwheeled into the ground, throwing Bayles some 300ft from the crash scene. It was later determined that the front mounted fuel cap came off, smashed through the windshield and either killed Bayles instantly or knocked him out cold, causing the abrupt pull up and crash.

Here’s the famous newsreel footage of the wreck –

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Whether it was the era, the mentality of the Granville brothers, or just how things worked, the death of Bayles didn’t slow them down much. Yes, it hurt their already shaky reputation when yet another pilot was killed in one of their planes but it also presented another problem. The Thompson Trophy races for 1932 were just a few months away and the plane they were going to compete with was just reduced to cinders and the man who was going to fly it had been interred. Their solution? Build another one with more power, more speed, and potentially less control than the others before it had. There was not shortage of ballsy guys lined up to fly these planes and there was also no shortage of designers willing to put them in harms way. It is the math of innovation and as ugly as it seems to be on paper, the results of these often bloody equations have forged every major development in our ability to drive, fly, explore, and even leave the bonds of this planet. The times when the bravery and skill of one side meet with the brilliance and skill of the other are when the magic happen. Such was the case with the Gee Bee R1.

The brains of the R1’s success were housed in the head of a young, wet behind the ears engineer named Howell Miller who went by the nickname of Pete. He had recently graduated from college and was itching to apply some of his own ideas and touches to a high performance airplane. Judging by what the financial state of the brother’s company was, we’re guessing that Miller agreed to work cheaply as well.

Not content to build just one plane in six months, the team decided to build two. One for the shorter Thompson Cup race and one of the long distance Bendix Cup competition later that year. The first call they made was to Pratt and Whitney who loaned them two engines, one of which was their new and mighty supercharged R-1340 radial that made north of 800hp. Why was that the first call? Because they built the plane around the engine. The materials used? Wire, wood, tubing and fabric.

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Now you might be starting to see why we referred to this plane as a hot rod. Look at the side profile. The giant nine cylinder radial engine makes up roughly one third of the machine’s length. The pilot it sitting as far back as humanly possible while still being inside the fuselage. How in the hell did they come up with this odd but bad ass design? In the wind tunnel of course.

Miller and the brothers built a couple of models from mahogany wood and spent three days working on them in the wind tunnel at New York University. What Miller came away with was the idea for a teardrop shaped body that was wide at the front and tapered to a point at the rear. The wings were very small and according to everything we read, would make the plane very difficult to control as speed. It would be twitchy and unpredictable…which it was. The seating position was determined by Miller and his reasoning was that a pilot sitting that far back in the plane would better be able to see the floating pylons he needed to turn around during air races. It also created a situation that made the plane very difficult to land with one pilot taking 13 attempts to put it down. This thing was basically an airborne t-bucket. All motor and not much else. Like a t-bucket, it took someone with exceptional stones to actually drive it at its limits. Luckily for the Granville brothers and Pete Miller, such a man existed.

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His name was Jimmy Doolittle and by 1932 he had established himself as one of the greatest living pilots in the world. He was trained as a pilot by the  military during WWI and from the beginning it was clear that Doolittle was gifted with a special set of skills to handle an airplane. He stayed on with the military after the war flying surveillance missions on the Mexican border. He was promoted to Lieutenant and later attended several training schools in the early 1920s before leaving the service to go back and finish college. In 1922 he made the first trans-continental flight, going for 21 hours straight with only one fueling stop. He later went to MIT to study and earn an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering. Later in the 1920s he was the first to perform an outside loop in a plane, set some speed records, and test piloted many new planes. Oh, he also invented the idea of instrument flying. He was the guy who recognized that pilots could easily get disoriented in flight and knew that if people could be trained to trust the instruments above all else, they would be better off. To prove this, he was the first person to take off, fly around, and land a plane with only the cockpit instruments leading the way. Talk about colossal balls! It is common practice today, but back then it was voodoo science.

You can also thank Doolittle for another thing. High octane aviation gas. After he left the service in 1930 he went to work for Shell and lobbied the company to produce the fuel that he knew would allow engine designers to increase compression and make more power from the piston engines that provided the umph to planes of that era.

For the 1932 Thompson Trophy races, Doolittle had a ride and was frequently testing his mount. Four days before the event he belly landed the plane and damaged it to the point that it would not be fixed for the race. Unharmed himself, he was still capable and willing to fly in the race, but he had no plane. Bad news traveling as fast as it does, the Granville brothers got a message to Doolittle and since they won the previous year’s event, he accepted. The first meeting began and ended strangely for the group. In anecdotal stories we have researched and read, Doolittle was confounded by the plane’s shape and was very hesitant to even get in it. After assurances from the brothers, he hopped in, fired it up and took off. After circling the field a couple of times he flew off into the sunset…literally. The brothers received a telegraph a few hours later that he was in Cleveland and in good spirits. Balls, he had ’em by the truckload.

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Unlike other Granville brothers creations, the plane performed at its peak for Doolittle at the Thompson Cup but it was not without its foibles. Doolittle said that it was the most challenging and delicate plane he had ever flown. He nearly wrecked it practicing for the race when it snapped into a pair of barrel rolls during a run. By the end of the event he was openly referring to the plane as a death trap for anyone but the best pilots in the world. The massive engine, powering the hot rod plane may have contributed to its unsettled nature, but the root cause (from what we have gleaned from research) lie in the tiny wings.

During the actual race itself, Doolittle decided to go for broke from the start and try to out drag race the field to the first turn and keep the lead from then on. He rightly assumed that his plane was the fastest of the bunch. This strategy worked and Doolittle made the first turn at the head of the pack and never looked back. He averaged more than 10mph better than the second place plane and the race, from a spectator’s point of view was a cake walk. Inside the cockpit was a different story as Doolittle was actively working to prevent his death and win the race. We think he made a clanking noise when he walked.

After winning the race his next task of the event was the top speed dash and he did his job perfectly here as well. The plane, which Miller said could go 298mph before any part of it was physically constructed ran 296.2 MPH resetting the world speed record for land based planes and becoming the fastest motorized object in the world, bar none.

Convinced that the sport of air racing was not a good long term career choice, Doolittle retired after the 1932 events. Famously, he was quoted as saying, “I have yet to hear anyone engaged in this work dying of old age.” He complimented the Granville brothers after the event, being quoted in newspapers as saying, “She is the sweetest ship I’ve ever flown. She is perfect in every respect and the motor is just as good as it was a week ago. It never missed a beat and has lots of good stuff in it yet. I think that this proves the Granville brothers up in Springfield build the very best speed ships in America today.” Some purport that the reason he retired was due to the media hounding his family with questions during the event centering around whether he would live through the experience and what they would do if he didn’t. Out of respect for his family, he stepped away from air racing.

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The plane, its constructors, and its pilot all went in very different directions after the 1932 event. The R1 ad its sister plane the R2 both suffered small crashes and were later melded into one plane which was then crashed fatally by a new owner who fitted a larger fuel tank which the brothers told him not to do. A few recreations have been built over the years, with a couple of them being flight worthy. At this time there are no flight worthy examples of the R1 but several recreations reside in museums for public viewing.

By 1934 the Granville Aircraft Company was liquidated and a distant memory, leaving an interesting if conflicted legacy of high performance planes that had a nasty habit of ending up as scrap.

Jimmy Doolittle didn’t know it in 1932, but he was destined to be at lot more than a legend in the civilian aircraft industry. In 1940 after keeping a close relationship with the military he returned to active duty at the rank of major and in a position of authority within the Air Corps. His job was to aid the switch over of factories from automotive production to airplane production for the war effort.

In 1942 Doolittle was promoted to Lt Colonel and given the immediate assignment to plan a bombing raid on Japanese soil. Not only did he plan it, he volunteered to lead it. 16 B-25 bombers launched off of the USS Hornet and they all managed to drop their ordinance on Japanese cities. The planes then headed for China with crews meeting various fates. Some were captured and killed by the Japanese but the majority (including Doolittle and his crew) were aided by Chinese people and lived. It wasn’t the most damaging raid of the war but it sent a chilling message to Japan and served as a huge morale boost for the nation and its armed services personnel.

Jimmy Doolittle lived to the age of 96 years, passing away in 1993. What a life he lived.

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When the perfect man is placed in an imperfect machine, magical things happen. In this case it was one of the best pilots who ever lived and one of the most unforgiving high performance airplanes ever designed. The basic ideas and principles behind this plane were used in later craft to a less dramatic level so it is more than just a brilliant flash in the pan. Look at the Wildcats and Bearcats of WWII and tell us you don’t see a little Gee Bee R1 in them. We sure do.

We’re not going to make a habit of airplane content here at BangShift, but cool is cool and the Bee Gee R1 is ice-damn-cold.

Here’s video of the last flying recreation of the R1 in 2001 performing at an air show…upside down and all!

 

 


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4 thoughts on “The Gee Bee R1: A 1930s Airborne Hot Rod From Hell And The American Hero Who Tamed It

  1. Nick Gunner

    Please don’t hesitate to have airplane content. I’d rather see innovative machines and history making humans than the reality show based posers that infest the web.

    Reply
  2. Matt Cramer

    I remember seeing a picture of a Gee Bee as a kid (probably wasn’t even 12 at the time) and thinking “No wonder it was dangerous – it looks like they took a motor and put just enough wings on it to make it fly!”

    As for Doolittle’s later raid in World War II, that whole plan was completely bonkers. The B-25s weren’t even supposed to be able to take off and land on an aircraft carrier to begin with. Story has it that Doolittle, on making it back to the USA, promptly apologized to his superiors for losing the airplanes and many of the crew. They replied that they were, quite frankly, shocked that anybody made it back at all.

    Reply
  3. Appleseed

    Always was taught the GeeBees were unflyable killers (never mind Jimmy Doolittle) When I saw Delmar flying a knife edge down the Oshkosh flight line in 92…well this kid’s world stood on is head.

    Reply
  4. brent hagist

    I was in a park with my kids about 20 years ago and hear the roar of a radial engine. There were a lot of trees in the park but I looked up through the small opening in the trees and saw the unmistakable shape and paint of an R1. I was like \”WTF!\” Later I found out it was a replica (probably the one in the video above) that had stopped at our local airport for fuel.
    Since I first saw that plane as a kid I thought it was crazy cool. Much like the Cheetah in the car world, it was like a loud ass cartoon and I loved it.

    Reply

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