The first and only time that the National Air Races were held at Spokane, Wash., was during the week of Sept. 19, 1927. This was quite an adventurous undertaking for a small town such as Spokane, especially given that the previous two events in Cleveland and Los Angeles were money losers.
However, Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris in May had raised public enthusiasm for aviation and a Spokane group decided it could support a National Air Race, raising more than $60,000 for the event.
Besides the regular speed contests, aerobatics and pylon races, the major events were the several races — called Air Derbies — that began from New York and San Francisco and finished in Spokane.
Hefty prize money attracted competitors. The Spokane organizers boasted $28,250 cash prize money for the New York to Spokane winners and $5,000 for the San Francisco to Spokane winners. These incentives enticed nearly 60 entries for the Air Derbies.
The Air Derbies consisted of cross-country races from San Francisco and cross-continent races beginning in New York, all ending in Spokane during the National Air Races. The New York races were 2,275 miles, while the races from San Francisco were 925 miles.
Entries were divided into two classes by horsepower. Class A was open to aircraft over 100 hp, mainly Wright Whirlwind engines. Class B were aircraft under 100 hp, mainly Curtiss OX-5 war surplus engines.
The first place prize for Class A was $10,000, second place, $5,000. For Class B, the first place prize was $5,000, second place $3,000.
NEW YORK AIR DERBY
The New York contestants departed from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York. Of great help in navigation was the fact that the official race course from St. Paul on followed either the Northern Pacific or the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad tracks.
Of the 15 starters from New York in Class A, the first four to arrive were: C.W. “Speed” Holman, in a Laird; 36 minutes behind was E.E. Ballough in another Laird; then N.B. “Nick” Mamer in a Buhl; and J.P. Wood in a Waco. All these aircraft were powered by Wright Whirlwind engines. Holman’s winning time was 16 hours, 42 minutes, 53 seconds.
Holman, a pilot with Northwest Airlines, would become famous in 1930 for winning the Thompson Trophy race in the Laird Solution. In 1929 Mamer set a five-day endurance record in a Buhl Airsedan.
Of the 25 starters from New York in Class B, the first three were: C.W. Meyres in a Waco; E. Dettmers in a Travelair; and J.S. Charles in an Eaglerock. All these aircraft were powered by Curtiss OX-5 engines.
The speed differential between the OX-5 engines and the Whirlwinds was noticeable: The wining Class B aircraft finisher took more than 30 hours for the flight to Spokane, versus the Class A winner time of just over 16 hours.
The Pacific Coast Air Derby entries departed Mills Field, San Francisco’s Municipal Airport, in two groups. The slower Class B aircraft departed before dawn, with Class A departing an hour later. Despite the early hour, more than 2,000 people were on hand for the takeoff.
Of the 11 starters, eight landed safely at Spokane that day. The pilots reported good flying all the way, with the exception of the Columbia River Valley, which had patches of fog.
The Class A winner of the race from San Francisco was M.C. Lippiat, who flew a Whirlwind Travel Air biplane with one stop enroute for a total time of eight hours, 16 minutes, 37 seconds. Lee Schoenhair won second place in an International biplane. Vance Breese finished third in a plane of his own manufacture.
Lippiat was a Travel Air distributor from Los Angeles. Schoenhair was head of B.F. Goodrich’s aviation division and would go on to become a famous race pilot.
First to arrive in Class B was Cecil Langdon in an International biplane with a time of nine hours, 59 minutes, 18 seconds. Second place was D.C. Warren in a Travel Air biplane. Third was Lee Willey in an Eaglerock. All these aircraft were powered by Curtiss OX-5 engines.
NON-STOP FROM NEW YORK
In addition to the trans-continental air derby from New York and the Pacific Coast derby from San Francisco, The Spokane Air Races also featured a non-stop race across the continent from New York to Spokane.
This race was open to all type of planes. Contestants were required to fly with sealed barometers to make sure no entries landed on the way to Spokane. There was an entry fee of $100, which was refunded to all who landed at Spokane after the non-stop flight from New York. The first place prize was $10,000, second place $5,000.
There were five entries for the non-stop race, including a National Airways Air King biplane, two Stinson Detroiter Monoplanes, one Stinson Detroiter biplane, and a Cruzair monoplane. All were powered with Wright Whirlwind engines.
Unfortunately only two aircraft were able to depart New York on schedule. They were both Stinson monoplanes. The first off was piloted by Eddie Stinson, president of Stinson Aircraft. He used an artificial hill built as a ramp for Commander Bird’s takeoff for his trans-Atlantic flight in a Ford Tri-Motor.
Stinson was followed by Duke Schiller in a second Stinson, which also used the ramp. The Air King was damaged when the tail end of the fuselage was torn off while trying to use the ramp and the Cruzair was a non-starter.
Unfortunately the Stinson monoplanes ran into trouble after flying more than 1,700 miles and were forced to land in Montana, disqualifying them both.
The idea of the non-stop competition would continue and eventually become sponsored by the Bendix Corporation — thus the Bendix Trophy.
EVENT OF THE YEAR
The Spokane Races drew press coverage from around the country, including radio, newspapers, motion pictures and every other known means to broadcast news in words and pictures. An additional nine telegraph lines were installed at the field to dispatch breaking news to every city and town in the country. Local papers along the Air Derby routes covered the arrival of each individual airplane and some even published landing times.
With all this publicity, Spokane became known as a leader for aviation activity.
The Air Derbies also demonstrated the accomplishments of the new Whirlwind powered aircraft. The races also confirmed the consignment of the war surplus Curtiss Jennies to the junk pile with the introduction of new, streamlined aircraft designed around the venerable OX-5 engine, including the Waco, Travel Air and Eaglerock.