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Suggested by Melbourne Lord Mayor Harold Smith, and
sponsored by wealthy confectionery manufacturer, Sir
Macpherson Robertson, the MacRobertson Trophy Air
Race was announced well in advance as part of the
Melbourne Centenary festivities. Supervised by the Royal
Aero Club of England, the event would depart from the RAF
Mildenhall base in East Anglia on October 20, 1934, and
finish at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, with various
fuelling stops along the route.
Aircraft designers and builders all over the world were
galvanized into action, as there was to be no limit on the
type or size of participating aircraft. Keith Rider, a Californian
who had been designing and building aircraft for some
years, began work in 1933 on an aircraft specifically
designed to enter the MacRobertson Trophy. Construction
took place in a Los Angeles factory building that had been
used for manufacturing coffins, something that may interest
the more superstitious readers.
After many difficult months of work the R-3, as it was first
known, was ready for testing by August, 1934. An
aluminium-skinned, cantilever low-winged monoplane with
retractable landing gear, R-3 had an original wingspan of 25
feet and was 21 feet 8 inches long. It had spars of black
walnut with wings covered in mahogany plywood, and was
fitted with a supercharged Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine
developing 500 hp and a two-bladed Hamilton Standard
R-3 was transported from Los Angeles to Clover Field in
Santa Monica for the initial test hops but problems
continued to delay testing. Meanwhile, Rider had the aircraft
formally registered with the number X-14215, so that it
could be entered in the MacRobertson Trophy. Rider
estimated it could complete the course in 44 hours.
However, for some reason he hired the relatively
inexperienced James E. Granger as his pilot, a man who
had few hours in this type of unpredictable, high-powered
aircraft. On October 2, 1934, Granger taxied the R-3, now
known as the “Silver Bullet” because of her polished
aluminium skin, out onto the runway for her maiden flight.
As he gathered speed down the runway, he lost control of
the tail and the plane nosed in and flipped onto its back,
fatally crushing him in the cockpit and damaging the plane.
It was the end of plans to fly in the MacRobertson race.
Rider and his crew went back to work, repaired the R-3 and
it was successfully flown by Vance Breese. Two Douglas
Aircraft engineers, Jack Bromberg and Harold Marcoux,
then persuaded Rider to hire experienced young Earl
Ortman as his new pilot. On July 3, 1935, Ortman set an
inter-city record in the R-3 that stood for two years, flying
Vancouver to Agua Caliente in Mexico in 5 hours, 27
minutes. The “Silver Bullet” was ready to race.
Racing aeroplanes against each other, either around circuits
between pylons or across land or sea distances developed
into significant events during the first three decades of the
20th century as aircraft design and speed improved. The
first recognized race was the 1910 Gordon Bennet
International Air Race held in Belmont Park, New York, but
the race that would have the biggest impact on aircraft
design for speed was the international Schneider Trophy for
seaplanes. First held in 1913, this race prompted countries
to invest heavily, financially, in seaplane design in order to
outdo each other. Consequently, seaplanes held the world
air speed records between 1927 and 1934. The
Supermarine S.6B set the absolute record of 406.94 mph in
September, 1931; a land plane did not surpass that until
During the 1930s, the two great annual races over land
were the Bendix Trophy and the Thompson Trophy. The
Bendix began in 1931 and was a transcontinental race from
Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. The Thompson
began in 1929 and was a closed-course race - that is
planes flew laps 10 miles long around pylons 50 feet high. A
group, usually averaging eight planes, took off only 10
seconds apart and flew around 20 laps at speeds that by
1936 were over 220 miles an hour. Needless to say, Death
was a frequent spectator at the event.
In August, 1935, Ortman flew the “Bullet” in the Bendix
Trophy race after a new S1D1 direct drive 550 hp Wasp Sr.
engine had been fitted, but had to retire before the finish
with mechanical problems caused by the cowl jumping
forward into the prop during a test flight.
Hal Marcoux bought the plane in July, 1936, and in
partnership with Bromberg and Ortman began to rebuild it
as a national air racer. Wing surfaces were increased in
thickness and skin sections replaced for extra rigidity, the
cowling was redesigned, the oil tank was fitted behind the
cockpit to rebalance the aircraft, and the cockpit canopy
was removed due to heating problems. Because of
sponsorship by the Gilmore Oil Company, the plane was
repainted cream with red trim. By the time they were done,
it was no longer really a Rider design and so was known
from then as the Marcoux-Bromberg Special.
That year the National Air Races were transplanted from
Cleveland to Los Angeles. After test flights of up to 312
mph and a forced pull-out dive where he reached 13.8Gs,
Orton believed the plane was in the best flying condition
he’d yet seen. In the qualifying trials for the Thompson
Race, Ortman had the plane around the course at an
average speed of 258.9 mph. He came in second.
The team went back to the drawing board. They modified
the landing gear, increased fuel tank capacity, reworked the
fuselage and cowling and fitted a new Pratt & Whitney Twin
The 1934 Marcoux-Bromberg Special
Few aircraft survive today that appeared in classic movies of the thirties,
but there is a little yellow aeroplane sitting in a bay of the New England Air
Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, that is not only associated with
Clark Gable but was originally built to fly to Australia.
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