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The 1930s Formula One in the Skies: Man’s Obsession With Speed

The Supermarine S6B after it completed a hat-trick of Schneider trophy victories for Britain in 1931. Artwork by Basel Hammond.

‘It is not good enough to follow conventional methods of design. It is essential to break new grounds and to invent and involve new methods and new ideas’ – Reginald Mitchell

In the summers of 1929 and 1931, Britain hosted the greatest race on Earth. Millions would flock to the shores of the Solent and other waterfront cities to witness the fastest aeroplanes in the world compete in a 350km course circuit. Floatplanes (not specifically ‘seaplanes’; see glossary below) tore up the skies in front of the onlookers, who were not just watching a display of sheer skill and bravery, but the biggest technological advances in aviation during the interwar period. With funds from the Ministry of Defence, the nations of Italy, Britain, the USA, and France now had the opportunity to show the world who was ahead of the game in aviation development. 

The contest was first held in 1913, a mere decade after the historical first flight of a powered aeroplane by the Wright Brothers. Perhaps more fascinating, however, was the window of development seen during the competition’s duration between 1913 and 1931. At first, the speeds of the participating aircraft were hardly over 40 miles per hour. By 1931, they were exceeding 400 miles per hour. These were figures that would not be surpassed until the frontline Second World War fighters of 1942 entered service. 

The birth of a rivalry

Although the frustration of the Euro 2020 final was hard to surpass, the British-Italian rivalry in fact dates much further back. Instead of through football, it was fought in a friendly manner over the skies above the two countries. With the early American domination long past, it was clear that the future of the competition would be decided between the two European nations. Mussolini wanted to portray his country as the world leader in aeronautics and was willing to give any fund to ensure that Mario Castoldi, the chief designer of the Aermacchi company, could produce a winning plane. The result was the scarlet red Macchi M.39, which bore the ancestral lines of many of his later designs that would appear in the Second World War.

The Supermarine Aviation Works, based along the Solent in Southampton, were experts in producing flying boats and ‘amphibious’ aircraft that can both take off and land on either solid ground or water. The aircraft manufacturer’s name lends connotations of a long association with the sea; appropriate for the island nation. Supermarine is essentially the opposite of ‘submarine’ – the ‘super’ meaning above water. And from what would rise out of this third-rate firm concluded a natural step from the domination of the sea to the air. The company had just appointed Reginald Mitchell, who like Castoldi, promised to produce a plane that would win. This claim was initially met with doubts from Supermarine, who were still fully convinced First World War biplanes were the style to follow. But they were slow, draggy, and were hardly rugged enough to withstand the new V-12 engines, which were now just shy of producing 2000 horsepower. Mitchell was a man who wouldn’t be confined to the limits of convention. Keen to impress the air ministry, he drew out a completely new design. The S6 was a strikingly beautiful, all-metal monoplane (see glossary below). It was decorated with a dark blue trim and lines that would be resembled by its legendary successor. And most importantly of all, it was the fastest aircraft in the world.

The S6 was not designed for comfort. As Mitchell said, the main priority was speed. Notice the short wingspan and incredibly narrow fuselage (main body) as well as the wing cross section. Even the floats hardly hindered this aircraft’s aerodynamic cleanliness. Most dominant are the bulges near the nose – the most effective way to cover all 12 cylinders of the 2000 horsepower engine. Once mated to this airframe, it is understandable how this machine achieved 408 miles per hour – a figure not achieved until the arrival of the Spitfire IX in 1942. Being designed by the same person, the S6 racer does not look dissimilar to its legendary successor, the S6B. Sketches by Basel Hammond.

The winning country of the preceding year would host the next competition. Winning three competitions in a row would see a nation keep the beautiful bronze trophy indefinitely. The S6 first proved itself at the 1927 contest in Venice. Mussolini was certain that the hosts would win, but it was Mitchell’s design that was victorious. And it would continue to be, until the last competition in 1931, which was won by his S6B. Britain kept the coveted trophy permanently, and it resides in London’s Science Museum, next to the very plane that won it. 

The winning S6B plane on display at the Science Museum in London. Photo taken by Basel Hammond.


Floatplane: a land based aircraft with its wheels taken off and replaced with floats connected to the fuselage by struts. 

Seaplane: a flying boat that can land on water on its belly since it is shaped like a boat hull.

Monoplane: an aircraft design layout where the aircraft has only one set of wings and the most common type of aircraft you will see today.