As part of the 75th anniversary celebrations at RAF Mildenhall on May 15, the Americans invited a gaggle of veteran aircraft to recreate the start of the historic England-to-Australia air race, held on October 20, 1934.
The 1934 race actually brought forward the official opening of the airfield – Wing Commander F J Linnell, OBE, declared RAF Mildenhall ready for business on October 16, in order that the air race could be held.
Land to the north-west of Mildenhall town had been selected for a bomber base in the late 1920s, with work commencing in 1931. With its modern buildings and hangars, Mildenhall was a very early example of an ‘expansion period’ aerodrome and sported Type ‘A’ aircraft sheds and grass runways.
Selected to host the Royal Aero Club’s prestigious MacRobertson Trophy England-to-Australia air race, the longest race ever devised at the time, 70,000 spectators flocked to the airfield to see the most advanced aeroplanes of the day begin to tackle the daunting course. Such was the excitement that King George V and Queen Mary visited the day before the race, devised in 1930 by the Australian State of Victoria in order to publicise its centenary. Sir Macpherson Robertson of Macrobertson’s Chocolates sponsored the event, overseen by the Royal Aero Club of England, as it would be starting from Mildenhall. The race was divided into two; a speed division, the winner being the first aircraft to reach Melbourne; and a handicap division, which allowed 16 days to finish, the winner having the lowest flying time based on a formula.
The route covered 11,300 miles and would include five compulsory stops – pilots were free to choose their own course between them. The rules did not limit aircraft size, power, or crew size, but the crew must remain unchanged throughout the flight.
With a take-off set for dawn on October 20, 1934, 20 aircraft approached the start line. Three of those were identical – in January 1934, Geoffrey De Havilland announced he would build an aircraft capable of winning if at least three firm orders were received by the last day of February. Orders were received for what would become the DH.88 Comet; one from Jim and Amy Mollison (the former Amy Johnson), racing driver Bernard Rubins and A Edwards, managing director of the Grosvenor House Hotel.
G-ACSS ‘Grosvenor House’ would win the air race, flown by Charles Scott and Tom Campbell Black, who crossed the finish line at Melbourne, Australia less than 72 hours after leaving Mildenhall. On arriving in Melbourne, Scott is heard to say “It seems to us we started five centuries ago!” G-ACSS now enjoys a welcome retirement with the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. Of the other Comets, the Mollisons withdrew after a fuel leak developed in G-ACSP ‘Black Magic’ and G-ACSR, flown by Owen Cathcart-Jones and Ken Waller finished a day behind ‘Grosvenor House’.
On a sunny afternoon on May 15, 2009 veteran aircraft recreated the action of nearly 75 years ago, taking off from a taxiway meant for giant airlifters almost in the same direction as those of an age ago. Each was waved off with the Union Jack, and seconds later they were in the air, searching for the heading to Melbourne – well, maybe the one without an ‘e’ near Royston!
The 1934 air race wasn’t to be Mildenhall’s only flirtation with royalty – on July 6, 1935 the aerodrome hosted the Royal Review of the RAF with King George V inspecting 356 combat aircraft from 38 squadrons, all lined up in rows together with crews across the grass airfield. This historical event is commemorated by a memorial tablet located in front of Building 562, the current Third Air Force-UK headquarters.
For a filmclip of the 1934 race see below: