In 1934 the public still viewed aviation as something special. In fact, air racing had become a worldwide obsession, which, like NASCAR many years later, offered great publicity opportunities for the sponsors and the participants.
Australian millionaire Sir MacPherson Robertson, recognized the public relations value of air racing and announced he was sponsoring a race from London to Melbourne, Australia, a mere 11,000 miles. Immediately the race became an international event but Geoffry deHavilland, well known British aviation entrepreneur and patriot, realized there were no UK aircraft with the efficiency necessary to win the race. So, he did what he did best – he announced that, if he had three orders in hand by February, 1934, he’d build airplanes especially for the race. This would be no small undertaking considering the race would start barely eight months later. Shortly after the announcement he had his three orders as UK businessmen and sportsmen clambered for their part of the expected PR bonanza. The cost was 5,000 pounds each, which didn’t come close to covering deHavillandís development costs.
deHavilland was already building a series of biplane airliners, which used a pair of six-cylinder Gypsy engines. deHavilland’s design team combined the proven Gypsy engines with an all-wood airframe featuring efficient, high-aspect ratio wings to produce a long range runner that had no peer.
The inverted, air-cooled, six cylinder in-line Gypsy Six engines were lightly massaged to give 230 hp each that was delivered through two-position props: take off was made in fine pitch for maximum rpm and power then brought back into coarse pitch for economical cruising. It was a form of aeronautical overdrive.
The retractable landing gear, still a fairly new innovation in 1934, folded back into the nacelles and combined with the airplane’s clean lines to keep the drag down to an absolute minimum. The result was an airplane that could cruise at over 220 mph with a range of 2500 miles plus.
The airplane wasn’t without its quirks: when an exact clone was built and flown by race plane replicator, Bill Turner, in the 1990ís, he commented that on takeoff and landing, when the tail was down, visibility was non-existent because the wing was right where you wanted to look.
The Comets were so fast, they simply ran away and hid from their competition and only mechanical problems stopped them from a 1,2,3 finish. The US entry, by the way was a brand new Douglas DC-2.
The winner was Comet G-ACSS, Grosvenor House, named after its sponsor, a luxury hotel in London. Piloted by Charles Scott and Tom Black, the airplane made the trip in 71 hours. The other two Comets were dogged by engine and fueling problems. In fact, Scott and Black had an engine lose oil pressure over the ocean and they limped into Darwin on one engine where, even after repairs, they had to fly two legs with reduced power on that engine. Oiling problems seemed to be a consistent problem with the Gypsys.
Grosvenor House is now totally restored and on display in the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in England. Of the four other D.H. 88 Comets built, three were destroyed (a hangar fire took two of them) while one of the original race airplanes, Black Magic was found sinking into the dirt in Portugal and is slowly being restored.
Surely one of the most artistic wooden sculptures ever created, the D.H. 88’s will, forever be viewed as quintessential representatives of the golden age of aviation.
by Budd Davisson