Today it’s impossible to think of the golden age of air racing without an R-1 or R-2 Gee Bee roaring across the mind’s eye. To the aviation public, the Gee Bees air racing — and vice versa. And that’ s only right. When Granville engineer, Pete Miller, drafted the first lines for the “R” series of Super Sportsters, there was no way he could have known that he was designing a legend. And an airplane that would have people shaking their heads for the next 70 years. In fact, since the last Gee Bee roared around a pylon in 1933/34 there have been no serious challengers to the Gee Bee’s position as King of Weird. However, there is one fact no one argues: Gee Bees were fast. Very fast. And that was not by accident.
What many don’t realize is that the airplane’s appearance wasn’t some sort of bizarre accident. The Granville Brothers knew exactly what they were doing and the machines were much more than gigantic motors with tiny airplanes following them around. Granny Granville and Miller practically lived in the New York University wind tunnel testing 1/10 scale models. Among other things they were trying to find the lowest drag arrangement for the wing: low, mid or shoulder position. However much of their time was spent trying to find ways to make a beer barrel go faster.
By that time it was widely known that the ultimate low-drag fuselage shape should approximate a teardrop with a taper ratio in the area of 3.0. This was impossible to do on airplanes of normal dimensions. Miller, however, wasn’t thinking in terms of “normal.” He burned a lot of might night oil blending a fire-breathing Pratt and Whitney engine and a pilot into profiles that would cheat the wind. From nose to tail, the fuselage faded from a perfect circle over five feet in diameter to a vertical ellipse, which Miller begrudgingly broke to give the pilot a tiny glass canopy that fit down around his head like a diving helmet.
To balance off the heavy engine and controllable prop, the pilot actually sat so far back that if the leading edges of the stabilizer were extended inside the fuselage, the lines crossed under the pilot’s seat. When sitting in the airplane and scanning from side to side to see around the massive nose, you actually see the horizontal tail in your peripheral vision.
The “R” series was designed for both pylon and cross-country racing. The R-1 tried to hide an 800-horse, wildly hopped up R-1340 P & W under its blunt cowl and was the pylon specialist of the two. The R-2 had a smaller R-985 P&W that was usually 450hp, but by the time they were finished tweaking supercharger ratios, it cranked out 535 hp. The R-2 had over three hundred gallons of gas on board and its smaller diameter engine allowed Miller to optimize the teardrop shape with a tighter taper to the cowling.
It must have been an incredible experience for the small number of pilots who flew the Gee Bees. At that time aviation was populated almost exclusively by stodgy biplanes and flying an airplane like the Super Sportster was like being asked to fly the Space Shuttle with nothing but Piper Cub time in your logbook. Still, they did it. Some pilots lived. Some died. But all treasured the title of Gee Bee Pilot.
Legends often require little time to grab the public’s imagination and so it was with the Gee Bees. The airplanes were designed and built in less than six months and from August 1932, when the R-1 first flew, to the tragic demise of both airplanes, barely a year and a half had elapsed. Shortly after that, Zantford Granville was killed in a Model E Senior Sportster and the company was closed.