On the afternoon of October 8, 1953, eight assorted aircraft came under starter’s orders at London Airport. As HRH The Duke of Gloucester waved his flag he would have witnessed a cornucopia of aircraft, including the latest military jets, an assortment of older machines and a smattering of airliners. Included in the latter was the pride of BEA — the latest Vickers Viscount turboprop.
Arrangements for the race began in 1948 and it had originally been planned to mark the centenary of the Province of Canterbury, NZ in 1950 but delays meant the race slipped until 1953. Modelled on the great MacRobertson Air Race of the 1930s, the race was split into two categories: a straight speed ‘dash’ and a handicap event for larger transport aircraft and airliners. Prizes of £10,000, £3,000, £1,000 and £500 were offered to the first four finishers in each category.
The luminaries of the time, writing in The Aeroplane on October 2, 1953 noted that «The final list of starters in the race is something of a disappointment, since it does not include, as had once been hoped, a pure-jet commercial airliner, nor is there any real challenge to the jet aircraft entered in the speed section by the RAF and Royal Australian Air Force. Provisional entries of a North American B-45 Tornado and a Republic F-84G have not been confirmed.»
Need for Speed
The speed dash category was therefore to be fought out between a Vickers Valiant, three RAF Canberras, two RAAF Canberras, a privately owned Mustang and a pair of privateer Mosquitos. «The race will clearly be a battle between the Valiant and Canberras,» noted The Aeroplane, «all of which should be able to complete the course in not much over 24 hours» Ultimately the Air Ministry withdrew the Valiant from the race before it even started, allegedly because it had yet to complete tropical trials; the Mosquitos and the Mustang would not start either.
The transport handicap section was to be made up of a Royal New Zealand Air Force Handley Page Hastings, a Lockheed 18 ‘Hudstar’, a Douglas DC-6A from Dutch airline KLM and the Viscount from BEA.
The ‘Hudstar’ was also known as the Rausch Super 18 and was a Lockheed Hudson with a Lodestar rear fuselage and tail group grafted on to create an aircraft some 25in longer than a standard Lockheed 18. Sadly it was not able to prove its worth as it was withdrawn before the race -reportedly due to Soviet refusal to allow it to fly through its air space.
The Viscount was the only turboprop aircraft within the field and was to be flown by Capt W Baillie along with Captains A Johnson and S Jones. They were backed up by Navigation Officer R Chadwick, Radio
Officers I Dalgheish and E Bristow and Flight Engineers W Walker; R Shaw and S Jones.
Parliamentary Secretary for Civil Aviation John Profumo would also join the crew as a supernumerary crew member.
Speaking before the race, Team Manager Peter Masefield said: «Naturally as a medium-range aeroplane weighing normally, 56,000lb, the Viscount is not ideally suited to race half way around the world against much larger; longer range aeroplanes such as the DC-6A of I07,000lb. We hope to put up a reasonable show even though we don’t expect to win, and to show the BEA flag adequately across the world,» However; what Mr Masefield didn’t reveal was that whereas the DC-6 would be flying with an almost full load of passengers, the Viscount would be operating with a cabin full of long-range fuel tanks — increasing total tankage to 2,850Imp Gal and the gross weight to almost 70,000lb.
BEA had originally planned to race the eleventh production Viscount (G-AMNZ) to New Zealand but it was impossible to release it from service so the V700 prototype, G-AMAV was made available. The aircraft was suitably renamed ‘Endeavour’ after the ship in which Cook sailed to New Zealand in 1769.
Racing to Victory
There was never any doubt that one of the Canberras would win the speed dash and the honours fell to Flt Lts Burton and Gannon in Canberra PR.3 WEI39 (itself a last minute replacement for WEI40). The duo reached Christchurch in 23 hours 51 minutes and averaged 5I4mph en route. The new Canberra PR.7, the favourite to win the race, was delayed for 12 hours in Perth with «generator and filler cap trouble» The second PR.3 could easily have taken second place by a comfortable margin had it not been delayed in Shaibah but it fell to one of the RAAF crews, flying Canberra B.20 A84-20I, to take the runners up prize money The Aeroplane reported that The Australians (Sqn Ldr Raw DFC and Flying Officer Davis DFC) finished the course in 24 hours 32 minutes and averaged 500mph, despite «being held up for more than an hour at Woomera because of nosewheel trouble,» They pipped Flt Lts Furze and Harper (in the PR.3) to the post, the Brits taking just three minutes longer to complete the course and averaging 499mph!
According to the post-race analysis in the October I6, I953 issue of The Aeroplane, the RNZAF’s Hastings «was putting up a very good performance until it was withdrawn because of engine and flap trouble at Negombo, Ceylon,» so this left just the KLM DC-6A and BEA’s Viscount to vie for the honours in the handicap race.
The Aeroplane noted: «While the DC-6A steamed steadily and magnificently half way around the world with its load of fare-paying passengers, the BEA Viscount 700 prototype was making another kind of name for itself.
«The KLM entry reached Christchurch in an elapsed time of 49 hours 57 minutes after covering its own track distance of something like I 3,000 miles at an average speed of 260mph. This after seven refuelling stops -although only two of these involved a time on the ground of more than half an hour.»
The author goes on to point out that, «The 6A beat the Viscount on handicap by 35 hours I2^ minutes. Even though it was, by the nature of the rules, handicapped out of the race, the Viscount surprised everybody by its speed performance. We know that it was ‘cheating’ by flying at a high weight, was carrying extra fuel and was driven hard all the time, but it gave no trouble and averaged the quite surprising elapsed speed of 30Imph over its I2,270 miles to Christchurch, which it reached only I7 hours after the winning Canberra in an elapsed time of 40 hours and 4I minutes. A total of 68 minutes only was spent on the ground during its four refuelling stops.»
As well as the New Zealand Prime Minister; more than I0,000 people turned out to welcome the aircraft to Christchurch, despite what The Aeroplane described as «cold, pouring rain and the early hour.»
When the Viscount crew emerged from their airliner to the cheers of the crowd, they looked as immaculate in their trim white uniforms as when they’d boarded in London. The crew praised the Viscount, blamed poor weather for costing them a few valuable minutes and even paid tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary for Civil Aviation for the cooking duties he had undertaken during the trip!
Upon their arrival back in the UK, the Viscount crew were treated to a celebratory dinner at Weybridge, where they were each presented with a gold wristwatch by Vickers’ George Edwards. Team Viscount may have been the runners up, but they’d justified their place in the history books.
Sadly the I953 event would be the final large-scale race across the globe. It justifiably lived up to the title of the Last Great Air Race.