Kit No. ?
Decals: One version, G-ACSS “Grosvenor House,” winner of the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race
Comments: Old kit (1973); major historical interest
The DeHavilland DH 88 Comet was a twin-engine, two-seater racing monoplane specifically designed for high speed and endurance, to give it the best possible chance of winning a 1934 intercontinental air race of over 11,000 miles. In late 1933, the idea of a London-to-Melbourne air race was conceived by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the second most populous city in Australia. The prize money was posted by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer, on the conditions that the race be named after his MacRobertson confectionery company, and that it be organised with a view toward maximum safety for the aviators.
Initially no British-built aircraft was capable of presenting a challenge to any other potential entries, for despite spectacular successes such as winning the 1931 Schneider Trophy with the Supermarine S.6B, British aviation had not yet produced an aircraft capable of the enormous overland distances entailed in an air race from England to Australia. In January 1934, the de Havilland company entered the fray when it offered to design a 200 mph (322 km/h) aircraft to compete in the race and produce a limited run if three were ordered by February 1934. The sale price of £5,000 each would by no means cover the development costs, but it was deemed a worthy investment due to the prestige and international acclaim that would surely accompany success.
Orders for three aircraft were received, and de Havilland set to work. The airframe consisted of a wooden skeleton clad with spruce plywood, with fabric covering on the wings. The long streamlined nose held the main fuel tanks, with the low-set and fully glazed tandem two-seat cockpit faired into an unbroken line to the tail. The elongated wings were of a thin cantilever monoplane design for high-speed flight, and as such would require stressed-skin construction to achieve sufficient strength. While other designers were turning to metal to provide this extra strength, de Havilland took the unusual approach of increasing the strength of all-wood construction. De Havilland achieved the skin profile using many thin, shaped pieces set side by side, and then overlaid in the manner of plywood. This was made possible only by the recent discovery of high-strength synthetic bonding resins and its success took many in the industry by surprise.
The engines were uprated versions of the standard Gipsy Six, being tuned for best performance with a higher compression ratio, and fitted with two-position variable pitch propellers. The DH.88 could maintain altitude up to 4,000 ft (1,200 m) on a single engine. The main undercarriage retracted upwards and backwards into the engine nacelles, while the tailskid did not retract. Later examples and rebuilds would feature a castoring tail wheel. Landing flaps were placed slightly forward of the inboard wing trailing edge and continued in to the aircraft centre line. The two large fuel tanks in the forward fuselage were augmented with a third small tank located behind the cockpit. With de Havilland managing to meet the challenging production schedule, testing of the DH.88 began six weeks before the start date of the race.
The race was organized by the Royal Aero Club, and would run from RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia to Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, approximately 11,300 miles (18,200 km). There were five compulsory stops at Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland; otherwise the competitors could choose their own routes. A further 22 optional stops were provided with stocks of fuel and oil by Shell and Stanavo. The Royal Aero Club made efforts to persuade the countries along the route to improve the facilities at the stopping points.
The basic rules were: no limit to the size of aircraft or power; no limit to crew size; no pilot was to join any aircraft once it left England; and finally all aircraft were required to carry three days’ rations per crew member, floats, smoke signals and efficient instruments. There were prizes for the outright fastest aircraft, and for the best performance on a handicap formula by any aircraft finishing within 16 days.
The take off date and time were set for October 20, 1934 at 6:30 a.m.. By then, the initial field of over 60 aircraft had been whittled down to 20, including the three purpose-built de Havilland DH.88 Comet racers, two of the new generation of American all-metal passenger transports (the Boeing 247), and a mixture of earlier racers, light transports and old bombers.
First off the line, watched by a crowd of 60,000, were Jim and Amy Mollison in the de Havilland Comet Black Magic, and they were early leaders in the race until forced to retire at Allahabad with engine trouble. This left the scarlet Comet Grosvenor House, flown by Flight Lt. C. W. A. Scott and Captain Tom Campbell Black, well ahead of the field. This racer went on to win immortal fame as the winner of the MacRobertson Air Race, in a time of less than 3 days (70 hours, 54 minutes, 18 seconds), despite flying the last stage with one engine throttled back because of an oil-pressure indicator giving a faulty low reading. It would have won the handicap prize as well, were it not for a race rule that no aircraft could win more than one prize. Lt. Scott and Captain Black won the prize of $75,000 (equal to $1.3 million in 2013) given for the first aircraft to reach Melbourne, Australia from London, England — a distance of 11, 300 miles.
Perhaps more significantly in the development of popular long-distance air travel, the second and third places were taken by new, modern airliners that were already flying regular routes with passengers, with the KLM Douglas DC-2 PH-AJU Uiver (Stork) gaining a narrow advantage over Roscoe Turner’s Boeing 247-D, both completing the course less than a day behind the winner.
The most dramatic part of the race was when the Uiver, hopelessly lost after becoming caught in a thunderstorm, ended up over Albury, New South Wales. The townsfolk responded magnificently – Lyle Ferris, the chief electrical engineer of the post office, went to the power station and signalled “Albury” to the plane by turning
the town lights on and off, and Arthur Newnham, the announcer on radio station 2CO Corowa, appealed for cars to line up on the racecourse to light up a runway for the plane. The DC-2 landed, and next morning was pulled out of the mud by locals to fly on and win the handicap section of the race. In gratitude KLM made a large donation to Albury Hospital, and Alf Waugh, the Mayor of Albury, was awarded a title in Dutch nobility. Later that year (1934), the DC-2 crashed near Rutbah Wells, (now known as Ar Rutba, Iraq), and is now commemorated by a flying replica.
In 1935, de Havilland proposed a high-speed bomber version of the DH.88 to the Royal Air Force, but the proposal was rejected. The DH.88 might have faded into history as the only wooden British high-performance monoplane, but for a shortage of metal for aircraft construction tirggered by the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. De Havilland would soon put its experience with the DH.88 to use in designing the DH.98 Mosquito, another twin-engined monoplane of wooden construction which, in the pressing urgency of
wartime, was suddenly viewed by the RAF in an entirely different light.
With its development now approved from on high, the Mosquito went on to become, in various versions, a highly successful reconnaissance platform, day fighter, night fighter, fighter-bomber, and pathfinder aircraft for heavy bombers. The Mosquito was not simply the 1935 proposal revisited but was a much bigger and more powerful aircraft powered by two Rolls-Royce Merlin engines delivering over twice the power of the Gipsy Sixes. But there is no question that the Mosquito was the direct descendant of the DH.88 Comet.
The DH 88 Comet is molded in red and consists of 24 injection molded parts, one of which is a clear part for the canopy; The propellers and tail skid are by far the most delicate parts, and should be handled with great care. Airfix has not issued Grosvenor House, the winner of the 1934 Air Race, for many years. They have however, recently re-issued the same de Havilland D.H. 88 kit with markings for two other entries in the 1934 race: a black Comet named Black Magic, call letters G-ACSP, and a green Comet, call letters G-ACSR. Until Airfix decides to re-issue en masse a Comet kit witth Grosvenor House markings, the relatively few such kits re-issued within the past few years will remain quite marketable. It is possible to find older Grosvenor House kits, but in most cases the decals will be completely unusable.
Airfix chose simplicity as its guiding virtue when molding the Comet. Construction is straightforward as this kit has relatively few parts. There is no cockpit to speak of, as the two fuselage halves have heads representing the aircrew molded directly onto them, protruding above what would be the cockpit area, which is to be covered by the clear canopy, which to be fair is crudely done by modern standards. The canopy of the actual de Havilland Comet had a greenhouse frame, but the Airfix canopy has no scribing on it of any kind. I cut strips of Tamiya tape and painted them freehand with the same acrylic paint in which the rest of the airframe is airbrushed: Pyrrole Red, by Golden Acrylics. The propellers are airbrushed in Alclad Polished Aluminum, and to represent the clear nose cone which contained a landing light, I painted the tip of the nose with Metal Cote, a Humbrol metallic enamel. The kit’s 40-year-old decals were badly yellowed and had a carrier film that only detached with rubbing with a paintbrush so vigorous as to damage the markings. The markings depicted are from a recently re-issued Airfix Comet, the green aircraft, G-ACSR. I purchased two of these aircraft to have a sufficient number of markings to make up Grosvenor House’s code letters, using only the decal for the tail number, 34, from the original kit.
This is an old kit, lacking in detail to be sure, but the Comet has an accomplished legacy and retains a certain charm and historical interest. It represents the kind of subject matter that MPM or perhaps AZ Models or — dare I say it, Airfix — might decide to release with beautiful new tooling.
- Monogram Mosquito instructions