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The Pulitzer Air Races: American Aviation and Speed Supremacy, 1920-1925.

The Pulitzer Air Races: American Aviation and Speed Supremacy, 19201925. By Michael Gough. Jefferson N.C.: McFarland, 2013. Maps. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 238. $45.00 paperback ISBN: 978-0-7864-7100-3.

Before and during World War I, U.S. aircraft designers lagged far behind their European counterparts. The gap between U.S. and Europe was so pronounced that just one U.S. design--the Curtiss HS-2L flying boat--flew in combat during the war. The U.S. had to rely on French- and British-designed aircraft to equip its military aviation units. But by the mid-1920s, the situation had changed dramatically: U.S. airplanes and pilots held virtually every internationally recognized aviation speed record, and the U.S. had become preeminent in high-performance aviation. In The Pulitzer Air Races, Gough presents a convincing argument that the Pulitzer Trophy Race, run from 1920 to 1925, was the driving force behind this significant turnaround.

The race was conceived by the family of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Several years after his death, they created the ornate trophy and planned to award it, and a cash prize, annually to the winner of a transcontinental air race. World War I put the competition's start on hold. After the war, other groups sponsored transcontinental races, but these resulted in a disturbing number of fatalities. The Aero Club of America (ACA), the sanctioning body for aerial competition in the U.S., recommended to Pulitzer's son Ralph that the Pulitzer Trophy Race be turned into an annual closed-course speed competition. Ralph agreed.

The first two (1920 and 1921) competitions were stand-alone events, with the Pulitzer Trophy Race being the only race on the agenda. But in its remaining four years, the Pulitzer program expanded significantly, with as many as ten other races being conducted in addition to the Pulitzer. Results from the first two years made it clear that the Pulitzers would be dominated by military aircraft; additional events provided a racing venue for a broader range of pilots and airplanes--civilian pilots flying light airplanes, mail-service flyers, builders of Liberty engines, and specific military aviation units among them.

With this expansion, the Pulitzer also took on a more lofty title, indicative of its vast popularity: from 1922 to 1925, the Pulitzer event was also billed as the National Air Races. The results lend credence to Gough's primary theme, namely that the Pulitzers catapulted American aviation to a position of worldwide leader ship. With the exception of a one-year dip in 1924, the winning speed in the Pulitzer Trophy Race increased every year. Lt Corliss Moseley of the Army Air Service (AAS) won the inaugural race, flying a Verville VCP-R to a winning speed of 156.5 mph. In the final Pulitzer, AAS Lt. Cy Bettis took top honors with a speed of 249.0 mph in a Curtiss R3C-1. Thus, in just six years, the winning speed increased by 92.5 mph. In every year except 1924, Pulitzer winners posted the best closed-course speeds in the world. In three years (1923, 1923, and 1925), they also had the fastest absolute speeds. The Pulitzers ended after just six years because aviation experts realized that racing was no longer needed in order to test and prove new designs.

To provide an overall assessment of the Pulitzer Trophy Race, Gough asks five key questions: Did the races result in faster, better-performing airplanes? Would American Pulitzer racers have been competitive even if other nations had chosen to participate? Were design features of Pulitzer racers transferred to other aircraft? Did any of the racing-associated innovations achieve commercial success? And finally, did the races attract and hold public attention for the betterment of aviation? Gough analytically addresses these questions and answers "yes" to each.

It is difficult to find fault with this exceptionally well-researched book. Gough does an excellent job of weaving several inter-related themes: how the Pulitzer Trophy Race program was conceived, expanded, and faded away after a brief but productive life; the development and evolution of aircraft and propulsion systems over the six-year period; the role of sanctioning bodies such as the ACA, the Flying Club of America, and the National Aero nautical Association; and, of course, the actual conduct of each of the Pulitzer races. There are other books that provide a more all-encompassing history of air racing, most notably Don Berliner's Airplane Racing: A History, 1909-2008. But for the reader who wants an in-depth look at the Pulitzer Trophy Race, Gough's book is the one to buy.

Lt. Col. Joseph Romito, USA (Ret.), Docent, National Air and Space Museum
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Author:Romito, Joseph
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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