The Curtiss R3C-2 Racer was the world’s fastest airplane in 1925 when it captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the public for aviation. The museum’s curatorial, conservation, and collections preservation team has been able to take a closer look at it recently as part of the ongoing general renovation and reinterpretation of the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery set to reopen in May 2010.
The R3C was actually two air racers in one. It could operate with wheels and a tail skid from an airfield (R3C-1) or a pair of floats, or pontoons, from the water (R3C-2) and it won races as both.
Among its many innovative features were radiators for cooling the engine (see the ridges in the top and bottom wings) that were built into its wings and fuel tanks built into the floats.
Army Air Service Lt. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle and the Curtiss R3C-2 seaplane racer won the prestigious 1925 Schneider Trophy competition at Baltimore, Maryland, on October 26, 1925, with an average speed of 232 miles per hour. The next day Doolittle flew the R3C-2 over a straight course at a world-record speed of 246 miles per hour. Yes, this is the same Doolittle that led the famous raid on Tokyo during the early days of World War II.
The R3C competed in two other races. The week before Doolittle’s victory, on October 12, 1925, Army Air Service Lt. Cyrus Bettis raced the airplane in its R3C-1 to win the Pulitzer Trophy race. Bettis won at an average speed of 400.5 km/h (248.9 mph). He also established a world record of 401.3 km/h (249.342 mph) for landplanes over a 100 km course. To be specific, Bettis and the R3C-1 were the world’s fastest pilot and airplane in 1925.
During the November 1926 Schneider Trophy competition at Hampton Roads, Virginia, Marine Corps Lt. C. Frank Schilt placed second at an average speed of 372 km/h (231.4 mph) in the R3C-2. Later on, he received the Medal of Honor for his aerial evacuation of wounded Marines while under fire by Sandanista rebels at Quilali, Nicaragua, in January 1928.
The Smithsonian acquired the R3C-2 in 1927 where it was on display in the Arts and Industries Building for many years with the markings it carried in the 1925 Schneider competition. The racer then went on loan for several years to the Air Force Museum, where it was restored by Air Force personnel. After returning to the Smithsonian, the R3C-2 went on display in the Pioneers of Flight gallery at the newly-opened National Air and Space Museum in 1976 where it remained for 32 years. With the opportunity to reinterpret the Pioneers of Flight gallery, museum staff moved the R3C-2 to the Garber Facility for cleaning and repairs in December 2008. The R3C-2 will return to the new Pioneers of Flight gallery for the grand opening in May 2010.
Next time, we’ll talk more about the refurbishment process for the R3C-2.
Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.