Gee Bee Model R: A Cute But Dangerous Airplane

Gee Bee Model R: A Cute But Dangerous Airplane
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The Gee Bee Model R Super Sportster is a classic airplane designed by Granville Brothers Aircraft of Springfield, Massachusetts, and built specifically for the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race. The airplane was billed as “the fastest and most maneuverable licensed airplane for its horsepower in the United States”, and it kept up to its name winning the 1932 race for pilot Jimmy Doolittle, and setting a new world landplane speed record of 476 km/h. The Gee Bee Sportsters soon became a prized possession and were frequently shown off at airshows by their owners, attracting much attention wherever they appeared.


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The aircraft had a very peculiar design characterized by a thick stoutly fuselage complete with low-set monoplane wings and lack of a conventional empennage. The airframe was essentially built around the massive radial piston engine mounted at the extreme forward of the design. The cockpit was located very far aft, just in front of the vertical stabilizer, in order to give the racing pilot better vision while making crowded pylon turns. However, his extreme rearward placement allowed the forward fuselage to block all forward-low views over and out past the engine. Similarly, the small cockpit window areas forced the pilot to work harder than most.

The Gee Bee Model R also had a natural tendency to lift, allowing for the racer to make breakneck turns around pylons while maintaining or gaining altitude as opposed to losing it. This design, although inherently beneficial, provided for some deadly flying experiences for many of her pilots. In fact, the airplane soon earned a reputation as a potentially dangerous machine. The smallish control surfaces, low polar moment of inertia and seemingly unforgiving flight characteristics made sure that only the most experienced pilots could get away from it.

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The Granville aircrafts has a long history of crashes starting from earlier models – Model X, Model C, Model D, Model E, Model Y and Model Z, all of which ended with some catastrophe or the other killing many pilots in the process, including one of the Granville brother Z.D. Granville. Model R followed the same pattern. After the 5th major accident, it was decided that any further rebuilds would be pointless and potentially fatal for future pilots.

None of the original Gee Bee Sportster Series aircraft survive today. A flying replica of the R-2 was built by Steve Wolf and Delmar Benjamin who flew it in aerobatic routine at numerous airshows demonstrating what the misunderstood aircraft is capable in the hands of a pilot who understands its characteristics.


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Russell Boardman prior to first test flight of the Gee Bee Model R1. Boardman was later killed during the 1933 Bendix Trophy race when his R1 stalled and crashed. Photo credit


Gee Bee Model R1 Super Sportster Photo credit


Gee Bee Model R1 Super Sportster and it’s pilot Jimmy Doolittle in 1932. Photo credit


Gee Bee Model R Super Sportster. Photo credit


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Sources: Wikipedia / Air Racing History / HowStuffWorks / Military factory