Reno Air Races... in church
Last updated 9/28/2022 at Noon
Editor’s note: Jim Anderson died on September 22, at the age of 94 (see obituary, this issue). Jim A., as he was affectionately known at The Nugget, theoretically retired after more than 30 years of writing columns, in August 2020, when he moved to Eugene to be close to his children (see column, page 2). However... his heart remained, in part, here in Central Oregon, and as soon as he got settled he “unretired” and started sending columns again. It seems fitting that the edition that marks his passing includes a column on the Reno Air Races, which he loved and wrote about many, many times.
You just never know how the mind of a 94-year-old naturalist/writer is going to work at 11 o’clock Sunday morning in church.
There I was sitting in the pew, listening to a beautiful, newly married young woman talking about her conversion, when suddenly I saw a 1936 GB R-1 air racer waving in the air up ahead of me, clutched in a little boy’s hand.
What a magic moment that was! In a split second I could hear the roar of the big 800hp radial engine again as that magnificent airplane went blasting over me, and I was back at the Reno Championship Air Races laying flat on my stomach in the sagebrush.
I had met the pilot of the GB, Delmar Benjamin, about 10 minutes earlier and asked him for a low pass in the raceway so I could get a snappy photo of his air racer to use in a story I was writing for the newspaper back home. Little did I know he’d be that helpful, or get himself into so much hot water doing it.
It just so happened that Old Man Murphy was standing between me and two guys from the FAA when we heard the GB coming. I got the photo I was looking for but when we all got up and out of the sagebrush and back on our feet, Murphy’s Law was activated, which states, “If something can go wrong, it will.”
Those two FAA guys didn’t feel good about getting a face-full of Nevada desert sand and gave poor Delmar a big penalty for doing what he did —even though I thought his low pass was quite normal and wonderful; after all, we were standing on the race course.
I got into aviation and started flying in 1940, when air racing was the talk of the town. Lindbergh’s great adventure was still hot in the news, and within the air racing world were the Granville Brothers, who designed and built the GB R-1 Racer, then flown by Jimmy Doolittle and Eddie Rickenbacker of World War I fame.
A racing champion pilot by the name of Col. Roscoe Turner entered my life at that time, when he got himself hooked up with a growing oil company.
Turner was quite a showman and placed a baby lion in the cockpit of his Turner Racer, made sure the press knew about it, and went from one airport to the other with his lion cub, Gilmore, on his lap. Which put him in my personal hero status, where he still is today.
Because of my rich interest in air racing, it was no surprise to anyone then that I could be found at the Reno Air Races on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in early September not long after I rolled into Bend on my beautiful Harley-Davidson 1952; when that replica GB went by I was in seventh heaven!
The original GB Racer was built by the Granville Brothers — Zantford, Thomas, Robert, Mark, and Edward — in 1932 in Springfield, Massachusetts. They kept fiddling with the original design until it morphed into the R-1, which won many races and awards.
Prior to the racer they had designed and built three biplanes they named the Sportsters. The GB R-1, however, was designed by Zantford, who had the nickname of Granny and was no stranger to aircraft as he ran an airplane repair business in the old Springfield Airport.
The GB R-1 racer won the 1932 Thompson Trophy race, piloted by the famous World War I ace Jimmy Doolittle (who was also the leader of the Doolittle Raiders that bombed Tokyo, Japan in World War II).
Doolittle also set a new land plane speed record of 296 mph in the Shell Speed Dash of 1932. (The distinction of a land plane speed record was noteworthy because, at that time, racing seaplanes often outran land planes, such as the then-current speed record holder, a Supermarine S.6B, built in Great Britain, which had averaged 407.5 mph in September 1931).
The Springfield Union newspaper of September 6, 1932 quoted Dolittle saying, “She is the sweetest ship I have ever flown. She is perfect in every respect, and the motor is just as good as it was a week ago. It never missed a beat and has lots of stuff in it yet. I think this proves that the Granville Brothers up in Springfield (MA) build the very best speed ships in America today.”
And that was one of the big reasons the last man to fly the replica of the GB R-1, Delmar Benjamin, could use it to perform one of the most brilliant performances of the Reno Air Show and Championship races, before he retired that beautiful airplane in 2002 to where it rests safely today in Florida’s Fantasy of Flight Museum.
Maybe young Cal Walker will fly his airship to the moon or beyond someday.