1934 plane race brought fame to RAF Mildenhall
RAF MILDENHALL, England — This week marked the 69th anniversary of the event that put Mildenhall on the map.
Pilots in the MacRobertson International Air Race took off from Mildenhall on Oct. 20, 1934. Their destination was 11,300 miles away in Melbourne, Australia. The hype and spectacle lured thousands to the start of the across-the-globe competition.
“Aviation had really captured the imagination at the time,” said Gary Wenko, a former U.S. airman and aviation enthusiast who lives in nearby Beck Row. “Not a lot of investment had been made after World War I.
“Aviation was in a pop climate like movie stars or pop stars of today.”
It had been 31 years since the Wright brothers got their 600-pound plane off the ground in Kitty Hawk, N.C. During World War I from 1914-18, thousands of small biplanes were produced, but they were made for short reconnaissance and combat missions.
Then in 1927, a 25-year-old named Charles Lindbergh made his celebrated solo flight from New York to Paris.
The new airfield in Mildenhall would host the next big event.
The base was under construction at the time, with only two hangars and a headquarters building. The Brits knew they’d again be fighting the Germans, who were rearming under the Nazi regime, and Mildenhall’s air base was part of a nationwide buildup.
Three other airfields in the south — closer to London — were considered for the start of the race, but Mildenhall was picked because it was least likely to be foggy in the morning.
The prize for winning was 10,000 British pounds, a fortune in those days. It was put up by an Australian mogul named Sir MacPherson Robertson, who was known as “MacRobertson.” He opened the race to all comers.
American companies Boeing and Douglas at the time were the only manufacturers of airplanes built for such a long haul. But other nations answered the call. New Zealand, Australia and Denmark were among those entering planes.
Sixty-three aircraft were registered for the race, Wenko said, but only 20 would take off.
“There were only that many planes with cash on the barrelhead and ready to go,” Wenko said.
England would not be left sitting on the bench. The de Havilland Co. in 1933 began designing a plane to compete. Three “Comet” two-seaters were completed and test flown just days before the race.
Meanwhile, Mildenhall was a small village coping with a major international undertaking. Thousands of cars and bicycles converged on the scene over the dirt roads of the Suffolk countryside. The crowd was estimated at 70,000.
“I guess people thought, ‘Let’s pop up to Mildenhall to watch the takeoff,’” Wenko said. “People were up all night. Some were there in their evening dress. It was something to do, I guess.”
The start of the race even drew a surprise visit from King George V, Queen Mary and their son, Edward, the Prince of Wales.
The dawn broke with clouds and rain but a rainbow soon appeared over the airfield. That rainbow is depicted in the stained glass at the Mildenhall chapel.
Competitors took off in 45-second intervals, and in 15 minutes they were all away.
To the great pride of the Brits, it was one of the Comets that won. After a stopover in Baghdad, pilots Charles Scott and Tom Campbell- Black arrived in Melbourne with an elapsed time of 70 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds.
“They say the cockpit was full of blood,” Wenko said, from the jostling the pilots took. They were literally bouncing off the walls.
Next to arrive was an American DC-2 airliner in 90-plus hours. A Boeing 247 finished two hours later.
Back in Mildenhall, the party had broken up. But the name of the air base, which had officially opened just one week earlier, was on the lips of air enthusiasts around the world.
“The race made Mildenhall a household word,” Wenko said.