NINETY years ago Ryde played host to the BBC and aviation enthusiasts when the Jacques Schneider Seaplane Trophy Contest took place.

The radio commentary was broadcast from the pier head, which was thronged with newspaper reporters and local spectators. Hundreds more Islanders watched from the shore, as did huge crowds on mainland beaches.

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In the Solent, at anchor, was the transatlantic White Star liner, Homeric, which served as the Royal Aero Club official ship. Also aboard were members of Royal Aeronautical Society, Royal Air Force Club, Air League, Society of British Aircraft Constructors, and Association of Light Aeroplane Clubs.

Isle of Wight County Press:

The BBC broadcast of the 1931 Schneider Trophy from Ryde Pier, as it appeared in Flight magazine. Picture: Anne Grant.

These spectators, desperate for some cheer at a time of national gloom, bought ‘special event’ passenger tickets for the weekend.

Aboard Homeric they enjoyed the contest in luxury, first the preliminary test flights and then the actual race, all the time waited on by stewards and served fine food and drink.

Yet all of it almost never happened. The 1931 event took place during one of the worst years of the Great Depression. The Labour Government declined to sponsor the British team in their Schneider endeavour, even though a win could help boost the nation’s aeroplane exports.

It was Lady Houston who stepped in to save the day. A keen supporter of British aviation, she provided some of her private wealth. Without her sponsorship the UK victory, still celebrated and remembered with pride decades later, would not have happened.

Thus, it went ahead and three nations competed — Great Britain, France and Italy. Sadly, to emphasise the dangers of float plane racing, all three nations each mourned the lost of a team pilot during test flights only weeks before the race. The British pilot who died was Jerry Brinton who crashed in the team’s sister plane.

There was great interest in this race in America. Their newspapers reported that the British pilots had undergone a rigid medical regime. “The medical research staff of the Air Ministry has been keeping an exceedingly close watch on the high-speed team. The flyers’ diet has been carefully worked out and for weeks they have denied themselves stimulants or tobacco.”

Isle of Wight County Press: Schneider Trophy Supermarine S6B by Stephen Mosley.

The Schneider Trophy Supermarine S6B painting by Stephen Mosley.

Britain’s entry, the Southampton-based Supermarine SB6, had a design and engineering team led by R. J. Mitchell. He later designed the Spitfire. Sqd. Ldr. A. H. Orlebar led the High Speed Flight team of pilots.

On the contest day the pilot was Flt. Lt. J. N. Boothman. The triangular course had a southern turning point off St. Helens. The western turning point was west of Ryde pier (Ryde Middle), and the third point of the triangle was West Wittering (near Chichester.) The race comprised seven laps, a total of 217 miles.

All Isle of Wight ferries were halted mid-Solent for the duration and gave passengers an unexpected viewing.

Boothman covered the first lap in 5 mins 26 secs, 343 mph. Reporters marvelled at his precision in turning at exactly the same point over Ryde pier for the next four laps.

The sixth lap brought even greater excitement to spectators. A reporter noticed, “the first serious deviation from the regularity with which Boothman had been crossing Ryde pier. This time he flew right over the top of the pier house.

Timekeepers on its summit must have had a real close-up view of the bottoms of his floats. The whole pier, constructed to carry a double railway line and double tram line, seemed to vibrate to the sound waves emitted by the Rolls Royce engine.

On this lap the turn round Ryde Middle pylon was the tightest and best of all the turns during the whole race. The last lap started with a crossing of Ryde Pier inland of the pier house, for which the timekeepers were doubtless very thankful.”

Boothman circumvented Ryde Middle for the final time, straighten out and opened his throttle as he set his course for the pier, the finishing line.

A great cheer went up when he crossed the line. Steamers sounded their sirens, hats were thrown up, deckchairs and hankies waved in the air at a British victory in the last-ever Schneider contest. The honours fell to the man who had flown so well to win the trophy to keep for all time.

R.A.F. pilot Boothman, unknown to the public before the race, went down in history from September 13, 1931, as one of Britain’s great pilots.

The crowds were given more to cheer when team pilot Flt. Lt. G. H. Stainforth flew the SB6 to a world speed record with an average of 379 mph., and confirmed Britain’s supremacy. Third team pilot Flt. Off. L. S. Snaith thrilled onlookers with a stunt flying display in a Fairey Firefly.

Lady Houston, who’d sponsored the High Speed Flight team, arrived in Cowes that evening on her yacht, Liberty. At the Royal Yacht Squadron she met Sqd. Ldr. Orlebar and his team. Next day they joined her for a celebratory lunch aboard Liberty.

Mitchell, Stainforth, Boothman — their names are recorded in history books but Mitchell’s engineers, who contributed so much, remain nameless. In tribute to these ‘invisibles’ the grandson of S6B engineer Reginald Darker has contributed the photo (main image, top), signed by the pilots. Reginald is in the water, far side of the plane.

To celebrate the supreme design of SB6, aviation artist and engineer Stephen Mosley has shared his superb artwork and photo of the replica plane.

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