The Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider, commonly called the Schneider Trophy or Schneider Prize (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Schneider Cup, a different prize), was a trophy awarded annually (and later, biannually) to the winner of a race for seaplanes and flying boats. The Schneider Trophy is now held at the Science Museum, South Kensington, London.
Announced in 1912 by Jacques Schneider, a French financier, balloonist and aircraft enthusiast, the competition offered a prize of approximately £1,000. The race was held twelve times between 1913 and 1931. It was intended to encourage technical advances in civil aviation but became a contest for pure speed with laps over a (usually) triangular course (initially 280 km, later 350 km). The contests were staged as time trials, with aircraft setting off individually at pre-agreed times, usually 15 minutes apart. The contests were very popular and some attracted crowds of over 200,000 spectators. An earlier trophy, also presented by Jacques Schneider in 1910, in France, was the Schneider Cup, which is now in the possession of the RAF College Cranwell.
If an aero club won three races in five years, they would retain the trophy and the winning pilot would receive 75,000 francs for each of the first three wins. Each race was hosted by the previous winning country. The races were supervised by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the aero club in the hosting country. Each club could enter up to three competitors with an equal number of alternatives.
The race was significant in advancing aeroplane design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design, and would show its results in the best fighters of World War II. The streamlined shape and the low drag, liquid-cooled engine pioneered by Schneider Trophy designs are obvious in the British Supermarine Spitfire, the American North American P-51 Mustang, and the Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore.
The Schneider Trophy is a sculpture of silver & bronze set on a marble base. It depicts a zephyr skimming the waves, and a nude winged figure is seen kissing a zephyr recumbent on a breaking wave. The heads of two other zephyrs and of Neptune, the god of the Sea, can be seen surrounded by octopus and crabs. The symbolism represents speed conquering the elements of sea and air.
The first competition was held on 16 April 1913, at Monaco. It was won by a French Deperdussin at an average speed of 73.56 km/h (45.71 mph). The British won in 1914 with a Sopwith Tabloid at 139.74 km/h (86.83 mph). After World War I, the competition resumed in 1919 at Bournemouth where in foggy conditions the Italian team won. They were later disqualified and the race was voided.
In 1920 and 1921 at Venice the Italians won — in 1920 no other nation entered and in 1921 the French entry did not start. After 1921, an additional requirement was added: the winning seaplane had to remain moored to a buoy for six hours without human intervention.
In 1922 in Naples the British and French competed with the Italians. The British private entry, a Supermarine Sea Lion II, was the victor. The French aircraft did not start the race, which became a competition between the Sea Lion and three Italian aircraft, including a Macchi M.7 and a Savoia.
The 1923 trophy, contested at Cowes, went to the Americans with a sleek, liquid-cooled engined craft designed by Glenn Curtiss. It used the Curtiss D-12 engine. US Navy Lieutenant David Rittenhouse won the cup.
In 1924 there was no competition as no other nation turned out to face the Americans — the Italians and the French withdrew and both British craft crashed in pre-race trials.
In 1925 at Chesapeake Bay the Americans won again, the US pilot Jimmy Doolittle winning in a Curtiss R3C ahead of the British Gloster III and the Italian entry. Two British planes did not compete (R. J. Mitchell’s Supermarine S.4 and the other Gloster III were damaged before the race). Two of the American planes did not finish.
In 1926, the Italians returned with a Macchi M.39 and won against the Americans with a 396.69 km/h (246.49 mph) run at Hampton Roads.
In 1927 at Venice there was a strong British entry with government backing and RAF pilots (the High Speed Flight) for Supermarine, Gloster and Shorts. Supermarine’s Mitchell-designed S.5s took first and second places. 1927 was the last annual competition, the event then moving onto a biannual schedule to allow for more development time.
In 1929, at Calshot, Supermarine won again in the Supermarine S.6 with the new Rolls-Royce R engine with an average speed of 528.89 km/h (328.64 mph). Both Britain and Italy entered two new aircraft and a backup plane from the previous race.
In 1931 the British government withdrew support, but a private donation of £100,000 from Lucy, Lady Houston, allowed Supermarine to compete and win on 13 September against only British opposition, with reportedly half a million spectators lining the beachfronts. The Italian, French, and German entrants failed to ready their aircraft in time for the competition. The remaining British team set both a new world speed record (610 km/h (380 mph)) and won the trophy outright with a third straight win. The following days saw the winning Supermarine S.6B further break the world speed record twice, making it the first craft to break the 400 mph barrier on 29 September at an average speed of 655.8 km/h (407.5 mph).
Development of the other entrants did not cease there. The proposed Italian entrant (the Macchi M.C.72) which pulled out of the contest due to engine problems later went on to set two new world speed records. In April 1933 (over Lake Garda, in northern Italy) it set a record with a speed of 682.36 km/h (424.00 mph). Eighteen months later in the same venue, it broke the 700 km/h barrier with an average speed of 709.202 km/h (440.678 mph). Both times the plane was piloted by Francesco Agello. This speed remains the fastest speed ever attained by a piston-engined seaplane.
The trophy itself has been entrusted to the Royal Aero Club and can be viewed along with the winning Supermarine S.6B floatplane at the London Science Museum Flight exhibition hall. Supermarine S.6, N248, which competed in the 1929 contest but was disqualified, is preserved at Solent Sky maritime museum in Southampton.
In 1981 the race was revived, in name if not in concept, by the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Britain’s ultimate retention of the Trophy. The original Trophy remained in the Science Museum, and a full-size replica was cast and the race opened on a handicapped basis to any propeller–driven landplane capable of maintaining 100 miles per hour in straight and level flight, and weighing up to 12,500 lb. Pilots also had to have a minimum of 100 hours as pilot-in-command, and a valid air racing licence.
Following that event, the UK subsidiary of US computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) independently decided to sponsor a long-term revival of the Schneider Trophy, with the first race held in 1984. The idea was submitted by DEC’s then UK PR consultancy Infopress as part of a broader commercial sponsorship programme designed to increase DEC’s presence in the UK market at that time. DEC sponsored this revived race series from 1984 until 1991, which also marked the diamond jubilee of the final race in the original series. DEC and Infopress turned to the expertise of the Royal Aero Club’s Records, Racing & Rally Association which again administered and ran the actual races. The 1981 Solent course, itself a close approximation of the original 1929 and 1931 Schneider Trophy courses over the Solent, was also used and adapted from year to year.
This sponsorship had a profound effect on the awareness and popularity of handicapped air racing in the UK and further afield, as well as markedly increasing DEC’s commercial profile in the UK. The appeal of the race, its historic connections, and the fact that prize money was now on offer, meant that the entry list for the race was large enough to warrant the introduction of heats from 1985 onwards. (The 1984 race field was 62 entrants, believed at the time to be the largest-ever in all forms of air racing.)
The event received further boosts in 1986, when it was started by HRH Prince Andrew and his then fiancée Sarah Ferguson; in 1987, when the event was featured as one episode in a BBC television documentary series; and in 1988, when it was a central part of that year’s ITV Telethon Appeal.
DEC invited customers and partners to each year’s event as guests, and the general public watched in increasing numbers as the series grew in size and popularity.
For the pilots taking part, the event became, along with the King’s Cup Race, the highlight of the UK’s air racing season, and regularly attracted entrants from continental Europe.
DEC continued to sponsor the races through 1991. Since that time, the race has been run by the Royal Aero Club Records Racing and Rally Association along with the King’s Cup and the British air racing championship. The venue has varied but is still flown on most occasions around a Solent-based course, usually around September of each year.