By Julian Lewis
Lymington Times – 10 February 2017
Mike Roussel: The Quest for Speed: Air Racing and the Influence of the Schneider Trophy Contests 1913-31, The History Press, 2016, 296 pp, £20 (ISBN: 978-0750967914)
More than eighty years have elapsed since Great Britain won the Schneider Trophy outright, yet still this greatest of all air races continues to fascinate. Mike Roussel is an accomplished and prolific aviation historian and his latest book, The Quest for Speed, is truly encyclopaedic.
The twelve Schneider contests ran from 1913 until 1931, with a gap for the First World War. During that relatively short period, the winning speed rose from just 45mph over 174 miles in the first race, to an astonishing 340mph over 217 miles in the final one, held – like its immediate predecessor – at Calshot. Between races, many of the same aircraft types were used to attack the world speed record, sometimes with fatal consequences, as when Flight Lieutenant Samuel Kinkead lost his life attempting to break the 300mph barrier in March 1928. Such was the rate of progress, however, that just over three years later, Flight Lieutenant George Stainforth was able to break the 400mph barrier.
All this was done, not just for adventure, and not just for prestige, but for a deadly serious purpose. From the Supermarine seaplanes which won the Trophy, R J Mitchell developed the immortal Spitfire on which, together with the Hurricane, victory in the Battle of Britain depended. Even today, in an era of supersonic military aircraft, the clean, streamlined profiles of the S.5, S.6A and S.6B seaplanes are a vision of modernity. Drawing on the comprehensive photographic record in Southampton’s Solent Sky Museum, Mike Roussel has assembled, within a single set of covers, a superb collection of pin-sharp pictures of these historic machines.
His book is dedicated to the memory of the aviation photographer Alan Mansell who was picture archivist at the Museum, and in the excellent quality of the many images reproduced in The Quest for Speed, Mike has done Alan proud. We are fortunate indeed to have so much aviation history on our doorstep and so many gifted local enthusiasts to record and report it.
As well as retelling the story of the Schneider races and associated air speed record attempts, the volume also includes chapters on early aero-engine development, the impact of aviation on the First World War and vice-versa, and the aftermath of the contests – including the immense risks run by the pilots during these pioneering years. For example, we learn that half of the pilots who took part in the 1929 contest (two of the three Italians and one of the three Britons) were killed in air accidents before the end of 1931.
The Quest for Speed is a well organised, well researched and factual account of ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ – many of them courageous survivors of the Western Front – who put their lives on the line because they knew that, one day, the safety of their country might depend on air power. History proved them right.
(Signed copies of the book, published by The History Press, can be obtained from the Waterside Herald office in Hythe or from Mike Roussel on 023-8089 4731.)