The Great Depression
was tough on the aircraft industry, especially the sale
of luxuries like the small sport planes the Granville
Brothers built in Springfield, Massachusetts. The
decision was made to build and enter a racer in the Cleveland
Air Races in hopes that prize money could help support
their dwindling sales. The
first racer, engineered by Bob Hall, and built by the
Granville Brothers (hence Gee Bee) began in July of 1931. In
less than 6 weeks “The City of Springfield” made its first
flight at a cost of less than $5,000. The
Gee Bee would be flown by expert pilot, Lowell Bayles,
and won every race it entered, including the Shell speed
dash at 267.34 mph and the famous Thompson Trophy pylon
more than recouped their original investment.
The success of the “Z” model was short
lived however. Bayles
had a larger 750 hp engine installed and was going to
make an attempt at the World Land Speed Record. On
December 5, 1931 at the Wayne County Airport in Detroit,
Michigan, only 106 days after its first flight, Bayles
came speeding in to the timing gate when, within a matter
of seconds, the right wing came off and the tumbling Gee
Bee hit the ground, erupting into a ball of flames! Bayles
was killed and the reputation of the Gee Bee as a killer
was meticulously constructed by Jeff Eicher and Kevin
Kimball in Mount Dora, Florida.
Since there were no original drawings for this
aircraft, a lot of research went into notes and old photographs
to make it as accurate as possible. Airshow
pilot Delmar Benjamin made the first 12 flights. He
is well known on the air show circuit for his act in a
reproduction of a later Gee Bee R-2 racer. After
the initial test flights, Jeff and Kevin approached Kermit
to see if they could display it at Fantasy of Flight,
as they had no desire to fly it. After
walking by the aircraft in the hangar for 6 months, Kermit
decided that it really filled a gap in the collection
and made a deal with Jeff and Kevin to purchase it. They were glad with the decision (maybe this was their original
strategy), as the aircraft would now go to a good home
and be flown by someone with the skill to safely fly it.
Only one other Gee Bee “Z” replica has
ever been built.
It was modified with longer wings and fuselage
in an attempt to make it fly better and was used in the
movie the “Rocketeer”.
flew this aircraft twice before deciding that I really
wanted to know what caused the original aircraft to crash. Having
some experience with wing flutter before, I suspected
that it might have been the cause. I
lost several friends because of it and, after reviewing
the film footage of the original crash decided not to
fly the aircraft again until it was tested.
In the early 1930’s nothing was known about flutter. It
was the racing aircraft of the time that started to push
the boundaries where flutter began to be a problem. Leon
Tolve came down before and did some work for me on aerobatic
who was now almost 90, had been one of the primary flutter
experts that tested all of our aircraft during World War
several days of testing at Fantasy of Flight, he determined
that the aircraft had a definite wing flutter problem
above 240 mph.
make the aircraft safe to fly, a specific amount of balance
weight will have to be attached to each aileron spar at
a specified location.
These external weights will be mounted protrude
beneath the wings and allow the aircraft to fly safely
at speeds well over 300 mph. Solving one of aviations
mysteries, we now know what happened to Bayles and the
Gee Bee “Z”, as he was estimated to have been going over
300 mph when the wing came off!