Memories of Daily Express Air Races sixty years ago


Once again Airbourne is the talking point around Eastbourne. Sixty years ago, the sky was filled with the roar of vintage and modern engines as the annual Daily Express Air Races took place along the south coast from Bournemouth pier to Herne Bay. These races revived the pre-war events that brought the design of the Spitfire to the fore and thus gave Great Britain a aeronautical edge over Germany in 1940.

As I recall it was August Bank Holiday Monday 1950 to 1953, then the first August Monday, the race attracted many thousands to the south coast resorts to listen to the race commentary broadcast through the tannoy system. In Eastbourne I normally climbed to the top of the pier by the camera obscura (pictured left) to witness the parade of planes from every era, design and size. Leisure or military, post 1918 or 1945, mono or bi, it was a text book parade of the past and future.

The handicapper hoped that their efforts would give each competitor an even chance. The formula was complicated. Taking off from Hurn airport at timed intervals, slowest first, the flypast at Eastbourne was a mixture of planes, some skimming the waves other at altitude, hover most of the pilots could easily be seen in the cockpit, and exchanges of waves was of encouragement.

I believe that it was in 1952 that the race was preceded by a flypast of the prototype of the Brabazon airliner.

The Bristol Type 167 Brabazon was a large propellor-driven airliner , designed by the Bristol Aeroplane Company Aeroplane to fly transatlantic routes between the United Kingdom and the United States. Despite its size, comparable to a DC 10, it was designed to carry only 100 passengers, each one granted room about the size of the entire interior of a small car.

The prototype was completed and flown in 1949, only to prove a commercial failure when airlines felt the airliner was too large and expensive to be useful. In the end, only the single prototype was flown; it was broken up in 1953 for scrap, along with the uncompleted turboprop powered Brabazon I Mk.II.

The air races were one of many publicity events organised by the national newspapers.

Residents and holiday makers were encouraged to carry the Daily Sketch, if approached and able to quote the correct phrase ( i.e you are Mr Snoopy of the Sketch and I claim my £5 note) the lucky person had a crisp white £5 note to send (£5 was half a week’s wages for many). Other popular events were the beauty contests, the diving platforms anchored in the sea and motor rallies to name three.

Lionel Leslie Marriott