The National Air Races Days of Cleveland, 1929-1949
By Admin

June 29, 2009

Each Labor Day weekend, the Cleveland National Air Show hubs legions of aviation fanatics to Burke Lakefront Airport. A highly superb American event and a national attraction, enthusiasts from all over Northeast Ohio and far-off places trip it to the north coast to witness history in the making, climb inside the jets, see the latest and greatest innovations, and to get all-out lifted! Since 1964, the Cleveland National Air Show has soared throughout Northeast Ohio’s skyscape every year. However, the show didn’t just come out of thin air. No captain. It was raised from the downfall of the Cleveland Air Races…yea, that’s right, air races!

Back in 1920, the concept of an air show flew over to the United States from Europe. A publisher from the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer, doled out money for an air race on Long Island, beginning with the first Pulitzer Trophy race. The Pulitzer Trophy race was a speed-shattering race to see who could complete the course in the least amount of time. Post World War I, a big lack of interest stormed aviation, leaving it in a state of suffrage. Joseph’s goal was to re-raise the interest in people and the spirit of aviation and taking these interests to new heights. These interests skyrocketed with a-quickness, real fast.

With Charles Lindberg’s Atlantic flight in 1927, the Golden Age of Aviation took off and reached out into the late 1940’s. It was during the 1920’s when the National Air Races cruised around the country and landed at Cleveland Hopkins Airport in 1929. (Hopkins Airport was named after the then city manager, William Hopkins. The airport was founded in 1925, and at the time was the first major municipally owned airport in the world, and covered a whopping 1,040 acres of land.)

The first Cleveland National Air Race was a ten-day extravaganza, beginning with what is said to have been a serendipitous parade along Euclid Avenue with 200 floats, 21 bands, and an estimated 300,000 spectators from across the country watched as the Goodyear Blimp flew overhead. To compliment this fantastical event, there was an aircraft exhibition with $3,000,000 worth of planes on display, aerial acrobatics, thirty-five racing events, a number of cross-country derbies and a spectacular fireworks show. More than 100,000 aficionados’ were in attendance the first day of the Air Races, as were many celebrities and dignitaries. This ten-day escapade catapulted Cleveland into the aviation center of the world. The Air Races were recognized as a world-class event, which played an overall giant role in boosting air travel and cultivating advancements in aircraft exploration and development. So after roaring off to Chicago in 1930, the show darted back to Hopkins where it hovered for nineteen very progressive, thrill-seeking, and enormously skillful years until 1949. (With the exception of 1930, 1933, 1936, and the war years of 1940-1945.)

The first show banked a $90,000 profit. No other show had ever done this or even come close. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Charles Lindbergh was flying a Boeing biplane…or maybe it was Amelia Earhart who raced in the “Powder Puff Derby,” a special race from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland. Fred Crawford, then president of the National Air Races, referred to Cleveland as the “best location for sensation,” as the press announced it as the “air laboratory of the world.”

Each year that the show returned, so did something new: permanent grandstands for spectators, new administrative buildings, new building units for the military participants, more raceplanes, parachute jumping, more races, civilian pilots, an increase in profit, added cross-country events, record-breaking crowds, more of Europe’s best aerobatic pilots, supped-up engines, expansion of military involvement, large sums of prize money, and some very tragic crashes…which is what ultimately lead to the cessation of the air races.

It was 1949 when pilot Bill Odam banked too sharp around a pylon, cut inside the course, and flipped upside down then crashing into a home in Berea. The accident killed Bill, and a mother and her baby boy who were inside the home. For the first time ever, someone other than a participant of the air races was killed. This was the year that the National Air Races turned off its engines, and The Defense Department cut the budget to military for future involvement in any shows.

Fast-forward fifteen years…

RRRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

It’s 1964. The Cleveland National Air Show sweeps around Cleveland and is a crowd pleaser for all Clevelander’s and aviation buffs alike. Reclaiming the spirit in aviation and recapturing the smiles, thrills, and skills, revolutionary pilots, formations, and breakthroughs reclaimed the blue skies of the north coast July 4th and 5th. In 1967, racing returned after an eighteen year hiatus for a one-more-time arousal! Fifty race pilots and some of the nation’s top aerobatic pilots brought back the air racing sensationalism that played such a major role in the history and exploration of aviation.

The current Air Show series prevails at Burke Lake Front Airport, usually attracting more than 100,000 fans that come to witness the finest aviators rocket around the friendly skyways of C-town. Although they’re not “racing” per se, they’re cruising at mach speed, breakneck speed, just without the breakneck risks associated with the races of the 30’s and 40’s. However you spin it, the National Air Races were both extremely sky-breaking and groundbreaking. It was during this Golden Age of Aviation, to say the least, that airmen and airwomen demonstrated unprecedented hustle. Even large amounts of drag couldn’t slow them down!

So don’t just wing it on Labor Day weekend…get your tail to the Air Show.

For more information about the Cleveland Air Show, log onto www.clevelandairshow.com

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