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The Gee Bee – Fastest and Most Dangerous Airplane in the World

The Gee-Bee racing airplanes are perhaps one of the most recognized and unique air racers ever built. The first, the “Model Z” was built in Springfield, MA, by the Granville Brothers Aircraft in 1931 and was followed in 1932 by the “Model R1” and “R2 Super Sportsters.”

The “Z” racing plane won the Thompson Products Trophy piloted by Lowell Bayles in 1931 at the National Air Races. The “R1” piloted by Jimmy Doolittle followed suit in 1932. All three of the difficult to operate machines had crashed and killed two men by 1933. The first, the “Z,” may have been caused by Bayles fitting a larger engine, the second was pilot error in landing, and the third crash was caused by the second owner fitting larger fuel tanks.

The lead rendering and the cutaway drawings both represent the R1.” It is the most famous of the two and was designed by Howell W. Miller. It benefited from additional refinement that included a tear-drop shape, wind tunnel testing and an 800 h.p. supercharged 9-cylinder radial Pratt & Whitney “Wasp” engine with 1343 c.i. The drawings and image are courtesy of the Silodrome.

Delmar Benjamin and Steve Wolf built a flying replica of the “R2” in the early 1990s and Benjamin flew it in airshows until 2002. The original “R2” was fitted with a smaller Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Jr. engine with over 740 h.p. and 986 c.i. It was constructed for the Bendix Trophy Race that was a cross country race. It finished the race but lost time due to a cracked oil line. In the video (above) “Gee Bees R1 and 2,” he tells the story of the machines.

Gee Bee Model-R2-2

  • Gee Bee “R2” replica built by Delmar Benjamin and Steve Wolf.

The video below, produced in 1999 by Kermit Weeks, owner of Fantasy of Flight Museum shows his replica of the 1931 Gee Bee “Model Z” on his first flight at the facility. It is a replica built by Jeff Eicher and Kevin Kimball of the airplane that won the Thompson Products Trophy in 1931. The film includes vintage footage after the original “Z” was later fitted with a more powerful 750 h.p. engine by Lowell Bayles in his pursuit of a world speed record. In the fight, it crashed and burned killing him after a wing failure.

45 responses to “The Gee Bee – Fastest and Most Dangerous Airplane in the World

  1. Benjamin’s replica was the R2, not the R1. Note the number “7” painted on his plane. The R1 was #11. He built the aircraft as close to the original as possible using photos and measurements from a non-flying replica authorized by the Granville heirs. They would not allow him access to the original drawings as they did not want another R1 or R2 accident that would add additional negative comments about the Granville brothers’ original work. Benjamin flew the R2 at airshows for about 10 years doing aerobatics that the original pilots wouldn’t have attempted. I believe that the only “upgrade” he added was brakes. The R1 & R2 were very unstable airplanes but many of the accidents were caused by modifications that the Granville brothers did not authorize. Doolittle later claimed that modern-day military pilots, trained in very high performance aircraft, could fly the Gee Bee competently.

    • Eric, Thanks for the correction, after checking mutible confusing and sometimes incorrect sources it appeared like it was the R1. I inserted the photo at the last moment be fore the deadline and did not check its number.

  2. A very deadly aeroplane for sure, but an unforgettable design that pushes the boundaries of imagination (for the time) and flight. Love the classic score by James Horner (The Rocketeer) used in the first video. Those of us who saw the film know Howard Hughes give, as a gift to the hero, a Gee Bee Z at the end.

  3. If you enjoyed this, go on the web and check out the Brewster Buffalo. Americans hated it while the Finns had sterling success with it. Among American Navy pilots the word was, “If you can fly a Buffalo, you can fly anything!”

    • A Buffalo survives in the Ericson Aircraft Collection in Madras, Oregon, formerly located in the Tillamook wooden airship hangar.

      • Where did you find the information that there is a Brewster Buffalo extant anywhere except in Finland?
        Is this new and not on their website? Do you know where it came from and how Ericson AC got it?

        I’d love to see one, that’s for sure.

  4. The cutaway drawing was done by a wonderful artist named Tom Johnson who was living in Portland, Oregon when I last spoke to him. He also did some beautiful automobile cutaways, which I regret not purchasing at the time.

  5. I met Ed Granville at a Franklin Club trek decades ago, he owned a series 11 Franklin victoria coupe (1925-27 era) and he was a very nice gentleman to talk to. I recognized the last name, but never thought that he was one of “the” Granville’s involved with the Gee Bee. I now wish I had asked, as conversation about those marvelous looking airplanes would have then taken place.

  6. The Granville brothers were defiantly aviation pioneers of the time. As mentioned, they were able to push the limits of physics in comparison of wingspan to horsepower. 1932 was a good year for the team as they won the National Air Races. The following year, 1933, they were meet with tragedy including the participation at the 1933 National Air Race in Los Angeles, CA. Interestingly there is reanimates of their participation in the automotive world.

    Not only did “Granny” Granville develop a three wheel race car to be entered in the Indianapolis 500 (which Rickenbacker turned down due it’s lack of four wheels) but I believe I have the pit car/promotion car used by the team. This car is an original 1923 Franklin which has been painted with aviation paint (aircraft dope). The paint scheme follows the same pattern including the scallops of the Gee Bee R-1. In 1933 the Franklin would have been a cheap used car to paint and use in the parade. Pictures of the Franklin can be found in response to the “The Old Motor” Facebook posting.

    Interesting enough, Ed Granville, who was a member of the H.H. Franklin Club, did some “modifications” to his Series 11 car. In an article written by Ed in an older publication of the “Air Cooled News”, he talks about crossing wire cables under the car with turnbuckles (like what is used on a biplane) to stiffen the wood frame and keeping it from sagging. The Granville’s were not afraid to think out-of-the-box, to say the least.

  7. If you’re ever in the Springfield, MA, area, the Springfield Museums has an exhibit on the Granville brothers and their famous planes, as well as exhibits on the Springfield Rolls Royces, a very low mileage Pierce Arrow limo, several brass era beauties and of course their huge Indian motorcycle collection. LOTS more to see there and well worth a visit.

    • Good points of interest (plus the Armory & Dr. Suess connection). I once tried to find traces of “Springfield Airport” where the Granville’s had their factory. No traces: just a strip mall off Liberty St.

  8. Having seen one of these in the brilliant film ‘The Rocketeer’ I fell in love with them. They are the aeronautical equivalent of my 1929 Blower Bentley.

  9. I’m a major buff of Golden Age air racing and the Gee Bees in particular. I must have a dozen models around the house and every publication I could possibly find.

    It’s perhaps telling that not one Gee Bee survived the era, not even in museums. I especially liked the smaller C, D, and E Super Sportsters.

  10. Regarding no surviving Gee Bee airplanes At least one of the original Gee Bee model A/B biplanes can be seen in Americans museums

      • The R-6H “Q.E.D.” survives in a museum in Mexico having been restored some years ago. It’s wearing the “Conquistador de Cielo” paint scheme it wore on it’s 1939 record setting flight from Mexico City to New York City. At his fatal crash in it on the return trip, Seraba’s family had it shipped back to Mexico and later built the museum around it. Most definitely not a replica.

        Jim Moss built a modified replica of the R-6 that took to the air show circuit a couple of years ago.

        And everything I’ve read is that the Gee Bee A in the New England museum is also an original.

  11. As a major fan of Golden Age aircraft, and the National Air Races, I very much appreciated the TOM article on the GeeBees!

    • Jimmy Doolittle passes the Bendix pylon low and fast during the 1932 Thompson Trophy race, which he won at an average speed of 253 miles per hour. It took all of Doolittle’s flying skill to keep the unstable and unforgiving barrel-shaped Gee Bee R-1 Super Sportster under control.

      Nice that Wikipedia gave the air speed of winner.

  12. I’m the guy who made the Gee Bee R1 and R2 video. Like some others, I fell in love with the Gee Bee racers when I first saw the movie ‘The Rocketeer.’ Shortly after seeing the movie, I built a flying quarter scale (25%) Gee Bee R2 and powered it with a ‘scale’ 9 cylinder radial engine. The project was a GREAT success! When Delmar Benjamin burst on the airshow scene with his full scale R2 replica, I became a “Gee Bee groupie,” attending every airshow I could where the Gee Bee was scheduled to fly. Over the years I have built 2 more Gee Bee’s at 31%, as well as a quarter scale Model Z. With more than 60 Gee Bee flights under my belt and having spoken with Delmar Benjamin at every airshow opportunity, I can tell you the reputation of these aircraft is “well-deserved.” It is not that they are “bad” designs, but they were built to do only one thing well – go fast and turn left! With over 1500 hours of flight time on 3 continents, Delmar proved the Gee Bee was capable of more than just going fast and turning left, BUT he readily admitted that the plane requires 100% focus and to be “flown” 100% of the time. For any man not at the pinnacle of piloting ability, these planes WERE in fact, flying coffins. The ‘problem’ with the originals is that very few pilots possessed the ability to handle these aircraft at all times, under all circumstances. One of the greatest pilots ever, Jim Doolittle, said the “…Gee Bee was the most dangerous airplane I have ever flown.”
    I still consider the Gee Bee R1, R2, and Z to be the coolest airplanes that ever flew! They stand resolute as tributes to intrepid men and their amazing flying machines!

    • Thanks for the fine work, and when we look at these pioneer aircraft we can still see the theories working today. As you state, some aircraft had to be ‘flown’ constantly, I recall the Sopwith Camel had similar issues but its stability challenges also made it very quick when it was time to maneuver. Today we have fly by wire systems that can keep an unstable aircraft flying like a dream, but also allows the responsiveness that is needed when its time to fly and fight.

  13. A scale model GEEBEE was equipped with floats and was flown at a model air show at Lake Havasu in Arizona many years ago…It took off and landed, and although a little squirrelly it flew well…We heard the pilot took it to Jimmy Doolittle and had it autographed…It’s probably still hanging up somewhere.
    I think it was powered by a Zenoah G62….

    • Forgot to mention—–2 of my customers built and flew 1/2 scale models…They weighed about 80 lbs..One was powered by a Herbrandson 289 drone engine and the other by a 3W, I think a 275….

  14. Springfield,Mass is home to much famous industrial history.
    Smith and Wesson,Columbia Bicycles,Indians.The Springfield Armory,etc etc.

  15. The fatal accident that cost Lowell Bales his life occurred at Wayne County Airport that is now Detroit Metropolitan on a Saturday afternoon after Bales had inadvertently struck a fence post located at the north edge of the ramp on the west end of the hangar on Thursday afternoon. Friday was spent inspecting repairing the right wing and there has been some speculation that the rear spar in the right wing may have been cracked in the minor strike with the post. The airplane impacted the ground on the north side of the railroad track and headed southwest and approximately 500 to 700 feet west of Middle Belt Road. The fuel cap that received, “the blame” for the accident was NEVER FOUND.

    Dave McKenzie, IAC-2032 Howell, Michigan

  16. Wonderful story, more flights (literally) of fancy. I am such a fan of the days when people tried the impossible with planes and cars. Wonderful.

  17. The New England Air Museum, which is sited just north end of the Bradley-Springfield airport, features a replica Granville Brothers R1 in red and white. The museum itself contains many military aircraft (B -52s used to fly out of Bradley) but also has a big civilian aircraft collection too. The Granville display is comprehensive and shares space with other “local” innovators such as Sikorsky and Kaman . The museum is well worth an afternoon.

    To add to a prior comment, let us not forget that Springfield also hosted important automotive pioneers, two of which were Duryea and the Knox Automobile Company. This area is steeped in early twentieth century innovation.

    =rdsieber

  18. I had the honor of meeting General Doolitle in my Laboratory at the U.S.A.F. Aerospace Corporation R & D facility in El Segundo, Califorornia:
    He strolled in,— in a business suit, and introduced himself: I immdiately thanked him for the “30 seconds over Tokyo Raid which happened about age 6 for me. A Gentleman and a well – versed Scientist, he was a pleasure to have in the lab., as I described what I was doing and showing him around this newly transferred & Upgraded Test Facility for Spaceflight experiment component calibration, — before launch. This also gave me to hear HIS version of what it was like to fly the R-1 GEE BEE. Our relationship was “AT WORK – PROFESSIONAL” ONLY, and He became a frequent visitor for many years, as different projects required a visit from this “Board of Directors Scientist ” of the Corporations of the Aerospace business in Southern California . I am honored to have known him.

    • Lucky you. (turns a shade of green). I’ve always been impressed with General Doolittle’s single mindedness when it came to a task, his candor and his humility. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that after the brilliant raid on Japan he was sitting looking at his wrecked B-25 thinking he would be courts martialed for his failure.

  19. Hello:

    Aviation has always been part of my life. Started
    airlines flying Part 135 (commuter airlines). Was
    around when the first Lear 23 showed up at Butler
    Aviation (O’Hare Chicago), November 1964.

    J. Ronald

  20. I have been fascinated by the Gee Bee racers since I firs saw them. My first radio control was anESM arf which has rolled many a time head over heals along the runway in an attempted landing. Many repairs later it is still flying. I also fly a Z and a larger Byron kit Gee Bee R2. After many mishaps and with gyro stabilising receivers the Gee Bees are manageable and a joy to fly. Gee Bee forever !!

  21. hi…

    im from poland…

    what i want to say is:

    in 1930 polish engineur
    Zygmunt Puławski
    was make your pzl p6 aircraft

    it was presented in paris and america…
    in 1931 it won American National Races in Cleveland…

    that was inspiration for american engineur bob HALL
    who was work with geebee airplanes…
    in 1932 he was make your BULL DOG aircraft…
    it was the inspiration for polish p24 aircraft…

    pulawski died shortly after presentation in america
    in very oddly looking aircraft accident…
    in 1939 there was ww2 – you know…

    shortly before that he was make one not realized project…

    it was looking like geebee but in p6 and bulldog style…
    you know – high wing – similar fixed gear like in p6…
    general base for this construction was cylinder splashed on
    one end… they look like fish or somewhat… that was very
    budget construction… it was make because of supremation of
    german airforce in 1930s… just rectangular wing and tail,
    radial engine with 6-pistons – 150 KM or somewhat…
    3,2 m lengt, 3,2 m wing… without towend ring – like in
    your hot road cars… everything else like in p6 and geebee…
    vmax about 300 km/h… everything maked locally on very low cost
    – even the engine, gears – easy to make for amateurs with
    simply hardware!

    well… in my opinion we was one step to win ww2!
    2×50 kg of cargo under wing, bombs and rockets…
    but polish army was not interested… they just bay p6
    upgraded clones… eventually they was interested
    of super modern cosntruction like spitfire and hurricane…

    that was the mistake… in 1939 we was won fight but we lost the war…
    final score in the game with luftwaffe was 1,5:1… not enough
    unhelpfully… we could have 2500 p6/geebee/bulldog… instead of this
    we was have 350 p6,7,11,24…

    i think that pulawski p6/geebee/bulldog construction was much more
    better than geebee – with all due respect avcose…

    wing of bulldog and geebee are not properly fixed…
    they are fixed from upside and downside in 1-point…
    they should be like in oryginal p6 – 2-point fixed…
    because of something who aircraft engineurs call:
    aeroelasticall divergention of the wing or simply FLATTER…

    gears are not properly fixed to – geebee have that maked more properly
    while bulldog not…

    belive me or not – that design of pulawski looks very good,
    and much better than geebee… and it was very cheap…

    maybe i make one in some day…

    all that is just for your information only…

    have fun with wikipedia!

    with best regards…

    mgr ST

  22. Just found this page while searching for a decent 3 view drawing of the R-1/R-2 “Long Tail Racer” to use on a Flight Simulator project that I’ve got going.

    I’ve been a fan of the Gee Bee Sportster and Super Sportster aircraft since I was a kid in the 60s. People talk about the “killer” Gee Bees, but if you look deeper, the majority of the crashes were the result of either pilot error or of aircraft that had been modified after leaving the Granville’s control. When you’re dealing with something that is built to push the edges of the envelope, expect some failures. And don’t forget that the Granville’s racing efforts were very successful in 1931 and 1932.

  23. It must be remembered when revering Howell “Pete” Miller, the designer of the Super Sportster, that the prototype had NO vertical fin and a smaller rudder. The fin (which extended above the canopy) was hastily added by the Granvilles after Russell Boardman test flew the plane and said it “bob-tailed” during landing. Not sure exactly what that meant, but assuming he meant yaw stability was questionable when slowing the plane. This aircraft design was as ‘radical’ in 1932, as the F117 Stealth was to modern-day designs.

    • It was my understanding that the first design of the Gee Bee the vertical stabilizer was too small and was blanked out by the big fuselage. They redesigned the vertical stabilizer made it taller and was much more effective.
      Russell Craig retired CFI,
      AMEL&S.

  24. My son and I watched Delmar flying this “R2” replica at the Watsonville airshow in 1998. He flew down the runway, about 50 feet off the ground, on wing’s edge, flying on the prop. Amazing skill and an amazing performer.

    We met him afterward. He is the nicest guy. He told us the he and Steve built it as accurately as possible because he wanted to experience the “dangerous characteristics” of the aircraft that killed so many. He didn’t want it watered down to make it safe. I still have the photo I took of a fly-by, proudly hanging in my office.

    My favorite plane.

  25. I had the pleasure of watching Delmar Benjamin put his R-2 replica through its paces at the Cleveland Air Show in the early 1990’s. To be honest, I was expecting him to “tippy-toe” around the sky near Burke airport, based on my limited
    knowledge that led me to believe that the plane was dangerous to fly.
    What a SHOW!!! Mr Benjamin had me slack-jawed as he put the Gee Bee through its paces!

  26. The Gee Bee R2 was a killer aircraft that killed most of the pilots that flew it.

    Your article states that there were three fatal R2 crashes , actually there were at least five fatal R2 crashes including that of the aircraft’s designer Zantfort Grannie Granville.

    The pilots who died flying the R2 were (in order of their deaths);

    #1 Johnny Kytle

    #2 Russell Boardman

    #3 Lowell Bayles during world record speed attempt in Detroit. His starboard wing folded up at 310mph

    #4 Florence Klingensmilth at the 1933 Chicago International Air Races. She was flying a 650 hp version of the R2 in the Phillips Trophy Race when she experienced the same starboard wing failure as had Bayles.

    #5 Zantford Granville while attempting a landing at Spartanville, SC.

    • I need to correct my above comment.

      There were not five Gee Bee R2 fatalities, there were six. Cecil Allen died flying a Gee Bee R2 during the 1935 Bendix Race.

      That makes Jimmy Doolittle the only pilot to ever survive racing the R2.

      With the exception of Doolittle, the above list could very well be every pilot who ever flew a Gee Bee R2.

    • John S Kytle died doing aerobatics in a Model E Sportster, not the R-2 which wasn’t built until the following year.

      Lowell Bayles died in the Model Z Super Sportster in late 1931 before any of the R-series were built. It was never decisively decided as to the actual initial cause of the crash.

      In the 1933 Russell Boardman died in the R-1 from likely pilot error in taking off too soon in a fully loaded aircraft. Not the R-2 which was at the same airfield trying to get a cracked oil line repaired.

      Florence Klingensmith’s Model Y Senior Sportster had a much larger engine installed than the original one against the advice of the Granvilles. The outer skin of the wing was peeling off just before the crash and apparently she died in an attempt to bail out. This same aircraft was originally purchased by Lycoming for use as an engine test bed.

      Lee Gelbach raced the R-2 on more than one occassion and later raced the R-6. I believe he lived to a nice old age.

      Jimmy Hazlip cartwheeled the R-2 while sideslipping on a hot landing. He only had minor injuries, but the R-2 was a write off.

      What was left of both the R-1 and R-2 were used to build the R-1/R-2

      Zantford Granville was killed on landing in a Model E he was in making a sales delivery when a worker walked out onto the runway in front of him and he tried to avoid hitting the man.

      Cecil Allen added an aft fuel tank to the rebuilt R-1/R-2 against the advice of the Granvilles resulting in making the aircraft unstable in pitch. He died when it predictably pitched up on take off and crashed.

      Delmar Benjamin flew an almost exact replica of the R-2 for years on the airshow circuit. It never crashed and is currently owned by Kermit Weeks who also owns an exact replica of the Model Z.

  27. Almost forgot. Doolittle didn’t fly the R-2. He flew the faster R-1. The R-1 had the more powerful engine for pylon racing. The R-2 had a smaller engine and larger fuel tanks for long distance races.

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