Lowell Bayles' Gee Bee Z #NR77V, Romulus, MI - 5 December, 1931
Lowell Bayles boarding his Gee Bee Z in Detroit, for a record speed attempt
Portions of the written narrative on the video are incorrect __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
It was a beautiful clear day in Detroit, and excitement was in the air as Don Hanchett took his post at the Wayne County Airport (What is now Detroit Metropolitan Airport). Some 150 people had gathered to see what they hoped would be a world air speed record. Hanchett was the flagman at the starting pylon for the attempt. The pilot, 31 year old Lowell Bayles, was the defending champion and holder of the coveted Thompson Trophy. He had been in Detroit for several weeks fighting weather, mechanical problems with his plane, and timing camera issues in his bid to fly faster than any human being alive. On one trial run, he reportedly hit a speed of 314 mph, unofficially he had flown faster than anybody before him. On December 1st it was thought that he had attained the record with an average (four runs through the 1.8 mile course) speed of 287.4 mph. A re-check later determined his speed to be 281.75 mph, still besting the then record of 278.4 mph held by a French Warrant Officer named Bonnet. Unfortunately, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) rules required besting the previous record by 4.97 mph to be official, Bayles was stymied again. During his stay in Detroit and between record attempts, Bayles found time to visit local plane designer/builder Everett David. David had built an airplane in his garage and considered it an honor that a pilot of Bayles’ stature agreed to take the one-seater on a couple of test flights. Better yet, Bayles gave the plane his seal of approval! Saturday, December 6th dawned and weather conditions seemed perfect for another attempt at the record. The Granville Brothers’ Gee Bee flying team notified race officials and the timing cameras, officials and observers were hastily assembled. Because of this haste, there would be no cheering crowds. In fact, of the estimated 150 spectators, most were airport employees. At 1:00 pm Lowell Bayles fired up the Wasp engine on the Gee Bee Z dubbed the Spirit of Springfield and took to the skies. The little Gee Bee climbed to 1,000 feet and began a dive to pick up speed. Just before reaching the starting pylon, Bayles’ plane pitched violently and rolled three times, hitting the ground and exploding in a ditch beside some railroad tracks. Bayles’ body was thrown clear of the wreckage by some 300 feet, he had been in the air less than 4 minutes. Movie cameras on the scene caught the action and the iconic footage would be used as crash footage in many motion pictures over the years. Speculation as to the cause of the crash was rampant and for every newspaper article there was a different theory put forth. Because of an engine upgrade prior to the Detroit attempts, the propeller blades had to be re-adjusted. Some said that a prop blade became stressed and broke. Another theory held that a wing spar had been weakened earlier in the week when the plane hit a fence post during a landing, and some witnesses saw black smoke belch from the engine possibly indicating some kind of engine failure. The most accepted theory is that the exposed gas cap on the Gee Bee wriggled loose at high speed and crashed through the windshield either killing or incapacitating Bayles. Two boys reportedly found the gas cap, pieces of windshield and Lowell Bayles’ bloody goggles some distance from the crash site. Video analysis at the time seemed to support this theory, as something can be seen flying free from the front of Spirit of Springfield just before the plane pitches. Subsequent Gee Bee models had the gas cap hidden under the body of the craft.
Lowell Bayles was posthumously awarded the American Air Speed record of 281.75 mph for his work on December 1st. This was likely little consolation to the Granville brothers who thought of Bayles as a brother or to Ms. Gertrude St. Marie, who was to wed Lowell Bayles later in the year.
Crash site, 1931:
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I have to admit that I did not have very high hopes for this one. But after studying the video and comparing aerial photographs from 1931 to present day, Dave Trojan and I decided that we had a good idea of where the crash site was. Since it was in a railroad right of way, there was still a slight chance of finding wreckage. Detroit Metropolitan Airport has grown from a one building, one runway facility in 1931 to a large international airport, the area around the airport has grown (read: paved over) as well. I was a little dubious searching for pieces of a 15 ft. long, mostly wood, plane crash from 80 years ago in a developed urban area. Add to this the fact that we would appear to be exhibiting “suspicious” behavior to passersby outside the fence line of a major airport and I had little hope of finding any wreck material.
We parked in the lot directly adjacent to the railroad tracks and began our search. Immediately we caught the attention of a security guard in his booth at the entrance to a county DOT facility. Dave and I continued searching the grassy RR right of way without metal detectors. We were really hoping the ditches would be dry since these would be the best opportunities for success. Unfortunately there was a lot of rain prior to our expedition date and the ditches were full. We did manage to find many miscellaneous pieces of “stuff” but most of this was on top of the RR rocks and most likely not related to the Gee Bee Z of Lowell Bayles. At about this time the security guard decided to come out and question us. We politely explained ourselves and showed him our research….let’s just say that he was less than impressed and told us we had 15 minutes to vacate the premises. He told us that we were being watched by no less than six cameras, and our plates had already been run. When it was all said and done, he was not concerned with us walking the tracks, we just couldn’t park where we were. Since I have an aversion to being arrested, I immediately moved my truck to a shopping center lot. By the time I walked back, Dave had our findings assembled for a few pictures and we both decided it would be wise to leave.
One can find A LOT of detritus along a railroad tracks, in an urban area. While I am fairly certain that we had located the crash site location, I do not believe that any of the pieces we identified actually originated from the plane itself. The pictures below show our findings. Maybe a Gee Bee expert can identify something from the plane but I seriously doubt it. This was still a fun one to research.
Crash site, today:
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