The World's Fastest Pony Kegs
GeeBee R-1 and R-2
When Granville engineer, Pete Miller, drafted the first lines for the
“R” series of Super Sportsters, there was no way he could
have known that he was designing a legend. And an airplane that would
have people shaking their heads for the next 70 years. In fact, since
the last Gee Bee roared around a pylon in 1933/34 there have been no
serious challengers to the Gee Bee’s position as King of Weird.
However, there is one fact no one argues—Gee Bees were fast. Very
fast. And that was not by accident.
What many don’t realize is that the airplane’s appearance
wasn’t some sort of bizarre accident. The Granville Brothers knew
exactly what they were doing and the machines were much more than gigantic
motors with tiny airplanes following them around. Granny Granville and
Miller practically lived in the New York University wind tunnel testing
1/10 scale models. Among other things they were trying to find the lowest
drag arrangement for the wing—low, mid or shoulder position. However
much of their time was spent trying to find ways to make a beer barrel
By that time it was widely known that the ultimate low-drag fuselage
shape should approximate a teardrop with a taper ratio in the area of
3.0. This was impossible to do on airplanes of normal dimensions. Miller,
however, wasn’t thinking in terms of “normal.” He
burned a lot of might night oil blending a fire-breathing Pratt and
Whitney engine and a pilot into profiles that would cheat the wind.
From nose to tail, the fuselage faded from a perfect circle over five
feet in diameter to a vertical ellipse, which Miller begrudgingly broke
to give the pilot a tiny glass canopy that fit down around his head
like a diving helmet.
To balance off the heavy engine and controllable prop, the pilot actually
sat so far back that if the leading edges of the stabilizer were extended
inside the fuselage, the lines crossed under the pilot’s seat.
When sitting in the airplane and scanning from side to side to see around
the massive nose, you actually see the horizontal tail in your peripheral
The “R” series was designed for both pylon and crosscountry
racing. The R-1 tried to hide an 800 horse, wildly hopped up R-1340
P & W under its blunt cowl and was the pylon specialist of the two.
The R-2 had a smaller R-985 P &W that was usually 450 hp, but by
the time they were finished tweaking supercharger ratios, it cranked
out 535 hp. The R-2 had over three hundred gallons of gas on board and
its smaller diameter engine allowed Miller to optimize the teardrop
shape with a tighter taper to the cowling.
It must have been an incredible experience for the small number of pilots
who flew the Gee Bees. At that time aviation was populated almost exclusively
by stodgy biplanes and flying an airplane like the Super Sportster was
like being asked to fly the Space Shuttle with nothing but Piper Cub
time in your logbook. Still, they did it. Some pilots lived. Some died.
But all treasured the title of Gee Bee Pilot.
Legends often require little time to grab the public’s imagination
and so it was with the Gee Bees. The airplanes were designed and built
in less than six months and from August 1932, when the R-1 first flew,
to the tragic demise of both airplanes, barely a year and a half had
elapsed. Shortly after that, Zantford Granville was killed in a Model
E Senior Sportster and the company was closed.
Today it’s impossible to think of the golden age of air racing
without an R-1 or R-2 Gee Bee roaring across the mind’s eye. To
the aviation public, the Gee Bees were air racing—and
vice versa. And that’s only right.
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