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The Thompson Trophy Story

by John M. White |  | 1 comment

Every now and then, a game changing event occurs in the history of an activity. The Thompsons Cup Race (better known later as the Thompson Trophy) was one such event in aviation. In many ways, the Thompson Trophy Story is the story of early aviation itself. Enthusiasts and inventors constantly push the envelope of performance and capability to win races. Had there been no competition – whether for gain or for pride, aviation would not have developed as fast as it did.

Origins of the Thompson Trophy

The Thompson Trophy Story Sometime in 1929, the Thompson Company was asked if they were interested in sponsoring an Air Race. The Thompson Company was keen and found that an “International Land Air Free for All” event had found no sponsors till then. With the Company taking up sponsorship, the Thompson Trophy story starts. The format of the race implied that there were no restrictions placed upon the airplanes. All participants took off with a ten second separation and went around spacing pylons that ensured that after the first turn all participants were at par. Once equalized, the race was truly free for all. Participants flew around two tall pylons that marked a course of 10 miles. To get the best possible performance, all pilots flew as low as they could and this produced a superb display of showmanship, speed and daring. The wing tip to wing tip flying was also very dangerous and a number of pilots paid the ultimate penalty. Soon after the format of the race had been established, the organizers set out to create a trophy that was worthy of the event. The jury consisted of the famous Orville Wright and three secretaries of aviation.

Famous Sculptors Commissioned

Four famous sculptors were commissioned to design the trophy. The winner, Walter A. Sinz, was selected unanimously. His entry depicted Icarus about to take flight. The sculpture was rich in symbolism and honored the inquisitive spirit of man which had eventually led to the discovery of flight.

The War Intervenes

The Thompson Trophy was contested regularly from 1930 to 1939. Thereafter, there was a gap due to the Second World War. After the War although the race was run again, it needed to be divided into two sections to cater to the development of the jet engine which gave far superior performance to the piston engines of the private racers. Although two sections of the race were opened up – the ‘R’ section for piston engines and the ‘J’ section for the jets, the race was primarily taken over by sleek military jets. The Trophy continued to be raced for till 1961 when it was finally discontinued. Nevertheless, the graphic here shows the continuous improvement in airplane performance right from 1930 onwards.

Trends in Performance

Thompson Trophy Speed Records GraphAn interesting statistic is shown on the extreme right of the graph where the top speed of the winner has reduced as compared to the previous year. It is not an error in the graph but proof of the fact that after the F 104 Starfighter (which won the race in 1958) and the F – 106 Hustler (1959), military airplane speeds have hit a plateau as designers and planners found that top speeds are rarely used in combat.


The Thompson Trophy story was also important because it converted a number of pilots into celebrities. Prominent among them are Roscoe Turner (three times winner), Jimmy Doolittle and Jimmy Wedell. All of these seem to have learnt from the figure of Icarus carved on their trophies. They flew to their limits but stayed within them to become famous and successful trailblazers in the rapidly developing field of modern Aviation. Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch! JetAviator7 ps: Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter "All Things Aviation" here!

Comments (1)

  • Cedarglen on June 24, 2019

    Racing around pylons in an oval is one thing. When they start flying a figure-8 pattern, we’ll see the real skills!

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