Story

How Fast Was the Fastest Air Racer in 1925?

Posted on Fri, October 12, 2018
favorite
  • Cyrus Bettis and the R3C-1 flew at an average speed of 248.975 miles per hour, making them the world’s fastest pilot and airplane in the 1925 National Air Races. 
  • This summer, members of his family visited the Museum to donate artifacts and archival materials documenting Bettis' life and record-breaking achievements. 
  • These new artifacts will be on display in the reimagined Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight exhibition, part of the Museum's upcoming transformation. 

Cyrus K. Bettis was a leading US Army Air Service pilot in the 1920s that became the world’s fastest air racer in 1925. In July 2018, members of his family visited the Museum to donate artifacts and archival materials documenting his life near the airplane that he flew (the Curtiss R3C-2 Racer) and the prizes that he won (the Pulitzer and Mackay trophies). All three are on display in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery.

Close-up view of Cyrus Bettis in the cockpit of the Curtiss R3C-1 Racer after winning the Pulitzer Trophy at the 1925 National Air Races

Close-up view of Cyrus Bettis in the cockpit of the Curtiss R3C-1 Racer after winning the Pulitzer Trophy at the 1925 National Air Races at Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, NASM 9A06271.

Born in Carsonville, Michigan, in January 1893, Bettis grew up on a farm near Port Huron, Michigan. He entered the Army as a flying cadet in February 1918. He earned his pilot’s wings and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army Air Service the following September. By July 1920, he was a First Lieutenant flying along the US-Mexican border and in the Philippines.

Trained to be a professional military aviator, Lieutenant Bettis used his skills as a fighter pilot (then called a pursuit pilot) to become an accomplished air racer. At the 1924 National Air Races in Dayton, Ohio, he won the John L. Mitchell Trophy Race in his Curtiss PW-8 pursuit plane. The Assistant Chief of the Air Service, Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, created the competition for the pilots and pursuit planes of the Air Service’s First Pursuit Group in honor of his brother, who was killed in World War I.

At the following year’s National Air Races at Mitchel Field in Long Island, New York, Bettis won the October 12, 1925, Pulitzer Trophy Race. Bettis and the R3C-1 flew at an average speed of 248.975 miles per hour, making them the world’s fastest pilot and airplane that year. He said, “My plane was not traveling like the wind; it was traveling faster than any wind in history.”

  • Reed Propeller

    Cyrus Bettis standing in front of the streamline Curtiss R3C-1 Racer, equipped with a Reed propeller, at the National Air Races, Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, 1925.

  • Pulitzer Trophy

    The Pulitzer Trophy Race was the marquee event of the National Air Races in the early 1920s.

  • Cyrus Bettis' 1925 Pulitzer Medal

    The first, second, and third place Pulitzer winners received individual medals for their victories. The donation to the Museum in July 2018 included Bettis’ first place medal for 1925. Credit: Shuart family. 

  • Cyrus Bettis' 1925 Pulitzer Medal

    The first, second, and third place Pulitzer winners received individual medals for their victories. The donation to the Museum in July 2018 included Bettis’ first place medal for 1925. Credit: Shuart family. 

  • Doolittle with Lt. Cyrus Bettis

    Bettis (right) was the alternate pilot for Lt. James H. Doolittle during the 1925 Schneider Trophy competition. Part of their preparations included Bettis flying the R3C in its -2 floatplane configuration. Bettis and Doolittle shared the 1925 Mackay Trophy for their air racing victories. They received individual metals and now the Museum has both from Doolittle and Bettis.

After an appearance at the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, Bettis led a formation of pursuit planes back to Selfridge Field in Michigan. Flying in a heavy fog, he crashed into a mountainside near Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, on August 23. Despite his serious injuries, he crawled over two miles to a nearby highway so he could be found. After being flown to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, DC, it appeared Bettis would make a full recovery, but he developed spinal meningitis and died on September 1, 1926.

“My plane was not traveling like the wind; it was traveling faster than any wind in history.”

After his Pulitzer win in 1925, Bettis gave his first place medal to his sister, Ithrene. Years later, Ithrene gave it and the other memorabilia to her daughter, Helen McGregor Shuart. She safeguarded the items for decades before succumbing to cancer in May 2017. Shuart’s husband, Stanley, and their children dedicated their donation in her honor since both she and Bettis displayed courage, grace, and strength in facing adversity.

The family of Cyrus Bettis visited the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery

The family of Cyrus Bettis visited the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery, at the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., July 23, 2018. They donated a number of Bettis' artifacts, including a Pulitzer Race medal, related to his 1920s Army Air Service and air racing achievements. Credit: National Air and Space Museum, NASM2018-01726

The new Bettis donation will help the Smithsonian and researchers interpret more fully the story of American military aviation and air racing in the 1920s through the story of an Army Air Service pursuit pilot. They will add to the Cyrus Bettis Collection held by the Museum’s Archives. Most importantly, they will contribute to the new Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight exhibition that will open as part of the Museum’s transformation in 2023.

Related Topics