Verville-Sperry R-3

The Verville Sperry R-3 is an almost perfect example of the opportunity cost of an inadequate development program. Designed by Alfred Verville, a kindly genius who had a penchant for just missing the brass ring of commercial success, the R-3 was years ahead of its time when it first appeared in 1922 as a certain winner for the Pulitzer Trophy Race.

Here was a racer, contemporary with the Thomas-Morse biplane pursuit, which featured a cantilever wing, streamlined fuselage, and fully retractable landing gear, clearly presaging the mid-1930s formula of the Messerschmitt, Hurricane, and Spitfire. However, it also evoked some political problems that might be analogous to the current F-16/F-20 controversy. The Verville was developed by the McCook Field Engineering Division and manufactured by the Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company of Farmingdale, New York. Three aircraft were purchased, and on them, the aircraft builders intended to use the silky-smooth 450-horsepower Curtiss D-12 engine and the all-metal Curtiss Reed propeller. Fundamental to the design was the use of the patented Curtiss wing radiators, thin brass sheets that conformed to the airfoil.

Mechanics at work on the Verville-Sperry Racer

It happened that the foremost aircraft manufacturer of the time was the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, which was also building the sleek series of racing biplanes. As a political result, the R-3 was fitted with the 300-horsepower Wright H-3 engine, notorious for its vibration. A stock wooden propeller and "lobster pot" Lamblin radiators were installed. With these totally undesirable modifications, the airplanes were no longer competitive, and first and second pieces were won by the sleek Curtiss biplanes using the preferred engine/propeller/radiator combination.

All three R-3s started the race, but only two finished. Lieutenant Eugene Barksdale finished fifth at a little better than 181 mph. Lieutenant Fonda B. Johnson finished seventh, his engine freezing solid immediately after landing. The legendary Lieutenant Saint Clair Street broke an oil line and had a forced landing, damaging the airplane.

Development of the aircraft ceased for all practical purposes, despite the large investment. There were several problems with it--incipient flutter, the drag induced by the open wells of the retracted wheels, a general lack of harmony in the controls--that would have been eliminated by a series of tweaking test flights or in the wind tunnel. For political and economic reasons, these remedial procedures were denied.

A Curtiss D-12 engine was installed in the plane or the 1923 Pulitzer, and while vibration was no longer a problem, there were still handling difficulties, especially at top speed, now reaching 233 mph, The airplane had to withdraw from the race. Once again, a Curtiss biplane was the winner.

Again, no substantial development work was invested in the design, and it was with some misgivings resurrected for the 1924 Pulitzer, when the preferred entry--a Curtiss biplane--crashed. Ironically, the R-3, piloted by Lieutenant Harry H. Mills, won the race at a slow speed of 215 mph. The racer was almost immediately relegated to the McCook Field Museum, where it was ultimately burned. The R-3 remained merely another exciting, unfulfilled concept.