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
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
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
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.