Initially the competition was a European affair. The French won at the first event in 1913 with an average speed of 45mph. After a hiatus during World War One, the Italians looked set to seize the trophy permanently until British company Supermarine came first in 1922 with their Sea Lion II flying boat. Then America entered the fray. With government funding and a highly organised team, they easily took victory in 1923. Knowing that something special was required to contest the Americans, Supermarine’s R J Mitchell set to work designing the S4. Mad about aircraft since childhood, Mitchell’s career began designing locomotives. He joined the Supermarine Aviation Works in 1917 where his talent was quickly recognised. Two years later, aged just 24, he was appointed Chief Designer. A shy but stubborn character, Mitchell inspired great admiration amongst his colleagues.
The S4 was a radical departure from Supermarine’s previous designs, and evidence of the company’s faith in Mitchell. Departing from traditional biplane design, the S4 was a sleek wooden monoplane on floats with cantilever wing that lacked the drag inducing struts or braces seen on biplanes. It was Mitchell’s first design move towards what would ultimately become the Spitfire.
Unfortunately the S4 did not compete in 1925. After developing a severe aileron flutter in pre-race trials, it crashed in Chesapeake Bay. The contest became one of aviation’s greatest spectacles with aircraft, purpose built for the race, reaching unprecedented speeds. As government involvement increased, the stakes were raised. Mussolini saw the perfect opportunity to showcase the power of fascism, declaring that Italy should win at all costs. With virtually unlimited resources, Italian aircraft company Macchi took victory in 1926.