By Candice Tewell
Since William E. Boeing founded the Boeing Company in 1916, Seattle has been known as an airplane city. Today, “Jet City” is known for a few other things as well, but before grunge, before lattés, before Sodo Mojo, Seattle was also a hydroplane city.
During the decade of the 1950s-—when Seattle boats won the coveted Gold Cup eight out of 10 years-—hydroplane racing was the obsession that molded Seattle’s community identity. Hundreds of thousands of fans turned out to watch the races during SEAFAIR, boat owners and drivers were local celebrities of mythical stature, and homemade plywood hydro models trailed behind children’s bikes throughout the city.
The fascinating story of hydroplane racing during the Golden Age is explored in an exciting new exhibit at The Museum of Flight, “Boats That Fly: Seattle Comes of Age.” The exhibit opens July 30 and run through Jan. 15, 2006. “Boats That Fly” will take longtime Seattleites back to a singularly exciting time in the city’s cultural life and will introduce newcomers to the fascinating history of the sport and the passion of hydro racing.
It’s hardly surprising that a city of aviation enthusiast would rally around a sport that explores the “border between floating and flying,” to quote longtime Boeing employee and hydroplane designer Dave Knowlen. Knowlen is hardly the first person to be involved in both aviation and hydros; many hydro racers have fascinating aviation credentials. Two noteworthy Seattle examples are Museum of Flight trustee Brien Wygle and Czech native Mira Slovak.
Wygle’s interest in aviation came from his childhood on a farm in Canada. When he was 11 years old, a biplane made an emergency landing in one of the family’s fields. From that day on, Wygle and his brother were hooked; they built airplane models, collected aviation magazines and dreamed of flight.
Wygle earned his wings in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and then received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of British Columbia before becoming a test pilot at Boeing. His first assignment in 1951 was in Wichita, Kansas, flying the B-47 bomber. After a stint in U.S. Air Force test pilot school, he was transferred to Seattle where he tested the B-52 and a whole range of Boeing commercial planes, starting with the Dash 80 and ending with the 757 and 767. He was particularly heavily involved in the design of the 737 and was the first person to ever lift off in the most popular airliner of all time, something he describes as the most exciting day of his life.
It was during his time at Boeing that Wygle first became involved in hydro racing. A friend introduced him to Ted Jones, the legendary designer and builder of some of Seattle’s fastest hydros. Jones offered Wygle the opportunity to test drive his newest boat, the radical “cabover” hydro (i.e., cockpit in the front) “Thriftway Too.” Wygle jumped at the chance. Although hydros never took the place of the 737 in his heart, he says that “winning heats over tough competition…top competitors,” was some of the best fun he ever had. After several years on the hydro circuit, he returned to aviation fulltime, but he has never lost his love for the beautiful, powerful thunderboats.
Then there’s Mira Slovak, “The Flying Czech,” who found himself after World War II trapped behind the Iron Curtain. From an early age, Slovak had a passion for flying, and he took to the air as often as possible, progressing to the rank of captain and chief pilot for the government-controlled Czechoslovakian Airlines. On a regularly scheduled flight in 1953, he overpowered his copilot, locked the cabin door and put the plane in a steep dive, leveling out at well under 1,000 feet, below effective radar coverage. He then flew to West Germany, where he, along with a few of his passengers, requested asylum. After a year of debriefing by the U.S. Air Force, Slovak came to the U.S. and eventually ended up working as a crop duster in Eastern Washington. After moving to Seattle, Slovak hired on as the personal pilot of William Boeing Jr.
Boeing was afflicted with the same hydro fever that gripped the rest of Seattle during the 1950s and decided to sponsor an unlimited team. Slovak was given the opportunity to test drive Boeing’s “Miss Wahoo” and greatly enjoyed the experience. After some coaching from veteran designer and driver Ted Jones, Slovak made his hydro racing debut in the 1956 SEAFAIR regatta; he had never before witnessed a complete race. He spent 12 years on the hydro racing circuit, racing “Miss Wahoo,” “Miss Bardhal,” the “Tahoe Miss” and others.
But Slovak never neglected his flying. He often put on aerobatic shows in his Bücker Jungmeister biplane between heats in the hydro races and was active in unlimited air racing as well, winning the 1963 Reno Gold Race in an F8F Bearcat. After retiring from racing in 1968, Slovak became a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines.
These stories and many others are explored in the new “Boats That Fly” exhibit, which presents the stories, sights and sounds of Golden-Age hydro racing in Seattle through rare artifacts, models, video presentations and oral histories. The exhibit is presented in collaboration with The Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum in Kent, Wash.; Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry; and SEAFAIR, Seattle’s long-running summer community festival.
Explore the evolving technology of hydro racing from its origins to today, and the unique intersection of boat racing and aviation that put Seattle hydros on top. Three full-size historic unlimited-class boats highlight the exhibit: the 1946 “Tempo VI,” in which famed bandleader Guy Lombardo won the 1946 Gold Cup; the Ted Jones-designed 1951 “Slo-Mo-Shun V,” the first boat to win the Gold Cup in Seattle; and the 1988 “Miss Budweiser” T-2, one of the turbine-powered “Miss Bud” hulls that dominated the unlimited class throughout the 1990s.
The intersection of speed, air and water will be explored in even greater depth on the exhibit’s opening day with an exciting panel discussion featuring heroes like Brien Wygle and Mira Slovak from the Golden Age of hydro racing in Seattle. Other panelists are being confirmed. Visit www.museumofflight.org for the latest roster. Regardless, this panel—-expertly moderated by Boeing engineer, racing fanatic and sometime hydro designer Dave Knowlen—-will provide a rare opportunity to meet some of the defining personalities of the sport of hydroplane racing. Don’t miss this incredible glimpse into Seattle’s first professional sport!