The US Army and Navy regarded air racing as a key aspect of aeronautical development in the 1920s. Major Alford ‘Al’ Williams, a member of the Navy racing ream, acquired hero status in 1923, when he won the Pulitzer Trophy by setting a new absolute speed record of 243.673 mph in a Curtiss R2C-1 bi-plane.
Major Williams’ outstanding technical analyses were the basis for significant improvements in aircraft design and development in the 1920s, and he was a noted aerobatic pilot.
One of his accomplishments was the art of dive bombing, a technique developed by the Luftwaffe in WWII. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1929, and the following year, he resigned his Naval commission to strengthen his advocacy of independent air power, and to compete more freely in air shows as a means of widening public interest in aviation.
In 1933, Major Williams negotiated a deal with the Gulf Oil Company in Pittsburgh to set up an aviation department, with himself as manager. He renamed his Curtiss Hawk 1A, which he described as “the finest aerobatic military ship ever built”, Gulfhawk 1 and painted it in Gulf’s orange colours, with a white and blue sunburst paint scheme.
Powered by a 700 horsepower Wright Cyclone nine-cylinder radial engine, Gulfhawk 1 entertained tens of thousands of Americans, who were thrilled by the aerobatic and speed displays at many venues around the country.
Major Williams was a national figure, representing Gulf throughout the 1930s, and formed Junior Aviators to foster the interest of the young, many of whom went on to service with distinction during the war.
The Gulf Oil Company stepped up its aviation activities in 1936, buying one of the most exciting aerobatic aircraft of all time, the Grumman G-22, which Major Williams named Gulfhawk II. This was powered by a 1,000 horsepower Wright Cyclone engine, and it underwent modifications to increase its high load factor during aerobatics. It could even fly inverted for up to half an hour, for no reason other than to prove it could!
Gulfhawk II was shipped to Europe in 1938, appearing in the hands of Major Williams at the Gatwick Air Show, then in Holland, France and Germany. There, it was flown by German WW1 ace Ernst Udet, and in return, Williams was the only American allowed to fly the latest German war plane, the Messerschmitt Me109.
Gulf’s aviation business was building momentum, and alongside Gulfhawk II, the oil company owned a fleet of Gulf-liveried Stinson monoplanes, located at key airports across the US for use by the Gulf Aviation Department flying salesmen!
As well as air shows, Gulf cleaned up in national air races in 1938, winning most of the major trophies in air shows across the country. That same year, cars using Gulf products established more than 50 new track and land speed records, while Gulf powered speedboats took 57 wins and nine new world water speed records.
Gulfhawk II was used to test oils, fuels and lubricants under extreme operating conditions, and in 1943, it undertook a three-month tour of training fields, where Major Williams impressed cadets with displays of airmanship and aerobatics.
Gulfhawk II was retired to the Smithsonian Institute’s museum in 1948, succeeded by the Gulfhawk IV, a Grumman F8F, which had a short life, as it was wrecked by a cadet pilot on landing, in 1949.