The name Earl Ortman is almost synonymous with the Marcoux-Bromberg Special and the prestigious Thompson Trophy Race. Ortman was the only pilot this famous racer was to know throughout its long racing career. While Ortman's exploits with the Marcoux-Bromberg had been well chronicled, how many realize that Ortman flew, raced and tested other aircraft also, some long after the Marcoux-Bromberg had been retired.
The primary reason Ortman had first been chosen to pilot the new Marcoux-Bromberg was because of his experience flying earlier Keith Rider racing plane designs. In addition, he was an extremely competent and skillful pilot.
1938 was a very busy year for Ortman. Not only did he fly the Marcoux-Bromberg in the Golden Gate International Air Races (where he won the "unlimited" race), but he competed in the National Air Races in Cleveland later that year, again in the Marcoux-Bromberg, placing second in the Thompson Trophy Race. Before the Thompson, however, he flew in the Greve Trophy Race, which was limited to those aircraft with a powerplant of 500-cubic inches displacement, or less.
Ortman flew the Keith Rider R-5 "Jackrabbitt" in the 1938 Greve, and was awarded 4th place, averaging a slow 192.503 mph.
After the 1938 National Air Races were history, Ortman was hired to test the Military Aircraft HM-1, which had been built by the Granville Brothers, of Springfield, MA. Actually the HM-1 was a rebuilt military version of "Time Flies," one of the most beautiful airplanes ever built. Both had been designed by CAHA member Howell Miller, who worked for the Granville Brothers at the time.
The HM-1 had also competed in the 1938 National Air Races in Cleveland, placing fourth in the Thompson, flown by Leigh Wade. After the race, Ortman flew the HM-1 from Cleveland to Hartford, Conn.
The HM-1 had been tested and rejected by the Air Corps, not because of performance, but because it was not an all-metal aircraft. Ortman had been hired to gather data about the airplane which would make it appealing to foreign powers.
A twenty-five mile course was laid out over East Hartford, Conn., above Rentschler Field, adjacent to the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft factory. Ortman made four passes over the course in the HM-1, achieving an average speed of 369 mph, which was 80 mph faster than the Seversky P-35, then the newest fighter in the Air Corps inventory.
The next phase of the testing called for determination of climb rates. Ortman was to start at 1,000 feet and climb to 10,000 feet. He would then dive back down to 1,000 feet and start up on another climb. On his final dive, the airplane reached a reported 425 mph. The stresses placed on the wings were too great and the wings ripped off. Ortman bailed out, but the HM-1 was destroyed. It had been reported that a pilot with lesser ability than Ortman would probably have been killed in this incident, although poor fuel management between the fuel tanks was determined to be the cause of the accident.
After World War II, Earl Ortman returned to the national air racing scene, although the Marcoux-Bromberg had been all but forgotten by most. In 1946, Ortman piloted a Lockheed P-38 to 5th place in the Sohio Trophy Race, averaging 303.903 mph. A couple of days later, Ortman flew in the prestigious Thompson Trophy Race, and for the fifth time, saw another pilot win the prized trophy. Flying a North American P-51D, Ortman finished third behind Tex Johnson's Cobra II and Tony LeVier's P-38, with an average speed of 367.625 mph.
This had been another example of Ortman's outstanding ability as a race pilot. Within two days, he not only performed competently in the stress-filled pylon races, but he raced in two completely different aircraft, including the twin-engine Lightning.
The last national air race that Ortman was to take part in was the 1948 Continental Motors Race, held in Miami, Fla., which was limited to Continental-powered aircraft, similar to the "Goodyear" or "Formula One" class. Flying the Loose Special, he finished fourth in the race, averaging a slow 127.339 mph.
There were reports that Ortman was just not himself anymore. He was no longer flying with the skill and daring of former years. He had always been an extremely nervous individual, known for going through packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes and roll after roll of hard candy when he could not smoke, and some said that he turned to drinking more heavily toward the end. He was to die shortly after, in the arms of Bill Sweet, famed announcer of the National Air Races.
It was only fitting that Sweet should be with Ortman at the end, after witnessing and reporting to the crowds the many exciting and harrowing aerial duels between Earl Ortman and Roscoe Turner and others during the "Golden Age" of air racing.
When the Keith Rider R-3 was entered in the first race of its illustrious career, the 1935 Bendix Transcontinental Race, it was known as the "Silver Bullet," in recognition of its all-silver finish. However, this appellation never became popular, especially since future versions were painted. Although the Keith Rider name is more accurate for the early versions, the racer has popularly become known as the Marcoux- Bromberg.
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