The McLean County Museum of History’s largest artifact, the Tilbury Flash racing plane, has officially arrived at the Central Illinois Regional Airport terminal.
Removed from display at the Museum to make way for the new Cruisin’ with Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center, the Tilbury Flash has been in storage for the last 11 months. On Wednesday, Oct. 8, with support from CIRA, airport staff, and the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Tilbury Flash was installed above the waiting area located on the east side of the security checkpoint and now hangs from the ceiling where passengers and visitors can see the historic plane as it might have looked midflight.
“We are thrilled to have this amazing piece of McLean County aviation history on public display once again,” Museum Curator Susan Hartzold said. “It is very popular and visitors, especially children, have been asking when they can see it again.”
The Museum plans to work with CIRA to install a small interpretive display about the famous plane and its history in the near future, and will include the impressive trophies won by the Flash. Until then, the public is welcome to view the plane during airport operating hours and free parking is always available at CIRA.
The Tilbury Flash is a rare survivor of an exciting period of American aviation history. Times were tough across the U.S. during the Depression and racing promoters realized crowds could be attracted to witness the speed and aviation prowess of America’s young aviation enthusiasts. And with World War II on the horizon, European governments offered large cash prizes to promote the innovative sport — they were looking for fast, maneuverable aircraft that could quickly be developed from racing to fighter planes.
Owen Tilbury, a Bloomington engineer, decided to try his skill at designing a small, but fast plane. With the help of several friends he designed one to be powered by a Church Marathon 4-cylinder, 45 horse power motorcycle engine. They built the 12’ 5” long plane with a 17’ 10” wingspan on an upper floor of Bloomington’s Castle Theater. After several failed attempts to get it off the ground and some modifications, they had success.
The Flash’s first competition took place at the Chicago American Air Races of July 6, 1933. In its first heat, consisting of 5 laps around a 5-mile course, the Flash and pilot Art Carnahan finished second. In the second heat, Carnahan used a new strategy that would keep him out of the prop wash of the larger competing planes. Carnahan flew under all the other racers instead of flying alongside or behind them. The bold strategy worked and the Flash won the Polish Trophy. During the race, it flew as fast as 120 mph -- a new speed record for that race class.
Carnahan would later become manager of the Bloomington Municipal Airport, now CIRA.
“The plane and Art Carnahan have a special connection to our airport’s history in Bloomington-Normal,” said Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority Chairman Dave Colee. “Aviation enthusiasts will be pleased to see it on display in such an appropriate setting, and we hope the general public learns more about the type of aviation innovation that happened in our community.”
Plane lost, found in barn
In September of 1933 Lyman Voepel piloted the Flash for the International Air Races. In both races, the Flash came in second. At the Cleveland International Races of 1934, piloted by Clarence McArthur, the Flash came in fourth at a respectable 102 mph. In January of 1935, the Flash was sponsored by the Paul F. Beich Company of Bloomington. Renamed the “Beich’s Whiz” for a popular candy bar locally produced by Beich, it won first place in the All American Race in Miami, Florida.
After its third place finish in the 1935 Cleveland Races, the Flash’s history becomes foggy.
The plane disappeared until it was found stored in a barn. At that time it was donated to the McLean County Historical Society by Glen Courtwright and Marc Foose of B&F Aircraft Supply. That same year, Bloomington’s Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA Chapter 129) restored the Tilbury Flash. In 1994 it was repainted to reflect its 1934 racing colors.
PHOTO: Art Carnahan is shown with the Flash circa 1934.