Returning from the Great War, some young men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities felt confined within their universities. Besides, they has just a few years ago faced German biplanes in nerve wracking (but adrenaline inducing) encounters in fragile aircraft 4 miles over the battlefield. One student, a former test pilot by the name of A. R. Boree, from Oxford had a thrilling idea which he believed would rival the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. He proposed a air race over a circuit at the London Aerodrome, Hendon with a total distance of 129 miles.
The funds needed to hire the aircraft of choice, the S E.5a, was provided by the Royal Aero Club as it was the sponsor of the 1921 Aerial Derby at Hendon which incorporated the Varsity Air Race into their programme. The prize fund of £400 was contributed by wealthy aristocrats and Anglo-American Oil. The rules were detailed in the July 14, 1921 edition of Flight Magazine:
The event was open to the public and the Duke of York, the future King George VI was present at the take off.
The Oxford aircraft were decked out in dark blue and their Cambridge counterparts in light blue. The Cambridge team climbed quickly at the get go as they figured their 220 hp Wolseley-Viper Engines would perform better in cooler air while the Oxford team remained low at tree top level. Cambridge’s strategy worked as one of their S.E.5a took the lead in the second lap. From then on it things went downhill for Oxford. One of their planes was forced down after a major fault with the ignition and the Oxford aircraft could not regain the lead in the last round. The day ended with Cambridge claiming a clean sweep of 1-2-3. The race was won by W.S.Philcox who averaged at 118.55 mph. Boeree, the organiser, completed the course in last place.
The result was a reflection of the extent of development and interest shown by the universities toward aviation. Cambridge had a well established Aeronautical Society while Oxford University Authorities were skeptical about the practical implications of Flight. The organizers expressed disappointment at the low number of aircraft entered and low spectator count attending the Aerial Derby which forced them to discontinue the annual event in 1924.