No airplane in the world could outshine Howard Hughes' H-1 Racer--until Jim Wright built a copy of it.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 2 of 6)
Hughes’ creation was a melange of old and new—wooden wings, fabric-covered control surfaces and tail skid co-existing with an all-metal flush-riveted monocoque, drooping ailerons (which act as flaps at low speed), split flaps, a fire-suppression system, and hydraulically operated landing gear. Conceptually, it harkened back to the time-honored formula of shoehorning a big engine in a small airframe. But thanks to substantial wind tunnel testing and the latest in aerodynamic refinement, the 1B wasn’t, like the Granville brothers’ Gee Bee, a misshapen bulldog but rather a sleek greyhound whose most prominent feature was the bell-shaped cowl shrouding its twin-row, 14-cylinder R-1535 Pratt & Whitney.
“When we went into this project,” Wright says, “we thought the airplane was a racer. It’s not. It’s a technology test bed. Howard was looking ahead further than a world record. He was building Hughes Research Number One. He was building the team that would eventually put satellites into orbit. He was building a company, not just a racer.”
In the spring of 1998, Wright and his wife, Betty, decided they had the time and the resources—CNC mills among them—to build a replica. But Wright couldn’t undertake the project until he secured an exceedingly rare Twin Wasp Junior. Miraculously, his first call, to California motor man Millard Marvin, hit paydirt. “We thought they were falling off trucks!” Wright jokes. “Then we spent the next three weeks calling everybody across the country [to see what was out there], and we couldn’t find another one.” Marvin also had an old Grumman Albatross propeller that could be reshaped to fit the Racer’s specifications. Meanwhile, Marvin’s engine was sent to Tulsa Aircraft Engines in Oklahoma for a rebuild.
In putting together a team to build the airplane, Wright didn’t stray far from his home in Cottage Grove, a small logging town an hour south of Eugene. His old friend Mike Mann, a retired logging contractor whose father had owned and operated a small airport, came on board as a full-time volunteer. So did Dave Payne, an aircraft mechanic who used to maintain Wright’s other aircraft (a Beech Bonanza, a Taylorcraft, and a Glasair III), and Al Sherman, a retired trucker with three homebuilts to his credit. To oversee the project, Wright hired Ron Englund, who shares his placid demeanor. Although Englund was the youngster of the bunch—a mere 35 at the time—he’d already restored several antique airplanes.
Wright had a team. What he didn’t have was an engineering plan. An exhaustive search turned up not a single schematic, blueprint, or wing planform. To date, in fact, he’s located only a handful of photos of the Racer under construction (including just one shot of the uncovered wing), and the last remaining member of the original design team, John Newberry, died while the replica was being built. Fortunately, Hughes had donated his racer to the National Air and Space Museum, and museum officials Robert van der Linden and Bill Reese agreed to allow Wright to measure, photograph, and examine the original inch by inch.
To prepare for the pilgrimages his team would make to the Smithsonian, Wright enlarged the scale-model plans drawn by aviation historian Paul R. Matt. From there he fashioned a full-size mockup of plywood. Studying it, the team came up with hundreds of technical questions: How long was that spar? How thick was this piece of metal? How did the landing gear work? In short, how did the mockup compare with the original? (“Ninety-five percent was dead-on,” Wright says, “but that five percent would have killed us.”)
Wright commissioned Steve Wolf to build the wings—the long ones used to set the cross-country record, rather than the clipped set used for Hughes’ speed runs. Wolf, who lives in the neighboring town of Creswell, was best known for creating the Gee Bee replica owned and flown by airshow performer Delmar Benjamin. In June 1998, Wolf and his wife Liz traveled to Washington, D.C., for a look at the Racer. Using a pair of home-made four-foot calipers, they took the necessary measurements and returned to Oregon convinced that the wings were buildable.
A few months later, Jim and Betty Wright went to Washington with Ron Englund. When they first confronted the real H-1, they were struck dumb. Not with awe but with dread. “It was heartbreaking,” Englund recalls. “The plane was so nice. To come anywhere close to that standard of quality—well, we knew it was going to be very tough.” Englund had planned to determine the thickness of the aluminum skins that form the surface of the fuselage by inserting a feeler gauge into the gaps where they butted up against each other. But the H-1 had been put together with such impeccable craftsmanship that there were no gaps. None. Zero. “That was the low point,” Wright says. “We realized then that we were fighting a real battle, and we needed the best soldiers.”