The Bugatti 100P is the aviation world’s unicorn—an airplane so graceful and magical yet so rarely spotted that it’s passed into the realm of legend.
Built in the late 1930s by the most renowned race car manufacturer in France, it was an Art Deco masterpiece designed to set records at speeds above 450 mph. Virtually every aspect of the airplane broke new ground. The slender, streamlined fuselage housed a pair of supercharged straight-eight Bugatti Grand Prix engines powering contra-rotating propellers. The wings swept forward, not back. The empennage was shaped like a Y, with a V-tail and a ventral fin, and the elevators doubled as rudders. There was even an automated flight control system—an analog computer, if you will—that was meant to prevent the pilot from making a fatal mistake.
But before the airplane could be finished and flown, World War II erupted, and the Bugatti became one of the great what-if stories in the history of aviation.
About 40 years ago, Scotty Wilson was embarking on a career as an Air Force fighter pilot. While killing time in an operations room in Tucson, he read an article about the Bugatti, and he was dazzled by its shape, style, and technological audacity. Wilson went on to amass 4,500 hours in F-100s, F-4s, and F-16s (and 6,500 hours in everything from Piper Cubs to corporate jets), but he never got the Bugatti out of his mind. He learned that the airplane had survived World War II, broken down into pieces that were hidden to prevent the aircraft from being discovered by the Germans. Later, it came to the United States and was restored for static display. Today, it hangs from the ceiling at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Wilson believes that the 100P saga will not be complete until the design is airborne. In late 2008, he emailed a letter to the editor of Pegasus, the online newsletter of the Bugatti Aircraft Association. “We don’t need to know everything before we start doing something,” Wilson wrote. “This letter, then, is both a request for help and a call to action.”
Wilson was determined to build and eventually fly a faithful, if not fully authentic, replica of the Bugatti. No plans of the airplane had ever surfaced, and although much of the original airframe still existed, there was still lively debate over how some components fit together and even how they operated. And these were the least of his problems. Although Wilson has an A&P—airframe and powerplant—mechanic’s certificate, he cheerfully admits that “when my friends see me with a wrench, they call the police.” As for carpentry skills—a necessity for building what’s primarily a wooden airplane—Wilson scored zero out of ten. “I’d never built anything,” he says. “I’d never even built a birdcage. But I didn’t care how long it was going to take or how much it was going to cost because, one way or another, I was going to build this airplane.”
In May 2009, Wilson bought three eight-foot-long tables, joined them together, overlaid a grid of 100-millimeter squares, and started working. Not by himself. Core members of Le Rêve Bleu—The Blue Dream—team can be found in Great Britain, France, Belgium, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Wilson estimates that the project has consumed more than 10,000 hours and burned through $400,000 (some of it raised through Kickstarter). Working in a hangar in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the temperature has ranged from 112 degrees to below freezing, he’s made most of the parts at least twice, many of them three times and some four, to get them just right. But now, on a bright, brisk day in February, the airframe is finally complete, and I’m on my way to Wilson’s shop to meet him and see his handiwork.
When Wilson opens the door, I start to speak, but he holds up his hand and says, “Before you ask me any questions, I want you to just look at the airplane.”
I turn and behold an object painted a shade of royal blue so deep it’s almost purple. The airplane is magnificent, a stunning combination of old school and new wave, a V-tail Beech Bonanza crossed with the X Fighter flown by Luke Skywalker, an antique that seems like it somehow came from the future. All I can think is Wow.