Silver Bullet

No airplane in the world could outshine Howard Hughes’ H-1 Racer—until Jim Wright built a copy of it.

Air & Space Magazine

THE AIRPLANE HAMMERS PAST, 150 FEET OFF THE DECK, THE LONG POLISHED ALUMINUM fuselage a silver dart against the distant mountains. As it banks gracefully and climbs, it leaves in its wake the signature rasp of its Twin Wasp Junior radial and the collective awe of the spectators at the National Air Races in Reno, Nevada. “Tell you what, he’s really moving,” Jimmy Leeward murmurs. Leeward ought to know; he’s racing his own P-51D Mustang and L-39 jet this weekend. But he sounds almost reverent when he adds, “He’s doing over 300, I’d say.”

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Sixty-seven years ago to the day, on September 13, 1935, Howard Hughes set a three-kilometer speed record of 352 mph in the revolutionary one-off known as the H-1, 1B, or—his preference—simply the Racer. Five years ago, Jim Wright undertook a project of meticulous craftsmanship crossed with magnificent obsession to re-create the Racer by reverse-engineering the original, which resides in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Shortly before seven this morning, Wright wedged his lanky frame into the cockpit of his gleaming replica and took off in search of a world record. Not, mind you, Hughes’ record. “Howard was willing to blow his engine up,” Wright had explained. But because Hughes set only the unlimited record, Wright can establish a new mark in the Fédération Aéronutique Internationale’s 3,858- to 6,614-pound class if he averages better than 266 mph during four consecutive runs.

The radios of the observers manning the record course crackle to life with news from the tower: “All stations copy. The Hughes Racer is northbound. Final pass.” The airplane swoops down and powers past the start-finish pylon. On the edge of the ramp, three men dressed just like Wright—white button-down shirts and black pants—pound each other on the back. “We done it!” Dave Payne shouts. “We built that airplane!” His eyes follow the Racer as Wright peels off to the west. “We built that airplane,” he repeats softly.

A lot of prop-heads will tell you that the Hughes Racer is the most beautiful airplane ever built. Nobly proportioned and gracefully streamlined, the H-1 presaged the engineering of the 1940s while embodying the hand-built virtues of the ’30s. Wright estimates that it took 35,000 hours to create his replica, despite the liberal use of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-numeric-control (CNC) precision machining mills. What he ended up with is the world’s most elegant and most ambitious homebuilt. That’s right, homebuilt. Sure, some of the work was farmed out to professional subcontractors. But the vast majority was done in Wright’s hangar in Cottage Grove, Oregon, by a crew consisting of three volunteers, a paid employee, and Wright himself. “[Project manager] Ron Englund and I did all the rivets—20,000 of them,” Wright recalls. “We got pretty good at it. Pretty fast too.”

You’ll have to forgive Wright his fanatical devotion. He came up with the idea of building the racer way back in 1978, when he read a reprint of an article, “A Movie Magnate’s Racer,” published in Popular Aviation in 1937. A machinist by trade—his company, Wright Machine Tool, builds industrial saw blade sharpeners—he developed a profound professional appreciation for the quality of the H-1’s fabrication and the brilliance of its engineering. But what really sold him on the Racer were the circumstances underlying its creation.

“It was the last non-military plane to set a world speed record,” Wright says. “It was also the last time an individual could design an airplane that was world-class. After this, planes of this caliber were designed by teams of hundreds or thousands of people. The Hughes Racer was a personal statement. And when you work on a machine designed by an individual, you learn a lot about that person. The Racer turned out to be a very mysterious airplane. But then, Howard was a very mysterious person.”

Wright has spent so much time channeling Hughes that he refers to him by first name, as if they were old buddies. But despite the fact that both men made their fortunes from tool companies, they could hardly be more different. Wright, 53, is a hands-on, straight-up, small-town boy partial to western shirts and cowboy boots. He’s soft-spoken and open with strangers. It’s hard not to be charmed by his enthusiasm for the Racer and his pleasure in others’ delight in it. “Jim’s fundamental energy,” says Kent White, who worked on the project, “is joy.”

Howard Hughes, by contrast, is remembered as America’s most prominent super-rich weirdo. But in his heyday, he was an entrepreneur who achieved considerable success in aviation, most notably owning Transcontinental and Western Air and sponsoring development of the Lockheed Constellation. Still, the Racer may well be his greatest accomplishment. Designed by Dick Palmer to Hughes’ general specifications and built by a small team led by Glenn Odekirk, the H-1 broke the world speed record by 38 mph in 1935. Two years later, fitted with longer wings and bigger fuel tanks, the Racer carried Hughes from Burbank, California, to New York City at an average speed of 332 mph, shattering the old transcontinental record—held, incidentally, by Hughes himself—by nearly two hours.

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.”

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