Silver Bullet

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

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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.”

Back in Cottage Grove, Wright Tool employees Guy Ralstin and Dennis Parker generated more than 1,000 CAD drawings while Wright and his hangar crew fabricated most of the fuselage, bending the aluminum skins, riveting them in place, countersinking the rivets, then sanding and polishing the surface until it was smooth and unbroken. But the more elaborate pieces demanded special handling. The fiendishly complex curves of the engine cowl, for example, were shaped by Jim Younkin of Springdale, Arkansas, a restorer and replica builder who spent an entire year on the project. “The sheet metal cost more than a new Corvette,” Wright says. (The entire airplane, he says, ran more than $1 million.)

There’s also a tail section so artfully crafted by Kent White of Nevada City, California, that it deserves its own museum exhibit. “I usually get things right the first time,” says White, who cut his teeth restoring exotic cars. “If not the first time, then the second. This tail section, I threw away three pieces—three!—before I got it right.”

The wings too are works of art, and ran up 3,000 hours on Wolf’s clock—half as long as it took to build the entire Gee Bee replica. Hughes chose wood because it could produce a smoother surface than metal. Wolf used light-colored sitka spruce for the spars and ribs, and he covered them with dark mahogany plywood. A fiberglass fabric the thickness of a nylon stocking was stretched across the wing skin, and epoxy was squeegee’d into it. When the glue dried, it was block-sanded until, as Wolf puts it, “you could put a six-foot straight-edge across the wing and not have a piece of paper go through it.” The finishing touch was 13 coats of polyurethane paint, which give the wings a dark blue liquid luster.

Although the replica is a visual twin of the original, there are differences between them. Look closely at Wright’s airplane and you’ll see modern wheels, tires, and brakes, for safety’s sake, as well as a tail wheel instead of a tail skid to prevent gouging runways. Some pieces, like the horizontal stabilizer, are the product of informed speculation. “The only clue we had as to how it was made was the number of screws,” Englund says. Wright also replaced some forgings—most prominently in the landing gear—with stronger pieces CNC’ed out of aluminum billet and sandblasted for a period look. Safety also inspired him to use rubber-bladder fuel cells instead of welded-aluminum fuel tanks, halon rather than carbon dioxide (or carbon tetrachloride, nobody’s sure which) in the fire suppression system, and, to reduce the possibility of flutter, pushrods, rather than cables, to actuate the ailerons.

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