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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Just how close the re-creation came to the original became disconcertingly apparent when the Racer first flew in July. As Wright sat in the cockpit, idling on the short runway outside his hangar, he took a deep breath. Although the airplane had performed flawlessly during extensive taxi tests, Wright says “there was always the nagging fear that the reason Howard flew [the H-1] only 42 hours was because there was some serious problem, which he never would have said anything about. Was there a bear trap waiting for us?”

Wright lifted off in a level attitude at about 115 mph. The airplane exhibited benign flying qualities as it climbed. But when Wright leveled off at 5,000 feet, the propeller remained stuck in the low-pitch setting, limiting him to a paltry 120 mph at the engine’s 2,625-rpm redline. As the engine temperatures rose, Wright quickly reviewed his options for an emergency landing. Fortunately, the temperatures stabilized, and he was able to set the airplane down in Corvallis, as planned.

Notwithstanding the champagne celebration that followed, it was clear that something was amiss. Wright knew from his research that the propeller had misbehaved during Hughes’ first flight too. After poring over before-and-after photos of the original airplane, Wright and his team realized that Hughes had retrofitted a bigger counterweight to the propeller. Since the counterweight enables the prop to shift into high pitch, the team surmised that Hughes must have run into the same problem that Wright did 67 years later. A larger counterweight was mounted on the replica, allowing the airplane to take full advantage of 700 horsepower.

Wright made 19 more takeoffs and landings during his flight test program. Aside from an abrupt stall characteristic and poor visibility on approach, the airplane was so stable that Wright says it could be flown with no trouble by a low-time pilot. By the time Wright made the 65-minute hop from Cottage Grove to Stead Field in Reno—cruising at 295 mph, 50 percent power, and 10,000 feet—the replica had accumulated more flight time than the Racer logged in its entire career.

The speed record attempt in Reno was just the means to an end: giving the Racer replica an appropriately grand debut. Wright shattered the old mark with an average speed of 304 mph. But back on the ground, after accepting the congratulations of his crew and hundreds of well-wishers, he quietly confides, “We’ve still got some issues to deal with.” A lingering pitch problem limited Wright to 62 percent power, and the leather seal in the prop took such a beating that grease flowed into the airstream and slathered the canopy. “Visibility was so bad I couldn’t have done one more run,” he says.

In January, the right landing gear collapsed on rollout. The damage is being repaired, and Wright hopes to replicate Hughes’ record-setting cross-country flight. He also plans to take his airplane on the airshow circuit. As it is, the Racer is the star attraction where it’s parked on the ramp in Reno. In fact, hardly anybody seems to notice the rare P-63 Kingcobra or F7F Tigercat on either side of it.

Later, after most of the spectators have left, a passerby spies the unguarded Racer. “Major wow!” he says. After a furtive look around, he ducks under the protective rope and reverently strokes the fuselage. A security guard materializes and orders him to get out of there, pronto. “Sorry,” the interloper says sheepishly. “I couldn’t resist.”

The two of them stand there for a moment, gazing at the airplane. “It’s like a beautiful woman, isn’t it?” the guard says.

“Yeah,” the interloper agrees. “Like a beautiful woman.”

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