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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“Would you like to see the Howard Hughes H-1 Racer?” I asked the Air Force pilot. I was sure “Joe Bill” Dryden would be interested. “Howard set a world speed record of 352 miles per hour in 1935,” I added.

It was the spring of 1975. I was a test pilot for the Hughes Aircraft Company, flying out of the company’s private airfield at Culver City, California. Dryden would evaluate our new radar by flying test missions in an F-4 Phantom. I would fly a T-33 target aircraft. We would be spending a lot of time together.

Another Hughes employee, Bruce Burk, the caretaker of all of Howard Hughes’ stored aircraft, held the keys to a Quonset hut next to our flight test building. He agreed to meet us there and unlock the door. We could get a peek at the H-1 if we brought a flashlight.

The ghost-like Racer, covered by a canvas tarp, sat behind a locked chain link fence. The vertical stabilizer was exposed and the twin-blade propeller had a blanket wrapped around it. Off to the left, leaning against a wall, was the Racer’s second set of wings.

Pilots always look inside the cockpit of an airplane first. We lifted the tarp and stepped under it as you would a tent. The cockpit was smaller than that of the F-4. The canopy consisted of two sections that slid down into the fuselage on each side like the windows of a car. The windscreen could be cranked forward 12 inches so that the seat could move up and forward. This allowed Hughes to see over the nose during takeoff and landing.

Attached to the side of the cockpit was a black leather tool kit containing a screwdriver, crescent wrench, pliers, and an assortment of light bulbs and screws. We didn’t see a map case. “Howard didn’t use maps,” Burk said. “He didn’t plot a course or plan his flights very well. He just took off and headed in the general direction of his destination.”

The Racer had gently curving wing fillets between the wing and the fuselage to help stabilize airflow, reduce drag, and prevent potentially dangerous eddying and tail buffeting. Even under the tarp I could see that the airplane had graceful curves. On the other hand, the Phantom, with upturned wingtips and stabilizers slanted down, needed brute force to push it through the air. “The F-4 looks like someone had shut the hangar door on it,” Burk said. Dryden and I would have eagerly traded our radar test flights in the Phantom to fly the Racer.

In preparation for sending the Racer to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Howard Hughes wanted the H-1 restored to mint condition by July 1, 1976, when the museum would open. The Racer was in good shape—it had been stored in the Quonset hut, which was rarely opened, for most of its life. Burk towed the Racer across a road to the flightline. To prevent exposure to sun, wind, and rain, it was placed in a 20-foot-high, three-sided wooden enclosure.

Before the airplane could be restored, the wing and fuselage needed to be separated. Because Hughes had not planned to put the Racer into production, Burk had no drawings or schematics—only something called layout forms, which were not very detailed. “The Racer was never meant to come apart,” Burk said. It would have to be cut up.

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