AVSIM Column
"Contrails"

Reviving the dream!

by Steve 'Bearracing' Cartwright

 

 

In 1935, Howard Hughes flew an aircraft – of his own design – faster than any man had gone before—the aircraft was the Hughes H-1 Racer and his record of 352 MPH would stand for nearly 7 years! Howard's record run afforded him a ticker-tape parade in New York (the largest seen since Charles Lindbergh in 1927) and a Congressional Honor Award, for bringing the aviation speed record back to the United States (from France). The speed record was only the surface of what Howard Hughes had done, because it was his aircraft design that had incorporated so many innovations, many of which had never been seen before in aircraft design. From fully hydraulic retracting landing gear, to the application of epoxy impregnated plywood wing skin structures (an early form of composites), Howard's aircraft was truly the future of aviation.

The following year (1936) Howard redesigned the wings (extending them) to hold extra fuel and then went about setting the record for flight time from Los Angeles, CA to New York, NY, non-stop, in 7 hours and 28 minutes—a record that stood for 4 years, before Howard himself broke it while flying a Lockheed L-1049 Constellation (the new record was 7 hours and 14 minutes). (During the record run with the Hughes H-1 Racer, Howard experienced oxygen system problems that prevented him from exceeding 14,000 feet, where the planned flight altitude was to have been 21,000 which was the H-1's optimum altitude for speed vs. economy! Interestingly enough, that record set by Howard with the L-1049 (LA to NY) still stands today!

(There are a couple of turboprop aircraft that can almost approach the cruise speeds of the H-1 Racer, but none of them at these kinds of power settings, have sufficient range to make the trans-continental trip non-stop.)

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Dave Carroll has put together a FS2000 version of the Hughes H-1 racer and Dave's download also includes adventures where you can fly Howard's original record breaking flights (from start-up, taxi, take-off, and speed runs), custom panel, and custom sounds. I found Dave's FS version to be quite accurate in appearance and it even includes a working canopy that functions exactly as with the original. (When you lower the flaps, the side cockpit canopy panels slide down into the fuselage and the forward canopy section slides forward.)

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I found that Dave's airfile to be somewhat suspect, as he has listed the service ceiling as 14,000 feet, but the actual service ceiling on the original H-1 was more like 29,000 feet on the long wing version. Trying to climb once you've reached 4,500 feet ASL is a real struggle and the engine (in Dave's FS version) noticeably loses power, which is not like the original, as it was powered by a supercharged PW R1535 radial engine capable of producing just over 1,000 HP! Flying Dave's FS2000 Hughes H-1 at lower altitudes is a lot of fun and given a gentle hand on the controls, you can achieve 300+ mph with a minimum of effort!

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Dave Carroll's Hughes H-1B Pro file can be downloaded from FlightSim or CompuFlight;
search for h1bdc02a.zip.

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When setting a speed/distance record like this, you have to consider that not only must the propeller aircraft be fast, it also must have an incredible range (a range of at least 3,000+ miles)! The Hughes H-1 Racer had both speed and range, something that none of the World War II combat fighter aircraft possessed! The first official breaking of Howard's 1935 speed record (352 mph) was a highly modified North American P-51D in 1947, but it was also known that several WWII fighter aircraft could and had exceeded 400 mph during the war and the fastest of all was the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair (the first prop fighter aircraft to break the magic mark of 400 mph in level flight).

Following Howard's record setting flight from LA to NY and with less than 40 hours of total flight time, the Hughes H-1 racer was stuffed into a Santa Monica, CA hanger where it sat for the next 38 years. It was following his (Howard Hughes') death that the H-1 was moved from its storage hanger to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, where it resides today, never to fly again—that was until Jim Wright of Cottage Grove, Oregon!
 

It seems that Jim had a strong interest in this particular aircraft (the H-1 Racer) and with the success of his Wright Tools manufacturing company (also located in Cottage Grove) he begin thinking about constructing a replica of that historic aircraft. It wasn't too long after discussing his plans with his friends that the idea of building a replica gave way to the proposal of building an exact duplicate and then maybe go after the propeller speed record from LA to NY!

Jim immediately ran into problems, first of all, whatever engineering drawings ever existed were most assuredly long gone to the ages after some 60+ years since the original aircraft was built, so Jim did the next best thing—he flew to Washington and looked over the real H-1 at the Air & Space Museum! Once at the museum and after some discussion with the management there (they soon realized that Jim wasn't just some nut from Oregon), Jim was given full access to the Hughes H-1 Racer.

Jim then went about hiring his original group of engineers and construction personal and he had only one demand: whatever existed on the original will exist exactly on his H-1, whether that be in design, shape, or materials. If Howard used a particular brand of gauge, then Jim would search the entire world if he had to until he found that exact same gauge from that era! This of course created his first real dilemma—the engine that Howard used was a R1535 twin-row 14-cylinder radial engine, built by Pratt & Whitney, with nearly all 2,300 of those engines produced having been lost during action in World War II! Well, after several months Jim was able to locate an original P&W R1535, and in pretty fair condition too, so Pratt & Whitney rebuilt Jim's engine back to its original specifications for the 1930s, and this engine would make an Indy Car engine builder cry! Everything (internal) is polished to a chrome finish with roller bearings on the crankshaft, cam, and on the lifters. This engine is an ultra-short stroke, high-rpm (for its day) twin-row radial, and is capable of producing over 1,000 HP with its high-capacity direct-drive superchargers. Like the F-16 engine is now, the P&W R1535 was state-of-the-art in its day!
 

During the first weekend of August (2001) I had the opportunity to sit down with Jim, in his hanger and next to his nearly completed Hughes H-1 Racer project, and Jim was kind enough to answer my questions and frankly his enthusiasm for his passion is really contagious! It was only last July 21st (2001) that Jim and his team rolled out their H-1 racer for the first time, and the event was attended by the only living person that was an engineer on the original, the 91 year old John Newbury!

It seems that Jim's team has been at this project for just over 2-1/2 years now and they are yet a year away from their first flight, but (as you can see from my photos below) the end is in sight! There have been a regular staff of 6 individuals working on the project full time, but there have been up to 100 people involved at different stages of construction (considering sub-contractors and such). To date, the H-1 Racer project has required a little over 23,000 man hours worth of work and there's roughly 10,000 hours of work left to complete it (it's estimated that the total hours spent to build this one single aircraft will be 40 man years, or it would take one person 40 years to do what they have done)! Though Jim wouldn't reveal the amount of money that's been invested, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to calculate that the investment figure, so far, goes well into 7 digits!

As with the original H-1, the Wright H-1's wings are constructed entirely of wood (nearly 11,000 individually handmade pieces for each wing) with the outer skin (wings) being very thin plywood that has been impregnated with fabric dope (just like the original) and every fuselage rivet has been hand burnished until it's absolutely flush with the aircraft's surface. Every machine screw on the all monoque aluminum fuselage has been torqued until the screw-slot is aligned with the airflow, and the entire aluminum outer skin has been hand polished to a mirror-like finish. Like the original, the fit and finish on Jim's creation is absolutely perfect; for example, when the landing gear is retracted you cannot tell where the break line is between the gear doors and the wings are, even on close-up inspection!

The Wright H-1 Racer team learned, after close inspection of the Hughes H-1, that Howard Hughes and his engineers used design technology that would be considered state-of-the-art even today, but because of Howard's obsession with secrecy, most of his ideas were lost until they were re-invented, by someone else, many years later.

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The Hughes H-1 racer was truly a remarkable aircraft!

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I asked Jim what his plans were, once his project was complete, and he kind of gave me the indication that he hadn't really thought about that too much; but initially their plans are to re-set the LA to NY speed/distance prop record and then maybe attend air shows on a regular basis. Their calculations show that this aircraft should be able to cruise at 431 mph (27,000 feet) for 3,100 miles (sufficient to cover the LA to NY route of just over 2,400 miles), plus they've the advantage of the winds aloft forecasting and such, items that were not available to Howard Hughes in 1935! If all goes well, a flight time (and record) of something under 6 hours is expected. There are also some other speed/distance prop records he intended on breaking as well!

I told Jim, "...wouldn't it be interesting, if after your setting of the records you intend on, that the Smithsonian should request displaying your aircraft along side of the original H-1 of Howard Hughes?" Jim just smiled with his ear to ear to grin and said "...maybe, just maybe!"

— Steve (Bear) Cartwright

 

 


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