In the 1930s, Howard Hughes conceived an ambition to surpass Charles Lindbergh and become the world’s greatest, most famous aviator. He was not, that I have read, the most gifted flyer or the most skilled pilot. He was inventive, though: driven, daring, and rich enough to build his own airplanes.
In 1934, Hughes and Dick Palmer designed a metal-skinned monoplane for the purpose of taking back the air speed record from the French. Hughes did so on Friday, the thirteenth of September, 1935, when he reached a speed of 352 mph. He made seven passes then ran out of fuel and crashed in a beet field. The damage was repaired and the Racer, as it was named, had its wingspan extended by seven feet; oxygen was installed, so that Hughes could fly higher and take advantage of high-altitude tailwinds; and the Racer got a radio.
Meanwhile, Hughes leased a friend’s plane and set a new speed record for flying across North America. When the Racer was ready again, in January 1937, Hughes tested its fuel consumption. On January 18, he took off from Burbank, California and landed in Newark, New Jersey, seven hours and twenty-eight minutes later. The record he set then would stand for another nine years, but Howard Hughes would never again set foot in the Racer’s cockpit. The airplane was flown back to California by an employee of a friend, and was hangared for almost forty years.
In 1975, the year before he died, Hughes had the Racer restored and donated it to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I saw it there last month, and wondered what it would be like to fly. Thanks to Aerosoft, it is now possible for non-millionaires to get an idea.
Installation and Documentation
Installation is automated. When the smoke clears and the files finish copying, there will be a link to a PDF manual. It tells some of the plane’s history, explains what’s what in the cockpit, and lays down some parameters for not blowing the engine. You need to read this, and probably make some notes; I did this so I could have all of the numbers on one page. The manual’s printable, but there’s a colored background; it looks good on-screen, but on my printer, it made the text less readable. There’s no shortage, though, of information: 47 pages, and explanations are well illustrated. Another thing I like about the manual is that you can download it before buying, so that you know what you’re getting into.
Compared with, for example, the PMDG 747 or the Level D 767, the Racer is simple. Compared, though, with most single-engine planes in Flight Simulator, the Racer is somewhat more involved to fly and operate. A lot of simmers want more things to do in the cockpit, but if your idea of a fun weekend is just to firewall the throttle and point the joystick, you should look elsewhere for your next purchase.
The Racer’s virtual cockpit (VC) is lovingly recreated with all-custom gauges and one of the most interesting canopy animations I have seen. Instead of rolling back or hinging to the side, the canopy divides in two over your head; when you retract the canopy, the two halves roll down into the fuselage. Bolts on the canopy are individually rendered in 3D.
A lot of the mechanics are exposed to view, so in addition to animated levers and controls, you’ll also see moving rods, chains, gears, and cables. There’s no nav gear, except a compass, but there is a radio for voice comm's. There are gauges for monitoring various engine temperatures and pressures; if you haven’t paid attention to these before, you will here. Fuel mixture needs to be adjusted as well, and if you aren’t in the habit of turning on carburetor heat for descents (because with newer engines it usually doesn’t matter), you will find out pretty quickly why it is on the checklist.
If something goes wrong, you can pull up a 2D panel that tells what happened. This wasn’t part of the original aircraft, but it’s helpful at the beginning. After you’ve made all of the errors there are to make, you won’t need it any more.
Probably the most unusual item in the H-1 cockpit is something called a wobble pump. This pressurizes the fuel system, and to start the plane you’ll need to click on it at least eight times. Personally, I could do without this piece of historical realism, but that’s my problem not the model’s. Another niggle: the real Racer was hand cranked -- there was no BATT ON or ALTERNATOR switch -- but to start the model, you need to have the electrical system turned on; the model has no mechanism for doing this.
The problem was discussed a couple of times on the support forum, and it was suggested that users should modify their default flights so that they always start with the battery on, or at least that they should begin all of their H-1 adventures from a saved flight with the right system conditions already set up; then, after the flight was loaded, switch to the desired airport (forcing a reload of all scenery, weather, and traffic). In my view, that’s pushing the developer’s work onto the customer. I’m aware that, for some very complex models, those kind of machinations are necessary. They aren’t for this one; all you need are a couple of default switches from one of the default planes to turn on the Flight Simulator electrical system and keep it charged.
The developer has already made one concession, by including a 2D panel to diagnose engine failures; I don’t see why a second panel, with battery and alternator switches, would be any less historical, especially since it would be out of the way, invisible from the VC.
This is a tiny ripple in an otherwise smooth pond, but it illustrates a more important (and more positive) point about the model in general: it really is striving for historical accuracy. One can disagree about how the goal should be implemented or where compromises ought to be made, but the goal of the model -- and its success in achieving it -- are not in question.
An example of this -- historical realism that is also functional -- is the pilot’s seat which moves up and forward. The real Racer needed this, for takeoffs and landings, where the fuselage is angled up and the forward view is obstructed by a very long nose. The model has the same problem, and implements the same solution: namely, move the viewpoint up -- so the pilot can see over the nose -- and forward -- so that he can still reach the controls comfortably. (This doesn’t work if you have TrackIR, which isn’t the model’s fault, but sitting up taller will accomplish the same result.)
This package comes with two versions of the Racer: one with short wings, that was used to break the speed record, and one with longer wings, that flew cross-country. Unless I’ve missed something, there’s only one difference in the two cockpits, but it’s a nice touch: the short-wing version has a vintage-looking map of the San Gabriel Valley, about thirty miles from where the speed record was set, and the long-wing version has a map of New Jersey, which was Hughes’ destination for the transcontinental record.
Another nice, though non-functional, touch is the leather padding above the instrument panel. It’s tough, when you’re drawing objects with polygons, to make something that looks mushy, but somehow it has been done here; apparently it is possible after all.
Martin Scorcese’s film "The Aviator" is partly about Howard Hughes and airplanes, partly about Hughes and women. For a moment, the two themes come together when Hughes is sliding his hand over Katharine Hepburn’s back; in the next shot, he is still sliding his hand, now over the smooth metallic skin of his H-1 Racer. He has instructed his crew to make all of the rivets flush, so as to minimize drag, and now he is caressing their finished craftsmanship. Smooth!
In Flight Simulator, smooth was the default condition until a couple years ago, when bump mapping was introduced, and we started seeing 3D rivets. On this model, the rivets are intentionally not raised, except on the inside legs of the landing gear (which are not exposed in flight), where they are duly rendered in shadow-casting 3D. I can imagine only one additional refinement, which would be to bump map the seams of the metal plates on the aircraft’s fuselage.
For in spite of Hughes’ best efforts, the surface of the Racer was not perfectly smooth, and each of the metal plates which make up its skin reflects light in a slightly irregular way. This effect can be simulated with bump mapping, but so far only a few developers have learned the technique. (To see what's possible, check out the Acceleration Mustang or RealAir Spitfire.) Unlike 3D models, bump maps can be edited by customers, so perhaps someone will add this later and post the mod in our file library. Meanwhile, the skin of the virtual Racer is fractionally more efficient, aerodynamically, than its real-world original.
As of this writing, there is only one paint scheme for the two models -- polished metal fuselage with blue wooden wings. On the support forum, customers have a expressed a desire for more paint schemes, but in real life, there was only one Racer ever built, and this is the paint scheme that was used for both versions. It’s simple, striking, and makes great screenshots.
The lines of the Racer are graceful; notice the curve, especially, of the tailfin. Textures are delicate too. By “delicate,” I don’t just mean “detailed.” The surface of the Racer has the look of curved metal, imperfectly polished (as real things are) catching the light, reflecting some rays, and diffusing others.
One of my favorite effects can be seen behind the nose on the right hand side, where the exhaust gases have discolored the metal slightly, in a subtle way that makes the skin a tiny bit irregular, but also more interesting.
The one place where we could use better detail is the starboard wing as seen from the VC; the registration numbers, which are painted there, are legible but not crisp. I wouldn’t mention it, except that on a long flight, you see a lot of this wing from the virtual cockpit.
FPS matter. As a reviewer, I have had the chance to install a fair number of products for Flight Simulator. Some get used every day, others fall into disuse. Thinking about the products that continue to get used, month after month, I notice that none of them has low frame rates.
Performance is not the only thing I care about, by any means; I like eye candy, a lot. I find, though, that when a product is sluggish -- no matter how big the wow factor when it was first installed -- I eventually stop using it. I am happy to report, therefore, that frame rates are not an issue with this product.
Periodically, I did turn on the FPS meter, but out of curiosity, not concern. For a model with this much detail, that is a major accomplishment.
The sound quality is in keeping with the visuals. In the cockpit, some custom programming makes it possible to hear the wobble pump. Engine sounds are full-bodied, well balanced, and make use of the latest feature in flightsim audio, sound cones. As you move around the airplane, you can hear variations, not just in the volume of noise, but also in the character of the sound produced.
Once again, the non-pilot must apologize for his real-world ignorance. Before I go any further, you need to know that I have never flown an aircraft or helicopter of any kind, except in Flight Simulator. That being said, let me offer some impressions which I have developed over the last month of simulated flying.
First, the short-wing version is sticky coming off the runway; after gear and flaps are cleaned up, it’s a good climber, but as soon as you’ve cleared any obstacles, you’ll need to throttle back and reduce prop speed; if you don’t, the engine will overheat, and you’ll be back on the ground.
Getting up to the record-setting speed of 352 miles per hour (mph), even at full throttle (which, because the engine will overheat, you can’t maintain anyway for more than a minute), is impossible without a modest dive. I tested this in Velasquez Canyon, where Scorcese filmed the Racer in action, and found that the numbers are right where they should be. Landing the Racer, and especially keeping it lined up with the runway, is harder even than most other taildraggers, because the long nose and low cockpit make it hard to see forward.
Once the gear come down, the Racer drops quickly. Flaps, when fully extended, hang down almost perpendicular to the wing and increase drag dramatically; to stay on the glide path, you’ll need to increase power to compensate. With some practice, I was able to land with one or no bounces, but staying lined up is still a challenge, especially if there is any crosswind.
The long-wing version has more lift, and comes up off the runway more readily. A fast climber, just like the short-wing version, it can achieve cruising altitude (15,000 feet to FL200) in just a short time. Once established there, a primitive autopilot keeps it trimmed and on the right heading.
The autopilot works surprisingly well, although without nav gear there is a real danger of getting lost, even if you know the route. The reason is that the low wing is in front of the cockpit, and obstructs much of the ground ahead, so that if you drift off course, it’s not always easy to tell, even if the weather is clear enough to distinguish ground features. This is a feature of the original airplane, not a defect in the model, but my hat is off to Mr. Hughes, who not only did not get lost on his flight from California to New Jersey, but flew most of the route at night, above a layer of overcast.
Coming down from altitude, there are three points to remember which, in a modern airplane, we don’t usually worry about anymore. First, the carburetor can freeze in cold, humid air, so turn the heat on. Second, don’t chop the power back to idle; the engine will cool unevenly, develop cracks, and stop working. Third, don’t descend too quickly; if you do, you will drive more air through the radiator, the engine will (again) cool too rapidly, crack, and kill you. Nearer the ground, you will need to forget half of what you learned about landing the short-wing version, because the long-wing version has more lift and handles differently at low speeds.
I have spent approximately equal time in both versions of the Racer, and like both equally. I did find, though, that switching back and forth does not work -- at least for me. The landing speed, timing, and power settings are different enough for the two versions that learning one does not make you a master of the other.
In my book, though, that is a sign something is right, because if you change the shape of your wing and it doesn’t produce a corresponding change in the airplane’s behavior, the flight model is wrong. Not challenged, differently-abled, or alternative; wrong.
The Hughes H-1B Racer sells for 26 euros. Except for gauge logic, by Hubertus Fuest, it is mostly the work of just one man, Stefan Hoffman. I hadn’t heard of Hoffman before now, but with this product he’s established himself as -- how shall I put it? -- someone who cares about craftsmanship.
Appearances to the contrary, Hoffman did not come out of nowhere; last year, he did the flight model for Aerosoft’s Twin Otter and this year he has taken over work on Aerosoft’s Catalina. Judging from the quality of this package, the Catalina is going to be just as successful a product as the already-popular Twin Otter; I’m looking forward to it.
Meanwhile, we have his Racer, a real gem: not perfect, but singular and polished.
What I Like About The Hughes H-1B Racer
What I Don't Like About The Hughes H-1B Racer
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