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Hughes Racer Replica Photo Feature
Cottage Grove, OR.
July 9, 2002

Hughes Racer Replica
Report by: Wayne Sagar
Historic Hughes Racer Replica First Flight
Historic Racer Replica Flies!

click here for enlarged image and description"This is the most incredible airplane I've ever flown" said an exhilarated Jim Wright of his flight yesterday at the controls of the Hughes Racer Replica.

Wright described the flying characteristics of the replica as "very good" in a phone conversation with AAFO.COM today. Wright description of the first flight of this exciting new racer showed his exhilaration:

"The airplane flew better than our wildest anticipation. It was incredible how little torque the airplane had! The control harmony was unbelievably good. When the flaps come down, there’s almost no trim change. There is pitch change, but the amount of trim on the rudder required to go from full power to very low power settings is just minimal. It is the best flying airplane I’ve ever been in without question, and that’s just the first flight."

We at AAFO.COM were taken with the quality of the build on the Hughes Replica in our first visit to the Wright facility in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Simply put, the aircraft is a sight to behold.

According to Jim Wright, who continued with his description of yesterday’s flight, it became apparent that as good as it looks, the Hughes Replica actually flies better than it looks.

click here for enlarged image and descriptionSaid Wright: "It is absolutely unbelievable…it is the most incredible airplane I’ve ever flown. I don’t mean thrilling — like an amusement ride or in that right — it was coordinated, well handling, and incredibly well behaved. Very secure feeling airplane. Instead of being terrifying, you just keep asking yourself ‘why is it flying so good!’"

Remembering just how good the airplane looked, we had to ask the question "how much of the flying quality can be attributed to the craftsmanship of the build?"

Wright responded, "A bit, but a lot of it is the aerodynamics — it’s got to be. They figured out how to resolve a lot of the problems that had nagged a lot of other airplanes."

Jim mentioned the massive (for the time) amount of wind tunnel testing done to develop the H-1 Racer. Looking at this information and the airplane’s contemporaries, which for the most part were rather primitive in comparison, we asked Wright if the amount of time spent on the Racer in the tunnel might be more than any aircraft prior to it?

"We believe so. We’ve got the original wind tunnel report that dates back to 1934. They spent a total of fifteen weeks in the wind tunnel, which I believe is an unusual amount of time [for the era] when you realize they designed, wind tunnel tested and flew the first P-51, in 100 days, and here Hughes is in the wind tunnel for almost that long. They went to an incredible amount of effort."

Understandably anxious to continue flight testing, Jim informed us of a slight "historic" glitch encountered on the first flight yesterday that is currently slowing the process.

"A funny thing happened on the way to [flight] testing <laughs>… and this is part of the story unraveling. Howard Hughes first flight was short. He came back and said there was a problem with the propeller — ‘Fix it.’ The report is that it was a problem with Pratt & Whitney — the drive system on the governor had failed. This always sounded kind of dubious to us. One: why, when Pratt & Whitney engines are so good, why would that have failed in the first twenty minutes; and two: we never could document that they took the engine gearbox apart to clean it out. There is no record that they did that. We’ve always kind of wondered if that was the truth."

click here for enlarged image and description"Well," said Wright, "what we found out is, we had propeller problems too, the same as he had! The airplane — the normal take off RPM is 2625 [revolutions per minute] — and it climbed out incredibly well. [At that RPM], the VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) only goes to 2000 feet per minute, but I would guess that the initial climb rate was well over 4000 FPM. When I leveled out, the RPM could be set no lower than 2300 RPM, no matter what I did. Well after some research, we found out today, because Howard Hughes’ design of the blade — which was his idea — the blade’s aerodynamic loads are different. It requires that we go to a much heavier counterweight to force it down into a lower RPM."

We asked if the Hughes Racer Replica is using a prop of similar design to Hughes’ original (?) …

Wright replied, "As close as we could make it. We could not tell whether his counterweight had been modified. We didn’t know what to look for when we went to the Smithsonian, but I am absolutely convinced that he had exactly the same problem that we did. Blaming Pratt & Whitney was kind of the way they operated — not to blame the design but to pass the blame onto someone else.

(author’s note: in our previous story on the Hughes Racer Replica, Jim Wright told us of several trips to the Smithsonian where detailed measurements of the original aircraft were made so that plans for the replica would create an airplane as close as humanly possible to that original)

"We had Pineapple Propeller make the prop for us," said Wright, "and they warned us that this may happen. They actually had a heavier set of counterweights made up for us, but we didn’t really register that maybe this is what happened to Hughes, and now we think that that was exactly the same thing."

click here for enlarged image and descriptionThough the propeller maker did make up the additional set, the original set of heavier counterweights can not be located at this time and California Propeller has been tasked to locate a set that would fill the needs for the Hughes Replica Team. Jim indicated that if these were available at this time from California Propeller, they would either fly down tonight and get them or have them overnighted to Cottage Grove so that flight testing could resume as soon as possible.

The summation of the flight? We asked Jim his and his crew’s assessment of the first flight… His reaction was as might be expected, of someone who had just had the unique experience to step into the time tunnel that this airplane is.

"We all are just shocked how well the airplane flies! In going back through their wind tunnel data and how they approached it, [testing] it was so logical. Every step, every ‘t’ was crossed and every ‘I’ was dotted. They went into so much research. I’m almost wondering at this point if we’ve got one of the best flying airplanes period."

It must be remembered, once Howard Hughes was done with this airplane, it was parked and little if any further documented testing was done with the machine. In recreating this piece of aviation history, Wright and his crew may well have brought some of the knowledge back into the light of day that has been, perhaps, lost in the shuffle of time. Knowledge that may well be used to improve flying characteristics of current airplanes.

Jim continued with his description of the first flight:

"The fact that I went from 850 HP in climb, and I pulled it back to less than 200 HP when I leveled out, the total rudder trim required was two turns on the trim of a potential of 50! There is just no trimming effort," said Wright. "When the flaps went down, I was anticipating a large trim input and there was none! It’s just unbelievable. The pitch changes, but the trim does not change, almost none. I’ve never been in an airplane that did that, so it was quite a surprise."

Wright added that, "Hughes approached this as, literally, a clean sheet of paper, no preconceived ideas. What they did is, they came up with the best combination that they could from that clean sheet of paper. What we don’t see is any evidence of ego there, in other words, that they went into this project with any ideas that ‘this is the way it’s going to be.’ It was ‘pour over all this wind tunnel data, spend fifteen weeks in the wind tunnel, and we’ll let this decide the way it’s going to be’."

Howard Hughes’ name is associated with many aviation developments and "firsts," so we asked Jim if in his research for this project they had found out just how much of Howard Hughes is in the airplanes. Are these, indeed, Howard Hughes’ airplanes? Or was the man who has become such a mysterious figure in aviation history simply a man who was able to gather and use the best talent available?

Jim responded quickly and emphatically, "Both," adding that, "He was both a genius and a tremendous team builder, he could attract people that other people could not attract. He could get the best talent. One thing we’ve found that is in common with everyone we’ve talked to that he worked with him — that was reasonably close to him — was that they loved working with him."

(Author’s note: we also found this when speaking with crew members from the HK-1 Flying Boat "Spruce Goose" they genuinely enjoyed working with him and also, Hughes would talk often with the men working on the project, question them about what it was they were doing and it was related to us that he seemed to possess an incredibly detailed knowledge of what each member of the team was doing for that project.)

We concluded our conversation with the Southern Oregon owner of Wright Machine Tool (interesting to note, Howard Hughes was also an owner of a machine tool company) by asking what was in his mind as he sat on the runway ready to push the throttle forward and take this project, so long in development, into the sky? His response:

"I was concerned at how easy it seemed to be flying! How easy it was to make this thing go down the road. I kept waiting for the bear trap to bite! I think it was almost more an apprehension that the thing flew so well and not that it acted sort of mean to start with."

click here for enlarged image and descriptionIt was decided by the Wright Machine Tool group that the first fight would be witnessed by only those who devoted their time and effort to make this dream a reality, so it was that with no media fanfare, at approximately 07:15, July 09, 2002, Jim Wright lifted off the short strip at Cottage Grove, Oregon, and aviation history lived once again.

This first flight, being ahead of the time frame Jim Wright proposed when we spoke to him during the preparation of our first article on this airplane, almost certainly ensures that attendees at the 2002 Reno National Championship Air Races, will bear witness to an attempt by Wright in the Replica, at breaking one of the first records set by the original airplane when Howard Hughes was at the controls!

Stay tuned to AAFO.COM and the Wright Machine Tool Hughes Racer Replica website, for more information on this breathtaking historic recreation.

 

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