The Daring Legacy of the Hughes H-1 Racer

Ride along on a Microsoft Flight Simulator journey through history in Howard Hughes’ speed-record aircraft.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

For this session in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, I’ll be flying the Hughes H-1 Racer, the superbly streamlined airplane that eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes built and flew to set several world speed records.

The story of this plane really begins in 1908, when Howard’s father, Howard Hughes Sr., patented a new drill bit that proved essential to the oil boom then sweeping Texas. The drill bit business generated money like a gushing oil derrick. Hughes Sr. moved his family to Los Angeles, where his brother (junior’s uncle) was a successful screenwriter for the fledgling movie industry, interested to get in on the action.

But in 1924, Hughes Sr. suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving his 19-year-old only son, Howard Jr., with a controlling 75 percent share of the thriving company. Completely uninterested in drill bits, this young man had big dreams for how to use his new fortune. He launched an independent movie studio and began dating the city’s most glamorous actresses, including Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Hedy Lamarr, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Olivia de Havilland, and Katharine Hepburn—which didn’t go over well with his first wife.

Meanwhile, he embarked on filming an insanely ambitious war epic that many believed would ruin him. Hell’s Angels, which Hughes directed himself, took an unheard-of three years and $4 million to complete. He assembled a private air force of more than 100 planes and pilots to portray the film’s realistic, action-packed dogfight scenes. When it was finally released in 1930, the movie was a huge hit, receiving an Academy Awards nomination for Best Picture.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

In the process, Hughes became interested in learning to fly. He even worked incognito as a mechanic to learn the ropes from some of the best pilots and designers in the aviation industry. To gain experience, he secretly got a job with American Airlines as a pilot. He made a trip from Los Angeles to New York before his identity was discovered and he was forced to resign. He became interested in racing, and in 1934 founded a new company, Hughes Aircraft, solely to build a custom-made airplane that could set new world speed records—the H-1 Racer.

The H-1 was fitted with a Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Junior radial engine, the same used by the Grumman F3F fighter. Normally capable of producing 700 hp, it could produce 900 hp when fed with high-grade 100-octane fuel. Unusual at the time, this later became standard for aviation gasoline (avgas). The drawback of an air-cooled radial engine, compared to inline pistons, was it creates drag. However, the H-1 minimized this with a bell-shaped cowling that streamlined the air around it.

The fuselage was constructed of strong, lightweight duralumin, an alloy consisting of 95 percent aluminum, 4 percent copper, 0.5 percent manganese, and 0.5 percent magnesium. Streamlining was an obsession for Hughes. Every rivet on its surface had its head partly sheared off so it was completely flush with the surface. Every screw was aligned so its grove aligned with the airflow.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The wings were made of plywood for lighter weight. Each was sanded into the perfect shape, then doped (painted) and polished to make its surface smooth as glass. For its initial flights, the wings were quite stubby, giving the H-1 a wingspan of only 24 feet, 5 inches, compared to a length of 27 feet, making it challenging to maneuver.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The H-1 featured retractable landing gear powered by hydraulics. The doors were carefully measured so when the gear closed, they were completely flush with the underside of the wing.

The H-1 also sported flaps to increase lift at slower speeds on takeoff and landing. While flaps and retractable landing gear were being adopted on airliners such as the Boeing 247 and luxury aircraft such as the Beechcraft Staggerwing, they were still fairly new innovations.

The H-1’s cockpit reflects the lack of standardized layout typical of that era. Designers were still experimenting to find an optimal arrangement. On the left side was a crank for the canopy and another crank for elevator trim, as well as switches for magnetos, battery, starter, and lights, plus two fuel selectors. At the pilot’s left hand is the throttle and mixture. While the pitch of the propeller appears externally adjustable, it does not appear to be controllable in flight.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

On the right side are circuit breakers and a radio. Below it are two levers (one normal, one emergency backup) for raising or lowering the landing gear. Also on the right are a crank for operating the flaps and a pull-handle parking brake. At the right hand center of the panel is a gyroscopic attitude indicator (artificial horizon). To its right are the main engine gauges, including manifold pressure, RPM, oil pressure, engine temperature, and fuel pressure.

On the left hand of the forward panel are my main flight instruments: clock (left), altimeter (top), vertical speed indicator (below it), and altimeter (below that). At the left-hand center of the panel is a heading indicator. Under the fuel gauges at the bottom center of the panel are my rudder pedals and stick, for controlling the H-1 in flight, as well as a handle for carburetor heat to prevent intake icing.

Under the guiding hand of aeronautical engineer Richard Palmer and production chief Glenn Odekirk—who managed the aircraft fleet for Hell’s Angels—the H-1 took shape in a shed in Glendale, California, and was ready by August 1935. The plane had cost Hughes $105,000, equivalent to about $2.3 million today. On August 17, Howard Hughes gave the H-1 its first test flight for a short 15 minutes.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

I’m here at the modern-day John Wayne Airport (KSNA) in Santa Ana, California, which is adjacent to the now-vanished dirt airstrip where Hughes and his team gathered a month later to challenge the world landplane speed record.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

In 1931, the Gee Bee Model Z clocked an unofficial speed of 315 mph, but a follow-on attempt to make it official ended in a tragic crash. The standing record Hughes actually had to beat was 314.32 mph, set the previous Christmas Day by a French Caudron C.460.

The first trial on Thursday, September 12 ran too late for the cameras to properly record results. So it was on Friday the 13th that the 29-year-old Hughes—wearing the unusual outfit of “a rumpled dark suit, soiled white shirt, and tie”—took to the air again to challenge the world record.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The rules were as follows: To beat the world record, Hughes would have to make four consecutive passes averaging over 314 mph at an altitude no higher than 200 feet above sea level. Electronically timed cameras would—hopefully this time—measure the speed. Hughes could enter the timed passes in a dive but from no higher than 1,500 feet. And the plane had to land afterward with no serious damage.

To get a feel for the plane, I didn’t follow these altitude restrictions precisely and flew it around a bit. On the day of Hughes’ second attempt, however, famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart flew cover at 1,500 feet to make sure Hughes observed the limit.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

I’ve started with my fuel gauges half full. To reduce weight and maximize speed, Hughes took off with just enough fuel to complete seven planned passes. He posted speeds that day of 355, 339, 351, 340, 350, 354, and 351 mph. The average of the best consecutive four was 352.39 mph, easily beating the previous record.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

I made seven passes myself, at full throttle, and repeatedly reached a top airspeed of 310 knots—at which point I could feel the H-1 start to shudder from the turbulence. At first I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t come close to matching Hughes’ speeds. But then I realized my units were wrong and that in fact 310 knots equates to over 356 mph. So, mission accomplished.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

After his seventh pass, Hughes’ fuel gave out, and the H-1’s engine sputtered to a halt. As onlookers watched in horror, he glided the plane silently to an emergency gear-up belly landing in a nearby beet field. Except for a few bruises and scrapes, Hughes was uninjured. Despite the crash landing, the airplane was considered intact enough to allow his world record stand.

Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, portrays Hughes’ successful speed record attempt in the H-1 Racer and the crash landing that followed. (It conflates the first test flight with the speed record run and gets a few details wrong. The real location was a lot flatter than portrayed in the film).

The H-1 was flown so few times, there’s no formally tested approach or stall speed. But I felt it sinking around 100 knots and figured I better keep it above that, similar to a World War II fighter plane. That must be about right because I touched down without bouncing.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

After Hughes smacked into the beet field and was informed he had just set a world record at 352 mph, he said: “It’ll go faster.I don’t see why we can’t use it all the way.”

“All the way” meant a nonstop, long-distance flight from Burbank, California, to Newark, New Jersey, to set a transcontinental record, beating the one Hughes already established. In January 1937, equipped with longer wings, larger fuel tanks, and an oxygen supply for higher altitudes, the H-1 again took flight. He crossed the country in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds, at an average speed of 332 mph, eclipsing the record set by Roscoe Turner—one of his stunt pilots in Hell’s Angels—by 36 minutes. He also set records from Miami to New York and Chicago to Los Angeles.

In July 1938, Hughes went on to fly a Lockheed Model 14, an upgraded version of the L-10 Electra, around the world. He made it in 91 hours (three days, 19 hours, 17 minutes), cutting Wiley Post’s previous record of 186 hours (seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes) in half. Hughes was hailed as a national hero and received the coveted Collier Trophy and  a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of Hughes’ career in aviation. He went on to sponsor the construction of the Lockheed Constellation and the gigantic H-4 Hercules, famously known as the “Spruce Goose.” 

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Hughes hoped the U.S. Army would take an interest in the H-1 Racer as a potential fighter plane, but that never materialized. Later, Hughes claimed the Japanese had based the design of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero on the H-1. Others speculated it inspired the German Focke-Wulf 190. But the designers of both World War II fighter planes denied any such influence.

As for the H-1 itself, Hughes kept it around but barely flew it. He sold and bought it back again. Shortly before his death in 1975, he donated the H-1 to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, where it remains on display. It has a total of just 40.5 flying hours on it.

In 2003, Oregon aviator Jim Wright built a full-scale flying replica of the H-1 Racer. Sadly, it crashed soon after its unveiling, killing Wright. It was to have been used in The Aviator, and the film ended up using a scale model instead.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Though it is difficult to trace its immediate influence on future aircraft design, the H-1 Racer epitomized many key innovations that were transforming aircraft in the lead-up to WWII, and its records set a high bar for future performance. A wealthy playboy, daring aviator, or eccentric dreamer? Whatever he might have been, Hughes built an impressive machine that, for a time at least, made him the fastest man alive.

If you’d like to see a version of this story with many more screenshots and historical images, you can check out my original post here

This story was told utilizing the Hughes H-1 Racer add-on to MSFS2020 from HCG Digital Arts Ltd., as well as the John Wayne International Airport add-on from UK2000 Scenery.

Patrick Chovanec
Patrick ChovanecContributor
Patrick Chovanec works as an economist in New York City, and has taught as a professor at China's Tsinghua University and at Columbia University. He is a private pilot, and author of the recently released book "Cleared for the Option: A Year Learning to Fly."

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