The H-1 (also known as the "Hughes 1B") model was the first product of the Hughes Aircraft firm and was intended as a world record-setting landplane from her modest beginnings. The aircraft lived up to its billing and forged Hughes' name into aviation lore while at the same time becoming the last such non-military, record-setting aircraft to be constructed by an individual. The H-1 went on to set a world airspeed record and later captured the transcontinental speed record over the United States before the end of her tenure. The single production example now resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., becoming part of the aviation collection when it was donated to the establishment in 1975.
Engineer Glen Odekirk and Howard Hughes met while the two worked on Hughes aviation epic and box office success "Hell's Angels". Odekirk was employed for the film by Hughes and charged with keeping the fleet of 100 or so aircraft air-worthy. While production progressed, the two men began developing plans for a record-breaking aircraft design which eventually evolved to become the celebrated "H-1". Designs were on the drawing board as early as 1934 with promising wind tunnel tests following. Evaluation of a mock up proved enticing and development continued.
Hughes H-1 Walk-Around
Design of the H-1, credited to Richard Palmer and Hughes with construction credited to Odekirk, exuded speed from any one of her viewable angles. She sported low-set monoplane wings with noticeable dihedral and each were made of wood attached to a tubular pencil like fuselage left as bare metal. The engine was held well-forward in the design and extended out ahead of the wings. The cockpit was set well behind the wing assemblies and sported only light framing, allowing for unfettered views across the front and sides of the aircraft. The H-1 featured a short empennage capped by a single vertical tail fin complimented by applicable horizontal stabilizers. The undercarriage consisted of two single-wheeled main landing gear legs and a hydraulically-controlled metal tail skid at the rear. The main legs retracted inwards towards the fuselage centerline. There were two sets of wings constructed to tackle two distinct flying modes - speed racing and cross-country racing.
In its original configuration, the H-1 sported shorter wings of 25 feet and fielded in this fashion for setting the initial landplane speed record. These were indicated by their red paint coating. For the transcontinental record, the H-1 was then fitted with longer-spanning wings of 31 feet, 9 inches. These were indicated by their blue paint coating.
Hughes - Always the Visionary
Of particular note in the design of the H-1 were several revolutionary and key features to keep the "need for speed" criteria at the forefront. The H-1 made use of monoplane wings at a time when most aircraft (even military types) were still using biplanes with origins in a bygone era. The undercarriage's retractable nature was also a departure from conventional aircraft types then in use, many making due with static structures while others housed landing gear legs in streamlined, though fixed, fairings. The H-1 was also constructed with individually machined flush rivets which contoured perfectly with the smooth metal skin of the aircraft, making for a superior streamlined affair. All these implementations combined to produced the fastest of possible airframes.
The Power Within
Power for the H-1 was delivered from a single Pratt & Whitney R-1535 series, twin-row, 14-cylinder radial piston engine producing approximately 700 horsepower (although modified in the H-1 for an impressive output of up to 1,000 horsepower) and actuating a two-bladed metal propeller. This supplied up to listed 352 miles per hour making it one of the fastest piston engine aircraft of the time. The fuselage maintained a running length of 27 feet and a height of 8 feet. When empty, she listed at 3,565lb and a full 5,492lb when loaded.
On September 13th, 1935, the H-1's first flight (with Hughes himself at the controls) the H-1 achieved a new world speed record of 352 miles per hour, this over the skies of Santa Ana, California. Hughes took the H-1 through her paces and accomplished the record before being forced to crash land after running out of fuel. Both Hughes and the H-1 survived without any major damage with Hughes only convinced that he could make his new creation fly faster.
The transcontinental flight to follow, this from Los Angeles, California, to Newark, New Jersey, occurred on January 19th, 1937, and was covered in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds. Hughes' average speed on the jaunt was an impressive 332 miles per hour. This was less than the 9 hours, 27 minutes Hughes managed in a previous transcontinental attempt.
Why Not a Military Pursuit Fighter?
The H-1 was undoubtedly an aircraft ahead of its time and if anyone knew this it was Howard Hughes. Always the businessman, he assumed interest from the United States Army Air Force was forthcoming but this came to naught. The USAAF never contracted for any evaluation H-1s and the aircraft lived on only as a racing airplane with the Hughes name. In post-war reports before the Unites States Senate, Hughes commented that the USAAF thought a cantilever monoplane not suitable for a pursuit fighter. Wartime designs such as the American Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Japanese Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" were all thought to borrow some elements of Hughes' design but each respected designer never admitted as such, some outright refuting any such claim. It is only left to the imagination what the H-1 racer could have become if transformed and utilized as a pursuit fighter.