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Hughes H-1B

by Jim Kiker


Hughes H-1B


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Author’s note: An abbreviated version of this article has previously appeared in “Bent Throttles,” the newsletter of the Racing and Record Aircraft Special Interest Group (SIG). This article appears with the kind permission of the SIG leader and editor of the newsletter, Anders Bruun. For more information, check out our SIG on the Internet at http://members.chello.se/ipmsairrace/ .

I am old enough to remember Howard Hughes when he was still alive, living the end of his life as a recluse, and being just a bit mad. Long before that, Hughes had built up the machine tool company he had inherited while still a young man, and had made his fortune. He later parlayed it into an international corporation, not to mention doing a lot of clandestine work for the U.S. Government.

In 1934, Hughes decided to build himself an airplane that would set records and be on the cutting edge of technology, and the Hughes H-1B was all that and more. Designed primarily by Dick Palmer and built in secret, the aircraft was completed in 1935, and featured the first all-metal monocoque fuselage with flush, butt-joined skin panels (which quickly became standard on commercial and military aircraft). The original version of the plane featured short-span wooden wings, although the aircraft was later rebuilt with a longer-span wing (also of wood construction, going from 24’ to 32’). Since the aircraft was conceived to be a record-breaking vehicle from the very beginning, no expense was spared to create the slickest, fastest possible airframe.

The original short-winged version set a new speed record of 352.322 mph in 1935. In 1937, Hughes flew the long wingspan version of the plane to a new transcontinental speed record of 332 mph, making use of an on-board oxygen system and a true 3-axis autopilot system. Once Howard had set records with the H-1B, he lost interest in it and placed it in storage. The aircraft is now housed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

In the 1990’s, another machine tool company owner, Jim Wright, decided to build a replica of the Hughes aircraft. Years later he finished the project, and in 2002, the Hughes Replica took to the air. Jim took the airplane to the national air races in Reno last year, and set a new speed record for the aircraft’s weight class. With much sadness I must also report that Mr. Wright lost his life in a recent crash while flying home from an air show. His is a great loss to the aviation community.

The only kit of the Hughes H-1B that I know of in 1/48th scale is a resin kit produced by NOIX models of Japan. Although both the short span and long span versions were produced in kit form, the long-winged version is currently out of production, and even the short spanned one is not easy to find. The good news is that it’s a nice kit for a limited-run resin piece, with fair surface detail, cast metal landing gear and prop, two vacuformed canopies, and a really nice standing figure that is unmistakably Howard Hughes.





I like to add a certain level of detail to my models, and especially so in this case. The kit has very nice outlines and a fair degree of surface detail built into it, but it certainly profits from some additional details here and there, especially in the cockpit, the cowling support struts that are visible at the front of the plane, and the landing gear.

The cockpit was similar to other racing planes of the day, although Howard had the various components scattered around to suit his own taste. The instrument panel is more complicated because of the autopilot installation. Of special note is that the windscreen could be pushed forward, and the canopy (split along the top) could be slid down into the fuselage, somewhat like car door windows. This allowed Howard to raise the seat forward and up in order to see over the nose better for takeoff and landing.

I hollowed out the kit fuselage behind the pilot’s seat since this area is open on the real aircraft. The real cockpit was confusing since Howard had the various components scattered around to suit his own taste; I improved the side rails of the cockpit with strip plastic, then added an open bulkhead at the rear of the cockpit, the throttle quadrant, a few knobs, and later, a new seat.

The instrument panel is useable, with either some instrument decals or some markings added to the blank instrument faces. Most of this will not be very visible. The cockpit interior has a comparatively rough surface and should be primed before painting. Towards the end of the build, I also added a piece of wire insulation around the front edge of the cockpit and painted it brown to simulate the padded coaming.


The fuselage itself is in two main parts, with the vertical fin and rudder supplied as a separate piece. These pieces are finely scribed, although I could not make all of the vertical panel lines line up. In retrospect, I should have made sure the panel lines on the forward top of the fuselage lined up better, then reworked the ones on the rear of the fuselage! The wing and tail planes are each comprised of a single piece, and have rather heavy, wide but shallow engraving for their panel lines. I have refined all the panel lines, both during and after assembly. Given my skill level- this is the first all-resin kit I‘ve built- getting the panel lines right has been a case of “two steps forward, one step back.” I found that using a pointed scriber tends to pull resin chunks out rather than making a smooth line, so I switched to some very fine razor saws to improve the panel lines. They work great on the straight lines, rather less so around gentle curves, and there are several places where they failed me altogether. I used tiny dots of superglue to fix my mistakes, added with a fine piece of wire. If you use this technique, be sure to sand out the CA immediately; waiting even a half hour will allow it to harden so much that you will sand the resin away before smoothing down the CA itself. I did it this way so that I would not have to worry about putty coming out of a very fine cut line, and so I could saw/scribe over my mistakes. Using the very fine drawings by Paul Matt, I made my own templates to re-scribe the curving line of the fairings at the front and rear edges of the wing. Rescribing that entire joint line around the wing was difficult, and while my work isn’t perfect, it turned out pretty well.
On the original airframe, the recesses for the wheels themselves are a box shape made of metal, and the outer surface covering is also in metal with circular cutouts for the wheels. On the kit, this area is represented with two cylindrical-shaped depressions. Given the one-piece molding, it would be very difficult indeed to recreate the larger boxed-in recesses.

I used a drum-shaped sander in my Dremel tool to deepen these recesses until the resin started getting thin enough to see light through. I added a coat of CA glue on the outer surfaces of the wells where they are hidden in the fuselage, to give the thinned resin some extra strength. When the wells were painted, I added a final light coat of dark aluminum into the center of each recess to make them look even deeper. The effect resembles a deep cylinder-shaped recess hammered out of aluminum sheet, and I can live with that!


The landing gear is cast in white metal. The main struts are flattened box shapes which are beefy enough to support the weight of the model, but the axles for the wheels seemed a little weak to me. I cut them off, drilled holes into the bottom of the gear struts/boxes, and replaced the axles with steel wire and tubing to make them larger and more to scale.

I also marked and drilled the holes visible along the front edge of the landing gear strut boxes. I used epoxy cement and glued the inner gear door pieces to the bottom of the main struts. They were hinged and stuck out to the side when the gear was down. When the gear was retracted, these doors closed and covered the entire wheel in each bay. I primed and sanded the struts, especially the outer surfaces, since they were rather uneven. I added brake lines to complete the landing gear.



The engine and cowling are nicely cast, with a separate front ring and a very nice engine front to be trapped between the two cowling pieces. I drilled out the engine and forward fuselage to take a 3/32” brass tube to accommodate a 1/16” brass shaft for the propeller. I also found that when I dry fitted the engine and cowling pieces, the contours around the front edge of the cowling were in error and did not match up well with each other. I deepened all the panel lines and fasteners before gluing, and after the pieces were glued and dry, I gently reshaped the whole front end of the assembly. You will need a gentle hand here, since the resin is not very thick to start with. After priming and painting the exterior of the cowling, I added the cowling support struts from .015 steel wire during final assembly. The prop itself is cast in white metal, and will need to be primed, sanded, and painted to achieve the best finish. The back of the propeller was not painted when the aircraft had the short wing, so I painted the entire prop aluminum.

The H-1B had a number of short, fairly straight engine exhaust stacks under the cowling, running to the rear edge of the cowling itself. These are not replicated in the kit, except for the three exhaust pipes on the right side of the fuselage just behind the cowl. There is only a narrow gap between the front of the fuselage and the cowling, too narrow, in fact, to add the additional exhaust pipes.

I narrowed down the very front of the fuselage, where it “necks down” and ducks under the cowling to give enough room to add these exhaust pipes.



Using photos, I added the additional pipes after priming the model. They are just visible if you look for them; NOIX chose to leave them off altogether, and you may choose to do the same. This is how these pipes looked before the engine cowling was glued in place.





I wanted to make the finish on this model as smooth as possible, and glossy within the limits of the scale; I think an all-out, automotive gloss finish on a smaller-scale aircraft model looks too toy-like. I consulted with some of my local model geek buddies who are experts in gloss finishes, and followed their advice. First, I bought some Plasti-Cote (brand name) white, sandable, auto body primer (a lacquer-based product); it is important that the primer is sandable and lacquer-based, especially if you plan on using the relatively new Alclad II metalizer finish. I sprayed the entire model (and later, the landing gear, prop, and assembled engine cowing) with this primer. Remember spray painting from a can? The airframe looked like a mess when I finished with the primer, with some spots just covered and others almost running with excess paint. Fortunately, this stuff dries quickly, so the next step was to sand down and polish the primer.

The primer filled in many of the minor surface imperfections as it was supposed to do; but before you can successfully paint a gloss finish over it, it must be polished. I used a 6000-grit sanding pad to smooth down the surfaces, and then switched to Novus brand plastic polish to bring the primered surface to a glossy sheen. In my opinion, this polishing is the real secret to obtaining a nice, metallic finish in situations like this where a primer coat is required. Here are the engine cowling and propeller; the cowling shows what the entire airframe looked like just before the color coats were started. The propeller and the entire cowling were later painted with Alclad II Aluminum.


A friend of mine provided the automotive paint and reducer (that is, thinner) I used in this project, but any good gloss paint/metalizer that you are comfortable with should work fine. I painted the whole model with my mixed, dark gloss blue, laying on a “mist” coat and then three wetter coats of paint (allowing the paint to dry to the touch in between, of course!). I got some orange peel, as I expected, since I am still learning how to paint gloss finishes. The trick is to rub down the paint when it’s completely dry with polish, which takes away the orange peel and leaves a smooth, glossy surface. I practiced each step in this process on some scrap before working on the model. I then masked off the wings and sprayed silver for the polished natural metal on the fuselage. The area just behind the cowling was exposed to direct exhaust and it shows as a different shade in pictures. I painted it in a steel shade.

I also wanted to make the fabric-covered areas look slightly different from the polished aluminum look of the fuselage. I masked off the fabric-covered rudder, elevators, and a section on the bottom of the wing center section and painted them a slightly darker shade of aluminum. I then painted them clear acrylic gloss, added the decals on the rudder and sprayed it with a second clear gloss coat, then finished all these areas with a thin coat of clear satin.


I also masked off a few panels on the fuselage and gave them a coat of clear acrylic satin; it makes the light reflect differently from the surface and produces a subtle effect that I like very much. Finally, I masked off the outer portions of the landing gear wells, painted them a light reddish brown, and then added a wash of darker brown to accentuate the crevices and create a semi-gloss, varnished wood look.

The kit-supplied decals for the wing registration numbers looked too light to me, and I also thought it likely that they would be translucent when applied. I created artwork and had dry transfers made. This is an expensive thing to do, but the dry transfer letters are completely opaque and at the same time extremely thin. I laid them down and burnished them on. They look terrific, but they were almost flat in luster. I masked off the wings and painted them with a couple of coats of clear acrylic gloss, then polished them out to give them a smooth, even shine. I did not polish the ailerons to give them a tonal difference- glossy fabric coating that is just a little flatter than the rest of the wings is what I was aiming for. I used the kit decals for the numbers on the vertical tail and the propeller logos; I cut them out individually and used some Microscale setting solution, and they worked very well with no silvering. I used an oil wash of Payne’s gray for the elevator and rudder panel lines, a light gray for the fuselage panel lines, and straight black for the flap and aileron panel lines on the wings.

I painted the wheels and tires, mounted them along with the landing gear, pitot tube, and windscreen, and voila! A handsome Hughes H-1B was complete.




  1. Photos of the Hughes H-1B and of the replica aircraft from Jim Wright’s H-1B web site

  2. Historical Aviation Album, Vol. 16: “Howard Hughes and the Hughes Racer,” by Paul R. Matt

  3. Photos of the aircraft as it is currently displayed at the National Air and Space Museum




Bill Bosworth and Mike Bays, for invaluable reference information and assistance, Jonathan Strickland, for the current photos of the H-1B in the National Air and Space Museum. The family of Jim Wright, for his creation of the H-1B replica and sharing information through his web site. Some of the model photographs courtesy of Wayne Funderburk.



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Model, Images and Text Copyright © 2004 by Jim Kiker
Page Created 05 January, 2004
Last Updated 17 March, 2004

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