The Fastest Aircraft You’ve Never Heard Of
At 8:20 AM on August 6, 2016, 66-year-old veteran pilot Scotty Wilson opened the throttle and roared down the runway at Clinton-Sherman Industrial Air Park near Burns Flat, Oklahoma. Moments later he was airborne, and began climbing into a clear blue sky. But almost immediately things started to go wrong as the aircraft banked sharply left, then right, before suddenly rolling over and ploughing into the ground. The aircraft burst into flames on impact, killing Wilson instantly. While any fatal aircraft accident is a tragedy, this particular crash hit the aviation community particularly hard, for the aircraft in question was a one-of-a-kind replica of a historic design, painstakingly assembled over seven years by a dedicated team of volunteers. Conceived in the late 1930s, the aircraft was one of the most daring and technologically- advanced designs of its time, and, had it flown, might have been one of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft ever built. This is the fascinating story of the Bugatti Model 100 Racer.
During the 1920s and 30s, aviation technology advanced by leaps and bounds. The First World War had turned the aeroplane from a rickety and dangerous toy for the wealthy into a viable weapon of war, and governments, aircraft designers, and businessmen were keen to unlock the full military and commercial potential of aviation and push aircraft performance to the limit. To stimulate innovation, wealthy benefactors such as British newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett, French financier Jacques Schneider, Australian confectioner Sir Macpherson Robertson, and American hotelier Raymond Orteig sponsored a variety of aviation challenges and races, with designers and pilots from around the globe competing to see who could fly the fastest, highest, and farthest.
Among the most illustrious of these races was the Coupe Deutsch de a Meurthe, established in 1909 by French oil magnate Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe. As covered in our previous video Alberto Santos-Dumont: Pioneering Dandy of the Air, prior to the First World War, de la Meurthe’s prizes did much to advance the state of the art of both lighter- and heavier-than-air flight. The eponymous cup was a contest of pure speed, with competitors flying an outward-and-back straight-line circuit along a 100 kilometre timed course. This was intended to negate the effects of headwinds and tailwinds, and is still standard practice in both aviation and automotive speed trials to this day. The competition flights had to take place between March 1 and October 31, with performance being recognized only if it exceeded the closest competitor by at least 10%. A bonus of 20,000 francs was awarded to competitors whose record went unsurpassed for eight months, while the first competitor to win three races in a row received an ornate solid-silver trophy valued at 10,000 francs.
The race was held nine times between 1912 and 1936, the competition being resurrected three times by the Aéro Club de France and Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe’s daughter Suzanne following his death in 1919. Though the competition was open to all nations, all nine races were won by French pilots flying French-designed aircraft. By the late 1930s, however, France was fast being overtaken as a leader in aviation technology by its old rival Germany, who in 1937 set a world landplane speed record of 379 miles per hours or 610 kilometres per hour and were heavily favoured to win the 1939 cup. It was this desire to beat the Germans and secure another French aviation victory which in 1937 inspired Italian-born engine and automobile designer Ettorre Bugatti to try his hand at designing the ultimate racing plane.
Born in 1881 in Milan, by the 1930s Ettore Bugatti was a legend in the automotive community. His sleek and powerful engines and race car designs dominated at major European auto races such as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, while his luxurious touring cars were considered the height of quality and sophistication. His factory in Molsheim in Alsace, France, also produced a variety of other products, including aircraft engines for the French Air Force and motorized rail cars. By the mid-1930s, however, the global Great Depression had severely impacted sales, and Bugatti’s automotive empire was in decline. Thus, his interest in competing in the Coupe Deutsche de a Meurthe was not exclusively motivated by nationalistic zeal. The French Air Force closely followed the air races in order to choose its next generation of combat aircraft, and indeed would develop the winners of the 1935 and 1936 races – the Caudron C.450 and C.460 – into the Caudron C.714 fighter. Bugatti was thus keen to get his hands on lucrative government contracts for his aircraft and its engine.
Despite his versatility, however, Bugatti had never designed an aircraft before, and instead turned to Belgian designer Louis de Monge to turn his dream into reality. Born in 1890, de Monge had come to prominence during the First World War for designing and manufacturing metal aircraft propellers. After the war he produced designs for a variety of advanced aircraft including flying wings, heavy bombers, and long-range transatlantic airliners, but none of these ever left the drawing board. By the time he was approached by Ettore Bugatti, de Monge had long since left aviation for the more reliable and lucrative field of automotive engineering. However, he kept abreast of the latest developments in aviation, and after much persuasion by Bugatti, agreed to design his racing aircraft.
What de Monge came up with was nothing short of revolutionary. While most racing aircraft of the time achieved high performance by bolting the largest possible engine to the smallest possible airframe, de Monge took a more elegant and scientific approach, relying on aerodynamics and efficiency over raw power. His design, which still looks futuristic today, featured a sleek, teardrop-shaped fuselage, forward-swept wings, and a streamlined Y-shaped butterfly tail. To make the fuselage as slim and aerodynamic as possible, the pilot sat semi-reclined under a bubble canopy – an arrangement later famously used in the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet to protect the pilot from high G-forces – while to minimize weight while retaining strength, the airframe was constructed from a sandwich of tulipwood and balsa wood covered in doped aircraft fabric. The aircraft was powered by a pair of Bugatti-designed 50P straight-8 inline engines, each producing 450 horsepower. In order to fit inside the slim fuselage, the engines – built largely of magnesium for further weight savings – were mounted at offset angles behind the pilot, with the twin crankshafts passing along either side of the cockpit to a special gearbox in the nose, through which they drove a pair of contra-rotating propellers. These propellers cancelled out each other’s torque, eliminating the control issues that plagued most other racing planes and allowing the Model 100 to use smaller, less drag-inducing control surfaces.
While these features were already advanced for the time, it was in the details that de Monge’s genius truly shone through. Unusually, the air intakes for the engines and radiators were mounted in the leading edges of the Y-tail. Air travelled forward to the engines through a carefully-designed series of ducts before being expelled through slots in the trailing edges of the wings. This is an area of naturally low pressure, meaning air naturally circulated through the system without the need for heavy fans or blowers. Even more clever, the design of the ducts caused the air to expand and accelerate as it absorbed waste heat from the engine, producing a small amount of thrust that cancelled out the drag produced by the radiators. This technique, known as the Meredith Effect after the British engineer who discovered it in 1936, was later famously used in the North American P-51 Mustang fighter. Even more cutting-edge was the Model 100’s automatic control system, which, using airspeed and engine manifold pressure sensors and an analogue computer, allowed the pilot to optimize the aircraft for a number of flight conditions by simply pulling a lever. For example, at high manifold pressure and low airspeed, the flaps automatically dropped for takeoff, while at low manifold pressure and low airspeed the landing gear automatically dropped for landing. In a high-speed dash the flaps and landing gear retracted, while in a dive the upper and lower flaps deployed to form dive brakes. A further testament to de Monge’s attention to detail were the landing gear covers, which were shaped like wings such that when the pilot unlocked the wheel struts, they would automatically lift themselves up into the wings. About the only things on the Model 100 that were not cutting edge were the propellers, whose pitch or angle could only be adjusted on the ground. However, Bugatti and de Monge had plans to install continuously variable-pitch propellers at a later date. De Monge estimated that his sleek design would be capable of attaining 500 miles per hour or 800 kilometres per hour – making it the fastest aircraft of its day and one of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in history.
With the design finalized, construction of the Model 100 began in 1938 in a furniture factory in Paris. However, the Nazi invasion of Poland the following year led to the planned 1939 Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe race being cancelled. Nonetheless, construction carried on, helped along by a healthy injection of cash from the French Government. Facing imminent invasion, the French Air Force wanted to develop the Model 100 into a lightweight high-speed fighter known as the 110P, armed with a 7.5mm machine gun in each wing and a 37mm canon firing through the propeller hub. However, these plans went nowhere, and the Model 100 was just nearing completion when the Nazis invaded France in June 1940. With German troops marching on Paris, Bugatti had the aircraft disassembled and hidden in a barn on his estate outside the capital. There the sleek aircraft remained for the duration of the war, its enormous potential untested.
Alas, it was to remain untested. During the war, Bugatti’s factory in Molsheim was completely destroyed by Allied bombing, while following the liberation of France, the French government, suspicious of Bugatti’s Italian background, seized all his remaining assets. Soon afterward Bugatti suffered a severe mental decline and slipped into delirium, dying in a Paris hospital in 1947 at the age of 66. Meanwhile, Louis de Monge moved to the United States where he died in 1977, having never designed another aircraft. Work on the Model 100 never resumed, and the aircraft lay forgotten in Bugatti’s barn until the 1960s, when the aircraft was discovered and acquired by one Mr. Pazzoli. The aircraft passed through several hands until 1970, when it came into the possession of American auto aficionado Ray Jones. Jones removed the twin 50P engines for use in restoring vintage Bugatti automobiles and sold the airframe to Dr. Peter Williamson. Williamson, along with several other volunteers, painstakingly restored the aircraft before donating it to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. There it remained in storage for nearly 15 years before finally being donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association, which displayed the aircraft in its EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the Bugatti’s projected performance had been exceeded by several aircraft – though not by much. As of this recording, the fastest piston-powered aircraft is in the world is the heavily-modified Grumman Bearcat Rare Bear, which on August 21, 1989 set a world speed record of 528 miles per hour or 850 kilometres per hour. The fastest propeller-driven aircraft of all time, however, was the Soviet Tupolev Tu-114, an airliner based on the iconic Tu-95 Bear nuclear bomber. Powered by four 15,000 horsepower Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines driving twin eight-bladed contra-rotating propellers, the Tu-114 had a maximum speed of 650 miles per hour or 878 kilometres per hour – nearly three quarters of the speed of sound at normal cruising altitude. This is about as fast as a propeller-driven aircraft can fly, for the faster an aircraft flies, the faster the propellers are pushed through the air. At a certain point, the propeller tips start to go supersonic, creating shockwaves that disrupt airflow over the blades and reduce their effectiveness. The higher the speed, the worse the effect, creating an upper speed limit for propeller-powered flight.
Still, there were those who wondered if Bugatti and de Monge’s futuristic design would actually have worked – and, if so, how fast it actually could have flown. Among them was U.S. Air Force pilot Scotty Wilson, who by the time he retired after 25 years of military service had accumulated nearly 11,000 flying hours in aircraft ranging from Piper Cubs to business jets to F-16s. While training to be a fighter pilot in the 1970s, Wilson read an article about the Bugatti Model 100, and a lifelong obsession was born. In the early 2000s, Wilson, freshly-retired and looking for a challenge, decided to take on the monumental task of building an authentic flying replica of the Bugatti and vindicating Louis de Monge – 80 years after the fact. There was only one tiny problem: though certified as an aircraft mechanic, Wilson was, self-admittedly, not much of a handyman:
“When my friends see me with a wrench, they call the police…I’d never built anything. I’d never even built a birdcage. But I didn’t care how long it was going to take or how much it was going to cost because, one way or another, I was going to build this airplane…I knew that I didn’t know enough to finish the project, but all I needed was enough to start.”
In order to realize his dream, Wilson put together a team of experts including Jaap Horst, founder of the Bugatti Aircraft Association, Frederic Gasson, who had previously built a flying remote-controlled model of the aircraft, and even Louis de Monge’s grand-nephew Ladislas. Starting in 2008, over seven years the team spent 10,000 man hours and $400,000 – much of the money being raised through Kickstarter – to painstakingly resurrect the Bugatti. While Wilson insisted that the replica be as faithful to the original as possible, due to issues of safety and practicality several changes be made to the design. For example, instead of replicating the original’s balsa and tulipwood sandwich construction, the team used a modern wood-based composite called DuraKore, bonded and coated in epoxy resin. Magnesium, used by de Monge throughout the original design to save weight, was also eliminated due to its high flammability. And finally, the original’s twin 50P straight-eight engines, which had long since disappeared – were replaced with a pair of Suzuki Hayabusa inline-4 motorcycle engines. Still, de Monge’s design presented the team with plenty of surprises and challenges. With no original blueprints known to exist, decoding the function of certain components and systems was often an exercise in frustration, as Wilson later recalled:
“There have been times when I looked at photos of the original airplane and said to myself, ‘Louis, what were you thinking?’ But whenever I had a question, I did it the way de Monge did, and I’ve always been rewarded, because a couple of months later, I understood his reasoning. This airplane is a perfect engineering solution to the challenge of flying fast.”
Finally, on July 4, 2015, the completed replica, christened Blue Dream, carried out its first taxi tests on a runway in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A month and a half later on August 19, it completed its first successful test flight with Scotty Wilson at the controls. According to Wilson, the aircraft’s handling was “as expected.” As de Monge designed the Bugatti to fly at high speed in a straight line, it was only marginally stable in pitch and yaw and required great care when maneuvering. The aircraft also floated more than expected on landing, causing it to touch down further down the runway than anticipated. But whenWilson applied the wheel brakes to prevent the aircraft running off the end of the runway, one of the brakes failed, causing the aircraft to careen off onto the muddy airfield, tip over onto its nose, and damage its propellers. Thankfully, the damage was quickly repaired and Wilson carried out a second, uneventful test flight on October 20. A third flight was planned for the following summer, after which Wilson planned to retire the aircraft and donate it to an undisclosed museum in the UK. According to Wilson, it was never the team’s intention to test the Bugatti’s maximum speed; rather, the goal of the project was simply to prove that de Monge’s advanced design could indeed fly. But perhaps the team should have called it a day after the successful second flight, for it was the third flight on August 6, 2016 which ended in the death of Scotty Wilson and the complete destruction of the team’s seven-year labour of love. A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board to NTSB investigation failed to find any obvious cause for the crash, ultimately pinning the accident on:
“…the pilot’s failure to maintain airspeed following an engine anomaly during the initial climb after takeoff, which resulted in the airplane exceeding its critical angle of attack and experiencing an aerodynamic stall. Contributing to the accident was an engine anomaly, the reason for which could not be identified during postaccident examination.”
Though the Blue Dream replica never flew anywhere near its maximum speed, only reaching 125 miles per hour or 200 kilometres per hour, wind tunnel testing of models and computer simulation have revealed that despite Bugatti and de Monge’s hopes and claims, the Model 100 would likely only have been able to reach a top speed of around 450 miles per hour or 720 kilometres per hour – a speed exceeded by the German Heinkel He 100 in 1939 while the Bugatti was still under construction. Still, the Bugatti’s many innovative design features – especially its automatic control system – were years ahead of their time – a testament to Bugatti and de Monge’s technical genius and the furious pace of innovation during the Golden Age of Flight.
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What is the Fastest Propeller Plane? Quora, https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-fastest-propeller-plane
Bugatti 100P Project, https://web.archive.org/web/20151208205614/http://bugatti100p.aero/
National Transportation Safety Board – Aircraft Accident/Incident Database, https://web.archive.org/web/20171201040119/http://airsafety.info/wp-content/uploads/xas160815.pdf
Pope, Stephen, Pilot Killed in Crash of Bugatti 100P Replica, Flying Magazine, August 9, 2016, https://www.flyingmag.com/pilot-killed-in-crash-bugatti-100p-replica/
ASN Wikibase Occurrence #189123, Aviation Safety Network, https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/wiki.php?id=189123
Bugatti Flies, But Damaged on Landing, AVWeb, August 19, 2015, https://www.avweb.com/news/bugatti-flies-but-damaged-on-landing/
1938 Bugatti Model 100 Racer, EAA AirVenture Museum, https://www.eaa.org/en/eaa-museum/museum-collection/aircraft-collection-folder/1938-bugatti-model-100-racer
Resurrecting the Bugatti Racer, EAA AirVenture, October 22, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20110808170014/http://www.eaa.org/news/2009/2009-10-23_bugatti.asp
Lerner, Preston, Aviation’s Sexiest Racer, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/Aviations-Sexiest-Racer-180952406/
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