Simanaitis Says

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DESPITE INNOVATIVE DESIGN, plenteous funding, and meticulous fabrication, the 1940 Napier-Heston Racer failed to fulfill its purpose of setting a World Air Speed Record. The onset of World War II was only part of its problem. Here are tidbits on this aircraft, my first knowledge of it coming from R.A. Saville-Sneath’s British Aircraft, Volume One, followed by my usual Internet sleuthing.

British Aircraft, Volume One, by R.A. Saville-Sneath, Penguin Books, 1944.

A Record to be Broken. In December 1938, Napier and Son Ltd, of Napier-Railton fame, and the Heston Aircraft Company Ltd began plans for contesting the World Air Speed Record.

On September 13, 1935, American Howard Hughes had piloted his Hughes H-1 Racer to a record 354.4 mph. On November 1937, German Dr. Hermann Wurster and his Messerschmidt Bf 109 reached 379.6 mph. On April 26, 1939, fellow German Fritz Wendel’s Messerschmidt Me 209 raised the record to 469.2 mph. 

The design goal for the Napier-Heston Racer was 480 mph. Its funding came largely from William Morris, Lord Nuffield, founder of Morris Motors Ltd.

The Napier-Heston Racer. This and the following images from British Aircraft, Volume One.

An Innovative Airframe. According to Wikipedia, the Napier-Heston “was built almost entirely of wood, that served to ensure rapid construction, a ‘superfine’ finish, and streamlined ‘beautiful’ lines.” 

Its wing spars, fabricated by Saunders-Roe, were of “Compregnated wood,” an early composite of multiple laminations bonded with resin under high pressure.  

The aircraft had a reputed 20 coats of hand-rubbed lacquer that also contributed to its aerodynamic efficiency.

The Napier Sabre Powerplant. Saville-Sneath noted, “The Racer was also intended to serve as a flying test bed for the twenty-four cylinder Napier Sabre engine, then in an advanced stage of development.”

According to Wikipedia, “The Napier Sabre was a British H-24-cylinder, liquid-cooled, sleeve valve piston aero engine.… The engine evolved to become one of the most powerful [non-radial] piston aircraft engines in the world, developing from 2200 hp in its earlier versions to 3500 hp in late-model prototypes.”

Above, a Napier Sabre engine at the London Science Museum. Below, its starboard side. Images from Wikipedia, the starboard view by Imnop88a. In later variations, Napier Sabres powered the Hawker Tempest and Typhoon aircraft.

The Napier Sabre’s H Configuration. As described in Wikipedia, “An H engine is a piston engine comprising two separate flat engines (complete with separate crankshafts) stacked vertically and connected to a common output shaft. 

An H engine. Image from Wikipedia.

The Lotus 43 Formula One car was powered by a BRM H-16. Jim Clark piloted one to victory in the 1966 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Other H-16s powered the 1966 BRM P83 Formula One cars.

BRM P83, powered by its H-16. Image by John Chapman (Pyrope) at Wikipedia.

The Napier-Heston’s Cooling. Saville-Sneath noted, “The general design was orthodox except for the cooling system. The large ventral radiator duct, which included a boundary-layer by-pass, had an oval outlet … beneath the elevators.” 

The radiator duct outlet, beneath the right elevator.

A Record-Necessity Elevator Control. Wikipedia notes that “the 3 km airspeed record course had to be flown under 100 ft above sea level.” To aid such precise airmanship, the Napier-Heston had a variable-ratio control stick, with large movements near its neutral position generating only small resulting pitch movements of the aircraft. 

A Brief Operational History. The Napier-Heston’s maiden flight on June 12, 1940, was brief and problem-filled. A bump on the runway pitched the aircraft into the air prematurely. Test pilot Squadron-Leader G.L.G. Richmond found the engine overheating and the elevator control inadequate.

Wikipedia notes, “According to some accounts, Richmond was being scalded by steam from the radiator mounted below the cockpit.” After a flight of only six minutes, the aircraft stalled at approximately 30 ft. above the airfield and impacted heavily, with the landing gear driven through the wings and the tail broken off. “Richmond survived with minor injuries, chiefly burns.” 

 A second prototype was under construction, but the Napier-Heston program was discontinued. Britain had other more pressing concerns. As noted by Saville-Sneath, the Battle of Britain began on August 8, 1940. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

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