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Cottage Grove pilot dies in replica of historic plane.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - Jim Wright realized his dream last summer of building an exact replica of Howard Hughes' first airplane, then set a world airspeed record for the plane's weight class in September.

But in the end, the dream took Wright's life.

His replica of the Hughes H-1 racer - a one-seater called the Hughes 1B - crashed and exploded in a fireball Monday in Yellowstone National Park, eight miles north of Old Faithful geyser, killing the 53-year-old pilot and machine shop owner.

Wright was on his way home from a weeklong experimental airplane show in Oshkosh, Wis., when the plane crashed about 6:30 p.m. MDT, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board's Denver office were combing the area for clues Tuesday, FAA spokeswoman Holly Baker said.

"He was a very conscientious pilot and a helluva guy," said Steve Wolf, a Creswell pilot who was part of the team assembled by Wright to build the replica.

Things were quiet Tuesday at the couple's business, Wright Machine Tools, next to Cottage Grove Airport. The business closed early and employees were asked not to speak with the media. Betty Wright declined to speak about her husband's death.

The plane crashed in an area of Yellowstone known as Midway Geyser Basin, said Marsha Karle, a spokeswoman for the park. It's a somewhat populated area during the summer and park visitors who witnessed the crash made several 911 calls, Karle said.

According to those witness reports, Wright's plane approached the park from the west at treetop level, she said. The trees in that area are about 100 feet tall, Karle said. The plane initially hit the ground on the west side of Firehole River and the plane's engine and a wing fell off into the river, she said.

The rest of the plane hit on the east side of the river, between the river and a road, bursting into flames on impact, Karle said.

"That is very, very sad," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, where Wright had been displaying his plane during Air Venture 2003. The event is the nation's largest annual recreational aviation show, with about 10,000 planes taking part.

Knapinski said he watched Wright taxiing the airplane before takeoff Monday afternoon. `I remember telling myself, `That is one beautiful airplane,' ' he said.

Accidents involving experimental, or "home-built," airplanes occur about as often in proportion to general aviation accidents, according to statistics from the NTSB and the EAA. There were 213 accidents and 80 fatalities involving home-built planes in 2002, according to the NTSB, compared with 1,714 general aviation accidents with 576 fatalities involving commercial and factory-built planes.

In 2000, there were 241 accidents involving home-built planes with 76 fatalities, according to most the recent EAA figures available, while there were 1,838 general-aviation accidents and 594 fatalities. A comparison between the number of registered FAA aircraft and fatalities that year shows .36 percent of the 21,369 home-built aircraft involved in fatal accidents, compared with .28 percent of the 212,753 general-aviation aircraft involved in fatal crashes, according to EAA figures.

"Both the accident rate among experimental aircraft and the fatality rate is very similar to factory-built (aircraft)," Knapinski said.

Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Fla., a friend of Wright's who saw him just before he departed from Oshkosh on Monday, speculated that Wright encountered engine trouble and was trying to land when he crashed. "It's anybody's guess at this point," said Leeward, who has 35 years of flying experience, speaking by telephone from Oshkosh. "He might have thought of parachuting out, but that just wasn't him. He loved that airplane and it would have been difficult for him to leave it."

The plane was difficult to land because its unique design obscured the pilot's vision in the cockpit, Wright said during an interview with The Register-Guard last year.

Wright first flew the plane here on July 9, 2002, thrilling onlookers as he swooped down low above the crowd in the sleek silver-and-blue plane.

He assembled a team of engineers and mechanics in 1998 to build the plane, and team members made several trips to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum, where Hughes' original plane sits. They took hundreds of photographs of the plane's parts and made at least a thousand drawings from those photographs to reproduce the plane, something that had never been done before.

The team put in about 35,000 man-hours on the project, Wright said last year. He wouldn't say at the time what he spent on the project, but hinted that it was more than $1 million.

"It was probably the most magnificent airplane ever made for a replica, as far as workmanship," said Leeward, who visited Wright twice in Cottage Grove after the two struck up a friendship in Oshkosh last year. "His attitude about that project is it had to be an exact copy - every nut and bolt - of that airplane in the Smithsonian."

Leeward, who flew one of his airplanes for the 1995 film, "The Tuskegee Airmen," said he was collaborating with Wright about using his replica plane in a feature film being made about the life of Hughes, the wealthy and reclusive aviator, businessman and movie producer.

Hughes flew his plane 352 mph on Sept. 13, 1935, faster than any plane had ever gone before.

Wright flew his plane at a speed of 304 mph at the National Air Race Championships and Air Show in Reno, Nev., last September, falling short of his goal of topping Hughes' record, but it was still a world record for the H-1 weight class.

Hughes' record was an absolute record before weight classes were recognized.

CAPTION(S):

The Hughes H-1 replica in flight last year with Jim Wright in the cockpit. The plane was a copy of Howard Hughes' record-setting plane, and set its own speed record in September.
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Title Annotation:Jim Wright was returning from an airplane show in Wisconsin when he crashed; Accidents
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 6, 2003
Words:991
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