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Resurrecting the Bugatti Racer

Members aim to replicate, fly acclaimed aircraft

Bugatti plotter
Scotty Wilson (left) and Gregg Carlson use the Profiler to collect data on the Bugatti’s wing.
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Bugatti plotter
A full view of the Bugatti Model 100 Racer.
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Bugatti plotter
The current status of the Bugatti replica fuselage, which its builders intend to have finished by next spring.
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Bugatti plotter
Here is the resulting Bugatti 100P right wing existing airfoil at 85 inches from aircraft centerline, measured by the special digital profiling device developed for the project. Note the flaps appear slightly lowered.
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October 22, 2009 — Two Oklahoma EAA members are breathing new life into one of aviation history’s most beautiful but unproven designs, the Bugatti Model 100 Racer. This sleek machine was built by famed automobile maker Ettore Bugatti and engineer Louis de Monge to compete in an air race before the outbreak of World War II, but it wasn’t finished in time. When the German army marched on Paris in June 1940, the project was abandoned before the airplane ever flew.

But Scotty Wilson, EAA 572551, and Gregg Carlson, EAA 1015379, are on a mission to change that.

The two flew from Tulsa to Oshkosh this week to examine the genuine article – the Bugatti Racer airframe donated to EAA in 1996 that’s on prominent display next to EAA’s Spirit of St. Louis replica in the EAA AirVenture Museum. In particular, they’re trying to identify the NACA equivalent airfoil Bugatti used by using what they call the Profiler, an electronic plotter that rolls along the wing’s surface transferring data to a computer for analysis.

“There is disagreement among enthusiasts regarding the airfoil,” said Wilson, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who now flies a Lancair 360. “The discussion ranges widely – and wildly – from an Eiffel 317 (definitely not, he said) to the equivalent of a NACA 21112.1 with reflexed meanline (Wilson’s choice).”

There is no comprehensive set of drawings covering the entire aircraft. “So the only way to build one is to backwards-engineer it,” Wilson declared. “In fact there is quite a bit of misinformation out there purporting to be factual, and it is not.” De Monge’s 1936 drawings are only partially helpful because they’re represented mostly by poor quality photographs. “It is absolutely essential that we be able to accurately determine what airfoil is on the plane,” Wilson stressed.

Some aviation enthusiasts insist that since the aircraft has never flown, it is not historically significant, but Scotty Wilson vehemently disagrees. “There were five patents issued to Bugatti for the airplane – many of which appeared on other aircraft after the war,” he said, including the dual drive train, the flight control tail that mixes the elevator and the rudder, and the automatic flaps system, which pre-dates the F-16’s by 40 years.

The fact that it has never flown makes the project a unique challenge. The reasons against building it – it never flew, no drawings, etc. – also present a research challenge. It is their intention to honor the original builders by making a true copy. To do that they need to profile the wing to determine the airfoil.

The project began in January this year, but actual construction started in May. Currently the fuselage shell is finished, and Wilson expects to complete the empennage and fuselage over the coming winter.

Regarding the engines, Bugatti designed the airplane to use two of his famous 50B engines modified for aircraft use, turning two metal, ground-adjustable, contra-rotating Ratier propellers. The two original 50Bs still exist, and Wilson and Carlson have seen one of them – in South Carolina. The other is in England.

The replica racer is being built so it could accommodate 50B replica engines, but the likely powerplants will be two late-1990s/early 2000s BMW engines.

No one could tackle a project of this importance and complexity without assistance, and Wilson and Carlson are quick to acknowledge those who have been most helpful.  For example, they credit EAA’s restoration photographs along with those of Michael Firczuk as being crucial to the effort. “We also owe thanks to our European friends, Jaap Horst and Frederic Gasson. They are among the most knowledgeable – and unselfish – people with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work,” Wilson said.

“We owe it to Bugatti and Louis de Monge to build a truthful replica that will allow us to rediscover the innovations in this wonderfully significant airplane,” Wilson said. “It’s a journey of discovery, a handshake across time.”


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