Once in a while, a successful project starts out with a single minded approach to an aim. So it was with the Wedell Williams 44. In the words of its designer, Jimmy Wedell – “I have always wanted something to hang a 450 (hp) P&W on.” He had decided on the engine he wanted to race and everything else was built around it. The history of Wedell Williams 44
is thus also the history of Jimmy Wedell’s
passion for speed.
Drawn in Chalk
The 44 was built from scratch, even though it started off as a development of the Wedell-Williams 22. Wedell realized that he needed a new design and drew one on the hanger floor in chalk! The plane was financed by Williams, a long time collaborator of Jimmy Wedell, and came in at an estimated cost of $10,000. While the design was flyable, it required considerable tweaking and a designer’s eye to iron out its kinks and make it the hot rod it finally became.
The original design was built with the P&W Wasp Junior engine (possibly versions SB and T1B2) providing 450 hp of power at 2300 rpm for takeoff and for flight at low altitude. In this configuration, the airplane weighed about 1500 lbs and the engine alone accounted for half of that. The engine is a very successful, nine cylinder, supercharged, air cooled, rotary design that can even be found flying today in some agricultural and bush planes. Roscoe Turner
, the famous air racer who made his name winning the Bendix Cross Country race in1933 and three times winner of the Thompson Trophy raced in a Wedell Williams 44. Roscoe had a reputation for being a ‘different’ person and one who knew his own mind, so it came as no surprise when he replaced the Wasp Junior with a P&W Hornet engine. The new engine developed almost 200 hp more and weighed an additional 500 lbs.
If you compare the Wedell Williams 44 with other aircraft of the era, you will realize that the cockpit is way behind on the fuselage. Clearly, the pilot is sitting behind the center of gravity. This of course is a clever way to use the pilot’s weight as a counterbalance to the heavy engine in front reducing the need for ballast. Such innovations are an important part of the history of Wedell Williams 44.
The cockpit is faired into the fuselage to cut the drag, but that obviously meant that the visibility – especially on takeoff and landing would have been very low. Much of the flare out and touch down would have been done looking sideways because that large engine cowling would have blotted out everything in front. Add to that, the big faired spats on the wheels meant an absence of shock absorbers. This implied that you needed to fly the aircraft down to the grass with power on to manage a safe landing. It wouldn’t have been an easy aircraft to land, but anything for speed. Another striking feature about all the Wedell 44 is the small vertical fin. The strong slipstream of the propeller and the merged canopy ensured that a small fin was adequate to give directional control. Compare this with the large fins of modern jets and the impact of the engine on the design becomes striking. The history of Wedell Williams 44 thus in some ways leads us to the development of modern airframes as well.
No Slide Rules
The Wedell Williams 44 is unusual in that it was a high performance racer built without slide rules and design sheets. James Wedell
was one of those legendary designers who could measure a curve with his eyes and tell when something did not look just right. One wonders sometimes, what if James Wedell had access to CAD CAM software? Would that have given a better airplane or was the pilot/designer’s eye a better tool? Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch! JetAviator7
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