By William Pearce
Wright Aeronautical designed the T-2 engine in 1921 as a possible replacement for the Liberty V-12 engine and with the interest of the United States Navy. Like the Liberty, the Wight T-2 was a liquid-cooled V-12 engine. It also shared the same engine mount locations as the Liberty so that a T-2 could be installed in place of a Liberty. In the summer of 1922, the Navy saw an opportunity to test the 600 hp (447 kW), 1,948 cu in (31.9 L) T-2 engine and also create an air racer to compete in the upcoming Pulitzer Air Race.
Commander Jerome C. Hunsaker, head of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics Design Section, designed the T-2-powered racer known as the Navy-Wright NW-1. Two examples were ordered (A-6543 and A-6544), and Wright built the aircraft at Long Island City, New York in a plant rented from the Chance Vought Company. The aircraft was constructed under a fair degree of secrecy, with few details being leaked to the press. Because of the lack of information, the press dubbed the aircraft the Mystery Racer.
The NW-1 was a sesquiplane with the large upper wing situated about mid-height on the fuselage and the much smaller, lower wing in line with the main gear. The main gear was covered with close fitting fairings with little ground clearance. Two Lamblin radiators for engine cooling were located under the streamlined fuselage and above the main gear. The fuselage had a steel tube frame and was metal-covered in front of the cockpit, the rest of the fuselage was fabric-covered. The upper wing was plywood-covered back to the rear spar. The rest of the wing, including the ailerons, was fabric-covered. The lower wing was entirely plywood-covered. The NW-1 was a large racer with a wingspan of 30 ft 6 in (9.3 m), a length of 24 ft (7.3 m), and a height of 11 ft (3.4 m). The aircraft weighed 2,480 lb (1,125 kg) empty and 3,000 lb (1,361 kg) gross. The Wright T-2 engine turned a 9 ft (2.74 m), two-blade, wooden propeller.
The NW-1 was designed and built in three months. This tight schedule combined with engine delays meant only the first aircraft (A-6543) would be completed in time for the Pulitzer Race. Even so, there was no time to test fly the aircraft. Once the Wright T-2 engine (second production engine made) was installed, the NW-1 was crated and shipped to Selfridge Field, Michigan for the Pulitzer Race. Upon arrival, the NW-1 was prepared for its first flight. On 11 October 1922, three days before the Pulitzer Race, Lt. Lawson H. Sanderson took the NW-1 for its first flight. Sanderson was also the pilot selected to fly the NW-1 in the Pulitzer Race. During the 30 minute flight, the aircraft was clocked at 209 mph (336 km/h). Back on the ground, Sanderson reported that the aircraft had good flying characteristics and that there were no issues.
On the day of the Pulitzer Race, 14 October 1922, the crew had to clear a path on the grass field to make sure no irregularities in the ground would interfere with the NW-1’s very low wheel fairings. Sanderson got the aircraft aloft and entered the course. After 150 km (93 mi) of the 250 km (155 mi) race, the NW-1 was in fifth place and averaging 186 mph (299 km/h). However, the oil temperature had risen to the upper limit of the gauge. The short test flight had not revealed that the aircraft’s oil cooler was insufficient. Sanderson found the gauge disconcerting and temporally “fixed” the issue by covering it with his handkerchief. Of course, this did nothing to alter fate.
A few minutes later, while over Lake St. Clair, Sanderson could smell the burning oil of the overheating engine and saw smoke trailing behind his racer. He pulled off the course and headed for the closest landfall. As he approached Gaulker Point, he saw the shore crowded with spectators. About then, the T-2 engine finally seized, giving Sanderson very few options. He headed for shallow water, and when he made contact with the water’s surface, the NW-1 quickly flipped over. Sanderson was now underwater, in the cockpit, and stuck in mud; he literally had to dig his way out. Remarkably, Sanderson emerged unharmed, but the NW-1 was destroyed.
Back in Long Island City, the second NW-1 (A-6544) was completed on 22 December 1922. This aircraft differed slightly from the earlier version. It had a modified engine cowling to aid cooling, and the wheel fairings were omitted. Because of the modifications, some sources say that the aircraft’s designation was changed to NW-2 at this time, but most others continued to refer to the aircraft as the NW-1. Obviously confident in the aircraft, Sanderson made the first flight, followed by a number of others, at Mitchel Field, New York. He reported that the oil cooling issue had improved but would still be a problem with warmer weather. He recorded a speed of 186 mph (299 km/h) with the engine at only 1,700 rpm.
Sometime after January 1923, A-6544 was taken to Wright’s factory in Paterson, New Jersey. Here, the aircraft underwent a major conversion to a seaplane and unquestionably became NW-2. The plan was to use the NW-2 in the Schneider Trophy Race held at Cowes, Isle of Wight, United Kingdom in September.
Both of the original wings were removed and two full-span wings were installed, converting the aircraft into a proper biplane. Two floats replaced the landing gear, and surface wing radiators replaced the Lamblins. The aircraft’s tail and rudder were enlarged and a ventral extension was added. When the NW-2 emerged in July 1923, it was the most powerful seaplane in the world. The NW-2 had a wingspan of 28 ft (8.5 m), a length of 28 ft 4 in (8.6 m), and a height of 11 ft 7 in (3.5 m). The aircraft weighed 3,565 lb (1,617 kg) empty and 4,447 lb (2,017 kg) gross.
Lt. Adolphus W. Gorton chose to fly the NW-2 for the Schneider Race and was also the only one to fly the aircraft during testing. The NW-2 was shipped to the Naval Aircraft Factory on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for testing. The first flight following the conversion occurred on 23 July 1923. Gorton reported that the aircraft was tail-heavy and created excessive spray while on the water. At the time, the NW-2 had a large, 8 ft 6 in (2.59 m) diameter wooden propeller. Adjustments to the NW-2 were made, including replacing the two-blade propeller with a metal, three-blade, 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m) diameter unit.
Test flights continued, and on 9 August 1923, Gorton was clocked at over 180.8 mph (291 km/h). On 18 August, Gorton, the NW-2, and the rest of the US Schneider team left for England on the SS Leviathan. After talking to the pilots of the Curtiss CR-3 racers also competing in the Schneider Trophy Race, Gorton realized that the NW-2 did not have the speed needed to win. As a result, the team decided to run the Wright T-2 engine at 2,250 rpm.
Gorton took the NW-2 up for a test flight and was clocked at an unofficial 204 mph (328 km/h). Everything had gone well on the flight. On 24 September 1923, Gorton took the NW-2 up again to get more familiar with the Schneider course. After 20 minutes of flight, while at a high-speed and a low-level, the Wright T-2 engine exploded, with parts flying in all directions. The NW-2 crashed into the waters of the Solent, flipped over and tossed Gorton out in the process. Unharmed, Gorton clung to pieces of wreckage until a boat rescued him. Like the NW-1, the NW-2 was completely destroyed after crashing into water. The Curtiss CR-3 racers went on to finish first and second in the Schneider Trophy Race.
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– Schneider Trophy Seaplanes and Flying Boats by Ralph Pegram (2012)
– The Air Racers by Charles A. Mendenhall (1971/1994)