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R-790 Whirlwind
Wright R-790 (J-5 Whirlwind) at National Museum of the United States Air Force
Type Air-cooled 9-cylinder radial piston engine
National origin United States
Manufacturer Wright Aeronautical Corporation
Škoda Works (Poland)
Avia (Poland)
First run 1923
Major applications Spirit of St. Louis
Fokker Trimotor
Ford Trimotor

The Wright R-790 Whirlwind was a series of nine-cylinder air-cooled radial aircraft engines built by Wright Aeronautical Corporation, all of which had a displacement of about 790 in³ (12.9 L) and around 200 hp (150 kW). These engines were the earliest members of the Wright Whirlwind engine family.


Design and development

Wright J-5 Whirlwind on Display at Smithsonian Aerospace museum in Washington DC, United States

The R-790 Whirlwind began as the Lawrance J-1, a nine-cylinder air-cooled radial developed in 1921 by the Lawrance Aero Engine Company for the U.S. Navy. The Navy was very enthusiastic about air-cooled engines, which it felt were better suited for naval use than liquid-cooled ones.[1] But Lawrance was a small company, and the Navy doubted it could produce enough engines for their needs.[1] Despite urgings from the Navy, the major U.S. aircraft engine makers, Wright and Curtiss, were satisfied with their liquid-cooled engines and showed no interest in building air-cooled ones.[1] Since the Navy was already a major purchaser of Wright engines, it decided to force the issue by suggesting that Wright purchase Lawrance and build the J-1 itself, while informing the company that the Navy would not buy any more of its existing engines or spare parts.[1] In order to keep the Navy's business, Wright was thus compelled to buy Lawrance in 1923, and the Lawrance J-1 became the Wright J-1.[1]

By the time Lawrance merged with Wright, it had already developed the J-2, a more powerful version of the J-1 with slightly enlarged bore and displacement. However, Lawrance decided the J-1 was large enough, and the J-2 never went into production; only two examples were built.[1]

Over the next two years, Wright gradually refined the J-1 engine, introducing the J-3, J-4, J-4A, and J-4B. The changes improved the engine's reliability, cooling, and fuel consumption, but the basic design, dimensions, and performance were unaltered.[1]

The J-4 was the first engine to bear the Whirlwind name; previous engines had no name, only a designation.[1]

The J-5 Whirlwind, introduced in 1925, was a complete redesign of the engine which greatly improved its cooling and breathing, further increasing its reliability and reducing its fuel consumption. Among the more visible changes were a much wider separation between the valves, for better cooling airflow, and completely enclosed pushrods and rocker arms, rather than exposed ones as on the earlier engines.[1]

The U.S. government later designated the J-5 Whirlwind as the R-790, but it did not apply this designation to the older engines.[2]

All these engines had a bore of 4.5 in (11.4 cm), a stroke of 5.5 in (14.0 cm), and a displacement of 788 in³ (12.91 L).

The J-5 was the last of the original nine-cylinder Whirlwinds. In 1928, it was replaced by the seven-cylinder version of the Whirlwind J-6.

Operational history

Many Whirlwind engines were used in U.S. Navy aircraft, mostly in trainers but also in some ship-based observation and fighter aircraft. As the engines were refined and their reputation for reliability grew, their usage expanded to U.S. Army trainers and a wide range of U.S. civil aircraft, including the earliest versions of the Fokker Trimotor and Ford Trimotor airliners.

The reliability of J-5 Whirlwind engines also led aviators to use them for a number of record-setting distance and endurance flights. The most famous of these is Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris on May 20-21, 1927, in the Spirit of St. Louis, powered by a single Whirlwind J-5C. During Lindbergh's flight, the engine ran continuously for 33.5 hours. Lindbergh's achievement greatly boosted the Whirlwind's already good reputation.

Some other historic long-duration flights made in aircraft powered by the J-5 Whirlwind:

  • Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta made a record endurance flight of 51 hours, 11 minutes, 25 seconds in a single-engined Wright-Bellanca WB-2 over New York City in April 1927.
  • Chamberlin and Charles Levine flew non-stop from New York City to Eisleben, Germany, in the same Wright-Bellanca on June 4-6, 1927, in a flight lasting 42.5 hours (3,920 mi).
  • The first flight across the Pacific was made by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith in the Fokker trimotor Southern Cross from Oakland to Brisbane, Australia, with stops in Hawaii and Fiji, from May 31 to June 9, 1928. The leg from Hawaii to Fiji lasted 34.5 hours over 3,100 mi (5,000 km) of open ocean.
  • A record endurance flight of 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 14 seconds was made by U.S. Army fliers in the Fokker C-2A Question Mark over southern California on January 1-7, 1929. Achieved with the help of aerial refueling, this flight only ended when a pushrod failure stopped one of the engines.

Charles L. Lawrance, who developed the original Whirlwind series and became president of Wright, won the 1927 Collier Trophy for his work on air-cooled radial aircraft engines.

The Whirlwind J-5 was also produced under license in Poland by several makers. Among these were Polskie Zakłady Skody, the Polish branch of Škoda Works, which built about 350 to 400 engines from 1929 to 1931, and the Polish firm Avia, which manufactured a further 300 engines from 1935 to 1938. Polish-built J-5s were used in numerous Polish aircraft, mostly in military training, observation, and liaison aircraft.


  • J-1: Lawrance J-1 as built by Wright Aeronautical in 1923.
  • J-3: Wright's first refined version, 1923.
  • J-4: Improved version, 1924. First to be named "Whirlwind".
  • J-4A, J-4B: Further refinements of J-4.
  • J-5 (R-790): Complete redesign with improved reliability and performance, 1925.



U.S. aircraft

Polish aircraft, using Polish-built engines

Engines on display

Some museums which have J-5 Whirlwinds (or the military R-790 equivalents) on display:

Older Whirlwinds on display are harder to find. The National Museum of Naval Aviation has two J-4s, one of which is a cutaway.[7] The New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, has a Lawrance J-1, the Whirlwind's direct predecessor.[10][11]

Specifications (R-790 Whirlwind J-5)

Data from Type certificate data sheet for the Whirlwind J-5[12]; dimensions from "Model Designations of U.S.A.F. Aircraft Engines"[13]

General characteristics

  • Type: 9-cylinder naturally-aspirated air-cooled radial piston engine
  • Bore: 4.5 in (114 mm)
  • Stroke: 5.5 in (140 mm)
  • Displacement: 788 cu in (12.91 L)
  • Length: 34 to 40 in (86 to 102 cm)
  • Diameter: 45 in (114 cm)
  • Dry weight: 520 lb (236 kg)


  • Valvetrain: 2 valves per cylinder, pushrod-actuated
  • Fuel type: 50 octane


See also

Related lists



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Wright J-5 "Whirlwind" (PDF), by Kimble D. McCutcheon, from the Aircraft Engine Historical Society
  2. ^ Naval Aviation Chronology 1920-1929, from the Naval Historical Center. See entries for 1928, February 1 and 28.
  3. ^ Collections Database: Objects: A19791508000,, retrieved 2008-09-06  .
  4. ^ Wright R-790 Radial,, retrieved 2008-09-06  .
  5. ^ National Museum of the USAF,, retrieved 2008-09-06  . The section "Images from Gary Brossett" has a photo of the museum's R-790.
  6. ^ National Museum of the United States Air Force: Images by Tony Ward,, retrieved 2008-09-06  . This page has several photos of the museum's R-790.
  7. ^ a b Image Galleries by Gary and Janet Brossett: National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida,, retrieved 2008-09-06  . This page has photos of a J-5 and two J-4s, one a cutaway.
  8. ^ Image Galleries by Gary and Janet Brossett: Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Museum - Oshkosh, WI,, retrieved 2008-09-06  . This page has a photo of an R-790A.
  9. ^ Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome - Wright Whirlwind J-5,, retrieved 2009-12-13  .
  10. ^ New England Air Museum - Engine Profile: Lawrance J-1,, retrieved 2009-12-13  .
  11. ^ New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut,, retrieved 2009-12-13  . The section "Images from Kimble D. McCutcheon" has photos of the museum's J-1.
  12. ^ Approved Type Certificate No. 13 (ATC 13) data sheet, available from the FAA's Regulatory and Guidance Library.
  13. ^ "Model Designations of U.S.A.F. Aircraft Engines", Section I, p. 11 (TIF image).


External links


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