The Crash of the XF-11
7 July 1946
The seeds for the XF-11 actually
began in the 1930’s. Millionaire Howard Hughes, famous aviator, movie
producer, and playboy, had envisioned a super fast aircraft that could be
a long distance recorder breaker. However, when war broke out he
approached the War
Department and pitched his plane as a bomber.
Unfortunately, they didn’t like his use of a resin bonded plywood
construction and rejected his ideas.
Hughes went ahead and secretly developed the plane he called the D-2
in a hangar built on Harpers Dry Lake, near Muroc Dry Lake (near
present-day Edwards Air Force Base). In spite of the tight security,
Army officials were permitted to see the aircraft and were impressed.
However, before the Army could consider the craft for production, the
one-and-only Hughes D-2 was destroyed when lightning struck the D-2
But the Army had seen enough. They asked Hughes for a high-altitude photographic reconnaissance
version built from aluminum. Hughes took much of his D-2 design,
its twin-boom, twin-engines and relatively small central crew nacelle
and began work on a new aircraft, the XF-11.
The Hughes XF-11 was to powered by two powerful Pratt & Whitney Model R-4360-31 radial air-cooled, 28
cylinder engines, and was destined to be one of the fastest aircraft of
its day. In modern terms, it was like an propeller-driven
SR-71. Among it's notable features were the pressurized cockpit
and counter-rotating propeller blades, (as well as a wingspan of over a
hundred feet!). It was also designed to meet or exceed the
same exacting specifications as the Republic XR-12 "Rainbow" in
flight. Originally, the Army contracted for 100 of the airplanes
to be built, but after the end of World War 2, the contract was
cancelled, and Hughes was left with two, very expensive, prototypes.
An Early Run...
taxi test of the XF-11, Hughes complained that he was not getting full power on
the XF-11 and wanted Frank J. Prinz, a service engineer for Hughes, to ride with
him and find the reason why. "The XF-11 is a single place, but I managed to
squeeze in behind him." according to Prinz.
"So, he applied full power and actually lifted off the
field. The field was turf and two miles long. Both of our eyes were on the
instruments and when we looked up the eucalyptus trees at the end of the field
were fast coming up. Hughes slammed on the brakes to no avail, burned them out
and blew the tires. I reached over his left shoulder, flipped up the safety
on the reverse switch and threw them into reverse. The props worked."
The propellers went into reverse and the aircraft stopped
less than 50 feet from the trees. Hughes looked back at Prinz and did not say a
word. "We then limped back to where we started from. Hughes got out and
went into a car without saying a word to anyone. I believe he was really
shook up. Had the props not worked and not gone into reverse, we would both
have been history." Prinz said.
It was later determined that the reason Hughes was not getting full power was
that the blade angle on the low end was not set properly. When that was taken
care of, full power was obtained.
Making the Best...
On July 7th, 1946, the XF-11 (Tail no. 44-70155) was readied for her maiden flight, with
Howard Hughes himself behind the
controls. Although it was planned
to be only a short 20 minute flight, Hughes amended the plan after
take-off to include an aerial tour of the Los Angeles basin to show off
his latest aircraft.
After a series of
test maneuvers, Hughes begun his return to his
factory's airport in Culver City when the right engine propeller control's ran
out of oil due to an undetected leak.
The rear portion of the propeller kicked into a "flat pitch"
ceiling fans and forced one of the sets of blades to cease working,
according to Frank Prinz, who was the service engineer on the propellers. This also caused the
aircraft to yaw terribly from the drag the limp propeller created. He radioed his difficulties backed to
the airport, and stated he was going to land.
Having decided to save his eight-million dollar aircraft, and not
risk endangering those on the ground by bailing out, Hughes attempted to make an
emergency landing at the Los Angeles Country Club. But his luck had run
out, he dove downward short of the golf course, and into a neighborhood in Beverly Hills.
At 7:20 in the evening, Hughes struck three homes in Beverly Hills, destroying
one in a burst of flames. Actor Dennis O'Keefe, living at 802
North Linden Drive (and best known from
his role acting with John Wayne in movie The Fighting Seabees),
called the fire department, and crowds came from miles to see the spectacle.
The wreckage (note the tail section) strewn
throughout the backyard at 808 Whittier
One of the engines, thrown between the homes
at 808 & 810 Whittier
Actor Dennis O'Keefe inspects the damage to the house of Dr. Jules
Zimmerman, whose roof was sliced by the XF-11's wingtips and landing
The resulting crash crushed Hughes' collar bone, broke six
of his ribs, damaged his lungs severely, and suffered third-degree burns on his
hands. Hughes was rushed to a nearby hospital, then transferred to
Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where he required the use of an
'oxygen tent' for several days, while being visited by a "Who's
Who" of Hollywood fame and fortune of the time. Even the
newspapers printed the daily progress of Hughes' recovery, during which
time he directed that the remaining XF-11 prototype be refitted with a
single pair of
Hughes also noted the problems with the hospital bed he resided
in. He suggested and designed with changes to the bed, some of
which now are standard in modern hospital beds everywhere.
However, liberal dosages of
morphine were prescribed to Hughes for the pain he suffered, to which is often credited
as the source of his
lifelong addiction to codeine and other opiates.
Also, Hughes' later-trademark moustache grew as a result to cover up a
scar that he acquired from this accident.
Although an investigation of the accident determined
that the primary cause was a propeller malfunction, it was cited that
if Hughes had followed his original flight plan, the XF-11 would have
been safely back on the ground and the oil leak discovered and repaired,
thus preventing the crash. It was also noted that Hughes had not
followed standard procedures, such as not using the assigned radio
frequency and retracting the landing gear, which is not normally done on
a maiden flight.
Frank Prinz also served on the accident investigation board.
According to him, "Had Hughes had the presence of mind, he would have shut
off the engine and brought back the aircraft safely."
Ultimately, Hughes made the first flight of the second
XF-11 prototype on April 5, 1947. This time the test flight went off without a
hitch. The XR-11 was a remarkably stable aircraft, and at high speeds
lateral control was excellent – but it became somewhat unstable at low
The XF-11 never became the Air Force's high-altitude photographic reconnaissance
aircraft. The program was canceled in favor of utilizing the much more
economical Boeing RB-50s to meet the long-range photo-reconnaissance
However, the remarkably clean, low drag profile of the
XF-11, with its long, straight wing perhaps inspired a similar
design a decade later in the Lockheed U-2.
The Crash Site Today
Off to wreck chase in Beverly... Hills, that is...
The land of movie stars, swimming pools, and
As his impaired craft neared the club and perhaps a safe landing, Hughes
realized by the way his plane was dropping he wasn't going to make it,
but it was too late to do anything else but brace for impact. Just
seconds short of the club (about 300 feet), the XF-11 struck the first of three separate homes along it's
First, it scraped through the roof of the home of Doctor Jules Zimmerman, a noted dentist,
at 803 North Linden
Drive, momentarily bouncing the plane
back into the air.
Next, it hit the house next door at 805 North Linden
Drive of actress Rosemary DeCamp
(best known for her role as James Cagney's mother in Yankee Doodle
Dandy). It sliced through the bedroom where her and her husband, John
Staler, were, and
ripped across the couple's garage rooftop. Fortunately they both
The final stop for Hughes and his XF-11 was the backside of 808 Whittier Drive,
the home of Lt. Colonel Charles A. Myers, the chief interpreter for the
United States during the trials at Nuremberg. The plane's fuel tanks exploded,
turning the house into an raging inferno & leveling the structure,
resulting in over $100,000 in property damage.
Marine Master Technical
The XF-11 was shattered into pieces with flaming debris scattered everywhere from
backyards to the streets, yet somehow Hughes, bloodied, broken, and
burned, was still alive!
Hughes managed to get out of the plane and laid next to it as it was still burning. A Marine
visiting friends across the street from the Myers residence,
Master Technical Sergeant William L. Durkin, an enlisted member of the United
States Marine Corps, risked his own life by
pulling Hughes away from the burning wreckage,
saving Hughes' life. Later, Sergeant Durkin was offered repeated thanks, in
monetary form, by Hughes, but he declined all compensation and publicity
from his act of heroism,
citing that anybody should have, and would have, done the same thing
in that same situation.
The details of the first flight and crash of the
XF-11 were detailed in the Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
The film was nominated for several Academy
Awards, including a nod for Best Picture. The movie went
on to win 5 'Oscars', including Art Direction, Costume Design,
Best Film Editing, and Cinematography.
To see footage of many of the intense effects scenes from the film,
follow this link to www.AviatorFX.com
The crash was also depicted in the 1977 made-for-TV movie, The Amazing Howard
Hughes, starring Tommy Lee Jones as Hughes. In the movie, a P-38 stood
in for the XF-11.
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