Hughes XF-11 – 6,000 Horsepower Plane that Nearly Killed Howard Hughes

The Hughes XF-11 (redesignated XR-11 in 1948) was a prototype military reconnaissance aircraft designed and flown by Howard Hughes and built by Hughes Aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Although 100 F-11s were ordered in 1943, the program was delayed beyond the end of World War II, rendering the aircraft surplus to USAAF requirements; the production contract was canceled and only two prototypes and a static test mockup were completed. During the first XF-11 flight in 1946, piloted by Hughes, the aircraft crashed in Beverly Hills, California, and was destroyed. The second prototype was flown in 1947 but was used only briefly for testing before being stricken from inventory in 1949. The program was controversial from the beginning, leading the U.S. Senate to investigate the XF-11 and the Hughes H-4 Hercules flying boat in 1946–1947.

The cockpit of the crashed XF-11 illustrates how lucky Hughes was to have survived. Hughes crawled out through the melted Plexiglas and was aided by residents who had witnessed the crash. Note the armored seat. The XF-11 had 350 lb (159 kg) of cockpit armor and self-sealing fuel tanks

Design and development

The F-11 was intended to meet the same USAAF operational objective as the Republic XF-12 Rainbow: a fast, long-range, high-altitude photographic reconnaissance aircraft. A highly modified version of the earlier private-venture Hughes D-2, it resembled the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, but was much larger and heavier. Hughes Aircraft Company founder Howard Hughes had first promoted the D-2 as a “pursuit type airplane”, (i.e. a fighter aircraft), but it lacked both the maneuverability of a fighter and the load-carrying capacity of bomber, and could not accommodate required military equipment; additionally, the USAAF Materiel Command objected to its wooden Duramold construction due to a perceived lack of durability under fire. Hughes was determined to win a military contract but soon realized that the USAAF was highly unlikely to accept the D-2, so he began petitioning USAAF leaders to issue a contract to redesign it for photographic reconnaissance, and spent several million dollars hiring additional staff and opening a new engineering office for the effort.

Hughes campaigned the USAAF in Washington, enlisting his father’s friend, Secretary of Commerce Jesse Holman Jones, who met with President Franklin Roosevelt in June 1942 to discuss the project. Hughes later found out that Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, would visit Hughes Aircraft in August 1943 in the process of surveying several reconnaissance aircraft proposals. When Roosevelt and his team arrived on August 11, Hughes’ public relations agent John Meyer showed them the D-2 prototype, took them on a tour of several Hollywood film studios, and introduced Roosevelt to actress Faye Emerson, whom Roosevelt would later marry. Meyer encouraged Roosevelt and his entourage to stay in a private home at his expense, and when Roosevelt demurred, Meyer paid their hotel bill. After Roosevelt left, Meyer invited him to parties he was hosting in New York City and took him to Manhattan nightclubs, where Meyer paid.

On August 20, Roosevelt submitted a report to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, recommending the Hughes proposal. Arnold ordered 100 F-11s for delivery beginning in 1944, overriding the strenuous objections of Materiel Command, which held that Hughes Aircraft lacked the industrial capacity and track record to deliver on its founder’s promises, and recommended that Arnold should instead approve a reconnaissance version of the Lockheed XP-58. Arnold later regretted the decision, saying that he made it “much against my better judgment and the advice of my staff” after consultations with the White House.

A preliminary $43 million contract issued on 11 October 1943 was contested by Hughes, who sought $3.6 to $3.9 million in compensation for the development of the D-2, and objected to Materiel Command’s requirements for all-metal construction, self-sealing fuel tanks, and various other major design changes that undermined his contention that the F-11 was directly derived from the D-2. The USAAF strongly objected, arguing that the D-2 project was initiated without USAAF input, and that Hughes had continuously withheld information about the aircraft. In another complication, the War Production Board (WPB) wanted Hughes to build a new assembly plant near Hughes Tool Company headquarters in Houston, where labor costs were lower than in southern California. The WPB eventually allowed the company to use its existing Culver City, California, assembly plant and the USAAF made some small design concessions, but Hughes failed to secure full reimbursement and ultimately agreed to most of the design changes, notably including the elimination of Duramold. The protracted negotiations consumed the better part of ten months, and the final contract was awarded on 1 August 1944. Hughes was awarded $1.6 million in reimbursement.

The second XF-11 sometime in 1948 with the revised (red stripe) Air Force insignia. The aircraft has recently taken off and the very large nose gear doors are just closing. Note the underwing pylons

The program was plagued by managerial and logistical delays. By early 1944, Hughes was suffering from mental strain from the demands of managing both the F-11 and Hughes H-4 Hercules projects, and had become withdrawn. Warned that the USAAF was considering canceling the F-11 due to a lack of progress, Hughes hired Charles Perrell, former vice president of production at Consolidated Vultee, to manage the program, promising him full and unconditional control. Perrell found Hughes Aircraft rife with inefficiency and suffering from a “complete lack of experience in the design and construction of airplanes in general.” His efforts to reorganize were hindered by resistance from senior Hughes Aircraft engineers, who were accustomed to a freewheeling work atmosphere, and from Hughes Tool executives who feared that Perrell would usurp their authority over the aircraft company. 21 engineers, including chief engineer Ed West, resigned in a May 1944 dispute over their offices being moved from Brea, California, to the Culver City plant. The prototype’s wings–subcontracted to Fleetwings–were delivered six months behind schedule in April 1945. With the end of the European war in May 1945, the order for 100 F-11s was reduced to just three, a static test model and the two prototypes, and the USAAF de-prioritized the project. The engines were delivered seven months behind schedule in September 1945. By this time, Perrell had been successful in reforming the program, but there was no longer any impetus to deliver 98 production aircraft, and Hughes returned from self-imposed exile and began to interfere despite his earlier promises not to do so. Relations between the two men deteriorated and Hughes had Perrell fired in December.

With the exception of its propellers, the second XF-11 was essentially the same as the first aircraft. The bulges on the nacelles under the wings were the exhaust outlets for the inner turbo-superchargers

The XF-11 emerged as a tricycle landing gear, twin-engine, twin-boom all-metal monoplane with a pressurized central crew nacelle and a much larger wingspan and higher aspect ratio than the P-38 or the D-2. The XF-11 used a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-4360-31 28-cylinder radial engines and was normally flown by a crew of two, but could accommodate a third crewmember in the central nacelle to process film in flight. Each engine drove a pair of contra-rotating four-bladed, variable-pitch propellers, which proved troublesome in testing, having a tendency to suddenly and inexplicably reverse pitch. The first prototype was conditionally accepted by the USAAF on 5 April 1946 although its electrical and hydraulic systems were incomplete. On 24 April, the aircraft was briefly flown at an altitude of 20 ft (6.1 m) over the runway, but the company decided to wait for replacement propellers before initiating formal test flights.

Top Photo: Howard Hughes taxies the first XF-11 out for its first and last flight. The nose of the aircraft accommodated a variety of camera equipment. Note the cowl flaps and the large scoops under the engine nacelles

All Photos: UNLV Libraries

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Old Machine Press