Howard Hughes tempts fate: The story of the XF-11

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(Courtesy photo)
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by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

July 7 dawned clear over Los Angeles. It started out as just another day in the year 1946, but before the sun set, the city would be all abuzz about a plane crash and a famous name.

Howard Hughes enjoyed lunch that day at the popular Trails Restaurant in Los Angeles. He was entertaining a young Hollywood starlet named Jean Peters, along with war hero Audie Murphy and the brother of James Cagney, Bill Cagney.  Howard, never one to let stress or a tricky challenge interfere with his swagger, casually mentioned in passing that he was going to test fly his one-off project the XF-11 later in the day, just to impress the gathering.

The controversial XF-11 photo reconnaissance plane was his dream entry, on which Hughes had pinned his hopes of becoming a major designer and builder of military airplanes. He was hoping this design would carry him into that world. On this day, despite objections from the military and some of his own business associates, Howard was not going to be denied his chance to fly his project for the first time. The ego of the builder took the place of what should have been an experienced test pilot in the cockpit — one who knew how to handle a test flight when the test profile goes out the window and survival becomes the major concern.

Earlier that Sunday morning, as the flight service people readied the plane for flight later in the day, they all marveled at the twin-tail plane that looked sleek and powerful on its tricycle landing gear. Viewed head on, the closely-cowled radial engines looked bigger around than the slim needle-nosed, pod-like fuselage mounted between them. Twin booms — tapered extensions of the engine nacelles — extended aft, where twin fins and rudders bracketed a horizontal stabilizer and elevator assembly. Huge, counter-rotating double props on each engine were fitted with streamlined, bullet-shaped spinners that concealed the hub mechanisms. By all accounts it was a beautiful plane that looked fast, even sitting on the ground.

(Courtesy photo)

Earlier that morning Howard had arrived at the flight line to discuss the preliminary high-speed ground runs with Gene Blandford, his flight test engineer, and to make a few taxi runs to get a feel for the plane. Satisfied, he returned to the hard stand and requested the plane be final serviced for his test flight that afternoon. In typical fashion, Hughes told the crew to fuel the plane to 1,200 gallons, without first consulting Blandford. This was 600 gallons more than what the engineer thought was desirable, adding nearly 3,600 pounds to the aircraft’s takeoff weight, but Hughes was looking for some extra goof-off time for after the day’s test plan.

As Howard left for his lunch date, little did he know that a series of events were taking place that would ultimately turn that lunch date into his last enjoyable act for a very long time.

One of those oversights was not his fault, as Hamilton Standard propeller representative Frank Prinz was never notified about the Sunday test flight. In Prinz’s absence, no check was ever made of the propellers to see if they were full of oil.  In addition to the weight of the aircraft and lack of propeller inspection, Hughes decided he wanted to do a full gear retraction after takeoff. That was not supposed to happen until the second flight, but Howard wanted to do it his way and overrode everybody’s veto.

A good flight test pilot knows that restrictions are put in place for a reason, in line with the adage that flying, especially test flying, is like managing a cage full of lions. Let one get out of control and the others will act up. Problems multiply. This is why flight test programs always avoid simultaneous or unnecessary operations. Each system, each item that could possibly cause trouble, is checked step by step. Not until those particular “lions” are under control do you bring another one into the cage.

Hughes was old school, seat-of-the-pants aviator with a lot of ego and he was going to do it his way, regardless of the concerns of others.

Sitting in the cockpit, engines running, ready to taxi out, he signaled to the ground crew to pull the chocks. At the east end of the Culver City airfield, as he prepared to turn onto the runway and into the wind, he set the brakes and did his run-ups. At one point, he throttled back and motioned for his flight test engineer Gene Blandford to climb up and join him. Hughes was checking his instruments, controls, and reviewing the hydraulic emergency procedures. As he did, he asked Gene a few questions, but there was mostly silence between the two. Then came a moment that let it be known that there was a concern. Gene simply stated, “Howard, do you want me to go with or are you going alone?” “Well,” said Hughes, and after a long pause he said, “I’ll go alone.”

After 10 minutes of sitting on the runway, Howard advanced the throttles to takeoff power. Observers on the ground clocked the time at 5:20 p.m. What was about to happen over the next hour will be best told in a second installment of this story, when the XF-11 and Howard Hughes find out just how thin that line is between success and failure.

Until next time, Bob out …

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