High Desert Hangar Stories: Beset by Gremlins: Howard Hughes and the first flight of the XF-11

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

Last issue, we got up to speed on the events of the day leading up to Howard Hughes’ test flight of his XF-11.

I left the story as Howard pushed up the throttles and began his trip down the runway. Already he had events in the lead-up to this flight that should have put up some red flags — but Howard being Howard, he was going to do it his way and that meant playing the flight very loosely, with him making all the calls.

As Hughes rolled down the runway, he wanted to keep the plane on the deck until he had reached a speed of 150, so in case of emergency he had enough energy to make a go around and return. Reaching that speed, the plane jumped into the air and the first of many events that would end up creating the domino effect of failures took place. Much to the displeasure of all those who had advised Howard against doing so, he retracted the landing gear to clean up the plane’s profile. As he throttled back to climb power, he felt the gear come free of the down locks and start its retraction. Everything looked good until that red landing gear warning light failed to go out, indicating a bad retraction. The plane felt good, so he went ahead and recycled the gear a couple of times, but to no avail — that red light said that there was still a problem. Howard’s solution: the drastic move of putting the plane into a dive during the retraction cycle. The gear thunked into the up locks and the light went out. The first Gremlin had been tamed, but only for a bit. Now valuable flight time had been lost and the schedule of other necessary tests and evaluations had been compressed.

For the next 40 minutes, Howard Hughes circled the Culver City field at 5,000 feet. At the 35-minute mark, the film ran out in his flight test photo recorder. From this point, the only record of the flight was Howard’s personal recollections. He was now all alone in remembering the up and coming events, just as things really started to come undone. After putting the plane into some stalls, he revisited the landing gear issue again and recycled it a couple more times, to try to put his concerns to rest. Foreshadowing the mental health demons that would plague him in later years, Hughes became obsessed with concern over the function of the landing gear. The rest of the flight test objectives became secondary to his obsession over the gear. The next Gremlin that showed up would be his inability to follow proper radio procedures, maintaining a nonchalant attitude during his in-flight communications.

(Courtesy photo)

Headquarters Air Materiel Command had assigned a C channel frequency to the Hughes Aircraft Company, for use during the XF-11 flight test program. Howard had never made a radio check on this frequency before this flight. Later, under questioning, he said it was not necessary, as a B channel frequency that was used by most control towers would have been adequate. Howard never realized that everybody monitoring his XF-11 flight was utilizing the assigned C channel.

Thinking that his B channel radio calls were being heard by the field, Hughes made a couple of low passes and stated he wanted the ground observers to confirm that his gear was down and locked — but nobody on the ground knew there was a problem, as there was nothing but radio silence from Howard Hughes on the C channel.

At some point, an A-20 that had been assigned to be airborne during the flight moved in on the XF-11. Howard closed up the formation and radioed to the A-20 pilot that he wanted him to observe his landing gear and verify that it was in a locked position, but the crew, monitoring the test flight on the designated C channel, never heard one word from Howard. Now, as the flight had passed the allotted time scheduled to detect typical first flight problems, added to the critical time wasted by unplanned maneuvers, Howard’s frustration with his radio calls continued to escalate. Exasperated, Hughes picked up his mike and finally made a call on the B channel to “any tower.” The tower at the Los Angeles Municipal Airport made a quick reply and Howard asked them to relay messages between him, the A-20 crew, and the Culver City Hughes Ground control. The flight test was now a lion out of its cage and problems would continue to escalate from this point on for Howard Hughes and the XF-11. Hughes had not realized the extent of critical time lost. He could have had instant contact with his home field, if he had just used the assigned C channel. Now it was too late.

As Hughes was talking to the Los Angeles tower, the XF-11 suddenly felt as if somebody had tied a barn door onto the right wing. Three miles east of his home field and heading north at approximately 5,000 feet, Hughes muscled the plane until it was heading east after a right-hand turn. At this point, he stopped that turn and countered with a 180-degree turn to the left. With each of these maneuvers, the plane was losing critical altitude and time. The Gremlins had taken full control of the aircraft and all Howard could do at this point was attempt to fly the plane all the way to the crash site.

(Courtesy photo)

With little time, Howard was desperately trying to identify the reason his plane was falling from the sky. He took the control wheel with his right hand and, with his left he increased his manifold pressure to 50 inches and ran the props up to 2,800 rpm. No help. He reduced power to about the original settings and then tried full throttle and about 2,200 rpm on the right engine. No help. He reduced power on the right engine. Still no help. Now he was down to 2,500 feet. The thought of bailing out crossed his mind, but he felt at this point, he was too low for that. Perhaps there was still time to find the problem.

He had to hold full left rudder and full left aileron to keep the plane level. This raised the spoilers on the left wing to the full up position and caused further loss of lift. He could control the direction of flight, but not the altitude. Now he was down to 1,000 feet, tail low, power on, but still going down and heading northwesterly above the roof tops and swimming pools of Beverly Hills. His last thought was to recycle the landing gear once again, thinking that a gear door had broken off and was damming the airflow, but when he hit that switch, he realized that was not the problem.

At this point, Howard Hughes knew that his craft was going to crash and looking down at all those roof tops, he could only do a couple things to give himself a chance of survival. He planted his feet high up on the instrument panel and attempted to flare onto the rooftops of the houses directly in front of him, Hollywood stunt pilot-style. Time was up for the XF-11 and Howard, and now only the forces of nature would decide the aftermath.

In the next and last installment of this look back at this fateful day in Howard’s life and that of his pride and joy, the XF-11, we shall relive the remarkable crash scene drama and the investigation that revealed how many Gremlins were on that flight and how, in the hands of an experienced, by-the-book test pilot, those Gremlins would never have materialized.

Until next time, Bob out …

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

See Part III: Part III — Howard Hughes pays his dues: The crash of the XF-11


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