High Desert Hangar Stories: Part III — Howard Hughes pays his dues: The crash of the XF-11

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

When I last left you at the end of part two, Howard Hughes was knee-deep in trouble in a failing aircraft. He had run out of options and was bracing himself for impact in a residential neighborhood in upscale Beverly Hills. The end had come for the XF-11, but this would just be the beginning of many more problems in the life of Howard Hughes. But first — he had to survive this crash.

His last act as a pilot was to flare the plane into the house directly in front of him. He hit it in a climbing attitude, tail down, right wing low. The right landing gear and the engine crashed through the second story wall and roof, the left hitting the peak of the roof, then the right tip of the wing struck the neighboring house. This sequence slewed the aircraft violently to the right.
It hurled sideways through the air, striking a power pole with its left side and breaking the pilot’s canopy.

The remainder of the right wing crashed through the roof of the garage next door. What was left of the XF-11 struck the ground across the alley, then bounced and skidded sideways so that the left wing penetrated the rear of a house at 808 Whitter Drive. The breaking of wings, landing gear and other parts of the airplane as they crashed through yielding structures on the ground dissipated much of the stricken craft’s kinetic energy. The center section finally skidded to a stop between two houses, without directly suffering catastrophic impact with any substantial structures. Flames burst out in an explosive flare, as gasoline from the wreckage ignited.

The cockpit of the XF-11 after the crash. (Courtesy photograph)

Marine Sgt. William Durkin was dozing in his living room just down the street when he heard the plane, at rooftop level, fly over his house. Knowing that the plane was way too low, he ran out to the street in time to see a giant fireball and smoke rolling up into the sky. He ran up the alley, with a friend close on his heels. When he saw the tail section, he knew it was not an airliner, which had been his first thought. Arriving on the scene, it was hotter than hell, as the plane had broken a gas main from which flames shot up about six feet. The house and the XF-11 were engulfed in flames and it was now hard to see, as smoke was now covering the scene.

Durkin circled around the house and was crawling and jumping through shrubbery and hedges, finally making it up onto the wing to see better. Just then, he heard a rumbling and felt that the fuel tanks were getting ready to blow. He made a leap of faith over a hedge and almost ended up in a swimming pool. Powered by adrenalin, he cleared the corner of the pool with a tremendous leap and ran on around the house, where he came upon one of the engines with the two props still attached. When that engine broke from the airframe, it took out a row of poplar trees which created another obstacle between Durkin and the plane’s nose.

Arriving at the nose, he crouched down to see if anybody was moving inside — but his own survival was now his main concern, as his shirt was starting to burn. He started to get up, but the searing heat forced him to drop to his belly. While it seemed impossible that anyone could have survived, he pressed on around what was left of the plane, listening and searching for any signs of life. He started to yell out, “Over here — over here!” when he heard a banging from the cockpit. What he was hearing was Howard Hughes falling onto the wing and then to the ground, after extricating himself from the cockpit. Howard had been trapped in the cockpit by a fallen eucalyptus tree. After freeing himself, he threw himself against the melting Plexiglas canopy and broke through, where he fell to the wing and then to the ground.

Howard Hughes is carried to a waiting ambulance before being taken to Good Samaritan Hospital, following the crash of the XF-11 aircraft into a residential area in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Courtesy photograph

Durkin only heard the noise of Howard falling from the plane. He took a deep breath, put his hands over his nose and mouth, closed his eyes and jumped towards the sound.  By pure luck, he landed right on top of Hughes. With one hand, Durkin yanked him around as if he weighed nothing. Howard’s clothing was on fire and Durkin managed to get all the flames out, but as he did so, he saw that Howard’s hands looked as though they had been dipped into a deep-fat fryer. Durkin continued to drag Howard away from the flaming plane, but finally came to obstacles he could not get around. Durkin feared that the plane was still capable of a pretty big explosion. Looking up, he saw that a crowd had gathered and that a fireman was looking on. He yelled to him to give him a hand. The answer he got was not what he was hopping for: “Wait a minute until I get a hose!” Durkin immediately thought “what an idiot,” as he had a guy with him who was about to burn to death!

At this point he bent down to Howard and said, “I’m going to leave you for a minute.” Hughes never spoke, but his eyes were wide open and Durkin didn’t know if he was conscious or not. Turning to run for help, he noticed the fuel cells were melting and realized time was running out. He grabbed Howard by his clothes, at the neck and by his belt, and attempted to drag him to safety, but he was struggling with the pilot’s dead weight. Suddenly he had a rush of strength and it felt like Howard only weighed about two pounds, but what he didn’t realize was that the fireman had returned, and was now lifting Hughes as well.  Durkin told the fireman to take him by the wrists, and he would take the ankles. When they were well clear, they laid Howard out on the ground and Durkin bent down and asked him how many other people were in the aircraft. “I was by myself,” Howard said. An ambulance rushed him to Good Samaritan Hospital. “I’m Howard Hughes,” he gasped upon arrival — and then he passed out. The crash had happened at 6:42 p.m. on Sunday evening, and Howard was now fighting for his life, with massive injuries.

I had fully intended to wrap this story up with this installment, but it just wouldn’t do it justice to end it here. SO, in the next and (really) final installment, we will look at Howard’s physical recovery, the final verdict on what went wrong, and Howard Hughes’ part in making what should have been a simple check flight of the XF-11 into an absolute nightmare.

Until next time, Bob out …

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