The final reckoning: Howard Hughes and the XF-11

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Howard Hughes in his hospital bed following the crash of the XF-11. After the crash in 1946, Hughes decided he did not like the design of the hospital bed he was laying in. He called in his engineers and had them design a new bed that would allow someone with severe burns to move freely. It became the prototype for the modern hospital bed. (Courtesy photograph)
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by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

When we left off our last installment of Howard Hughes and the crash of the XF-11, Hughes had just arrived at the Beverly Hills Emergency Hospital and was fighting for his life. His will to live was battling against a severely broken body.

In the early morning hours of July 8, Hughes suffered severe internal bleeding into the pleural space around his left lung, which was not functioning due to contusions suffered from severe crushing of the chest. Doctors Vern Mason and Lawrence Chaffin, along with an army of nurses and technicians, struggled to keep the famed aviator from slipping away. Hughes’ blood pressure fell rapidly and he went into deep shock. Acting swiftly, his medical team gave him two blood transfusions, while administering a constant flow of pure oxygen and draining 3,400 cc (about one and three-quarter gallons) of bloody fluid from the pleural space, in three separate tappings.

Gradually, as the hours passed, Howard’s blood pressure rose and he began to come out of shock. Now the excruciating pain began, and they began to give him injections of morphine. It was the start of a 30-year drug habit that would eventually kill him, according to those who researched Howard’s death years later.

After Hughes had stabilized, he was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he spent 35 days accompanied by his close friend, Glenn Obekirk. Obekirk stayed in an adjacent room with the door open between them the entire time and was the only person to see Hughes, besides the doctors and nurses.

The crash investigation began on July 11 and the first thing that was noted was that the right rear propeller was in a 14-degree reverse pitch. A statement released by Hughes was sent to the Army, Air Force and the press. “The front four blades of the propeller were trying to pull the plane forward, while the four rear propeller (blades) were trying just as hard to push it backwards and to make matters worse, these eight large propeller blades whirling around fighting one another created a dead drag on the right side of the plane, destroying the flow of air over the right wing and created a tremendous loss of lift.”

During the investigation, the Propeller Laboratory at Wright Field in Ohio concluded that all available evidence indicated that the pitch change mechanism on the right rear propeller component failed due to fluid loss. Loss of just 40 ounces of fluid would permit the blades in that component to go into reverse pitch, rendering the propeller controls ineffective.

It all seems pretty simple to explain away the entire event as a design issue — but the reality is, the crash was pretty much on Howard. We discussed in Parts 1 and 2 the metaphor of “taming the lions in a cage” when it comes to flight test. Howard Hughes let his “want list” far exceed a prudent flight test profile, and it nearly cost him his life.

The oversight of so many opportunities for a safe flight fell victim to a callous attitude about that one reservoir of oil and the failure to inspect and service the propeller mechanism pre-flight (see Part 1.) During taxi tests, Howard had a safety feature turned off when he damaged a tire on a hot day, and wanted reverse on the blades to assist with the braking system. During this time, a leak of four ounces per hour was being lost on taxi tests and on the test stands. Neither Hughes nor his crew checked the hubs for fluid level before takeoff on that fateful day.

Howard Hughes (Courtesy photograph)

So the overall report had a long list of failure of personnel, with Howard being the guiltiest at failing to operate a safe test profile. To sum it up, the Investigating Board assigned primary blame to the propeller malfunction, but faulted Hughes for the way he operated the plane and conducted the flight. He was criticized for not using the special radio frequency and facilities provided to him; for not being sufficiently acquainted with emergency operating procedures for the propeller; for retracting the landing gear; for not giving proper attention to the possibility of an emergency landing and ensuring that sufficient altitude and directional control were available, and for failing to analyze and evaluate the problem by reducing power simultaneously on both engines in order to distinguish between structural and/or power failure. The board was of the opinion that the accident was avoidable after propeller trouble was experienced.

Howard Hughes was pretty much an undisciplined pilot — previous crashes, and even his brief flight in the Spruce Goose, point to that conclusion. It was not his habit to use check lists; to file flight plans; to brief his crew and passengers, or to make communication checks. All agree that he was a superb pilot when it came to actual operation of aircraft and that he was very good at providing a test pilot’s gut reaction to how a new plane felt and handled. But according to his own flight test engineer Gene Blandford, Howard Hughes was too much of an individualist, and too undisciplined, to provide the kind of hard data needed for quantitative testing.

Howard made a physical recovery that was pretty remarkable, for after two months he was back in the cockpit and flying around the country. After some lawsuits, he prevailed in court, deflected the bad press regarding the crash onto Hamilton Standard (the manufacturer of the propellers), and got the personal intercession of Gen. Carl Spaatz, commanding general of the Air Force, to restore him into good graces with the military. On April 5, 1947, the second XF-11 took to the air with Howard back at the controls, but it would be bittersweet, as the jet age was making the plane’s design a thing of the past and the XF-11 became just another footnote in aviation history.

One last part of this story that will entertain you is the fact that today, pretty much every one of us knows someone who has benefited from Howard Hughes’ fateful flight on that day. When the aviator’s broken and severely burned body went through an extended recovery process, he was inspired to design a better hospital bed to help relieve the discomfort of prolonged bed rest. Today, that same basic design that he engineered while confined to Good Samaritan Hospital is still being used today, in hospitals all across America.

Well, there you go, and I hope you all enjoyed this four-part look at Howard Hughes and his XF-11, and a test flight that was one for the books!

So until next time, it’s Bob out …

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