Hughes XF-11: The Aircraft That Almost Took Out Its Creator

Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

The Hughes XF-11 was a prototype reconnaissance aircraft intended to be operated by the US Army Air Forces (USAAF). It was partially designed by Howard Hughes, and his company built just two units. In 1943, the USAAF ordered 100, but the program was delayed until the end of the Second World War.

The first XF-11 took to the skies in 1946, with Hughes himself in the cockpit. This flight ended in a fiery crash, which Hughes somehow managed to survive. He later completed another test in the second prototype. The program was ultimately canceled, something that didn’t come as a surprise, since the Hughes Aircraft Company had been under investigation by the US Senate.

Development of the Hughes XF-11

Howard Hughes sitting in the cockpit of a Hughes XF-11
Howard Hughes in the cockpit of a Hughes XF-11 prototype, 1947. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Getty Images)

The XF-11 was designed to be a fast, long-range, high-altitude photographic reconnaissance aircraft. It was based on Howard Hughes’ previous private venture, the D-2 fighter-bomber. The latter was ultimately deemed unsuitable for service with the USAAF, as it couldn’t carry the required equipment and failed to tick the boxes of both a fighter aircraft and an aerial bomber.

Hughes, wanting a military contract, told the USAAF that the D-2 could be turned into a reconnaissance aircraft. To help get the service on his side, he spent millions acquiring engineers and staff who could help make this a reality. He also talked to Secretary of Commerce Jesse Holman Jones, a friend of his father’s, who discussed the project with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1943, Col. Elliott Roosevelt visited a number of manufacturers regarding their designs for reconnaissance aircraft, one of which was Hughes Aircraft Company. On August 11, he arrived at the company’s facility and was shown the D-2 prototype. John Meyer, Hughes’ public relations agent, went out of his way to give Roosevelt a good time, including taking him out to parties in New York City and nights out at Manhattan’s best clubs, all paid for by Meyer.

When Roosevelt reported to Gen. Henry Arnold, the chief of the USAAF, he recommended Hughes’ proposal. An order for 100 units was placed, with the first to be delivered by 1944. This was in direct disagreement of the USAAF Materiel Command, which believed the Hughes Aircraft Company didn’t have a trustworthy track record.

This decision was something Arnold would later come to regret, saying he made it “much against my better judgment and the advice of my staff.”

Howard Hughes fought many of the US Army Air Forces’ requirements

Hughes XF-11 preparing for takeoff
Hughes XF-11. (Photo Credit: METOPower / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

From the very beginning, the XF-11 was plagued with issues. The first had more to do with Hughes’ ego, rather than the aircraft itself. A $43 million contract was given, to which Hughes objected, believing he should have been given an additional $3.6 or $3.9 million for developing the D-2. He also objected to the USAAF’s requirements, such as an all-metal design and self-sealing fuel tanks.

Hughes also fought against the War Production Board, which wanted him to build a new assembly plant near the Hughes Tool Company in Houston, Texas, instead of in southern California. Despite all of his objections, Hughes was only reimbursed $1.6 million. He agreed to the design changes and was able to build the aircraft at his assembly plant in Culver City, California.

This whole period, filled with petty squabbles, lasted 10 months, with a final contract being given on August 1, 1944. The process of building the XF-11 fell behind schedule very quickly, and the USAAF threatened to cancel the project. In an attempt to fix these problems, Hughes brought on Charles Perrell, the former vice president of production with Consolidated Vultee.

Perrell found Hughes in a sorry state of affairs. He recalled seeing a “complete lack of experience in the design and construction of airplanes in general.” He worked exceedingly hard to make Hughes Aircraft Company into a proper, more effective manufacturing machine. However, there were a number of setbacks, including the resignation of 21 engineers in May 1944.

In May 1945, the USAAF changed the order from 100 to three prototypes, since fighting in the European Theater had come to a close. The project was no longer a priority, despite Perrell fixing many of the company’s problems. At this time, Hughes returned and began to meddle, leading to his firing of Perrell that December.

Hughes XF-11 specs

Hughes XF-11 in flight
Hughes XF-11. (Photo Credit: METOPower / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The overall design of the XF-11 resembled that of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It had the configuration of a central nacelle that accommodated a crew of two, including a pilot and navigator/photographer, and twin booms. This was similar to other aircraft, such as the aforementioned P-38 and the Northrop P-61 Black Widow.

The XF-11 was 65 feet, five inches long, with a wingspan of 101 feet, four inches. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-4360-31 Wasp Major 28-cylinder, air-cooled radial piston engines, each boasting a Hamilton-Standard eight-blade, counter-rotation, superhydromatic propeller. With these, the XF-11 could reach a maximum speed of 450 MPH, with a 5,000-mile range.

As only two prototypes were built, and the aircraft was intended to serve in a purely photo reconnaissance role, the XF-11 wasn’t equipped with any weaponry.

Testing the Hughes XF-11

Fire crews putting out a fire among the debris of a Hughes XF-11
Wreck of the first Hughes XF-11 prototype, 1946. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

On April 24, 1946, the first XF-11 prototype took to the skies for a brief flight at 20 feet. On July 7, Hughes himself took control of the aircraft for its first official test flight, resulting in the XF-11 crashing.

The USAAF had deemed that a 45-minute test flight would be appropriate and require 600 gallons of fuel. Hughes ordered that 1,200 gallons be loaded, suggesting he planned to embark on a much longer flight. Upon taking off, he immediately violated protocol by retracting the landing gear. He seemed to have been confused about whether or not the gear had actually retracted, as he lowered and raised it multiple times.

After flying over Culver City for an hour and 15 minutes, a leak caused a malfunction, reversing the rear propellor’s pitch and making the XF-11 yaw hard to the right and down toward the ground. Instead of returning to the runway, Hughes decided to fix the problem himself. He, again, raised and lowered the landing gear and reduced power to the left engine while maintaining full power to the right.

Realizing he was too low to bail out, Hughes prepared to crash-land at the Los Angeles Country Club. However, about 300 yards from the golf course, the aircraft lost altitude and clipped three houses in Beverly Hills. The XF-11 and the third house were both destroyed, and Hughes was almost killed.

The USAAF concluded, “It appeared that loss of hydraulic fluid caused failure of the pitch change mechanism of right rear propeller. Mr. Hughes maintained full power of right engine and reduced that of left engine instead of trying to fly with right propeller windmilling without power. It was Wright Field’s understanding that the crash was attributed to pilot error.”

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On April 5, 1947, Hughes flew the second prototype. This flight, unlike the first, was uneventful. However, it did show the issues the XF-11 had when flying at low speeds. In July 1948, the newly-created US Air Force redesignated the XF-11 the “XR-11,” and it was decided shortly after that the program would be canceled.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.