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XF-11 Was Howard Hughes’ “Might Have Been” Reconnaissance Aircraft

On July 7, 1946, a young Marine on leave, Sgt. William Lloyd Durkin, was relaxing next door to an unoccupied home at 806 Whittier Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif. Suddenly, an ear-shattering crash demolished the house before Durkin’s eyes.

Pieces of an unfamiliar airplane were strewn all over the smoking site. A pilot was struggling in the cockpit. Durkin sprinted to the scene and used sheer physical strength to remove the dazed, severely injured pilot from the wreckage. Although the pilot was a household name in America not everyone recognized his face, especially in that moment of crisis, so it was not until days later that Durkin learned he’d rescued Howard Hughes, who was famous as a racing pilot, movie director, movie producer, and corporate chieftain.

Durkin, who was familiar with aircraft, had thought the plane was a P-38 Lightning. Actually it was the Army Air Forces’ XF-11, developed by Hughes for reconnaissance duty. The crash was caused by a propeller failure.

Hughes had been in the air only briefly but had outrun his chase plane, an A-20K Havoc. When it became clear that he was in trouble, he aimed for the relatively flat golf course at the Los Angeles Country Club, but the right wing hit a pole and the aircraft crashed nose-high into a house in front of Durkin. Hughes later awarded Durkin a lifelong stipend for helping him to survive with nine broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and a collapsed lung. He was hospitalized for weeks.

Howard Hughes In Cockpit of XF-11

Howard Hughes in the cockpit of the XF-11. Trucks and emergency vehicles are seen nearby. Photo courtesy of the UNLV Libraries Digital Collection

It was a bad day for Hughes and for the XF-11, a beautiful and innovative aircraft that had all the potential to be a great success in the armed forces. With its breeding, its capabilities and its potential, the XF-11 might have snagged a lucrative production contract for Hughes. Instead, the XF-11 was a “might have been,” a footnote in history that not everyone remembers today.

Et Tu, D-2?

The XF-11 was an offspring of a giant twin-engined fighter, the Hughes D-2, which Hughes and his company built at Culver City, Calif., but assembled in great secrecy at Harper Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, a location even more remote than the Army Air Forces’ flight test facility at Muroc, Calif. The term D-2 was a company designation. A military version would have been called the XA-37 attack plane.

Hughes developed the D-2 in such secrecy that his company refused permission to even Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of Army Air Forces and the obvious customer for the plane, to visit the Harper Lake facility. In the 1940s, the Pentagon had absolute power over contractors – one company, Ryan Aeronautical Co., was denied contracts throughout the war because of a perceived minor snub – but Hughes seems to have felt that his connections to the White House made him bulletproof. Arnold is reported to have said that, “Hughes is turning against us” by developing an aircraft for military needs but not allowing the government to know much about it.

When Arnold asked Hughes to bring the D-2 to Bolling Field, D. C., to be inspected by the top brass, Hughes refused. The planemaker responded vaguely to a question about whether the aircraft had actually flown. According to author and historian Rene J. Francillon, Hughes piloted the D-2 twice on June 20, 1943, and it eventually logged nine flight hours. The aircraft performed poorly and needed major fixes.

In 1943, Hughes showed the D-2 to Col. Elliott Roosevelt, son of the president, who wanted to adapt the plane for reconnaissance for the expected invasion of the Japanese home islands. This was an evolution for Roosevelt who had started out with an interest in a “convoy fighter” – a huge, twin-engined warplane that would escort long-range heavy bombers to their targets.

The D-2 burned up in a mysterious fire in November 1943. It was part of the same development efforts that produced the Lockheed XP-58 Chain Lightning designed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, but the D-2 was so scrupulously safeguarded that no clear photo of it is known to exist.

XF-11 Crash Site

Howard Hughes after the crash of the XF-11. After miraculously surviving the terrifying impact, Howard managed to free himself from the crumpled cockpit, but collapsed on what was left of the burning wing. In another extreme stroke of luck, a Marine, William Durkin, who happened to be in a nearby house heard the crash and came running. He carried Hughes away from the burning wreckage, saving his life. Photo courtesy of the Howard Hughes Photo Collection

Two months before the fire, Hughes won a contract for two prototypes and 98 production models of what he called the D-5 and the military called the XF-11, the “XF” prefix indicating an experimental reconnaissance aircraft.

By the time the war ended in August 1945 without an invasion of Japan, the XF-11 was overdue and over cost. It was an ambitious design, with two Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radials – the largest engine then in production – and four-bladed, contra-rotating propellers that were 14 feet across.

The order for 98 planes was cancelled at war’s end. A second XF-11, now with standard propellers rather than the contra-rotating props that failed with Hughes aboard, made its first flight on April 5, 1947, this time with Hughes test pilot Peter Forney at the controls. When the Pentagon changed its system for naming airplanes in July 1948, the XF-11 became the XR-11.

Impressive Aircraft

It was an impressive flying machine in many ways. The wingspan was 101 feet 4 inches and gross weight was 58,315 pounds. It has been called the heaviest and fastest twin-engined aircraft in the world. It is tempting to imagine the many uses to which a production version might have been put during the Korean War.

It was not to be. In 1947 and 1948, the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio, subjected the XR-11 to rigorous tests. No fault was ever found in the design of the aircraft. But it was a time of sparse funding and no one knew Korea was coming. The Air Force decided to move on. Without ceremony or fanfare, the XR-11, the last fixed-wing aircraft to bear the Hughes name – a plane that would have made a wonderful museum display – was scrapped.

Years later, the dramatic XF-11 crash and rescue were portrayed in the film “The Aviator” (2004), with Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Hughes.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...