Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Portrait of the XF-11

Towards the end of WWII, the Army Air Forces decided that they needed a new high-speed, long-range photo reconnaissance aircraft, and so a competition ensued between Republic’s XF-12 Rainbow and the Hughes XF-11 (Hughes apparently didn’t give a name to his design). As I’ve mentioned before in the post (here) on the XR-12, the competition and the aircraft are covered in detail in Mike Machat’s book World's Fastest Four-Engine Piston-Powered Aircraft: Story of the Republic XR-12 Rainbow.

Because the first of the two XF-11 prototypes crashed – and almost killed Howard – during its maiden flight on July 7, 1946, Machat comments that “Any photograph of the first XF-11 should be considered rare.”
So I was delighted when the Archive had the opportunity to acquire an original Air Force print of the aircraft, taken during an official “portrait” session with the aircraft, when the plane was posed and shot from all angles on the ramp at Hughes Aircraft. The back of the 8x10 glossy is stamped, in blue ink, “Hughes XF-11 3/4 front view on ground. Please credit: Official U.S. Air Force Photo” (which indicates that the print was made after the USAF became a separate service in 1947. The print paper is 8x10, but the actual image is of the aspect ratio shown in the scan here).

The XF-11 was an extremely innovative design, and was one of the fastest aircraft of its day. With a pressurized cabin and a wingspan of over 100 feet, this high-altitude recon ship was equivalent in size and mission (if not range and endurance) to today’s Lockheed U-2 and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. Unfortunately for Hughes, as good as the XF-11 was, the Republic offering was better (it had inflight access to the cameras, and even an on-board darkroom!), and the high-expense of both aircraft doomed them in a post-war era of shrinking budgets and impending jet age.

The crash of the first XF-11 was dramatized in the bio-pic The Aviator, and additional photos of the incident can be seen at this Check Six website. Wikimedia also has a copy of newsreel coverage of the crash. 

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