Howard Hughes plane crash archive lands in NY sale

NEW YORK—On Sep. 17, Swann Galleries will kick off their fall season with an auction devoted to Printed & Manuscript Americana. Among the most compelling items in the sale is an archive of material regarding Howard Hughes’ near-fatal plane crash in July 1946.

The eccentric aviator and film director lay bloodied and burned after he crashed his XF-11 plane in a Beverly Hills neighborhood.

Master Technical Sergeant William L. Durkin of the U.S. Marine Corps, who had been visiting in a nearby home, rushed to the scene and risked his own life to pull Hughes out of the wreckage—a scene made famous in the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now, for the first time ever, the personal mementos, photos and even a portion of the plane’s control yoke will be offered at auction. The entire Howard Hughes lot is estimated to sell for $40,000 to $60,000.

The lot includes:

• The control yoke—basically the steering wheel from the XF-11

• Durkin’s typed “Account of the Crash of XF-11 July 7, 1946 in Beverly Hills,” apparently prepared as his official statement to the authorities, and full of great, unpublished detail. After giving up on finding survivors and concerned about his own safety, Durkin wrote: “I heard a sound inside the cockpit like someone knocking or pounding. The very next moment I saw a hand move through the fire and smoke not more than four feet in front of me. At the same time I heard a scream of agony, and I knew a man was burning to death.”

• A pass to The Players (the famed West Hollywood nightclub) signed by director Preston Sturges, Hughes’s business partner.

• A letter from Sturges to Durkin’s commanding officer, commending his bravery.

• A letter from Hughes to Durkin, on Hughes Aircraft Company letterhead, expressing his gratitude, and offering both employment assistance and cash as an expression of his gratitude.

• A letter from the Hughes Aircraft Accounting Department, enclosing the first of a series of monthly checks to Durkin for “services rendered.”

• Photographs of the plane and the crash site.

The auction will take place Sep. 17 at 1:30 p.m. The items will be on public exhibition Sep. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sep. 14-16 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sep. 17 from 10 a.m. to noon.

An illustrated catalog, with information on bidding by mail or fax, is available for $35 from Swann Galleries, Inc., 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010, or online at

For further information, and to make advance arrangements to bid by telephone during the auction, please contact Rick Stattler by telephone at 212-254-4710, extension 27, or e-mail

Photo courtesy Swann Galleries.