“Death in the Desert”
January 30, 1945
By: Don R. Jordan
1st Lt. James G. Wright, and his co-pilot 2nd Lt.
Norbert J. Vehr had just lifted their radar equipped B-24L off from
runway 34R at the Victorville Army Airfield to begin a radar
navigational training flight when this accident occurred.
Ironically, Lt. Wright has just returned from the war overseas, where
he survived more than 100 hours of combat flying in B-24s. The
remainder of his crew was: 2nd lieutenants Carl F. Hansen, John R.
Palin, and Herbert A. Perry. Also onboard that day was T/Sgt
Harvey L. Cook who was acting as Flight Engineer.
The aircraft had departed Victorville at 2:10 p.m.
on the afternoon of January 30, 1945, and began a routine straight-out
climb for altitude. Following close behind was a second aircraft
on a similar mission. When the accident aircraft had reached
1,000 feet of altitude, the Hansen, the radar instructor on the flight
deck, called his two students on the intercom. Both students were
in the waist section of the aircraft waiting for instructions from up
front. He told one of them to crank down the radar spinner so
that the training could begin. He told the other student to come
forward to the flight deck and help prepare the radar set for use.
During the war years Consolidated B-24 Liberators were a common sight
in the skies above the hot arid sands of the Mojave Desert. This
sparsely populated region of southern California was well suited for
all phases of aerial training. There were many Army training fields
located throughout the area where generally the only local inhabitants
were Jackrabbits, Rattlesnakes, and Coyotes. Muroc Army Airfield, March
Field, and the Victorville Army Air Field (VAAF) were just a few of
these many training bases. Some of them are still active military
bases to this day. And some of them are now civilian
airports. Still others have long since been abandoned and were
soon forgotten. Their airstrips now reclaimed by the desert.
A variety of training programs were being taught from these
bases. Cross-Country Navigation, High Altitude Bombing,
Instrument Flying, and later in the war, Radar Navigation training were
just a few of the courses being offered. Because of the high air
activity with relatively young inexperienced aircrews there were bound
to be many accidents with fatal results in B-24s, and well as all other
types of aircraft in use at the time. The desert is still
littered with the scattered and burned out remains of hundreds of these
ill-fated aircraft and their unfortunate crews.
The Victorville AAF had recently switched from
bombardier training in twin engine AT-11s, to radar navigational
training in the bigger four engine B-24 type aircraft.
Consequently, ground and flight personnel were still going through a
learning curve at all levels of operations. The official accident
report stated that the learning curve and the general lack of
experience and attention to detail was the primary cause of this
Soon after giving the orders to his students the
Hansen began to smell smoke seemingly coming from the bomb bay section
of the aircraft. He alerted the two pilots of the situation, and
then sent flight engineer Cook to look for the source. As Cook
was leaving the flight deck, Wright began having trouble with the
number two engine on the left wing. The rpm and manifold pressure
gauges began to fluctuate wildly. Soon it became apparent that
the engine was out of control, and needed to be shut down
immediately. A severe vibration had developed that was felt
throughout the entire airframe. Then a loud winning sound seemed to be
coming from the same runaway engine. Shortly thereafter the
engine began to shake violently. Wright retarded the number two
throttle, and attempted to feather the propeller. Neither action
appeared helped the situation. The propeller could not be
feathered, and the engine continued to run in an out of control
At that point Wright sensed that the aircraft was in imminent danger of
exploding. He began to verbally yell out orders telling the crew
to “bail out”. For some reason he neglected to activate the alarm
bells, or to announce his intentions over the aircraft intercom.
The alarm bell can be heard at all stations throughout the
aircraft. When a crewmember hears that bell he knows there is an
immediate life threatening danger, and to get out of the aircraft as
quickly as possible. Crewmembers not on the flight deck at the
time did not hear the order to abandon ship. He also neglected to
shut off the fuel supply to the number two engine, and forgot to pull
the appropriate fire extinguisher handle.
After reaching 2,000 feet above the desert floor the aircraft
momentarily leveled off as both the pilot and the copilot began
assisting each other in putting their parachutes on. At the same time
flight engineer Cook, radar student Palin, and the radar instructor
Hansen all moved to the Bombay area in preparation for bailing
out. Far back in the tail section radar student Perry was
completely unaware of the drama being played out up front. He was
too far back to hear the verbal orders to bail out over the sound of
the engines running at ‘climb power’ settings. Had Wright
triggered the alarm bell, Perry would have been alerted, and may have
had a chance to exit the aircraft before it was too late.
Following orders to “get out”, Hansen was the first to exit the
aircraft through the bomb bay. Palin immediately followed him
out. Once clear of the aircraft both men successfully open their
parachutes, and began the slow descent to the desert below. On their
way down both men noticed that there was a fire burning in the number
two-engine that was already blowing back under the left wing.
They did not notice any smoke, just a large sheet of flame enveloping
the rear of the engine nacelle, and blowing back under the wing nearly
to the tail section. Had Perry in the waist section seen smoke
going past his window, he may have realize the danger and bailed out in
Hansen and Palin both stated that the aircraft appeared to be under
control, and continued to fly straight and level for a short period of
time. Soon it began a slight left turn and began to
descend. They starred in disbelief as the B-24 continued its
spiraling descent until it finally crashed on the open flat desert far
below in a wings level attitude. Neither man observed any other
parachutes in the sky around them. All other men on board had
gone down with the ship.
No explanation could be found to explain why the other four men on
board did not exit the slowly descending aircraft. The ship did
not break up in flight, or appear to be uncontrollable. In fact,
it was discovered that the pilot had lowered ten degrees of flaps
sometime prior to impact. It appeared that he was attempting an
emergency landing on the flat featureless terrain below him. The
aircraft apparently stalled prematurely and fell the last hundred or so
feet. This scenario was suggested because the aircraft only slid
thirty-two feet after it hit the ground, and the fact that it did not
break up after coming to a stop. The violent impact ruptured the
nearly full fuel cells in the left wing. Then the fire in the
still burning number two engine ignited the leaking fuel. The
resulting fire consumed the entire center section of the aircraft from
nose to waist section, and from left main landing gear to the right
main landing gear.
The pilot and copilot were most likely killed or otherwise
incapacitated immediately upon impact, but the student in the waist
section appeared to have survived the crash, but not without suffering
life threatening injuries. The medical examiner estimated that he lived
for not more than ten minutes after the crash. Flight engineer
Cook was found with his parachute strapped on, but still in the bomb
bay section. Why he did not bail out when he had the chance is a
mystery. He was most likely in a standing position when the
violent impact came, and thus was thrown hard against a bulkhead and
During the investigation the number two engine was thoroughly examined
to try and determine the cause of the fire. It was found
that the number six cylinder had been blown lose from the power section
of the engine prior to impact. The nuts on the bolts securing the
cylinder were stripped and pulled straight out, apparently from
excessive pressure within the cylinder. The excessive pressure
was most likely cause from an accumulation of oil in the bottom
cylinders during engine start. This condition is called
‘hydraulic lock’, and is a common problem in radial engines. Left
uncorrected the piston can severely damage or weaken the mounting bolts
when the starter is engaged.
To prevent damage from hydraulic lock, each engine is required to be
pulled through (rotated) by hand several revolutions before engine
start is attempted. It was determined by ground crew witnesses
that the copilot and flight engineer actually started the engines
before the pilot had even gotten on board. No one on the
ground witnessed, or participated in turning the engines over manually
before starting was attempted.
An interesting side note to this story is the fact that this particular
B-24 was nearly new, and still had all of its original equipment.
The aircraft was manufactured on September 6, 1944, and had accumulated
only 254.5 hours on the airframe to date. The engines were the
original engines delivered with the aircraft, and all four had exactly
254.5 hours of running time each when the accident occurred.
In the weeks following this accident the remains of the aircraft were
recovered and returned to the base at Victorville for examination and
disposal. The unfortunate crewmembers that were killed were also
recovered and sent home to their families for burial. The black
scar and charred sand that mark the spot where the B-24 came down, and
where these young airmen had died, was soon reclaimed by nature.
In time the accident was forgotten by all except the luck two who were
lucky enough to get out. The exact location on this tragedy was lost to
Then, in 2004, a small team of aircraft wreck enthusiasts joined this
author in the search for the crash site of 44-49180. The team
members were: Don R. Jordan (author), Pat Macha, Brenden Jordan, Jim
Rowan, Rick Baldridge, Kevin Soto, Tom Gossett, Rob Hill, Larry Rayko,
Craig Fuller, and David Schurhammer. The exact location was not
known, but with the help of research done by Rick Baldridge we were
able to narrow the location down to within one square mile.
As the team spread out on foot to begin the search, Tom Gossett used
his motorcycle to cover vast amounts of desert very quickly. By
mid morning Tom was completely out of sight about one half mile farther
to our north, when he sent out an excited radio call stating that he
had found aircraft debris consistent with that of a B-24 crash
site. With the help of the GPS coordinates Tom provided, we were
all able to converge on his location within a few minutes. After
arriving on scene, it wasn’t long before we found a small fragment or
wreckage with the part number ‘32’ engraved on it. ‘32’ is the
part number designator for a B-24 type aircraft.
Was it the B-24L we were looking for? That question was soon
answered when Dave Schurhammer discovered a lone dog tag with the name
‘Vehr, Norbert J.’ stamped on it. Since Vehr was the co-pilot on
this ill-fated training flight, we now knew we had the crash site we
were looking for. We were standing on the very spot where four
young men’s lives were tragically cut short on January 30, 1945 when
their stricken B-24L fell to the desert floor with its number two
engine in flames.
Exploring the crash site was a somber experience because of the other
personal items recovered by Schurhammer. Items belonging to T/Sgt
Cook were also discovered. Everywhere on the ground was the evidence of
the events that occurred long ago on that cold winter’s day in
1945. All that was left of this once magnificent aircraft was a
few small bit of wreckage consisting of jagged shards of aluminum,
broken pipes and Plexiglas. Scattered about in the sand there were
ingots of aluminum caused by the intense post crash fire. All personal
items recovered by Schurhammer were eventually returned to the
next-of-kin to these young airmen.
A makeshift monument of aircraft debris was erected on the site to
honor the four airmen. All items of aircraft wreckage found
were left in place where they had been resting for more than
fifty-eight years. It is hoped that this site will remain
undisturbed for many more decades to come.
Don R. Jordan