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ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 101512
Last updated: 8 September 2020
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Date:30-JAN-1945
Time:14:20
Type:Silhouette image of generic B24 model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different
Consolidated B-24L Liberator
Owner/operator:38th Wg USAAF
Registration: 44-49180
C/n / msn:
Fatalities:Fatalities: 4 / Occupants: 6
Other fatalities:0
Aircraft damage: Written off (damaged beyond repair)
Location:in the Mojave Desert 10 miles west of Helendale, California -   United States of America
Phase: En route
Nature:Training
Departure airport:Victorville Army Air Base
Destination airport:
Narrative:
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 an accident that occurred on 30 January 1945.

On this date the B-24L 44-49180 of 38th Wing USAAF took off at 1410 hrs from runway 34R at the Victorville Army Airfield to begin a radar navigational training flight. Aboard were 1st Lt James G Wright, an experienced pilot having just returned from the war overseas, where he survived more than 100 hours of combat flying in B-24s, his co-pilot, 2nd Lt Norbert J Vehr, a radar instructor, 2nd Lt Carl F Hansen, two of his students, 2nd Lt John R Palin and 2nd Lt Herbert A. Perry, and a flight engineer, T/Sgt Harvey L Cook. Following close behind was a second aircraft on a similar mission.

When the B-24 reached 1,000 feet of altitude, 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.

Soon after giving the orders to his students 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 overspeed condition.

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 time.

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. It crashed at 1420 hrs in the Mojave Desert 10 miles west of Helendale.

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 instantly killed.

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 6 September 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 history.

Then, in 2004, a small team of aircraft wreck enthusiasts started to search for the crash site of 44-49180. The team members were: Don R. Jordan, 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 was not 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 menís lives were tragically cut short on 30 January 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 winterís 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.

Sources:

[LINK NOT WORKING ANYMORE:http://www.donrjordan.com/helendaleb24.html]
http://www.aircraftwrecks.com/artifacts/b-24l.htm
"Fatal Army Air Forces Aviation Accidents in the United States, 1941-1945. Volume 3, August 1944-December 1945", by Anthony J. Mireles. ISBN 0-7864-2790-6
http://www.aviationarchaeology.com/src/AARmonthly/Jan1945S.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helendale,_California

Location


Revision history:

Date/timeContributorUpdates
26-May-2016 18:25 gerard57 Updated [Total fatalities, Total occupants, Other fatalities, Phase, Departure airport, Source, Narrative]
09-Jan-2018 10:00 Laurent Rizzotti Updated [Time, Operator, Location, Nature, Source, Narrative]
15-Feb-2019 18:48 stehlik49 Updated [Operator]

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