California Desert trips,interesting places to visit: ghost towns, old mines, lost treasure, personalities and bits of the old west


The desert is sort of my second home. The places described below are special and worth visiting provided you know the story. That's what this blog is all about. Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Stories about a secret airfield and underground factory still circulate among folks living in our Barstow outpost. It had to do with Harper Lake and the elusive Howard Hughes during World War II. The men who worked at the factory, it is told, were sworn to not divulge anything about what was going on there. A secret that some took to their grave.

I heard the story a number of years ago and decided to look into it. Howard Hughes had become an aviation pioneer back in the 30s when a few of his employees began making airplanes as part of the Hughes Tool Company, a firm started by his father. In 1935, he designed and built a twin engine plane in which he set a new landplane airspeed record of 352 miles an hour.
In 1939, the Hughes Aircraft Company undertook the production of a pursuit bomber that was designated the D-2. Hughes hoped to sell it to the government who had started awarding contracts for military aircraft.

The D-2, with its twin engines and duel tail assembly resembled the Lockheed P-38, a fighter reconnaissance aircraft. The major components of the D-2 took form at the Hughes plant located in Culver City.

During the years immediately preceding the war, competition among airframe manufacturers for government contracts became intense. Hughes was among the most competitive and also the most secretive about his want. For that reason, the D-2 would be assembled and tested at a secluded location in the Mojave Desert.

Harper, a remote lakebed located 85 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, was selected for final assembly and flight testing. The airfield featured two runways: one, a 45% bladed surface running to the northeast linked to a second runway strip running due north from the southwest corner of the field. The hanger, a completely enclosed building with state-of-the-art air conditioning, probably occupied a site near the junction of the two runways.

The disassembled parts of the D-2 arrived by truck at night and were quickly stored in the hanger. Most of the workers, sworn to secrecy, lived in housing nearby. Work stations required no outside servicing and vehicle access to the facility remained a simple cattle trail.

The Air Force had received proposals from a number of aircraft factories in California for a reconnaissance plane to replace the P-38. Colonel Elliot Roosevelt, the son the President, Franklin Roosevelt, headed a group of Air Force officers given the task of evaluating the proposals. (ROOSEVELT)

When the officers arrived at the Los Angeles Airport to start inspecting the factories, they were taken by limousine to Warner Bros. film studio where Elliot was introduced to the actress Fey Emerson. The group spent the next three days being wined and dined at parties and nightclubs all courtesy of Howard Hughes.

The D-2 had been turned down by the Air Force a number of months earlier because it lacked adequate airspeed and fell short of other military requirements.

The group of officers spent a day at the Culver City plant, before being flown by Hughes to the secret airfield for inspection of his D-2 prototype. The team, of course, visited other aircraft companies as part of the selection process before returning east.

Test flights of the D-2, took place during the month of May 1943, revealing a number of un-resolvable stability problems. When it became clear that the problems could not be solved, Hughes abruptly abandoned the project. A fire then, under mysterious circumstances, destroyed the hanger along with the plane. The official report stated that lightening was the probable cause of the fire.

Hughes made sure that all evidence of the project disappeared from the site including ashes, charred pieces of wood and metal, foundations, utility lines and other structures – all hauled to a secret burial site somewhere out on the desert.

The question remains: did an underground factory exist here as the Barstow folks claim? Maybe! It’s possible that underground rooms were extended beneath the hanger for some reason. The problem is we don’t know where the hanger was located since all of the evidence was removed. Perhaps archaeologists will uncover the answer at some time in the future.
When Elliot returned to the East Coast, Fey Emerson was there to greet him and continued the party in Manhattan nightclubs again, courtesy of Howard Hughes.

Roosevelt’s positive report to higher authorities cleared all channels and gave Hughes a contract for the development of a reconnaissance plain designated FX-11. It resembled the D-2 with changes that met specific government requirements.

The initial flight test of the FX-11 prototype (with Hughes at the controls) crashed into a residential neighborhood. The press played it up when it was learned that Hughes had failed to follow proper test procedures.

Flight test of the second XF-11 was a success. But, the surrender of Japan had by then brought an end to the Second World War and the cancelation of all government contracts for new aircraft.

In 1947, both Hughes and Roosevelt were brought before a Senate Subcommittee hearing to account for financial irregularities regarding the XF-11 and to answer embarrassing questions about Hollywood parties, girls in hotels, nightclub bills, and race track betting. Roosevelt testified that he had never heard of the XF-11 and that the parties appeared to have happened on days when he was out of the country on active duty.

The press gave them a good roasting which promoted some public outcry but nothing came of it. Roosevelt went on to other things, divorced his third wife and married Fey Emerson.

In July, 1944, the Harper Lake Airfield took on another secret mission as test-grounds for America’s first successful flight of a rocket propelled aircraft. On that date, the Northrop M 324, tethered to a P-38, lifted from the lakebed and soared over the desert. ROCKET

When it reached an altitude of 8,000 feet, test pilot Harry Crosby released the towline and triggered the ignition that fired the rocket motor. The craft stayed in flight for four minutes then successfully descended by parachute and landed back on Harper Lake. CROSBY

A trace of the two runways can still be seen on Google Earth at 35 2.373; 117 20.412 From federal land records, it appears that the airfield is on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and not closed to public access.

Harper Lake is located about 20 miles northwest of Barstow near the town of Hinkley. The landing field is located at the northeast corner of the Abengoa Mojave Solar Plant. To get there, take Harper Lake Road to where it ends at a fence line, turn to the left and go around the plant on desert roads shown on Google Earth to the north end of the field.