SECRET AIRFIELD AT HARPER LAKE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.