Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of the American West
Two USAAF Bell
P-59A's mid-air collision
over the Mojave
What was to have been a routine mission allowing antiaircraft units to practice tracking high speed aircraft flying at low altitude ended in tragedy early on the morning of March 1, 1945. At approximately 9:15 AM Bell P-59A #44-22620 piloted by 2nd Lt. Robert W. Murdock and Bell P-59A #44-22626 flown by 2nd Lt. Howard L. Wilson collided near Grey Butte Army Airfield killing both pilots instantly. They had been flying about 500' above the desert at the time of the accident, too low for the use of parachutes had that even been possible. 2nd Lt. Murdock's P-59 crashed in flames while 2nd Lt. Wilson's P-59 was cut in half and crashed upside down with limited fire damage.
The pilots and their P-59's were assigned to the 29th Fighter Squadron, 412th Fighter Group based at Oxnard Fighter Field in Ventura County. They had flown to Palmdale AAB the previous day in preparation for the anti-aircraft exercises near Grey Butte AAFon the Mojave Desert. The crash of the P-59's was notable as these were jet powered aircraft built in relatively small numbers. An official investigation found that the cause of the accident was error on the part of both pilots. The largest parts of the wrecked P-59's were removed by USAAF crews within days of the accident and the crash sites were forgotten until 2002 when several different groups of wreck hunters began to search for the final resting places of #44-22620 and #44-22626.
Thanks to Rick Baldridge and the accident report data he kindly provided us, Pat J. Macha, and myself were able to locate both P-59A crash sites in summer of 2002. We found a watchband belonging to 2nd Lt. Robert W. Murdock amid the remaining wreckage of #44-22620. After making a detailed photo survey of both P-59A sites we departed amidst swirling dust devils and fierce August heat. We returned to the Murdock crash site several weeks later and once again made only a cursory search of both crash sites. It was not until 2003 that a friend returned by himself to crash sites on the hunch that personal effects belonging to 2nd Lt. Robert W. Murdock were still to be found. The photos included with this story speak for themselves. Exhaustive efforts to return these artifacts are well documented in the attached newspaper articles.
More than sixty years have passed since these planes and their pilots crashed on the vast Mojave Desert, but 2nd Lt. Robert W. Murdock and Howard L. Wilson still live in our memory, and the memories of their families, in part do to stories like this.