Gilbert Erb – WWII Pilot Who Landed on a Car

By Henry Sakaida

Back in November of this year, my historian friend Justin Taylan blew into Los Angeles to give a TV interview. Since he had some free time, we drove over to a beekeeper’s house in LA to get the story on his dad, Gilbert Erb, a WWII bomber pilot.


Picture in the Salt Lake Telegram documenting Erb’s encounter with Ralph Olsen’s car

Jeff Erb, the pilot’s son, showed Justin and I the family scrapbook, loaded with yellowed newspaper clippings from his dad’s war time career. Jeff told us about his dad’s aerial circus stunt which went awry and pointed to a large clipping. The newspaper photo of a crunched car caught our attention! The article in the Salt Lake Telegram had a huge caption: “Hit-Run Airplane Rams Utah Auto: Aviator Swoops Away After Highway Crash.”

As the story goes, Gilbert Erb was training as a bomber pilot with the 28th Bomb Squadron in Utah back in November 1941. A few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gil and a buddy got together and thought it would be fun if he landed his small trainer on the roof of his friend’s car. These guys simply had too much time on their hands!

Two trainers were up the next morning when Gil spotted what he thought was his friend’s car cruising down the road . “Right on time!” he thought. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Mr. Ralph A. Olsen, well known philanthropist and farmer, was taking his family to California to see relatives. Patricia, their 16 year old daughter, was up in the front seat, talking with her dad and watching the two trainers buzzing a passing train. Then suddenly…


Gilbert Erb in flight gear
Photo via

CRASH! The roof of their car caved in and the back window blew out! It seems that Gil landed a bit too hard on the roof of the car! The occupants got out to look at what happened. They were incredulous! They piled back into the car and were driving down the road when a cop came along and stopped them. “You gotta report this incident to the base commander!” said the officer.

The base commander was extremely angry that one of his pilots was involved in such a dangerous circus-stunt incident and vowed to court martial the perp. The two pilots who had been training that morning stood at attention as the commander interrogated them. However, none of them would fess up!

Mr. Olsen then angered the commander by refusing to press charges! The pilots were dismissed and the Olsens went on their way. This incident became the Olsen’s family folklore and the story was carried in their hometown newspapers.

It took me almost half an hour to solve this mystery! It is amazing what you can do on the Internet these days. Patricia Olsen, then 16, is now a lively 84 year old living in Iowa! Justin phoned her up and asked about the aircraft incident. She was flabbergasted and remembered the event like it happened yesterday! Her brother and mom were in the back seat sleeping when the rear window blew out. Her brother Neil Olsen, then 9 years old, passed away in December 2009 at age 75.

Mrs. Erb congratulates her husband after he is awarded the Purple Heart Photo via

Mrs. Erb congratulates her husband after he is awarded the Purple Heart
Photo via

“The reason why my parents did not press charges was because those two boys were so nice and impressive!” said Patricia May Olsen Yungclas. “The war had just started, and it was no time to punish them when they would have to go off to fight soon. They were just boys being boys!”

The Olsens never knew which of the two pilots did the deed; however, the two men chipped in to help pay for the damage. The Olsens kept in touch with them, but eventually lost contact as the war progressed. They were saddened to learn that one of them was reported killed in action in the South Pacific.

The pilot whom they believed killed was Gilbert Erb, the guilty culprit. During September 1942, he flew a B-17 until reported lost on 12 September 1942 on a bombing mission over Buna. Of the 8 men aboard, four survived including Erb. Three parachuted and the other 5 rode their bomber in, ditching a few hundred feet from shore. Three men drowned in the ditching.

Erb and his comrades dodged several Japanese patrols until they came to a village. At first the natives were friendly. A young boy took Erb into the jungle and warned him that they were in danger. He took him to a rock wall which was splattered with blood. The boy said, “This is what the Japanese do with prisoners! You must leave quickly! Our people like the Japanese!”


B-17E Flying Fortress. The type Flown by Gilbert Erb over New Guinea

When he returned to the village, Erb told his comrades about what he had seen and they prepared to leave. Suddenly, they were surrounded by villagers with spears and machetes. Luckily, Erb had saved his flare gun, but he had no flares! He grabbed their chief and placed the flare gun to his head. With their hostage, they left hurriedly. When they had covered enough distance, Erb pushed the chief down an embankment and ran. They eventually made their way to a friendly village and were eventually rescued.

Gil Erb died at age 83 on New Years Day 2001. He had a distinguished career and earned the Silver Star for the Buna mission.

Mr. Ralph A. Olsen became a grand patron of Iowa State University. Each year, the Cyclones Football Team awards their most valuable player with the Ralph A. Olsen trophy. He died in 1982.

Mrs. Patricia Olsen Yungclas said she was very happy to finally know which one of the pilots had landed atop their car.

For More Information on Gilbert Erb Check out Justin Taylan’s  Website:

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