Bizarre Aviation Mystery – 75 Years Later

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Bizarre Aviation Mystery – 75 Years Later
By Dianne Hermann

One of the most bizarre aviation mysteries of all time remains unsolved, and unknown to most people. It happened 75 years ago, five years after Amelia Earhart disappeared.

It’s August 16, 1942. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor eight months ago. America subsequently entered World War II.

Japanese submarines have already sunk several Allied ships off the U.S. west coast. The waters around the San Francisco bay are routinely patrolled by a fleet of 12 LTA craft (Lighter-Than-Air). The LTA Navy blimp L-8, with a 2-man crew aboard, prepares to take off and search for Japanese subs. Pilots Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams have 3,000 hours of LTA experience between the two of them.

The L-8 blimp is 47 feet wide and 250 feet long. It carries two 325-pound Mark 17 depth charge bombs mounted on an external rack and a .30-caliber machine gun with 300 rounds of ammunition.

This sturdy, dependable LTA craft has already flown 1,092 times without incident. L-8 Flight 101 takes off from Treasure Island at 6:03 a.m. on a 4-hour mission to look for Japanese subs. It is scheduled to fly to the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of San Francisco, north to Point Reyes, south to Montara Beach, then back to Treasure Island.

At 7:42 a.m. the crew sends a radio transmission that they are four miles east of the Farallones and are investigating a “suspicious oil slick.” Two Mark IV smoke flares are dropped on the position, which is observed by the crews of at least two nearby boats.

Bubbles and an oil slick are possible signs of a sub. The blimp is seen circling the area and rising above the water. No other radio transmissions are heard and the L-8 fails to respond to radio calls.

At 8:50 a.m., more than an hour since the last radio transmission, two Vought Kingfisher floatplanes are sent to search for the blimp, while other aircraft in the area are alerted to be on the lookout.

Two hours later, at 10:49 a.m., a Pan Am pilot reports seeing the L-8 blimp over the Golden Gate Bridge, heading inland.

During the next half hour, the blimp is spotted by an Army P-38 pilot and a number of individuals on the beaches around the bay and at a nearby golf course. The partially deflated blimp scrapes along the beach, dislodging one of the depth charges. The 325 pound loss of ballast causes the blimp to rise again.

By this time, hundreds of people are watching the sagging blimp float lazily overhead toward Daly City. A group of local fire fighters begin following the blimp as it passes over the town.

At 11:30 a.m., 6 ½ hours after takeoff, the L-8 blimp gently lands in the middle of Bellevue Street. It breaks off one telephone pole and slightly damages one car.

The blimp finally came to rest atop Richard Johnston’s freshly waxed car in Daly City, Calif. just South of San Francisco. (National Archives)

A volunteer fireman who lives on the street is one of the first on the scene. He looks in the door of the gondola and makes a surprising discovery.

It’s empty.

L-8 pilots Cody and Adams are nowhere to be seen. The group of local fire fighters arrive on the scene and slash open the helium-filled envelope looking for the pilots. They are not in or near the blimp, although many individuals who saw it flying reported seeing both pilots in the gondola at various points during the flight.
Nearly 100 men from two nearby posts are sent out to find the missing depth charge. They locate it at 3 p.m. at the bottom of a hill near where the blimp initially touched down. The pilots are not found there either.

For the next three days, patrolmen and air raid wardens search on land while Navy and Coast Guard ships and planes conduct an extensive search of the ocean in calm waters with light winds and good visibility, with no results.

An investigation is started and here’s what is known. The derelict L-8’s engines were still running and the radio was in perfect working order when it landed. There were four hours of fuel left in the tanks. Two life vests were missing, however, each pilot was wearing one at launch time. The life raft was still intact. The locked briefcase with top-secret codes was still in the cabin. The gondola’s cabin door was latched open. The loud speaker’s microphone was dangling outside the door.

During the 7-day Navy inquiry, 35 military and civilian eye witnesses were called to testify. Several people reported seeing both pilots in the gondola, including a young man with a pair of binoculars. No cause of the accident is found. The inquiry determined that there was “no fire, no submersion, no misconduct, and no missiles struck the L-8.”

Here’s what is not known. How did two experienced pilots simply disappear during the flight? Why did they stop broadcasting on the radio after reporting the suspicious oil slick? Why was the gondola door open? If one pilot fell out of the gondola while looking at the oil slick, why didn’t the other call for help? Did they make contact with a Japanese sub? Was the military conducting secret experiments in the area?

The Navy’s board of inquiry finally concluded, “Careful analysis of the evidence indicates no reason for voluntary abandonment of the airship … the board therefore believes that abandonment was involuntary.”

One year after the pilots disappeared, Cody and Adams were legally declared dead. There are many theories as to what happened to the pilots, including conspiracy theories, but none of them can be proven or substantiated with existing evidence.

The L-8 blimp was made by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. After the end of WWII, the blimp was returned to Goodyear, which refurbished the cabin and renamed the LTA craft “America.” From 1969 to 1982, the Goodyear blimp “America” traveled all around the country televising major sporting events.

In 2003, Goodyear donated the gondola to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. It was fully restored, including its original 1942 markings, and is now on display in the museum.

And 75 years later, the fate of the missing crew of the L-8 “Ghost Blimp” is still as big a mystery as the missing crew of the British ship Mary Celeste.

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