"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Mystery of the Vanishing Pilots

On August 16, 1942, naval aviators Lieutenant Ernest D. Cody and Ensign Charles E. Adams went out on a routine patrol of the San Francisco coast. Their vehicle was a blimp, the Airship L-8. They had yet to see Japanese submarines in the area, or anything else out of the ordinary, and that day was expected to be no different. Lt. Cody was a notably talented aviator, and both were experienced and able servicemen.

The men flew out of their naval base at 6 AM for the daily tour of the Pacific. Two hours later, Cody radioed the control tower to say they were investigating an oil slick, a common enough sight in the area. Just fifteen minutes later, the tower tried to make contact with the blimp, but got no response. Two search planes were immediately set out to investigate the situation.

At 10:30, a commercial plane reported seeing the blimp near the Golden Gate Bridge. Ten minutes after that, one of the search planes saw the airship briefly rise over the low-hanging fog, only to disappear back into the clouds. At 10:45, observers on the land saw the blimp drift in and hit the beach. Two fishermen tried grabbing the tie lines, but the blimp tugged itself from their grasp and it soared back into the sky. The men later reported that the gondola door was open, and no one was aboard.

The blimp soon hit a cliff overhanging the beach, tearing a small hole in it. The slowly-deflating airship finally sank to earth on a street in Daly City, a residential area just outside San Francisco.

Aside from the rip from its encounter with the cliff, the blimp was in perfect condition. The radio worked. It had plenty of fuel. The parachutes and life raft were packed away in their usual places. The ignition switches were still on, with one engine on full and the other half-way open, suggesting that the men’s exit from the gondola had been very sudden. As the landing space underneath the gondola was dry, it was evident that the L-8 had not hit the sea. Navy maintenance men who examined the airship said that there was no reason why the pilots could not have ridden the blimp to earth and stepped out unhurt. Adding to the puzzle was the fact that the navy airman code directed the crew to stay with the ship when approaching a forced landing.

In short, everything on the blimp was as it should be, except for its pilots.

The inquiry held into the mystery revealed that two fishing boats, a Coast Guard patrol ship, and a Navy ship were all in the vicinity of the oil slick Cody said they would investigate. These witnesses saw the blimp circling the slick at an altitude of about three hundred feet, after which it suddenly shot upwards into the fog. That was the last they saw of the airship.

That was also the last anyone ever saw of the two airmen. Although the bright yellow lifejackets naval rules required they wear during all flights would have made their bodies easily visible to rescuers, days of intensive search on land and sea never discovered the slightest trace of them.

To date, no one has managed to find an even remotely plausible explanation for their sudden disappearance. There were no signs of any enemy submarines in the area. If the men had somehow been careless enough to tumble out of the gondola by accident, the many eyewitnesses in the area would surely have seen them fall into the ocean, while the life jackets would have kept them afloat long enough to be rescued.

It seems absurd to state that during a routine flight close to shore, these two highly capable pilots suddenly dematerialized, but, from all the evidence, it is difficult to know what else to say about the matter.


  1. Fascinating! A great article.

    More information from Mark J. Price, 2002:

    Did a Japanese submarine capture the men? There was no such evidence.

    Did the men get into a fight and accidentally fall out?

    Did one man lose his balance, hang from the gondola and then drag his would-be rescuer with him? No one knew.

    Cody's Akron relatives couldn't understand how such a tragedy had occurred.

    "My son-in-law was a level-headed and unexcitable sort of person," Juanita Haddock told a reporter in 1942. "He would have used his head in any emergency, I believe."

    The L-8 quickly acquired the nickname of "the ghost ship." Tales of the mysterious disappearance were embellished to include
    improbable details about half-eaten sandwiches and still-warm cups of coffee found in the cabin.

    The theories would later grow to include UFO abductions and Bermuda Triangle-like disturbances.

    "There are plenty of stories - wild and otherwise - without having to resort to aliens," said Eric Brothers, a local authority on airships who works at the University of Akron
    Archives. "A conjectured Japanese submarine, a love triangle and other speculative theories have emerged."

    But nothing definitive.

    One year after the incident, Cody and Adams were officially declared dead.

    The L-8 would fly again, though.

    It was repaired shortly after the crash and continued to serve the Navy as a training vessel. When the war ended, it was returned to Goodyear.

    The gondola was stored at Wingfoot Lake for decades until it was finally rebuilt in 1968 for the Goodyear blimp America. The cabin where Cody and Adams met their fate would be used to televise sporting events.

    Despite the new configuration, it couldn't quite shake the old nickname. The "ghost blimp" flew over Texas from 1969 until 1982, when the Houston-based America was retired.

    Today, the former L-8 cabin is back in storage at Wingfoot Lake, waiting for another opportunity to soar into the sky.

    Perhaps someday the ghost blimp will fly again.

    1. Thanks for the additional info. I knew the blimp had been used until 1982, but I had no idea it was still in existence.

      A pity we'll never know the stories it could tell...

  2. It seems that whatever happened to Cody and Adams occurred in the 15 minutes between 10.30 and and 10.45 am, assuming that the gondola door was closed when the blimp was sighted at 10.30 am.

    It is interesting to not that while the radio worked, the control tower were unable to contact Cody and Adams.

  3. The L-8 cabin can be seen at the National Naval Aviation Museum located at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.


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