That time a Navy blimp crew mysteriously disappeared

When Navy Blimp L-8 crashed in August 1942, rescue workers and medical personnel were at the scene in minutes.

But what they found there surprised them.

The blimp’s gondola was empty, its two-man crew was missing.

L-8 took off from Treasure Island Navy Base in San Francisco Bay that morning and answered the call of a possible submarine. Two hours later, the blimp, sagging sharply in the middle, was seen floating slowly over beaches south of the city. It snagged briefly on a cliff, broke loose, scraped the roofs of houses, and dropped one of its depth charges on a local golf course before crashing in the 400 block of Bellevue Avenue in Daly City, Calif.

Navy Blimp L-8

The crewless U.S. Navy blimp, L-8 floats aimlessly over Dale City, Calif.

Parachutes were found properly stored in the gondola, but two lifejackets were missing (crew members were required to wear life jackets whenever on patrol). The airship’s life raft was still on board. The radio was found to be working. There was fuel, but the batteries were depleted — a classified file on still in the gondola.

So, what happened?

There were two men aboard when the ship was launched, Lt. Ernest Cody, 27, an Annapolis graduate who won his pilot’s wings the previous December, and Ensign Charles Adams, 38, who was the more experienced of the two with over 2,200 hours aboard lighter-than-air vehicles. The L-8 flight, however, was his first as an officer. He received his commission only the day before.

Navy Blimp L-8

Navy Blimp L-8 at the crash site.

Over the years, it has been suggested the two men staged an elaborate desertion plot or were taken prisoner by a Japanese submarine, or maybe one of the two men had murdered the other and then disappeared. Others have suggested that the two men were killed by a stowaway or abducted by a UFO or that they simply — somehow — fell out of the blimp. There have even been “sightings,” including one by the mother of Lt. Cody, who claimed to have seen her son in Phoenix a year later with his eyes looking “peculiar, as though he were suffering from shock or a mental illness.”

But all these “suggestions” have remained just that — unproven suggestions.

Navy Blimp L-8

The pilots of Navy Blimp L-8.

What is known for sure is that, as L-8 was preparing to launch that morning at 6 a.m., it was discovered to be overweight and a third crewmember, flight mechanic J Riley Hill, was taken off the airship. Cody and Adams remained and the ship launched at 6:03 a.m. on what was scheduled to be a four-hour patrol off the California coast. At 7:42 a.m., L-8 radioed in that it had spotted what may have been an oil slick — and therefore possible evidence of a submarine — near the Farallon Islands and was going in for a closer look.

It was L-8’s last transmission. 

Witnesses on two vessels in the area later reported seeing L-8 circling the area for about an hour, including one pass within about 30 feet of the water. At that time, the witnesses said, they could see the two men in the gondola.

About 9 a.m., L-8 was seen to break off its search and float away in the direction of San Francisco. About the same time, the base became concerned about the extended radio silence and sent search aircraft to look for the blimp and broadcast an alert asking other vessels and aircraft in the area to report any sightings. A commercial airline pilot radioed in about 10:50 a.m. that he had seen the blimp near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and it appeared, he said, to be “under pilot control.”

At 11 a.m., search planes reported seeing L-8 soar up to about 2,000 feet — but still apparently remain under control.

Navy Blimp L-8

The wreckage of the blimp.

Finally, at 11:15 a.m., L-8 was seen hovering near Ocean Beach with a noticeable sag in the middle and its motors off.  Seemingly propelled only by the wind, it then floated ashore and settled in Daly City. Neither Lt. Cody or Ensign Adams — nor their bodies — were ever seen again and no evidence about what happened to them has surfaced. Their disappearance remains today as unsolved as it was 75 years ago.

Lt. Cody and Ensign Adams were officially declared dead a year later.

History has dubbed L-8 “the Ghost Blimp.”