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The Mysterious Vanished Crew of the Ghost Blimp

Some strange vanishings seem destined to forever taunt us from beyond their veil of mystery. These are the cases that leave scant clues, very little trace of evidence, yet copious amounts of unanswered questions and bafflement. One such case revolves around the brave crew of a military blimp, who went out to sea to protect their country only for their aircraft to return to shore without them or even any sign of what could have possibly become of them. It is a eerily puzzling vanishing that has evaded answers for decades and will probably continue to do so.

The year was 1942, and the seas were considered to be a dangerous place to be, prowled by enemy Japanese submarines that stalked through the cold depths of the Pacific and had sunk dozens of Allied ships along the west coast, as well as even shelling a California oil facility. One of the common ways to hunt for these evasive steel predators at the time was the use of blimps, which did patrols over the sea and escorted freighter convoys on the lookout for trouble. In the San Francisco Bay area of California, a whole fleet of blimps was dedicated to this purpose, which was directed from Moffett Field, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. These patrols often took off and landed at an airfield located on Treasure Island, situated within the San Francisco Bay, from which they fanned out to seek and destroy enemy subs with their weaponry, such as onboard depth charges and .30-caliber machine guns.

A US Navy blimp escorting a convoy in 1943

A US Navy blimp escorting a convoy in 1943

On August 16, 1942, one such routine patrol took off from Treasure Island in the early morning hours. The blimp was the Airship L-8, also called the Love-8, with a scheduled three man crew consisting of Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody, Ensign Charles Ellis Adams, and flight mechanic J Riley Hill, all experienced Navy veterans, but the flight was delayed when they were told the blimp was too heavy. When it finally departed at 6:03AM, it did so minus the flight engineer, yet the mission was still considered to be on track and there were no reported problems as the L-8 soared out over the horizon headed toward the Farallon Islands, around 30 miles west off the coast of San Francisco. The patrol was scheduled to last 4 hours, after which the L-8 would return to Treasure Island at around 10:30AM, and with fairly clear weather, good visibility, and everything appearing routine in every way, it was fully expected that the mission would be right on schedule. A little over an hour later, at 7:42AM, the L-8 gave a radio transmission stating that they had observed a suspicious oil slick approximately 5 miles east of the Farallons and were going to investigate for possible enemy activity. The transmission ended with the word “Standby..” It would be the last radio transmission the L-8 would ever make. Indeed, it would be the last anyone would ever hear from any aboard, period.

At the location of the L-8 was the fishing ship the Daisy Grey, and a Liberty ship, the Albert Gallatin, both of which observed the blimp drop flares in the area and proceed to circle the vicinity, obviously attempting to detect a possible sub in the area. Crew aboard the Albery Gellatin sounded the alarm and manned their positions just in case, and the crew of the fishing vessel cowered in fear of the blimp dropping bombs. No bombs came, and the blimp continued to circle the area for full hour as the ships’ crews observed them through binoculars. During this time, the blimp made one very low pass about 30 feet over the waves, as if to get a better look at something it had seen, and at this point the crew could clearly be seen within the cockpit. Then, at 9AM the L-8 finished whatever it had been doing and headed off north back towards San Francisco, which was a bit odd as it had been scheduled to continue to the Farrallon Islands. No explanation as to this sudden change of plans was given over the radio from the crew.

The L-8 blimp

The L-8 blimp

Throughout this whole time efforts were being made to try to make radio contact with the L-8 in order to know their status, but were unable to get any response from the blimp. It was assumed at the time that they were merely maintaining radio silence and it also was not particularly uncommon for blimps to temporarily lose radio contact while out on missions, so no one was particularly worried at first. However, when at around 9AM radio contact had still not been achieved with the L-8, search aircraft were sent out to find it and a general broadcast was made to aircraft in the area telling them to keep an eye out for the rogue blimp. In response, a Pan American airline pilot reported seeing the L-8 near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge at approximately 10:50AM, at which time it was reported as flying steadily and obviously under pilot control. Indeed, it seemed as if it were calmly heading back to base, and there was no indication of anything amiss.

Not long after this sighting, at about 11AM, one of the Navy search planes that had been scouring the area for the blimp saw it soaring up to around 2,000 feet, which was the limit of it’s recommended maximum altitude and at the point where it becomes dangerous for the craft’s gas pressure. Although it was unusual for a blimp pilot to go so high, the aircraft still appeared to be under pilot control and was flying smoothly. The search pilot lost sight of the blimp as it disappeared into some thick cloud cover, but the L-8 was seen again near a place called Mile Rock, this time by an Army P-38 pilot, who assumed it was merely heading back to base at Treasure Island. At around this same time, another witness on the ground saw the blimp and later reported that it had appeared to be “bent” in the middle. After that, at 11:15 AM, the blimp was seen with its motors off and hovering 50 feet above the water near Ocean Beach while allegedly quite noticeably sagging.

Photo of the sagging L-8 over Daly City

Photo of the sagging L-8 over Daly City, California

The wind then blew the blimp along, and it briefly made contact with the beach before careening off back into the air to smash into a hillside to dislodge one of its depth charges before floating off over a gold course. The strange sight of the apparently free roving blimp floating and limping out of control was witnessed by people all over the area, and law enforcement trailed not far behind, wondering where it would inevitably come down. The L-8 soared off towards Daly City, where it veered so low to the ground that it scraped over the roofs of houses, startling the occupants, as well as bouncing off of utility poles and trees. Finally, the blimp came to a stop by crashing into a house on Bellevue Avenue, coming to rest on the family’s car as it slowly deflated from a puncture in a shower of sparks sent down by its nudge into electrical wires.

When authorities arrived it was found that the cockpit was empty and there was no sign of the two men who had been aboard. Besides the puncture and some minor damage to the blimp’s propellers from hitting obstacles the ship seemed to be in good working order. A check of the fuel showed that it had plenty, the radio worked perfectly, and the parachutes and lifeboat were stowed in their usual positions, as were the firearms that were aboard. A locked briefcase containing secret military codes and orders that were to be destroyed in the event of capture was also still aboard, untouched and right where it should be behind the pilot’s seat. The outside of the gondola was completely dry, suggesting that it had not hit the sea at any time, and the ignition switches were still set to on, although the batteries seemed to be more depleted than they should have been. Two life vests were missing, but this was to be expected, as blimp crew members were required to wear them at all times when operating above water, so two missing crew naturally equated to two missing life vests. There was nothing particularly strange or out of the ordinary about anything on board the L-8 except the fact that the gondola door had been unhinged and the eerie absence of anyone aboard.

Wreckage of the crashed L-8

Wreckage of the crashed L-8

In the wake of the pilotless crashed “ghost blimp,” the Navy immediately set up an investigation into the matter, calling in witnesses and any personnel directly related to the maintenance of the L-8, and a massive air and sea search of the area was carried out but nothing was turned up to explain the mysterious disappearance of the crew. All that could be ascertained was that the engines and the blimp in general were all in perfect working order. It could not be rationally explained how two experienced blimp crew could have suddenly vanished on a perfectly routine flight aboard a famously sturdy and reliable aircraft that had been deemed to be in perfect working order prior to take off, all without sending out a radio distress call and without being seen by anyone in the heavily travelled area they had been in. Additionally, there were no confirmed enemy subs in the area at the time, weather conditions had been favorable, and indeed even as the blimp had been in a free floating state there had been witnesses claiming to have seen people in the cockpit, although the Navy was confident that the crew had already been gone before the blimp had appeared over land. It never was determined why the crew would have stopped their mission after seeing the oil slick and head back to San Francisco without notifying anyone over their fully functional radio.

Adding to the mystery is that none of the precautions the crew was meant to take in the event of an emergency had been taken. No SOS had been sent even though the equipment had been working, no weights had been dropped to adjust height in the case of engine failure, even though the engines worked just fine, and the parachutes and life raft had also not been deployed. Strangely, the intensive search of the region turned up not only a complete lack of any trace of the missing men, but also a total lack of any people who had seen them. There is also the fact that at no point did any of the witnesses who had seen the blimp report having sighted anyone falling out of or otherwise leaving the L-8. There was not even a scrap that washed ashore in the weeks after the incident either, and it seemed as if these two men had just disappeared into thin air. It could not even be ascertained at just what point the men could have left the ship, although the Navy believes it was sometime between the last transmission and when the Pan Am pilot had seen them. In 1943 the two crewmen were listed by the Navy as presumed dead, and to this day no trace of them has ever been found, their vanishing still a profound mystery.

So what happened to the crew of the L-8? One of the most straightforward theories is that they simply fell out. This would explain all of the signs that point to whatever happened to the crew happening very suddenly. However, why would two experienced blimp crew members simultaneously fall out of their aircraft, and what happened to the bodies? Another idea is that they were captured by the enemy, but at what point? The blimp was never out of sight of witnesses for very long and there was no evidence on the blimp at all that it had been attacked in any way by the enemy. Later analysis of Japanese documents after the war further proved that there was no enemy activity in the area at the time of the vanishings. There is additionally the theory that they abandoned ship for some reason, but if that were the case why did they not send any form of radio transmission to that effect or deem it necessary to take their life-raft or any of their survival gear and what would cause them to have to suddenly abandon in the first place? It doesn’t make sense.

l8_blimp

There is also the idea that they had been involved in some sort of top secret testing of experimental radar that had gone awry. Other theories are a bit more far-fetched, such as the idea that there had been a stowaway who had overpowered them and then disappeared as well, that one of the crewmen had murdered the other and then made an escape, that the two had simply gone AWOL, or that they had been hit by a rogue wave, but there is absolutely no evidence to support any of these wild ideas. Of course you can’t have such a strange disappearance without having talk about aliens as well, and alien abduction has absolutely been offered forth as an explanation. Whatever was behind it, the Navy believes that it was likely not voluntary, with the Navy’s board of inquiry concluding:

Careful analysis of the evidence indicates no reason for voluntary abandonment of the airship…the board therefore believes that abandonment was involuntary.

The mysterious vanishing of the L-8’s crew has gone down as one of the most bizarre and perplexing air mysteries of the ages, pored over by numerous authorities and amateur sleuths who have all come to absolutely no answer to the conundrum. What happened to these two experienced men on a routine mission, under ideal conditions, and in an area free of an enemy presence? Why had they aborted their mission to the Farallon Islands and headed back to base without telling anyone? Why is it that no one ever saw any trace of anything amiss until that blimp finally came down in the middle of a suburb? Why is there no scrap of evidence of where the two men went? Did they abandon ship even though it was working perfectly? Did they meet with some unknown disaster and were so suddenly overpowered that they had no time to make preparations or send out a distress call? There are so many questions orbiting this strange case that it is hard to even know where to begin, and none of them have ever really been satisfactorily answered. In the end, we may just have to resign ourselves to the fact that this is one weird case that is perhaps destined to forever elude us.

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  • J.Griffin

    I have heard that this actual blimp
    (as well as the others)
    were the ones that were sold surplus back to Goodyear
    to become the famous Goodyear media blimps.

    Hundreds of millions,
    even billions of people were immediately familiar with this blimp
    yet never knew her significant place in blimp history as the
    “Flying Dutchman” of the sky…

    Or,
    perhaps the celestial Marie Celeste-
    as the case may otherwise be…

  • ZombieLenin

    My understanding is that the military came to the conclusion that the gondola door had not been fastened properly and the most likely scenario was that this resulted in both airmen falling out with one doing so while trying to save or catch the other.

  • Zeek Wolfe

    When other possible explanations have been carefully examined and discarded, the most logical must be the truth. That is, they were in the cockpit and then they were NOT in the cockpit. The windows were unbroken so the egress was the door. Considering the shape of the gondola, a freakish wind gust caused a momentary low pressure area outside. The door was sucked open and the crewmen…not wearing seat belts in a blimp…we’re ejected. This took mere seconds. The bodies were consumed by great white sharks which live in considerable numbers near the Farallon Islands. This is an explanation that seems to make sense. What about the bodies falling into the sea? For one or two or even five seconds the blimp was not under observation, for whatever reason, and in that time, coincidently, the bodies fell.

  • william l. morris

    I think that would be the wrong ocean.

  • J.Griffin

    The Ocean is rather arbitrarily divided up into sections-
    the Sky is not.

    In actuality,
    the Ocean spans the world…
    as does the Sky.

    At any rate,
    it was the poetic references to notoriously recognizable missing ships that are what I was alluding to…
    not their location,
    which is ultimately irrelevant to me.

  • ZombieLenin

    The part about the blimp becoming one of the blimps you’d see about sporting events is true. I read up on this case a year or so ago, and if I am not mistaken that particular blimp was retired in the early 1980s… without any sports broadcasters disappearing.

  • That is the most detailed report of the whole incident that I have read. I wonder if the absence of the flight engineer had something to do with the disappearance? Maybe there was an on-board problem that the pilot and co-pilot were trying to fix, and which lead to them falling out of the gondola.