Seventy-three years ago today, on August 16, 1942, a bizarre mystery occurred in the air over California that has never been satisfactorily solved. It involved a dirigible–commonly known as a blimp–flown by the U.S. Navy, designated L-8. On that August morning two Navy pilots, Lt. Ernest Cody and Ensign Charles Adams, went aloft aboard the L-8 from the Navy’s air station at Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay. Their mission was pretty simple. They were supposed to conduct a routine patrol looking for Japanese submarines, which were still believed to be a threat to the West Coast in 1942. They were supposed to fly west, to a small chain of islands called the Farallones, then circle around over San Francisco and come back to base. The blimp took off at 6:03 AM. This was a routine flight and Lt. Cody was very experienced at flying blimps.

A bit more than five hours later the civilian residents of Daly City, California were startled to see a huge silver airship descending haphazardly over their city. It appeared to be adrift and out of control. It was partially deflated and buckling in the middle. Eventually it came down, making a “crash” landing on Bellevue Avenue. People rushed to the stricken airship to help the crew, but when they got there they found the doors of the gondola open and no one inside. Cody and Adams had simply vanished. They’ve never been seen since.

blimp crash site

The blimp L-8 crashed onto this residential street in Daly City, California on August 16, 1942. Surprisingly, the street looks much the same today.

What on Earth happened to them? It was hard to tell. The radio was in perfect working order. Parachutes were in place, though life belts weren’t–that wasn’t unusual, though, since the pilots were required to keep their life belts on while flying. The ship was airworthy and there had been no leak of helium gas. The blimp appeared to buckle in the middle because the absence of the weight of the pilots caused the blimp to soar higher, thus triggering an automatic release valve to compensate; this was what ultimately brought it down. The blimp had dropped one of its depth charges on land, but that obviously occurred after it had been abandoned (and no one was hurt). There was no sign of a struggle, emergency or any sort of mishap. The two men were just…gone.

The only real clue to the L-8 mystery was its last radio transmission which was logged at 7:42 AM. Lt. Cody reported that they had spotted an oil slick in the water and they were moving lower to investigate. The crews of two fishing boats out that morning corroborated the report: they saw the oil slick too, and they witnessed the blimp descend to check it out. Although it’s possible the slick came from a Japanese submarine, evidently the L-8’s crew didn’t see anything that was worth attacking; the ship dropped no depth charges and the fishing boat crews never saw anything (or anyone) fall from the gondola. This happened around 8AM. By 8:50 the Treasure Island controllers realized they couldn’t raise the L-8 by radio, so whatever happened to the men had obviously happened by that time.

goodyear blimp by tequask

The gondola from the L-8 was used in the Goodyear blimp “America” well into the 1980s. Here is a picture of that ship from the era, though I’m not 100% sure the gondola seen here is the selfsame one (it was retired in 1982).

The truth is, we have no idea what happened to Cody and Adams. If they jumped out of the blimp voluntarily it’s difficult to understand why–or why, if they did that, they left their parachutes behind. If they fell out by accident, how did it happen, and why was there no other evidence to indicate something was wrong? The Navy searched the waters around San Francisco for their bodies but came up with nothing. In 1943 the men were declared dead. Rumors of the “Ghost Blimp” and what might have happened to the crew–the usual nonsense about UFO abductions–have swirled ever since.

Curiously, the gondola of L-8 was ultimately returned to the Goodyear company, who had built it before the war. It was refurbished and continued in use until the early 1980s. Currently it’s on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

The photo of the Goodyear Blimp America is by Wikimedia Commons user Tequask and is used under Creative Commons 4.0 (Attribution) license. The header photo, which is of the actual L-8 ship, is public domain.