The Disappearing Pilots of L8
Let's Talk About It!
At 6:03 a.m. on August 16, 1942, eight months after America declared war on the Japanese, Lieutenant Ernest Cody and his co-pilot, Ensign Charles Adams, lifted off from Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The pilots were on a routine, four-hour patrol in the U.S. Navy L-class airship L-8. This small three-man blimp, which was constructed by the Goodyear Corporation for use in advertising, had a cruising speed of forty-six miles per hour, reaching a top speed of sixty miles per hour. L-8’s range of two thousand miles made it perfect for long coastal anti-submarine patrols, as Japanese ships and submarines had harassed shipping since their attack on Pearl Harbor. The 150-foot-long airship carried two 325-pound depth-charge canisters mounted on an external rack, a .30-caliber machine gun and 300 rounds of ammunition as defense against any possible encounters with enemy vessels.
The pilots who lifted off that Sunday morning were very experienced in lighter-than-air flight. Lieutenant Cody, a Naval Academy graduate, had delivered essential aircraft parts in preparation of Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. His co-pilot, Charles Adams, had recently been commissioned an ensign but had twenty years of rigid airship experience, having served on the USS Macon, a floating aircraft carrier. Adams, according to aviationoiloutlet.com, had been decorated by the German government for rescuing passengers from the horrific Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.
Listed in aeronautical records as Flight 101, L-8’s mission was to fly thirty miles west to Farallon Islands and then return, patrolling the north approaches to San Francisco Bay. The hour-and-a-half flight out to Farallon was uneventful, with fair weather and three- to five-mile visibility.
At 7:42 a.m., Lieutenant Cody radioed that he had spotted an oil slick four miles east of Farallon and would investigate. Lieutenant Cody descended to thirty feet, dropping two smoke flares to identify the suspicious area. According to the witnesses on the passing liberty ship Albert Gallatin and the fishing trawler Daisy Gray, after releasing the flares, L-8 ascended to three hundred feet and circled the area for nearly an hour. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., the airship crew released ballast from L-8 and turned east toward San Francisco. Crew members of the two witness vessels reported seeing both Cody and Adams in the control compartment of the blimp as it steamed away to the east.
An hour after Flight 101 began to head east, a P38 fighter pilot spotted the airship, which appeared to be out of control, at an approximate elevation of two thousand feet. Before the patrolling fighter pilot could investigate the status of the vessel, it disappeared into a cloud bank that obscured any further investigation.
At 11:15 a.m., U.S. Navy shore patrol, as well as several civilians, watched L-8 slowly emerge from the fog and descend to the shore, eight miles off course and south of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Two fishermen who witnessed the crash landing grabbed the tie-down lines and tried, unsuccessfully, to rein in the craft. The men would later report to naval investigators that the jolt of the crash freed one of the depth charges, which fell onto a nearby golf course, and lightened the craft’s load enough to allow it to rise back into the air. The fishermen noted to investigators and the local media that the control compartment door was open and the gondola was empty when they grabbed the lines.
The behemoth airship ascended after the first impact on the beach and slowly floated east to Daly City, where it deflated and set down on Bellevue Avenue at 11:30 a.m. A preliminary search of the gondola revealed no sign of Cody and Adams. In the naval investigation, it was discovered the two of the three life jackets on board the craft were missing; however, the bright yellow U.S. Navy life jackets had become a requirement for flight only a few years earlier, accounting for the missing equipment.
It appeared that the two aeronauts had opened the gondola door, removed the safety bar and simply walked out of the airship into the Pacific Ocean. L-8’s three parachutes, inflatable life raft and sealed orders were all intact; Cody’s hat still rested on the control panel. The mechanic’s inspection of L-8 revealed that at no point during the day’s events did the craft land or make contact with the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Navy patrolled the waters, and shores, for weeks, looking for any evidence of the missing pilots, to no avail. No items of clothing, life jackets or remains were ever located by searchers. The investigation teams interviewed all of the witnesses to the events of August 16; however, many of the accounts used to create a timeline of the curious mystery had some interesting discrepancies that would create as many questions as answers.
The navy concluded that the men fell out of the control compartment while dropping their smoke flares as the most plausible scenario. Adams opened the compartment door, removed the safety bar and released his smoke flares. At that point, it was surmised, the co-pilot slipped and fell from the airship. Cody, attempting to save Adams, also fell, or jumped, from the vessel. This conclusion was deemed the official finding, although Flight 101 was being observed by several witnesses who did not see the men fall from L-8.
To this day, the disappearance of Cody and Adams remains a mystery of aeronautical history. Many theories have been put forward about the crew of L-8, including capture by the Japanese, a personal squabble over a woman, desertion and even alien abduction. All of these concepts, including the U.S. Navy explanation, have disputed and/or contradictory evidence to either support or refute the theories.
L-8 survived the crash in Daly City and continued to patrol the California coastline until the end of the war with the distinct moniker “Ghost Blimp.” Goodyear bought the vessel back from the navy, retaining it as a Goodyear Blimp until 1982. The original control compartment that Cody and Adams disappeared from resides at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.
Editor: Abigail Fleming
Photos courtesy of:
- National Museum of Naval Aviation
- US Naval Institute
- America in WWII, www.mydigitalcollection.com