Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Ghost Blimp

The first responders to arrive at the crash scene found the wreckage of the naval blimp strewn across the quiet residential street in Daly City, Calif. The deflated gas bag was entangled in power lines. The gondola, still partially attached, was upended in the street, one deadly 300-pound depth charge still attached to its undercarriage. Ignoring the present danger, the rescuers clambered over the debris and into the shattered gondola, hoping to aid any survivors.

But no one was inside.

The mysterious end to the final journey of the blimp known as the L-8 left investigators scrambling for answers. What had led to the crash? And what happened to the missing airmen?

In August of 1942, less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese sub-marines prowled the Pacific, preying on American military and merchant ships. A squadron of 12 blimps played a key role in coastal defense, relying primarily on magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) equipment to locate enemy subs before deploying depth charges to destroy them.

On the morning of Aug. 16, a standard crew of three was assigned to the L-8. Its mission: Hunt for enemy subs in the San Francisco Bay. Shortly before takeoff, it was determined that the ship was carrying too much weight. One of the men, mechanic J. Riley Hill, was ordered to stay behind.

The two who remained on board were seasoned airmen. The pilot was Lt. Ernest DeWitt Cody. Though only 27, he was an experienced hand who was well versed with the L-8. Only a few months earlier he had played a peripheral role in the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, flying the airship to a carrier at sea to deliver plane parts vital to the mission. Ensign Charles Ellis Adams was a 20-year veteran of airships. He had been present at the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, N.J. and was among those who had fearlessly rushed in to the conflagration to pull survivors from the wreckage.

The pair lifted off around 9 a.m. and set a course for the Farallon Islands, some 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

About 90 minutes into the mission, the L-8 informed its base station that it had detected a potential oil slick in the water—a tell-tale sign of sub-marine activity—and was going in to investigate. That was the last radio transmission of the doomed airship.

An inquest was convened in the wake of the crash to uncover what had occurred between that point and the moment the wreckage was discovered in Daly City. It managed to locate several witnesses to the L-8's submarine hunt. At about the time of the last message, 10:30 a.m., two ships saw the L-8 circling an area of the ocean and dropping smoke flares, presumably to mark the oil slick for a follow up bombing run. A commercial airline pilot confirmed a sighting in the same area approximately 20 minutes later.

But the L-8's whereabouts for the following hour were a mystery. It was next spotted around noon when the partially deflated ship crashed onto a beach near Daly City. Bystanders attempted to grab hold of the guidelines and hold it in place. Although they eventually lost it to the winds, they were able to confirm that the cockpit was already empty.

At that point, the inquiry was left to hypothesize what might have happened to the men aboard the ship now known as The Ghost Blimp.

Had they been ambushed by a Japanese sub while dipping down to investigate the slick? Unlikely, since the two nearby ships saw nothing to suggest an interaction with the enemy.

Could they have been swept away by a rogue wave? Again, unlikely. The equipment showed no signs of saltwater damage; furthermore, the ship would have been unable to rebound into the sky if it had taken on water.

There'd been no equipment failure. Everything, including the radio and the Bogen Hailer, a device used to make contact when the radio failed, were fully operable. A life raft and parachutes were still on board, suggesting the men hadn't intentionally abandoned ship. A locked briefcase containing secret codes also was found in its proper place.

The one discovery that didn't add up? The gondola door was latched open, an unusual position in-flight, and the safety bar that typically ran across it was not in place.

Why had the door been opened? Had there been a failed repair operation? Or, as rumored, could the pair have been involved in a love triangle that led to one pushing the other overboard then fleeing before it hit the beach?

It was all speculation, but with little concrete evidence speculation was all they had.

The inquest ultimately closed without determining what led to the disappearance of Cody and Adams, but the story doesn't end there. A theory advanced in 2013 by private L-8 investigator Otto Gross suggests the blimp may have been carrying something beyond the standard equipment ... and that cargo sheds new light on the mystery.

At the time of the L-8 incident, the American military was experimenting with new methods of locating enemy submarines. Portable radar, a relatively new technology, was one of those options being explored in conjunction with the MAD to enhance detection rates. Had the L-8 been chosen to test it out? Possibly. Gross uncovered military documents hinting at a connection between the two programs.

He also noted that during the inquest, one witness reported seeing two civilians in the gondola with the crew for an hour before takeoff. The pre-flight visit was highly unusual, but neither the men, nor their purpose aboard the L-8, were ever identified. This much, though, is known: Radar equipment at the time weighed about 150 pounds ... the same as an average man, which may explain the last-minute decision to bump Hill from the flight over weight concerns. It's possible then that the device, and a cruel set of random circumstances, may have played a direct role in the men's dis-appearance. The open door/repair theory makes sense here.

It's possible the equipment suddenly shifted, throwing the gondola off balance, sending the men, and the device, to their demise in the frigid Pacific waters. But was the L-8 really carrying advanced technology? That question, like the fate of the missing men, remains unanswered.

No comments:

Post a Comment