Tag: Mysteries of Flight

The Phoenix Lights

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The Phoenix Lights

Of all the locations to behold a UFO, Arizona is one of the most likely, a minimum of according to neighborhood tradition. Throughout the years, it has actually on a regular basis placed in the leading 10 states for UFO discoveries per head, though such data must be considered with some hesitation.

Still, the records are genuine, and also on one extremely hectic evening, March 13, 1997, 25 years earlier currently, police throughout the state fielded thousands of telephone calls from witnesses that reported seeing odd lights in the Arizona skies.

What would certainly, in time, happened referred to as the Phoenix Lights were initially reported near Henderson, Nevada, beginning at around 8:15 p.m. neighborhood time. Onlookers there and also in north Arizona reported a big team of amber-colored lights relocating with each other in a V-shaped development. Later on that night, around 10 p.m. neighborhood time, ratings of witnesses in the Phoenix location reported seeing a team of lights floating quietly above in a broad arc, relocating gradually, as well as periodically re-emerging and also vanishing.

The strange Phoenix Lights appeared to oppose description. Also self-proclaimed doubters reported the sensation was so amazing that they ended up being ardent followers that what they had actually seen was not of earthly beginning.

Conjecture regarding UFOs, in addition to claims of conspiracy theory concepts and also scams, expanded around the occasion, generating examinations, publications, docudramas and also web sites. Also the guv, Fife Symington III, offered some support to the tales, holding an interview with a visitor look of an alien (or at the very least a human in an unusual outfit) to expose truth resource of the lights– so tongue-in-cheek.

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The Phoenix Lights entered into regional tale, with restored rate of interest as well as dispute resurfacing on each wedding anniversary of the discoveries. Even more than a years after the initial discoveries, the lights returned. What were they? Where did they originate from? Was it armed forces task? A fancy scam? Or could it be an extraterrestrial visibility?

Feasible Hoax?

After the April 12, 2008, reappearance of the lights, a Phoenix local asserted his next-door neighbor was liable which he had actually linked flares to helium balloons and also introduced them from his yard. A cops helicopter pilot that had actually observed this occasion recognized this might be a possible description. The male accountable selected to continue to be confidential. No added description was offered, as well as there were no duplicated efforts.

Fleet of Aircraft?

The V-shaped setup of the lights in the preliminary 1997 records would certainly appear to suggest a team of airplane flying in development. Scottsdale, Arizona, resident Mitch Stanley, that was out discovering the skies with his telescope that evening, reported seeing a team of airplane with square-shaped wings. An additional guy out daydreaming that evening declared that he saw a fleet of Cessnas flying in development cross with the sight in his telescope. As amusing as though to uncover that a group of Skyhawks collected to present the occasion, it appears virtually difficult since they would certainly have needed to fly with Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Course B airspace as well as browse the facility maze of armed forces airspace to the west and also south of Phoenix. Furthermore, the acquainted hum of a Lycoming engine would certainly distribute the trick that the intended unusual craft was simply a Cessna or fleet of them.

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Top-Secret Military Aircraft?

Could it be that the lights were some brand-new, top-secret army airplane? Possibly a bigger variation of the B-2 bombing plane or perhaps a massive, mile-long blimp? The army as well as its service providers have top-secret jobs addressing any type of offered time. In spite of different supposition regarding this prospective resource of the Phoenix Lights, the armed force has actually rejected it. In the 20-plus years considering that the discoveries, no proof of brand-new airplane of a style or range that would certainly fit the summaries supplied by witnesses has actually emerged.

UFO?

One of the most fascinating as well as prominent description to arise is that the lights were discharged by extraterrestrial spacecraft. Some onlookers, specifically those reporting previously at night in the north, explained the lights relocating unison in a distinct V-shaped development. Based upon these accounts, several think that an unusual airplane formed like a woodworker’s square overflew the location that night.

Witnesses seeing the lights later on at night as well as further southern reported even more of an arc form of the lights. Numerous additionally mentioned they really felt the visibility of a huge, dark-colored item shutting out the skies as it relocated quietly overhanging at a reduced elevation. They included that a few of the lights would sometimes vanish as the craft transformed as well as navigated instructions.

Warthogs?

Agents at Luke Air Force Base at first reported no uncommon task that evening when initially called. They had actually obviously not taken into consideration all the task in the location. Lieutenant Colonel Ed Jones of the Maryland National Guard later on reported that his system of A-10s had actually been energetic in the location that evening as well as went down a number of flares from a high elevation.

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The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the Warthog, is a low-level strike airplane. Its made even wings and also H-tail empennage offer it a blocky account that matches the witness records of a team of square-winged airplane. If the A-10s were flying a wedge or tier development at greater elevations, they would certainly look like lights relocating a V-shape, as well as the audio of their engines would certainly be silenced.

After the airplane had actually gone back to their base, the flares they went down would certainly stick around for time later. The great flares can be seen at country miles and also relocate quietly with the wind as they gradually wander downward. Historic weather condition information from that evening shows terminals in Phoenix and also bordering locations reported winds out of the north as well as west, which accompanies instructions of activity (to the south and also eastern) of the huge arc of lights.

When it comes to records of lights re-emerging and also going away, while the flares gradually wandered with the winds, they likely wandered behind optimals of the Sierra Estrella Mountains to the southwest of Phoenix. In the darkness, audiences would certainly not have the ability to determine the hills. Relying on the perspective, the flares passing behind the heights would certainly show up to come back and also vanish as they arised beyond.

What some witnesses regarded as a huge things blanking out a huge component of the skies can have resulted from a visual fallacy. Brilliant lights in the evening, with couple of various other lights brightening the location, produce the impression of being closer than the real range to the viewer. Keep in mind those evening touchdown impressions from your exclusive pilot training? This can represent the sensation of a huge item expenses that several witnesses reported.

Verdict

In spite of the sensible earthly descriptions for the sensations, the secret of the Phoenix Lights lingers. Some witnesses will certainly never ever be pleased that maybe because of anything yet extraterrestrial task. Neighborhood media triggers restored passion regarding the lights with follow-up tales on wedding anniversaries of the occasion, and also the dispute proceeds. Whatever the description, the Phoenix Lights have actually ended up being a component of the regional society. Roswell might have its aliens, however Phoenix understands just how they obtained below.

Learn more Mysteries of Flight short articles with “Why Were KC-135 Tankers Exploding?” below.

Why Were P-38s Falling From The Sky?

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Why Were P-38s Falling From The Sky?

Equipped with two turbosupercharged engines, enabling it to reach speeds greater than 400 mph and operate at altitudes exceeding 30,000 feet, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning was destined to be a game-changer in combat against Japanese fighters. Not just a dominant fighter, it would serve in multiple roles: a combination fighter-bomber, a night fighter, a long-range escort for heavy bombers and an important reconnaissance platform.

Despite its streamlined, all-aluminum structure and two 1,150-brake horsepower, water-cooled Allison V-1710 engines, the plane would suddenly become uncontrollable midflight for some strange reason. Upon entering a high-speed dive, the P-38’s tail would begin to shake violently, and then the nose would abruptly tuck under. The flight controls would lock up, and the pilot could not control the aircraft as it plummeted toward the earth. Many pilots were lost. Some survived by bailing out, and a few lucky ones were able to regain control close to the ground. 

What was happening to this sleek marvel of engineering? 

Hearts Aflutter?

One of the theories at the time was that the P-38 was going out of control because it was experiencing flutter. Aeroelastic flutter is a divergent, harmonic vibration induced by inertial and aerodynamic forces on a flight surface. It is especially problematic with increasing speed and more elastic materials. Flutter becomes self-sustaining and will continue to worsen until the structure tears itself apart. By 1937, when the P-38 was being designed, flutter was already a well-known problem, especially as the more flexible fabric-covered aircraft and flight controls were pushed to fly at increasingly higher speeds. 

Engineers, including Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, at Lockheed Corporation’s top-secret Skunk Works, were well aware of the need to prevent flutter in the Lightning’s design. The P-38 did not experience flutter largely because of the strength provided by the aluminum skin. When the mysterious P-38 behavior became a concern, Lockheed further discounted the flutter explanation with a series of experiments that included strengthening the tail with thicker aluminum and adding balance weights in different configurations. Despite these changes, the vibration—and mystery—remained.  

Buffet, Anyone? 

Another possibility was aerodynamic buffeting. At high speeds, an increase in vibration and shaking of the tail are also symptoms of buffeting, which could be caused by disruption in the airflow over the aircraft ahead of the tail. Lockheed discovered that adding filleting at the junction between the wing and the fuselage could smooth the flow of high-speed air at this point on the aircraft and eliminate buffeting. Fillet kits were sent out to P-38 squadrons for field installation on the P-38E and earlier models, and new production models included them at the factory. The buffeting was gone, but the vibration and control lockup was not. 

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Gremlins In The Forked-Tail Devil? 

As early as 1917, the pilots in the British Royal Air Force began attributing unexplained damage and unknown problems with aircraft to gremlins. These little creatures allegedly infested an aircraft, causing everything from holes in the aircraft fabric to engine failures. After appearing in one aircraft, they would quickly spread to others in the squadron. Over time, gremlins spread to aircraft throughout the RAF, and by the time World War II broke out, the gremlin infestation reached U.S. Army Air Forces as well. 

Whether superstition driven by the need to explain the unknown or just an amusing way to blow off steam, the myth of the gremlins spread across the globe and was attributed to malfunctions in every type of machinery. 

Flying Into The Unknown

Was there really a sound barrier that aircraft could not break? As aircraft and engine designs evolved to allow planes to fly faster than ever before, more and more aircraft were coming closer to the speed of sound—767 mph at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. However, as pilots pushed the edge of this frontier in different types of aircraft, they reported strange instrument readings, the inability to move the controls or flight control reversal. As this realm of the unknown was approached, all the rules of conventional aerodynamics failed—sorry, Bernoulli! What was happening? Did the laws of physics set the speed limit at the speed of sound?

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Compressibility

Ultimately, it was determined that the P-38 was experiencing compressibility effects. At low airspeeds, the air moving over an aircraft is incompressible and flows similarly to water moving past an object. However, at higher airspeeds, the air flowing over the aircraft will start to compress, and this compression increases as airspeed increases. If the airflow reaches the speed of sound, a shockwave will form that causes airflow to separate from the wing farther aft. This separation results in a sudden loss of lift. 

The P-38 was not capable of supersonic flight. However, when it reached Mach 0.68—the plane’s critical Mach number, the airspeed at which airflow over some of the flight surfaces reaches the speed of sound—it began to experience the effects of compressibility. For the P-38, this would cause the center of pressure to move aft as well as causing separation of airflow over the wings, resulting in a reduction of downwash at the tail. When that happened, the Lightning would abruptly nose over into a high-speed dive. Then, aerodynamic forces would essentially lock the flight controls in place, leaving the pilot helpless to do anything until the plane descended to denser air at lower altitudes. The increase in air density closer to the ground adds drag and slows the aircraft below its critical Mach speed. If sufficient time and altitude remain, the pilot can recover from the high-speed dive. 

The problem with the P-38 first became known in May 1941, when Major Signa Gilkey, a U.S. Army Air Corps test pilot, experienced the loss of control and ensuing dive but survived. Upon reaching the denser air, he was able to break out of the dive using elevator trim. Early response to the problem was to train pilots to use trim and set limits on airspeed. While this was the best option to date, no one was satisfied it would solve the problem, especially in combat situations. 

Lockheed tried adding servo tabs to the elevators of the P-38s to provide the pilots with additional control of the elevator at high speeds. Unfortunately, in November 1941, Lockheed test pilot Ralph Virden was killed in the high-G pullout after a dive while testing a servo-equipped Lightning.

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Eventually, a high-speed aerodynamics expert, engineer John Stack of NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and NASA’s predecessor), and Lightning designer Johnson determined that the problem could be solved by changing the geometry of the wing with the addition of fast-acting dive flaps. These flaps could be deployed in 1.5 seconds and would change the distribution of the pressure over the wing. With dive flaps installed, pilots could operate the aircraft at high speeds and still maintain control. 

Early-model P-38s were retrofitted with dive flap kits, and later P-38 J and L production models had them installed at the factory. As a result, the P-38 became a reliable aircraft with excellent performance and long-range capability. It became a formidable combat aircraft, dominating as a long-range fighter in the Pacific theater as well providing invaluable photo reconnaissance in all theaters of operation. 

The number of pilots killed in P-38s due to the compressibility effects is unknown. However, their experience with the Lightning has greatly contributed to our understanding of compressibility and high-speed aerodynamics, allowing planes and pilots to become better equipped to operate at the extremes. The development of supersonic wind tunnels and computer modeling has saved the lives of countless test pilots and has led to developments—such as supercritical airfoils, wing sweep, delta wings, and other innovations—that enable today’s complex fighter aircraft to operate at more than twice the speed of sound. 

Do you want to read more Mysteries of Flight articles? Enjoy “An SOS Call And A 40-Year Murder Mystery” here.

 

The Missing Ghost Bomber Of Pittsburgh

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The Mystery

In the mid-1950s, a World War II-era bomber, now dubbed the “Ghost Bomber,” sank into a small, sleepy Pittsburgh river and vanished without a trace. It was never seen again…or was it? 

Background

On Jan. 30, 1956, a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber departed Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in Nevada on a mission to pick up aircraft parts at Olmsted AFB in Pennsylvania and deliver a couple of passengers to Andrews AFB in Maryland. The crew onboard included Major William Dotson, Captain John Jamieson, Captain Steve Tabak, Staff Sergeant Walter Soocey and Airman Second Class Charles Smith, as well as their passengers, Captain J.P. Ingraham and Master Sergeant Alfred Allement. They made a couple of stopovers, one for an overnight at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and another for fuel the next day at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. At Selfridge, they were informed that it would be several hours before fuel could be delivered. Estimating that they only needed about half of their current fuel supply, around 375 gallons, to make it to Olmsted, they decided to skip the wait and took back off. Captain Tabak stayed behind. 

Things proceeded uneventfully until suddenly, the fuel supply on the plane began to plummet at an abnormal rate. When the B-25 was 17 nm northeast of Pittsburgh, Major Dotson, the pilot at the time, requested clearance to land at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport (now Pittsburgh International) but quickly realized he wouldn’t make it. Instead, he opted for Allegheny County Airport, 15 nm miles southeast of his position. A few minutes after he was cleared, both engines died. Co-pilot Captain Jamieson transmitted a “Mayday,” and Major Dotson, out of options, aimed for the nearby Monongahela River.

Rush hour traffic on Homestead Grays Bridge came to a standstill as dozens stopped to watch the B-25 bomber buzz by overhead. With his wing flaps lowered and wheels-up, Major Dotson perfectly executed a downstream water landing. Apparently, he barely made a splash.

But it was hardly a time to celebrate, as the plane was now a sinking ship on which the crew and passengers were stranded. The temperature of the water was only 35° Fahrenheit, and the shoreline was hundreds of feet away, so swimming to safety wasn’t an option. Informed that a commercial riverboat was about 15 minutes from their position, they were advised to remain with the aircraft. Four of the men obeyed this order and were successfully rescued, but two of the men, Captain Ingraham and Staff Sergeant Soocey, decided to brave the icy waters. Sadly, they didn’t make it. 

Recovery Operation

The recovery mission began on the Monongahela bright and early the following morning. The Mon, as locals called it, was approximately 20 to 25 feet deep. The aircraft, on the other hand, was 15 feet high. This meant that locating it should have been fairly quick and easy, as its top would have only been about 5-10 feet underwater. Within hours, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Forsythia, latched onto what was believed to be one of the aircraft’s wings. It slipped off and sunk back into the river before the cutter could pull it out. 

Thinking for sure they’d get another hit, they spent days and days dredging and diving. After two weeks of repeatedly coming up empty, they finally called it quits. The U.S. Air Force sold the salvage rights to a local seaplane pilot for $10. Neither he, nor any others, ever found a trace of the bomber. 

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Buried in the River

It seems beyond bizarre that nothing from the aircraft has ever been recovered, not so much as an airframe fragment or even a simple compass. One possibility is that when they were dredging for the aircraft, a hook, anchor or some other dangling apparatus somehow snagged it and pushed it down into the sediment below, effectively burying it. Another thought is that once underwater, the plane continued floating downstream and eventually ended up in the much larger, deeper Ohio River, approximately 6 miles up. On the day of the crash, the Mon was flowing at 12 mph.

Secretly Recovered

Shortly after midnight on the night of the crash, dozens of locals claimed to have witnessed the bomber being pulled from the river. They noted that one of the wings appeared to be missing and watched as it was loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled away. In 1976, a whistleblower came forward, seemingly to substantiate this story. He said he was one of several truck drivers the government paid to tow the plane to a Nike missile site in Oakdale, just 1.3 miles east of Pittsburgh. 

But why would the government need to retrieve the aircraft secretly in the first place? Some speculate that it held top-secret cargo or perhaps even a high-ranking individual whose identity they couldn’t risk being exposed.

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Corroded Away

It’s easy to understand why the conspiracy theories are so popular on this one because, seriously, how does an aircraft that big vanish into a river that shallow? But a middle-of-the-night recovery operation would have been a significant effort, involving a large crew, lots of lighting and more hours of labor than could have been squeezed into the night. 

More likely is that the plane somehow became embedded in the river’s bottom, was hidden away by sediment, and corroded away over the years. At this point, all that’s likely to remain of the largely aluminum aircraft are perhaps its steel engines and landing gear. While some modern investigators continue to search for the plane in hopes of finding even the smallest fragment, so far, even all the modern bells and whistles are no match for the ever-elusive Ghost Bomber of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Do you want to read more Mysteries of Flight? Check out “The Big Sky Theory Of Traffic Avoidance.”

The Big Sky Theory Of Traffic Avoidance

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The Mystery

The Big Sky Theory holds that pilots are protected from midair collisions to a great degree based on how vast the sky is and how small planes are, making the chances of a collision slim. But does this theory hold water (and I’m not talking water vapor)?  

The Backstory

Before the development of radar, before the development of TCAS and other traffic avoidance systems and long before the birth of ADS-B, many pilots held that the big sky was their form of collision avoidance. Tiny planes and a giant sky, they argued, equaled very long odds against a midair collision. But were they right? 

How Big Is The Sky, Really? 

The short answer is, it’s really, really big. It is, in fact, often referred to as an ocean of sky. It’s a good comparison. The volume of the oceans and lakes and rivers and puddles, according to ballpark calculations based on average depth and area, is around 1.35 billion cubic kilometers, while the sky that contains some atmosphere is bigger by a lot. A standard accepted boundary of space, the Kármán Line, is 100 kilometers above sea level. Given that volume of sky, the estimate is around 50 billion cubic kilometers. 

Aircraft, of course, seldom ply the altitudes above around 45,000 feet, and beyond 51,000 feet, it’s a very lonely place. But above 18,000 feet, aircraft are required by regulation to be on an instrument flight plan, meaning that air traffic controllers have a pretty good idea of exactly where you are and where other planes are, too. Consequently, the risk of a midair above 18,000 feet is very small, though it exists. So, when we talk about the Big Sky Theory, the “sky” we’re talking about is the volume of atmosphere from the surface to 18,000 feet. The average elevation of the Earth’s terrain is around 2,700 feet, so the sky is that shell of a sphere that’s around 15,300 feet, or around 4.7 kilometers in thickness. Estimating that the volume of air around the Earth at VFR altitudes is less than half of 1% of the total volume of the sky, we’d come up with a figure of around 1.5 billion cubic kilometers of volume in the VFR sphere of sky. 

So, if a plane takes up roughly 300 cubic meters of space, you could stack around 50 billion planes without them touching, all within the VFR flyable volume of sky. The sky is very big, indeed. 

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But how many planes are in the sky worldwide at any one time? Estimates on this vary widely, but Boeing says around 15,000. Given our previous estimates, that means there’s around 3 million times more space for planes than there are planes. Based just on this, you’d have to be very unlucky indeed to run into someone else in that big sky. 

 “If a plane takes up roughly 300 cubic meters of space, you could stack around 50 billion planes without them touching, all within the VFR flyable volume of sky. The sky is very big, indeed.”

Factors That Shrink The Big Sky Considerably

Unfortunately, those 15,000 or so airplanes in the sky at any one time aren’t scattered evenly throughout it. They are, in fact, concentrated in a number of ways. First, most GA pilots fly at altitudes far lower than even our 18,000-foot VFR upper limit. Because of rules regarding the use of oxygen, few planes fly VFR above around 12,000 feet, even when it’s legal, and most stay well below that. Anecdotally, the busiest altitudes for VFR traffic seem to be from around 3,500 to around 7,500 feet msl. So, a lot of those thousands of planes are cruising along in the same, much smaller sphere of sky, one that’s only around 4,000 feet thick. 

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Moreover, all parts of the planet aren’t equally flown in. Statistically speaking, no small planes fly over open ocean, which accounts for around 70% of the Earth’s surface. That other 30% is where small planes might fly. And of that 30%, only a small part of that is where people live. One estimate is that 95% of people live on 10% of the land. Since most (though not all) people go flying to go somewhere that there’s an airport and some people around, that concentrates planes statistically, as well. 

And when you look at how planes find their way around, there are two big ways. Established navigation pathways, called airways, or directly between points. Those airways are, for the most part, about 8 miles wide. If planes are exactly on altitude, you can fit around 1,300 Cessna Skyhawks side by side without touching. 

A Little Sloppiness Is A Good Thing

Inaccuracy is your friend here. If I’m on the airway and I’m, let’s say, 50 feet too high, I’ll keep the plane right there. Even when I’m on an IFR flight plan, I’m purposely off the mark in terms of lateral and vertical positioning. If I’m 50 feet low and a half-mile to the right of the centerline of the airway, I’ve just made the sky, statistically at least, a lot bigger. The more variation there is, the better the odds. 

Where things fall apart is when you’re on arrival to an airport (the busier, the worse) or in the traffic pattern at an airport, especially but not exclusively one without an operating control tower, meaning that pilots are all in charge of finding their own way and seeing and avoiding other traffic. Traffic pattern altitudes and lateral distance from the runway are approximate, which makes the sky bigger but tolerances are pretty tight. If you’re 50 feet low, no biggie. But if you’re 150 feet below the pattern altitude, you’re not really flying the pattern. 

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Things get worse as you get closer to the runway end, too. You might be 50 feet low or high on downwind, but over the threshold of the runway, your altitude is pretty darn close to everybody’s altitude at that point of the pattern, with or without flying an actual pattern. 

This same funneling effect takes place on popular routes, say, sightseeing routes or over popular landmarks. The sky gets really small along the Hudson Corridor of New York City, for instance. There are other places where traffic is concentrated—mountain passes, for instance, or low, around 500 to 1,000 feet agl, along popular shorelines. VFR corridors through otherwise tightly controlled areas of airspace, such as around New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, are funnel spots, too. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that an inordinate number of midair collisions, around half of them, take place in the traffic pattern. That said, midairs are rare. In a typical year, according to AOPA, there are between 10 and 20 midair collisions, about half of which involve fatalities. Not many of those midairs take place in cruise, where the sky is at its biggest. 

Conclusion

The Big Sky Theory is true, in places. At cruise at a random altitude on an uncharted course that’s not between two busy cities, for instance, your chances of hitting another airplane are staggeringly small, thanks to the big sky you’re flying in. But in several other common scenarios, such as when you’re in the traffic pattern, the sky isn’t very big at all and is a poor substitute for vigilance and traffic detection and warning systems. 

Do you want to read more Mysteries of Flight? Enjoy “The Two Missing Planes That Helped Create The Bermuda Triangle Theory.”

The Two Missing Planes That Helped Create The Bermuda Triangle Theory

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The Mystery

What happened to the British South American Airlines (BSAA) flight that disappeared on Jan. 17, 1949, and could its fate be tied to that of another BSAA flight that vanished almost exactly a year earlier?

Background

It was an otherwise lovely Monday morning when Captain John Clutha McPhee prepared his Avro 688 Tudor Mark IV aircraft, Star Ariel, for a flight from Kindley Field, Bermuda, to Kingston, Jamaica. The weather was idyllic across the planned route—calm, clear skies with no incoming storms. Star Ariel was supposed to be grounded that day, but the plane originally scheduled for the flight, BSAA Star Lion, had suffered an engine failure on its approach to Bermuda, though it had landed without incident. 

With 13 passengers and six additional crew onboard, the Avro departed Bermuda at 8:41 a.m. About an hour into the flight, McPhee contacted air traffic control to report his current position and flight level at 18,000 feet. He noted good visibility and provided an ETA to Jamaica. About 10 minutes later, he sent his final transmission:

“Over 30°N at 9:37…changing frequency to MRX.”

But Kingston never heard from him, and he failed to make the destination. According to a New York Times article dated Jan. 19, 1949, a massive search took place across an area 125 to 500 miles southwest of Bermuda. The search involved more than 70 planes and ships, including U.S. and Cuban naval ships, and covered thousands of square miles. No wreckage, debris or bodies were ever found.

Adding to the intrigue is that another BSAA flight, Star Tiger, disappeared from the same area one year (almost to the day) prior. Its fate, likewise, remains a mystery.

Bermuda Triangle Theory

The back-to-back disappearances of these two aircraft fueled the start of mystical conspiracy theories around an area of the Atlantic Ocean now famously known as the “Bermuda Triangle.” Also nicknamed the “Devil’s Triangle,” the region is a loosely defined triangle between Bermuda, Puerto Rico and the southern tip of Florida. While the number of accidents and disappearances within the Triangle are not statistically much higher than in other locations throughout the Atlantic, many believe that something paranormal is at play. 

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The initial investigators in Star Ariel’s disappearance inadvertently sparked such speculation when, in a moment of frustration, they mused that “some external cause overwhelmed both man and machine.” While they didn’t really believe the disappearance was tied to anything paranormal, it didn’t matter—the media clamped on to the idea, and the public’s imagination ran wild. 

Sabotage Theory

Sir Roy Dobson, managing director for the manufacturer of the Tudor IV aircraft, and his colleague, Don Bennett, came forth a few days after the disappearance with claims that the aircraft had been sabotaged. There had been quite a bit of controversy around the Tudor fleet when it first went into commercial flight service four years prior, as it was made with wings of the Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber and would serve as the British competitor to American DC-4s for transatlantic flights. 

The men claimed that a well-known saboteur had been spotted near the BSAA Star Tiger shortly before its takeoff the year prior and, as such, they believed someone sabotaged both flights. Investigators wrote off the claims, and Bennett was fired from the BSAA for refusing to back down.  

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Poor Aircraft Design Theory

In 2009, retired BSAA Tudor IV pilot Don Mackintosh came forward with an interesting insider scoop about the aircraft—it was poorly designed. According to Mackintosh, the cabin heater was designed to bleed fuel onto a hot tube, but the tube was located dangerously close to hydraulic pipes, making it easy for them to become compromised. The system was mounted under the floorboard of the co-pilot’s seat and controlled by a pressure switch that, in turn, controlled fuel flow. The switch was notoriously unreliable, leading many pilots to disable it so they could, instead, manually control the system. 

Mackintosh theorized that gas may have built up within the system, and when the pilot manually flipped the pressure switch, it caused an explosion. Given the heating system’s location under the floorboards, the resulting fire could have easily spread to a catastrophic state before the pilots became aware of it. In those days, automatic extinguishers weren’t a thing, so it’s quite possible Captain McPhee lost control of the flight before he could put out the fire.    

The Truth? 

Poor heating system design is the most probable of the leading theories—far more so than paranormal entities of the Bermuda Triangle or even any sabotage claims by those who had clear motivation to cover their own hides. 

Unfortunately, the true cause of Star Ariel’s disappearance may never be known. Its secrets, like those of so many others, including Star Tiger, are more than likely buried deep within the sea. As for the fleet of Tudor IVs, they had only been back in service for a month before Star Ariel vanished and were immediately regrounded, at which point production of the aircraft permanently ceased. Call it yet another victim of the Bermuda Triangle. 

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Read “Mysteries of Flight: The Nevada Triangle” to learn more about suspicious plane disappearances.

Woman Survives 28,000 Foot Freefall After Plane Breaks Up

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Mystery

On April 1, 1997, a Cessna 337D Skymaster entered into an uncontrolled descent from 28,000 feet after the pilot suffered hypoxia and succumbed. The plane broke up and fell to the earth in pieces, yet the passenger survived with barely a scratch. How in the world is that possible?

Background

On a beautiful VMC day in April of 1997, a private pilot with around 3,100 flight hours took off on a mission to collect aerial imagery with his photography assistant. Departing from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania (WAY), in a Cessna 337D Skymaster (N2685S), they shot a few locations and landed at North Lima, Ohio (4G4). There, they fueled up and took back off for home at 1:45 p.m. At approximately 10,000 feet, the pilot and his assistant put on their oxygen masks. Once they were properly secured, he reached back, opened the system valve, and observed as the indicator ring changed from red to green. The cool invisible gas began to flow, and all seemed well. 

At about 20,000 feet, the pilot asked his passenger how she was feeling. At the time, she felt fine and reported such, but she soon after began feeling dizzy. She attempted to relay this to him but received no response. Assuming he was tuned into an ATC transmission, she decided to close her eyes, hoping it would provide some relief. According to her, that was the last thing she remembered. 

ATC had cleared the pilot to 25,000 feet but became concerned when it observed him continue to climb to 27,700 feet. The aircraft leveled off briefly, then descended to 26,000 feet, where radar contact was lost. At this point, the Skymaster had entered into an uncontrolled descent and began breaking apart. Its left and right tail booms, right door, left wing outboard, vertical and horizontal stabilizers all ripped off from the airframe and rained down across a 3-mile radius over Hickory, Pennsylvania. The fuselage came to rest in a tree, approximately 30 feet above the ground. Inside, the pilot was found dead and his passenger unconscious. Remarkably, she had only suffered minor cuts and bruises.

The Cause—Hypoxia

Investigators found that the pilot, who had mistakenly been given a tank of compressed air instead of pure oxygen when he landed at 4G4, had died of hypoxia prior to impact. For whatever reason, his passenger was better able to survive the prolonged period of oxygen deprivation. How people react to hypoxic conditions can vary greatly and is largely dependent on body type, overall health and personal history. Had they remained airborne longer before entering the uncontrolled descent, her fate would have eventually been the same as his. 

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Size Matters

The real mystery on this one is how she was able to survive such a remarkable fall from the sky.

One theory has to do with her size; it seems that the smaller she was, the more likely she would have been to survive the impact. Studies have shown that heavier individuals are 80% more likely to die in a crash than individuals of average weight. This is partially due to being predisposed to other health issues, such as heart failure, but the primary reason lies in seatbelt safety. The greater a person’s excess weight, the less effective the seat belt is. When that interaction is compromised, the individual is more likely to be fatally injured. Investigators of the Skymaster crash found that the passenger was wearing her seatbelt and that it had functioned properly, contributing to her survival.

Be Relaxed

If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like drunk drivers survive car accidents more often than others, it’s because they do. In fact, they are 65% more likely to survive serious trauma than their sober counterparts. It all boils down to the body’s reaction to stress. When a person sees a crash about to happen, their natural reaction is to tense up. This causes certain stress-related chemicals to be released and the body’s muscles to constrict. The tighter the muscles, the more prone they are to injury. This is what makes drunk drivers more likely to survive. Unlike sober, alert individuals, they are often in a state of relaxation and oblivion at the time of a crash. 

While the Skymaster’s passenger was not intoxicated by alcohol, she was essentially intoxicated by oxygen deprivation. More importantly, she was unconscious, which meant her body was relaxed and better able to sustain the impact.

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Land Softly

Based on Newton’s Second Law of Motion, a fast change in momentum will result in a larger force placed on an object withstanding an impact. Softer landing surfaces slow the impact momentum, leading to less force being placed on the aircraft and persons within. Since the Skymaster’s fuselage landed in a hickory tree rather than the harder ground below, it decreased force on the passenger, in turn increasing her odds of survival. 

Conclusion

Many believe that when a person survives something so incredible as a nearly 30,000-foot fall from the sky, it can only be the result of a genuine miracle. 

While divine intervention can’t technically be ruled out, the probable conclusion is that the woman was just really, really lucky. So many factors were at play, and nearly all had to align perfectly for her to be able to walk away, and with barely a scratch! While the pilot’s fate was a horrible tragedy, somehow his passenger was granted a second chance at life. 

Interested in more Mysteries of Flight columns? Enjoy, “Can A Propeller-Driven Aircraft Break The Sound Barrier?

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Can A Propeller-Driven Aircraft Break The Sound Barrier?

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Background

When Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947, it was one of the coolest moments in aviation history, even if it did take a while to be revealed to the public at large. The impressive feat was accomplished in the experimental Bell X-1 rocket plane, nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis” after Yeager’s wife. Designed with a streamlined fuselage and thin, unswept wings, the X-1 was dropped from the bomb bay of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress at 25,000 feet. From there, it rocketed to 40,000 feet and broke the sound barrier at 662 mph. In the years that followed, major advancements were made in supersonic aircraft technology. Yet, to date, propeller-driven aircraft have been left puttering slowly, subsonically behind.

In aviation, the speed of sound refers to how fast sound waves travel through air during current atmospheric conditions. On a dry day, with temperatures at 68°F, this speed is 761 mph. The lower the temperature, the lower the speed of sound, and vice versa. In order to exceed this speed, an aircraft must be able to overcome the large array of adverse aerodynamic effects created by transonic air movement. These effects include shockwaves, turbulence, friction-generated heat, and a significant increase in drag. Together, they form a barrier dramatically reducing aircraft performance and making it difficult, and often impossible, for any additional speed to be gained. If an aircraft can break through this aerodynamic barrier, better known as the sound barrier, then a sonic boom is produced.

Supersonic Aircraft Requirements

To be able to successfully break through the sound barrier, an aircraft’s engine and airframe must be designed to overcome the adverse effects of supersonic flight. Wingspan must be limited but wide enough to remain aerodynamically efficient at slower speeds. The airframe must be able to withstand the intense heat that is generated from friction as air rapidly flows across its surface. Additionally, the engine must be able to produce enough thrust to counter significant drag. 

In the early days, supersonic flight was restricted to aircraft with rocket-powered engines, but the engines had a high fuel burn rate that resulted in short flight times. Turbojets were better suited to the mission, given their better fuel efficiency, but did not produce the necessary thrust. In the end, aircraft designed for supersonic flight were equipped with afterburner-fitted turbofan engines. This combination allows aircraft to meet the thrust requirement while also enabling longer flight times, as higher fuel burn is able to be restricted to only times when extra thrust is needed—such as during supersonic flight. Today, some planes can go supersonic without afterburner. Progress! 

High-Speed Propellers

NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), believed that it was possible for propeller-driven aircraft to break the sound barrier eventually. In the 1940s, NACA invested heavily in new designs for propellers through a high-speed propeller research program. Over time, it was able to design propeller blades capable of reaching Mach 1.0. This was accomplished by shortening and thinning the blades, sharpening the leading edges, minimizing camber, and increasing the blades’ angles. 

 “Even if the planes could handle the powerful shockwaves generated or push through transonic drag with enough thrust to maintain lift, the noise level alone seems prohibitive.”

While the change was an overall success, parts of the blade would reach supersonic speeds before others. This was problematic for two reasons—first, sonic waves are created when an object nears the speed of sound. Because the blades were reaching Mach 1.0 unevenly, they were creating pockets of sonic waves powerful enough to destroy the propeller. Second, another problem was noise. Propeller-driven aircraft are loud enough, but when those spinning blades reach supersonic speeds, the noise level generated becomes a threat to the structural integrity of the aircraft—and its pilot.   

Program Results

The propeller-driven XF-88B Voodoo, which was fitted with turbojets and a T-38 turboprop engine, was NACA’s experimental aircraft of choice. Unfortunately, just as it was on the brink of success, the agency abandoned the project. By this point, Yeager had made history, and advancements in jet engine technology had effectively crushed any interest in high-speed propellers. 

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Impossible?

Perhaps the obstacles to achieving supersonic flight in propeller-driven aircraft are simply too high to overcome. Even if the planes could handle the powerful shockwaves generated or push through transonic drag with enough thrust to maintain lift, the noise level alone seems prohibitive. To date, the closest a prop-driven aircraft has come to breaking the sound barrier was in 1944, when a Spitfire in a dive reached Mach 0.92—much controversy surrounds this and other claims, so take it with a grain of salt. One additional catch; the Spitfire’s propeller had broken off, so it was technically a glider at the time it reached that speed. Otherwise, the fastest speed on record for a propeller-driven aircraft is Mach 0.71, accomplished by the Tupolev Tu-114. 

Conclusion

Theoretically, if they are carefully designed with powerful enough engines, it remains possible—even if not probable—that propeller-driven aircraft could one day exceed the speed of sound. NACA was close to success, after all. While it may seem pointless to continue exploring the possibility given the ease and frequency at which jet-powered aircraft now break the sound barrier, soaring fuel costs have actually resparked some interest. So, who knows, maybe one day we can create sonic booms on our $100 hamburger runs! 

Fun Fact

The “crack” sound made by whips is actually a sonic boom! It is generated as the tip of the whip exceeds the speed of sound.

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Did A Grumman F11 Tiger Shoot Itself Down?

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The Aircraft

In the early 1950s, aircraft designers began modernizing the F9F-6/7 Cougar—beefing it up with greatly reduced drag and supersonic speeds. When the redesign was completed in 1953, the result was a completely different aircraft than the Cougar. This new model was equipped with full-span leading-edge slats, trailing edge flaps with spoilers instead of ailerons for roll control, and wings that could fold down for easier storage on aircraft carriers. On its maiden flight in April of 1955, the now-complete Grumman F11F Tiger showed off its supersonic capabilities by nearing the speed of sound (Mach 1). Impressed, the Navy ordered the development of more than 400 for service, and it became the aircraft of its Blue Angels flight team. 

Despite its initial popularity, the Tiger quickly proved flawed: Its engine was unreliable, its range and endurance inadequate, and its performance inferior to other aircraft produced at the time, such as the Vought F-8 Crusader. By 1959, production ceased. The Blue Angels continued to fly it for another 10 years before it was switched out for the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. While its time in service was short, its early-day supersonic speeds left a legacy—most famously because it was the first aircraft to be so fast that it shot itself down.

The Incident

On Sept. 21, 1956, young U.S. Navy test pilot Tom Attridge took off in an F11F Tiger (BuNo 138620) from Long Island, New York, for a weapons test over the Atlantic. He climbed to 20,000 feet, started a Mach 1 dive, and fired two bursts of rounds from his 20mm cannons until the ammunition was expended at 13,000 feet. He continued his dive, and around 7,000 feet something powerful struck his windshield. Thinking it must have been a bird, he quickly realized he had a big problem on his hands—his plane was losing power. 

Pulling up, he throttled back to 230 mph and began a return to base. Unable to maintain altitude, he attempted to apply more power, but the power would not exceed 78%. The plane went down into a sea of trees approximately a mile shy of the runway, traveling 300 feet and catching fire. It was a total loss. Attridge suffered a broken leg and several broken vertebrae but thankfully survived. As he later learned, it was not a bird that took him down. As it turned out, the crash was caused by a far more surprising source: his own rounds.

Bullet Speed Vs. Supersonic Speed

Many believed it was impossible for an aircraft, no matter how fast it could fly, to actually outrun its own bullets. After all, the speed of the average bullet is roughly around 1,700 mph. Mach 1, which Attridge had been traveling at, was 768 mph. That’s nearly a 1,000-mph difference. Clearly, this proved the damage had to have been caused by something like birds or even small meteorites. And, yet, that theory was wrong.

How It Happened

The rounds Attridge fired while traveling at 768 mph left their cannons at approximately 2,000 miles per hour. However, immediately after being fired, they encountered enough air resistance to produce significant drag. This drag resulted in a greatly reduced forward velocity, causing their trajectory to curve downward—directly into the flight path of the aircraft from which they had been fired. As the bullets descended and their speeds decreased to about 400 mph, the Tiger also descended but with an increased speed of 880 mph. Just as he began to pull out of his descent, Attridge was struck three times. The first bullet pierced his nose cone, the second went through his windshield, and the final one directly struck his right engine intake. The time between him firing the first rounds and taking the hits was a mere 11 seconds.

A One-Time Thing?

The Navy considered the incident a one-in-a-million fluke and was certain it would never happen again. Attridge was less convinced, however. “At the speeds we’re flying today,” he later said, “it could be duplicated any time.” He was right. In 1973, another Grumman test pilot, this one flying an F-14 Tomcat out in California, was struck by his own missile. Luckily, it was a dummy missile, and the pilot was able to eject to safety. More recently, in 2019, a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 accidentally shot itself from its 20mm rotary cannon. The pilot was able to land safely, uninjured. 

Marine F-35 Fighter Jet Nearly Shoots Itself Down

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Conclusion

These days, aircraft weapon systems are primarily missile-based, not just bullet-based. Whether they are short-range heat-seeking or long-range radar-guided, missiles have many clear advantages, such as their speed, which can easily exceed any bullet or aircraft. In fact, in order to prevent them from being damaged, missiles are specifically designed to be faster than the aircraft from which they are deployed. Thankfully, protocols are now in place to avoid self-collision, so hopefully no more pilots will take themselves down.

As for Attridge, while he would always be known as “the pilot who shot himself down,” the incident cast little shadow on his career. He returned to service less than six months later and eventually went on to work on the Apollo Lunar Module. He flew west in 1997 at the age of 74. 

A WASP Went Missing In AP-51 In 1944. Not A Trace Has Been Found.

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MYSTERY
Nearly 40 WASPs died in service during World War II, but only one went missing in action (MIA). What happened to Gertrude Tompkins Silver?

BACKGROUND
Gertrude Tompkins was a shy girl with a severe stutter and love for goat farming. She enjoyed the simple life, or at least she did until she fell for a Royal Air Force pilot who infected her with the aviation bug. Not only did she enjoy taking to the skies with him, but she also found the flight lessons he gave her completely intoxicating. He eventually died during a war mission, and while she grieved his loss, she refused to say goodbye to flying. Flying had completely transformed Gertrude, eliminating her stutter and replacing her shyness with bold confidence that surprised all who knew her. She quickly enlisted in a newly launched program with the U.S. Army Air Force, becoming one of 1,074 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

As a WASP, she was trained to fly multiple fighter aircraft, such as the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang. On a cloudy day in October of 1944, she and 39 others were tasked with ferrying a fleet of Mustangs from California to New Jersey. It took four days for the group to make their destination. That’s when they realized Gertrude was gone. Based on the information available, it was determined that she never made the first stop-over, so she likely went down shortly after departing Mines Field (now LAX). Search efforts lasted for 30 days and covered everywhere from the waters of the Santa Monica Bay to the peaks and valleys of the San Bernardino mountain range. She was never found.

“When he was 12 years old, Frank Jacobs saw a plane heading into some clouds, sputter and spiral into the sea below. It haunted him for nearly seven decades.”

Gertrude did not leave behind any children, but she did leave behind a secret new love—a man she had wed only a few months prior. WASP pilots were strongly discouraged from marrying while in service, so she did so quietly and kept her name on file with the military as Gertrude Tompkins. But her real name at the time of her disappearance was Gertrude Tompkins Silver.

Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) Gertrude Tompkins disappeared on a ferry flight in a North American P-51D Mustang, similar to the one (with a jump seat) shown above.

MECHANICAL FAILURE
Prior to take off, Gertrude and two other WASPs encountered cockpit hatch issues. While they were able to resolve Gertrude’s issue on the ground, some wondered if it returned for her after taking off—or that perhaps she encountered another mechanical problem. P-51Ds were notoriously unforgiving, so even the slightest moment of distraction could have turned fatal, and the clouds wouldn’t have done her any favors.

SABOTAGE
WASPs were frowned upon by many of their male counterparts; they were regularly mocked, disrespected, and shunned. Thick skin was an absolute must, but it couldn’t save them from the most disturbing actions taken against them—sabotage. Men were known to stuff items into the women’s engines and fuel tanks, pour acid into their parachute packs, and even slash their tires so they would blow out during or right after takeoff. One WASP made an emergency landing after an engine failure only to discover someone has stuffed rags into it. Another discovered that their flight controls had been intentionally loosened, resulting in some coming off mid-flight.

Perhaps the most famous act of sabotage was the one that killed Betty Davis. Fellow WASP and aviation superstar Jacqueline Cochran found that sugar had been poured into Davis’ gas tank, causing the crash. Is it possible that Gertrude’s disappearance was also an act of sabotage? Sadly, it wouldn’t be the most absurd conclusion.

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NEW LIFE OR SUICIDE
At the time of her disappearance, Gertrude was allegedly happier than she had ever been in her life. She was finally stutter-free, confident and following a newfound passion for flight. She looked forward to a future with her husband and helping him raise his niece after his sister’s passing. By all accounts, it seemed she had everything going for her and much to look forward to.

Still, some theorized that Gertrude wasn’t satisfied enough, and her disappearance was either an attempt to start a new life or perhaps even end her current one. All who knew her scoffed at such a suggestion. Furthermore, they were adamant that she would never have done anything to compromise an aircraft. She valued them far too much.

ANOTHER SEARCH
One person claimed to have witnessed Gertrude’s crash, but he was not believed, given his little boy status at the time. According to retired aerospace engineer Frank Jacobs, when he was 12 years old, he saw a plane heading into some clouds sputter and spiral into the sea below. It haunted him for nearly seven decades. Finally, in 2010, a new search team took interest and lent him an ear. The Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST) gave weight to his account and
used it to focus a new search effort. The team brought in dozens of volunteers, experts from various fields, and high-end equipment to scour the seas. Sadly, they were unsuccessful.

CONCLUSION
Most believe that Gertrude ran into problems, became disoriented in the clouds, and crashed into the Santa Monica Bay shortly after takeoff. Unfortunately, any real answers can’t be had until both she and the plane are recovered.
As for the WASPs, their fight did not end with the war. It took nearly 30 years before the military acknowledged them as having been active-duty armed service members. Another 35 passed before they were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, which Gertrude’s grandniece accepted on her behalf. Seven decades went by before they were allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps that is where Gertrude Tompkins Silver can one day be laid to rest, with all the honor she so very much deserves. PP

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Ghost Blimp

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MYSTERY
In August of 1942, a U.S. Navy L-8 blimp crash-landed in Daly City, California. What makes this a mystery, you may wonder? Its crew was nowhere to be found.

BACKSTORY
It had been nine months since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the dust was far from settled. Now in the throes of World War II, the United States military sought to locate and destroy every enemy sub it could find off the American West Coast. On Aug. 16, 1942, the U.S. Navy deployed an L-8 blimp to carry out such a mission. Onboard were two Mark 17 depth bombs, a .30 caliber machine gun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and two well-regarded Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) pilots: Lieutenant Ernest Dewitt Cody and Ensign Charles Ellis Adams.

Adams had more than 20 years and 2,281 LTA hours under his belt. While Cody had significantly less experience, with 756 hours, he had recently been highly praised for his maneuvering of an L-8 blimp to the USS Hornet for a parts delivery mission in support of the infamous Doolittle Raid. His impressive feat elevated him to lieutenant.

The patrol area for Flight 101, as it was called, was within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco. With winds light and variable at 4 knots per hour, and a slight over-cast, the pilots departed Treasure Island at 6:03 a.m., with a planned return time between 10 and 10:30 a.m. Approximately an hour and a half after departure, Cody radioed in their position 4 miles east of the Farallon Islands. At 7:42, he sent a second message announcing the discovery of a suspicious oil slick, potential evidence of an underwater sub.

Crew of the nearby Liberty ship known as “Albert Gallatin” watched through binoculars as two smoke-producing float lights were dropped from the blimp into the waters below. Anticipating that a bomb drop could follow, they sounded the alarm and manned their guns.

Over the course of the next hour, the ship’s crew watched as the blimp circled the oil slick around 200 to 300 feet above, then down to a mere 30 feet. Wing Control made multiple attempts to establish radio contact during this time, once at 8:20 and again at 8:50, but it received no response. Finally, around 9:00 a.m., the blimp dropped ballast, ascended to altitude, and appeared to begin its return to Treasure Island.

At 10:49 a.m., a Pan American Clipper pilot spotted the blimp over the Golden Gate Bridge. He observed nothing out of the ordinary but did note that it was quite close to its pressure height of 2,000 feet. A little while later, an Army P-38 pilot spotted it and reported that it appeared to be in controlled flight. Other than radio silence from the blimp, all seemed well. Then, suddenly, a nearby seaman noticed something amiss: The top of the blimp was beginning to buckle in.

It limped ashore at 11:15 and came to a violent rest on the 400 block of Daly City’s Bellevue Avenue. First responders rushed to the control car to free the crew and made a shocking discovery—not only was the door missing but so was the crew. Cody and Adams were gone. They would never be seen or heard from again.

The mystery began in earnest when first responders discovered, upon reaching the wreckage, that there was no one on board.

AFTERMATH
Following the incident, the L-8 blimp was thoroughly inspected by the military. Save for a drained battery and some dumped fuel, the airship was found to be in good working order. Its engine was intact and functioned appropriately. Its radio, instruments and controls were undamaged. Four hours of fuel remained in the tank. All the parachutes were accounted for, as was one of the pilot’s hats—left resting on a set of flight controls.

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The only thing amiss was a vanished crew. Theories about Cody’s and Adams’ fate were abundant, encompassing everything from an AWOL scheme to enemy capture. Some of the wilder theories involved paranormal conspiracy and a dramatic love triangle leading to murder-suicide.

ENEMY CAPTURE…OR SPIES?
Some believe that a Japanese sub was present in the L-8’s patrol zone and set an oil slick trap to lure Cody and Adams for capture. According to this theory, once they began investigating the slick, they were either forced from the aircraft at gunpoint or shot down.

Some even speculated that Cody and Adams were enemy spies and left of their own accord. However, a briefcase containing classified materials, including secret codes, was left behind. That briefcase would have certainly been taken whether the pilots left willingly or not. Additionally, if an interaction had occurred, crew onboard the Gallatin would have likely observed such from their watch posts. They saw nothing.

MEN OVERBOARD
The simplest explanation is the most benign but also the most tragic—the men simply fell to their deaths. In its investigation, the U.S. Navy discovered that the safety latch on the L-8’s door had been compromised. If one of the pilots had leaned against the door, it’s possible the latch unintentionally released, causing him to fall into the waters below. The other pilot is presumed to have fallen in during an attempted rescue.

Clouding this theory is that protocol would have dictated that the second pilot radio for help before making a rescue attempt. He did not. Additionally, if neither man was onboard, who dropped the L-8’s ballast to ascend it back to altitude, and who steered it back to the coast?

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CONCLUSION
Whatever sealed Cody’s and Adams’ fate, it seems highly doubtful they abandoned the airship by choice. The most likely conclusion is that a tragedy occurred onboard, causing the pilots to fall. Perhaps it was due to the faulty door latch, or perhaps it was due to some strange string of events involving a conflict between the men. Despite wearing life vests, their ability to survive the cold waters below for long would have been slim. And, sadly, they would have been adrift for hours at sea before anyone even realized they were missing, rendering rescue attempts fruitless.

The blimp’s fate is thankfully less mysterious. It was quickly repaired and spent another 40 years in service before being retired in 1982. Its control car is currently on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, where it has been renamed the L-8 “Ghost Ship.” PP