Sightings of strange objects in the sky have been reported since the beginning of time, and have been attributed to anything from angels to aliens to secret aircraft. There was a time however during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when a wave of strange sightings swept the United States. These weren’t sightings of aliens or “normal” UFOs, but rather strange airships that, for the most part, appeared to be piloted by fellow humans.
The first major airship sighting occurred on Nov. 17th, 1896 during a very dismal and rainy night over Sacramento, California. A very bright light was spotted moving through the clouds, being seen by hundreds of individuals including people from the dome of the capitol building. According to witnesses who saw it from the capitol building, there was not one light but three, and that a dark oblong shape could be seen above the lights. Another witness, former railway employee R.L. Lowery, provided the most detailed description, claiming that he saw two men peddling on a bicycle-esque frame which was located below a massive cigar-shaped craft that had wheels on its side, similar to a paddle boat. Aside from his visual description, Lowery also claimed that he heard a man’s voice shout “Throw her up higher; she’ll hit the steeple.”
As can be imagined, the sighting created a sensation in the newspapers. The headline read the next day “CLAIM THEY SAW A FLYING AIRSHIP,” which is where the “airship” moniker for such sightings originated. Some newspapers ridiculed the whole thing as a hoax, while others merely emphasized that a strange light had been sighted. It had not been the first time that a strange object was spotted in the sky, and hoaxes sometimes caused brief uproars which is why the Sacramento sighting soon left the public’s attention.
However, five days later on a similar dark and overcast night, the same airship returned and was spotted by thousands of people including a district attorney and the Sacramento deputy sheriff. It traveled straight over the town going against the wind, being visible for roughly a half hour before disappearing to the southwest. Jacob Zemansky, a witness who saw the airship through a telescope, said the light appeared to be “an electric arc light of immense power.” Another witness, Edward Carragher, said he could tell that the light was attached to a large dark shape by using a pair of field glasses.
As if that wasn’t strange enough, 90 miles away on the same night the airship appeared over San Francisco, where hundreds of people as well as the mayor saw it. The airship traveled to the Pacific Ocean above the Cliff House, where witnesses said it produced a searchlight with a reach of over 500 ft. This searchlight supposedly scared local seals which caused them to plunge into the ocean. The Oakland Tribune stated that the craft looked like “a great black cigar with a fish-like tail,” while some witnesses claimed that had seen propellers on the craft.
The sightings caused an uproar, and afterwards mystery airship sightings were reported with more frequency and greater range following a two-month lapse. On February 2nd, 1897, the airship was spotted over Hastings, Nebraska, and on February 5th it was seen over Invale. On February 16th it appeared over Omaha, and numerous Nebraskans from across the state reported seeing the airship.One sighting, a witness from Invale, claimed that the craft was roughly 30 to 40 ft. in length, had a cone-shape, and reportedly possessed “two sets of wings on a side, with a large fan-shaped rudder.”
The craft was then reported in Texas, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, eventually being sighted over Chicago. After that on April 15th, the airship was surprisingly reported as having crashed near Kalamazoo, Michigan. According to the newspaper, “They declare the report to have been like that of heavy ordinance and to have been immediately succeeded by a distant sound of projectiles flying through the air.”
No one is sure what to make of the mysterious airship sightings that plagued the U.S. beginning in 1896. Many later researchers suggest that many sightings were hoaxes. No investigators (other than the journalists and reporters) ever spoke with any of the witnesses, and hoaxes were sometimes intentionally fabricated by the newspapers for the sensationalism and to sell more papers. Some newspapers published hoaxes often enough that readers were expected to guess for themselves which stories were legitimate and which were fake. Although a few more sightings were reported, the sensation was over by May and the craft, which was expected to reach the East Coast, had all but disappeared.
However, the U.S. wasn’t the only country where such airship sightings were being reported, as a series of airships were spotted over Great Britain beginning in 1909. On March 23rd, 1909, an airship was spotted over Peterborough which was described as a bright light attached to an oblong-shaped object that emitted an odd buzzing sound. Later on May 13th, 1909 another airship roughly 100 ft. in length was spotted over the city of Kelmarsh in Northhamptonshire. On the same night, two men claimed to have seen an airship that landed in the area of Ham Common in London. The witnesses even claimed that they spoke with the two crewmen of the airship, a German and an American.
Five days later on May 18th, another landed airship was reported on Caerphilly Mountain in South Wales, except that witnesses claimed two individuals could be seen with the craft, although these crewmen were strangely dressed and spoke an unidentifiable language. A later investigation of the area where the craft supposedly landed found that the ground had been damaged.
These airship sightings in Great Britain continued from 1909 to 1912 and through 1913, and although some may have been hoaxes just like some of the American sightings, the prevailing attitude in Great Britain was that these airships were German in origin and that they were performing reconnaissance missions, especially during the years 1912 and 1913 when tensions were high between England and the German Empire. The matter was even brought to Parliament on Nov. 7th, 1912 to which the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, stated that the many airship reports had been received but investigations had been unable to come to any sort of explanation.
In response to the wave of sightings, the British government took many steps including the establishment of no-fly zones where any airships had to identify themselves or risk being shot down, while the War Office carried out research into a gun that could shoot down such crafts. It is important to point out that the German airship program, the most advanced in the world at the time, was unable to produce anything that could match the speeds or maneuvers being reported, and that the British airship program lagged behind the German program.
The British weren’t the first to think it was the Germans behind the mystery airship sightings, as a wave of sightings that occurred along the border of Germany and Poland (a territory of Russia at the time) in 1892 caused many to theorize that the Germans had secretly developed advanced airships which could travel against the wind.
Other sightings were also reported in Australia and New Zealand in 1909. In New Zealand, the sightings began in March as the crafts moved from the south of the island to the north. Like the other sightings, some witnesses stated they saw human figures in the crafts. One individual, a Waipawa man stated that on August 3rd an airship crewman shouted at him in an unidentifiable language. Another witness who saw an airship from his boat, claimed he saw the craft fire what looked like “missiles” into the water which caused the man to think he was being attacked. Afterwards, another major wave of airship sightings struck Europe in the Fall of 1912 as witnesses reported large cigar-shaped airships equipped with searchlights.
This is perhaps the strangest aspect of the airship sightings, as they were not merely sightings of strange objects in the sky, but actual airships that appeared to be designed and operated by humans. Not only that, but witnesses even made the distinction from airplanes and balloons that the crafts being spotted were airships. Only a few suggested that the crafts were of extraterrestrial origin, and those who did claimed that they were Martians who were scouting for a potential invasion of Earth. While British airship sightings suggested that they were German scouts, those in the U.S. often suggested that secret inventors were responsible.
While this may sound a little fantastic for a lone individual to be responsible for such airships, at the time many individuals believed this was the most reasonable explanation. Balloon travel had been capable for roughly a hundred years, and travel by other means such as zeppelin or airplane was known to be possible very soon. It was also theorized that this aviation genius was carrying out flight tests at night to prevent their secrets from being stolen.Thomas Edison himself was seen as the perpetrator by enough people that he was forced to make a statement claiming he was not involved in the mystery airships.
During the 1896 sightings, a pair of attorneys in San Francisco both claimed to represent the mysterious inventor behind the airship, although he or she never revealed themselves and the attorneys both made fantastic claims, with one stating that there were actually two airships and that they were to be used to bomb Spanish forces in Havana, Cuba. Other, stranger sightings were also reported, including an airship encounter whose crew claimed to be from the Lost Tribes of Israel, a man who said an airship lassoed and stole a cow, etc.
Many of the airship sightings were later revealed to be outright hoaxes, but the sightings that occurred involving hundreds or thousands of people are the ones that still remain a mystery. Was someone really secretly testing airship designs ahead of their time, was it a natural phenomenon such as Venus, or was it something else? It is also worth noting that the same airship was reported moving from coast to coast until it apparently crashed, after which the sightings of it seemed to end. If it were a hoax, why would the attention-seekers put an end to it? Perhaps the mystery airships will never truly be revealed, anomalies from the early age of flight.