Unidentified AirshipsThe first known printed reference to a mysterious "airship" was in the March 29,1880, issue of the Santa Fe Weekly Nezv Mexican. The report is full of interesting details. The newspaper reported that late on the evening of the twenty-sixth, observers in the village of Galisteo junction had observed the passage of a "large balloon" and heard the merry shouts of its passengers. From the craft were dropped a cup of "very peculiar workmanship" and a "magnificent flower, with a slip of exceedingly fine silk-like paper, on which were some characters resembling those on Japanese tea chests." The next evening a 'Chinese-American visitor said he recognized the paper as a message from his girlfriend, a passenger on the ship, which he said was on its way to New York City.
Like many other airship tales reported in the late-nineteenth-century American press this one is almost certainly wholly fictional, but in the years ahead more credible reports would be made in the United States and other countries. Though American papers in particular tended to treat such sightings as jokes-and were themselves responsible for many hoaxes-there seems no doubt that such "airships," had they been seen in the later decades of the twentieth century, would have passed as unidentified flying objects. In fact, sightings of airshiplike objects--cigar-shaped objects with multicolored lights along the sides and flashing searchlights-continue to the present.
An outbreak of airship reports occurred along the border of Germany and Russian Poland in early 1892. As would be the case with later airship scares, the Germans were thought to have developed advanced aircraft which could fly against the wind (unlike balloons) and hover for extended periods of time. No such aircraft existed at the time, nor had any been developed (despite numerous contemporary rumors to the contrary) by 1896, when the great American airship scare erupted in California.
Beginning in mid-November, numerous witnesses in both urban and rural portions of the state reported seeing fast-moving or stationary nocturnal lights assumed to be connected to airships. Daylight sightings typically were of a device which "somewhat resembled a balloon traveling end on ... and with what appeared to be wings both before and behind the [bottom] light," as the San Francisco Call of November 22 put it, or of a "great black cigar with a fishlike tail ... at least 100 feet long" with a surface which "looked as if it were made of aluminum," as the Oakland Tribune of December 1 had it. In some cases, observers reported seeing propellers.
All the while much press attention was paid to the claims of San Francisco attorney George D. Collins, who swore on his "word of honor" (though he later denied it) that he not only represented the airship inventor but had seen the marvelous invention himself. The inventor was rumored to be one F. H. Benjamin, a dentist and Maine native who was known to be a habitual tinkerer. Benjamin told a Call reporter that his "inventions have to do with dentistry," but harassed by those who suspected he was not telling the entire truth, he went into hiding. Reporters who broke into his office found nothing but copper dental fillings.
By November 24, according to an article in the Oakland Tribune, former California attorney general W.H.H. Hart had claimed the role of the inventor's legal representative, Collins having been fired for talking too much. Hart, however, was if anything more gabby. He said two airships existed-the second had been built in an Eastern state-and his job was to "consolidate both interests." The airships would be used to bomb the Spanish fort in Havana, Cuba. Subsequently Hart, like Collins before him, did some backtracking and soon conceded he had not personally seen the invention, only met someone "who claims to be the inventor."
The California airship scare receded the following month. In February 1897 Nebraska newspapers began noting reports from rural districts of nocturnal lights moving at "most remarkable speed." On the fourth, witnesses at Inavale got a close-up view of the object to which the lights were attached. It was cone-shaped, 30 to 40 feet long, and had "two sets of wings on a side, with a large fan-shaped rudder" (Omaha Daily Bee, February 6). Over the following weeks a wave of sightings struck Nebraska and then neighboring Kansas. By early April airships were moving east, north, and South, and all that month's newspaper columns would be full of sightings, rumors, and tall tales.
Many of the dubious stories focused, as they had in California, on allegations about secret inventors. Some press accounts even alleged that airships had landed and their occupants, ordinary Americans, had confided their identities and plans to witnesses. The "conversations" with these aeronauts were recounted verbatim in newspaper stories, usually though not invariably presented as serious news but always invented out of whole cloth.
Other hoaxes reflected an undercurrent of speculation about extraterrestrial visitors. A Le Roy, Kansas, rancher swore in an affidavit that he, his son, and his hired man had seen strange-looking beings in an airship lasso and steal a calf from a corral outside his house. Though the tale attracted wide publicity (and was rediscovered and widely published in the UFO literature of the 1960s), it turned out to be a prank played by the rancher and fellow members of a local liars' club. At Aurora in north Texas an airship crashed, and its sole occupant, a Martian, was buried in the local cemetery, or so reported the Dallas Morning News of April 19. This tale, invented by an Aurora man as a joke, was rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s and brought spade-bearing searchers to the tiny, fading village.
Amid all the hoaxes, however, were apparently authentic reports of cigar-shaped structures with or without wings as well as sightings of nocturnal lights variously described as pear-, egg-, ball-, or V-shaped-suggesting that beneath all the hoopla and silliness the first great modern UFO wave, with the full variety of UFO types, was in progress. Though by the end of May the wave had run its course, sightings continued without interruption into the next century. For example, in the summer of 1900 two young Reedsburg, Wisconsin, men saw an enormous dirigible-shaped structure hovering in the night sky. As it passed over a grove of trees, the trees bent as if blown by a strong wind, though the night was still. The March 15 ' 1901, issue of New Mexico's Silver City Enterprise even reported that a local physician had taken a clear photograph of an airship. Unfortunately the photograph has not survived.
In 1909 a worldwide wave of airship sightings occurred in Great Britain, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. In Britain the sightings, which began in March, were mostly of torpedoshaped vessels moving at a "tremendous pace" and flashing lights and searchlights; they revived fears, first expressed 15 years earlier in eastern Europe and still unfounded, of high-flying German spies. In America secret inventors were the suspects, with most of the speculation directed toward a Worcester, Massachusetts, man named Wallace E. Tillinghast, though there was no real reason, then or now, to link him with the objects New Englanders and others were reporting. The New Zealand wave began in July at the southern end of the South Island, then moved northward. As with other airship scares, some witnesses claimed to have seen humanlike figures in passing craft. In one instance, said to have taken place on August 3, a Waipawa man said an airship occupant had shouted at him in an unknown language, and in another, "missiles" were fired from an airship and hit the water. The witness, a man in a boat, thought he was being attacked. Australia experienced a handful of sightings in August.
Another airship wave erupted in the fall of 1912, and reports were made all across Europe. The objects were typically described as large and cigarshaped, with brilliant searchlights. Few if any reports mention wings. As before, the airships reportedly were capable of hovering and moving at great speeds, even against the wind. The wave had run its course by April, but the sightings continued periodically in Europe and elsewhere. On October 10, 1914, for example, a Manchester, England, man said he saw an "absolutely black, spindle-shaped object" cross the face of the sun. A cigar-shaped object at least 100 feet long flew over Rich Field, Waco, Texas, one evening in early 1918, leaving witnesses with, in the words of one, "the weirdest feeling of our lives." In the summer of 1927 an airship which one observer compared (as had some in 1896 and 1897) to a "perfectly shaped, huge fish, with big fins extended outward near the front and small, short ones near the rear," was seen over Wolfe County, Kentucky.
Though after the 1920s unidentified cigarshaped objects were seldom called "airships," they continued to be reported. On October 9, 1946, observers in San Diego, California, saw an airship-like object which they compared to a "huge bat with wings." A similar object was seen over Havana, Cuba, the following February. A Pittsburg, Kansas, radio musician driving to work at 5:50 A.M, on August 25, 1952, said he came upon a 75-foot-long object with windows, through which the head and shoulders of a human figure were visible. Along the UFO's outer edges, according to investigators from the Air Force's Project Blue Book, "were a series of propellers about six inches to eight inches in diameter, spaced closely together." Driving between Deming and Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the morning of February 6, 1967, Ruth Ford sighted two fast-moving "cigar-shaped craft," each with two small propellers on it and a row of windows. She could see no one inside.