"The Great Airship Invasion"

By Dr. Abner Mality

Humanoids, we are conditioned to think of unidentified flying objects in a very certain way. We think of "flying saucers" or colorful spinning ships right out of "Close Encounters of The Third Kind". All this demonstrates is how popular film has embedded certain ideas in our brains so deeply that they are taken as almost iron-clad fact.

The truth is, there have been many kinds of UFOs seen throughout the history of mankind. From the "burning wheels" seen by the prophet Ezekiel in the Bible to curious flying chariots seen during the medieval period, strange flying phenomena have mirrored the times in which they were seen.

That brings me to the Great Airship Invasion of the late 19th century, when a wave of hundreds, if not thousands, of sightings of flying craft were made all across America. These UFO's were not quite as alien or bizarre as what we think of today...many of them resembled man-made inventions made of wood, canvas and steel. Some were blimp-like, some were more like huge wooden airplanes, some were combinations of the two. One thing they all had in common: they were seen in the skies years before Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their own flying machine at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903.

Let's first look at a peculiar incident that took place in the skies above Sacramento, California on November 17, 1896. A bright, mysterious light "like an electric arc lamp" passed over the city and surrounding area. The light seemed to have a guiding intelligence behind it, as it maneuvered on a specific path. Many witnesses said they could see a dark, looming shape behind the light, but more interesting yet, others claimed they could hear voices emanating from the flying object. One voice was heard to say in clear English "By tomorrow noon, we should reach San Francisco." Another person claimed to have even heard some ribald singing coming from the floating object..

We immediately know this is not the typical "UFO" report we are used to. The mysterious object seems to be of earthly origin and newspapers in California speculated that some rich, crazy inventor was doing a "dry run" of a new type of flying machine. Based on the Sacramento reports, one would certainly think the test was a success. But if it was, no one ever heard anything further of it. If the mystery airship crashed or landed anywhere in the open, no debris was found and no report was made.

It was not an isolated incident. Just two days later, the same strange light was seen over Stockton, San Francisco and Oakland. Each time many witnesses saw the light...fewer saw the shadowy mass behind it or heard noises.

There was some thought that the entire incident was a hoax, cooked up by newspapers to drive circulation. This is not an unfounded theory, as a lot of 19th century newspapers had much more relaxed standards as to truthful reporting . But this report was just one of hundreds being made not only in America, but across the world.

My home state of Illinois was a rich source of mystery airship sightings in the 1890's. Chicago and the nearby community of Evanston paid host to a huge, mysterious craft starting in April 3 of 1897. Hundreds of people claimed to have seen an enormous flying craft that looked like 2 cigar-shaped bodies enclosed by some kind of steel framework.  There was variance in the reports...some could discern huge bat-like wings, others said something like a giant sail stood out from the central mass. A photographer named Walter McClain claimed to have taken good pictures of the craft, but when he provided the photos to the Chicago Times-Herald, they later mysteriously disappeared.

That was just the first of many airship sightings in Illinois. That same April, a craft was seen near Springfield, likely the same one from the Chicago sightings. Two farmers claimed a flying craft landed in the field they were working and a man and a woman exited. The strange duo told the farmers that they would make a final report on their journey "when Cuba became free". At this time, the whole country was in an uproar over America's war with Spain over Cuban independence.

Indeed, April of 1897 saw a whole onslaught of outrageous reports linked to weird flying machines. It may be one of the most intense "flaps" of paranormal or unexplained phenomena of all time. One airship report from Table Rock, Missouri on April 16 had witnesses seeing an airship with many uniformed passengers on an outer deck. Some of the witnesses saw what appeared to be a woman tied to a chair and a man guarding her with a pistol. On April 10, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a certain W.W. Hopkins saw a small airship of about 20 feet in length landed on the ground near Springfield, Missouri. Most extraordinary were the passengers of the craft: a nude man and equally nude woman, both looking fit. Hopkins tried to ask where they were from: the pair replied in an unintelligible language and pointed to the sky.

Some of the stories are obvious spoofs and hoaxes. The Albion Weekly News reported a story where the pilot of an airship was able to shrink it and put it in his pocket using a strange ray. Another hoax had an airship lassoing cattle and hauling them into the sky.

Separating fact from fiction in the case of mystery airships can be very difficult, but at the core, there are genuinely inexplicable sightings of flying ships. And one thing that made the airship sightings different from UFO's: their crews seemed to be human. But in many cases, they seemed to be "foreign". In one notable case, the foreign airmen were identified as Chinese.

That case took place in the small town of Galisteo Junction in New Mexico on March 26, 1880, making it one of the earliest of the mystery airship cases. It was a quiet night when the workers at the town railroad depot suddenly heard voices coming from far above them. They then looked up to see a fish-shaped flying object "monstrous in size" floating majestically above them. Inside this craft were approximately ten people who were speaking in an unknown language. The witnesses could hear music and laughter coming from the great vessel. Two objects were thrown from the airship, which then sped to the east at high speed and disappeared. The objects were a flower with a paper label attached. On the label were unfamiliar characters that looked oriental. The other object was a sturdy cup of unknown origin.

The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reported that the very next day an unnamed collector of antiquities and oddities appeared in Galisteo Junction to examine the finds. He declared that they were Chinese in origin and then paid such an outrageous sum for the flower and cup that the railroad agent who had them had no choice but to part with them. Neither the collector or the objects were ever seen again.

In 1982, the book "Phantom Digiibles and Ghost Airplanes" by T.E. Bullard follows up on the mystery. Apparently the collector who bought the objects was heard by witnesses to say with exictement that the "Chinese flight experiments" had at last succeeded and that the giant airship which had flown over the small town was the prototype for a forthcoming "China to America" passenger airline. But as we now know, no such airline ever materialized...at least, not until decades afterward.

Xenophobia is a common theme in many of the mystery airship reports of the period. The airships were often linked with spying and other ominous activities by ":foreign powers" which ranged from Prussians to Spaniards to Russians to Chinese. During the late 1800's, the race was on for the secret to powered flight in much the same way that the "space race" of the 1950's and 60's fueled competition between America and Russia. A great fear of Anglo-Saxon society was that flight would be discovered first by Oriental or Eastern European powers. Notably, very, very few reports from this period mentioned anything about extraterrestrials.

The other type of rife speculation revolved around wealthy inventors experimenting with flying craft. This speculation may not be wholly unfounded. In fact, at several points, Thomas Edison had to publicly admit he was not involved with secretly trying to create airships.  Many also suspect Edison's great rival Nikola Tesla of being involved with aircraft research.

A very intriguing possibility has been brought up in recent years and that is that a brilliant but antisocial German inventor named C.A. A. Dellschau may have been the man behind many of the mystery airships of the 1800's.  Dellschau was known to have been in California in the 1850's. He was described as a very close lipped and unfriendly man who spent many hours working on secret projects and making incomprehensible notes. When he finally passed away in Texas in 1924, he left behind many sketches and notes for various airship designs. In one of his notes, he talks about a mysterious substance called "NB" which had the power to "negate weight". Many theorize "NB" could stand for "neutral buoyancy".

It was later discovered that Dellschau was one of the prime movers in something called "The Aero Club", a secretive society composed of 60 engineers, inventors and hobbyists. The club conducted a lot of hush-hush work in the barren areas outside of Sonora, California. The name of the club and the specialized knowledge of the members strongly suggests that this was a group of men gathered to create a breakthrough in flying technology...a breakthrough that they could profit from.

Could the mystery aircraft in the Western United States be related to the trial runs of the "Aero Club"? The timing would be about right. But if that's the case, what went wrong to prevent the inventors from going forward with their project? Was there possibly something dangerous about "NB" that put an end to the experiment? Dellschau's notes are cryptic and incomplete, but due to some very hard investigative work, they might provide a clue to at least some of the airship invasion.

Another possible California connection to the airships might have emerged in December 1896, when an odd-looking stranger, bedraggled and covered in dust, appeared in Fresno, California and asked to meet a man named George Jennings.
Jennings was found and he began a lively conversation with the dusty man which was overheard by several people, who heard the word "airship" mentioned.

A reporter from the Fresno Semi-Weekly Expositor later spoke to Mr. Jennings, who was candid about what had happened. He mentioned that the mystery man was one of the inventors of a mighty airship, who were taking their craft for a test flight around Contra Costa county when trouble started with the steering mechanism. The craft flew without guidance over the towns of Selma and  Watertown, where it was seen. Finally, the crew got control back and made a hard landing outside of Fresno, leading to the dusty inventor/crewman coming to town on foot to speak to Jennings about the situation.

After a big flap concerning airships in early December, everybody connected with the case, including Mr. Jennings, seemed to disappear and things went back to normal in Fresno.

Just seven years later, on the opposite side of the country, the Wright Brothers sent their home-made flying machine into the air at Kitty Hawk, officially ushering in the age of powered flight. But were they really the first? Many hundreds of witnesses during the "Great Airship Invasion" of the late 1890's would contradict that assumption. It is true that some reports of mystery aircraft may be spurious, but could all of them be? Is it really so inconceivable that somebody got a 20 or 30 year jump on the Wright Brothers?

Or is there more to the airship invasion than that? Were the mystery craft more than just test runs for eccentric inventors? They were seen in so many places, before so many witnesses, yet left no tangible remains. Could even secretive inventors have been so successful in surpressing all knowledge of their activities? The airship crews seemed perfectly human, but seemed to come from a variety of backgrounds...Chinese, Spanish, European, even bizarre varieties like the naked people of Springfield, Missouri.

Mystery aircraft have moved on into different forms in the 20th and 21st centuries, including the "ghost rockets" of the WWII era and even the "black helicopters" of the late 20th century. Somehow, they have always been with us. Will the real answers to the "Great Airship Invasion" ever reveal themselves?

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights.