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Mystery airships or phantom airships are a class of unidentified flying objects best known from a series of newspaper reports originating in the western United States and spreading east during 1896 and 1897. According to researcher Jerome Clark, airship reports were made worldwide, early as the 1880s, and late as the 1890s. Mystery airship reports are seen as a cultural predecessor to modern extraterrestrial-piloted flying saucer-style UFO claims. Typical airship reports involved unidentified lights, but more detailed accounts reported ships comparable to a dirigible. Reports of the alleged crewmen and pilots usually described them as human looking, although sometimes the crew claimed to be from Mars. It was popularly believed that the mystery airships were the product of some genius inventor not ready to make knowledge of his creation public. Thomas Edison was so widely speculated to be the mind behind the alleged airships that in 1897 he "was forced to issue a strongly worded statement" denying his responsibility.
Mystery airships are unlikely to represent test flights of real human-manufactured dirigibles as no record of successful airship flights are known from the period and "it would have been impossible, not to mention irrational, to keep such a thing secret." Contemporary American newspapers were more likely to print manufactured stories and hoaxes than modern ones are and newspapers often would have expected the reader to be in on the fact that the outlandish stories were hoaxes. Period journalists did not seem to take airship reports very seriously, as after the major 1896-1897 flap concluded the subject was not given further investigation. Instead, it was allowed to very quickly drop off the cultural radar. The subject only received further attention when ufologists revived studies of the airship reports as alleged early UFO sightings.
The best-known of the Mystery Airship waves began in California in 1896. Afterwards, reports and accounts of similar airships came from others areas, generally moving east. Some accounts during this wave of airship reports claim that occupants were visible on some airships, and encounters with the pilots were reported as well. These occupants often appeared to be human, though their behaviour, mannerisms and clothing were sometimes reported to be unusual. Sometimes the apparent humans claimed to be from the planet Mars.
Historian Mike Dash described and summarized the 1896-1897 series of airship sightings, writing;
|“||Not only were [the Mystery Airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings ... The 1896-1897 airship wave is probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.||”|
There were a number of mystery airship reports from the U.S. east coast in 1887.
There was a series of mystery airship sightings in 1909. Some came from various European locations, some from New England and from New Zealand. (Clark 2000, 123) Later reports came from the UK in 1912 and 1913. However, by this time airship technology was well advanced (Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin having been flying his massive passenger-carrying airships for nearly a decade by this time), making the prospect that these may have been small, private airships rather than evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation or newspaper hoaxes more reasonable.
Jerome Clark writes that "One curious feature of the post-1887 airship waves was the failure of each to stick in historical memory. Although 1909, for example, brought a flood of sightings worldwide and attendant discussion and speculation, contemporary accounts do not allude to the hugely publicized events of little more than a decade earlier." (Clark 2000, 123)
Clark writes that attempts to "uncover the truth about the late-nineteenth-century airship scare comes up against some unhappy realities: newspaper coverage was unreliable; no independent investigators ('airshipologists') spoke directly with alleged witnesses or attempted to verify or debunk their testimony; and, with a single unsatisfactory exception, no eyewitness was ever interviewed even in the 1950’s, when some were presumably still living."(Clark 1998, 37)
The "single unsatisfactory exception" Clark cites is a former San Francisco Chronicle employee interviewed via telephone by Edward J. Ruppelt in 1952. Ruppelt wrote that the man "had been a copy boy ... and remembered the incident, but time had cancelled out the details. He did tell me that he, the editor of the paper, and the news staff had seen 'the ship', as he referred to the UFO. His story, even though it was fifty-six years old, smacked of others I’d heard when he said that no one at the newspaper ever told anyone what they had seen; they didn’t want people to think they were 'crazy.'"
Jacobs notes that "Most arguments against the airship idea came from individuals who assumed that the witnesses did not see what they claimed to see. This is the crucial link between the 1896-97 phenomenon and the modern unidentified flying object phenomenon beginning in 1947. It also was central to the debate over whether unidentified flying objects constituted a unique phenomenon." (Jacobs, 33-34)
In 2009, American Author J. Allan Danelek wrote a book entitled The Great Airship of 1897 (Adventures Unlimited Press) in which he makes the case that the mystery airship was the work of an unknown individual, possibly funded by a wealthy investor from San Francisco, to build an airship prototype as a test vehicle for a later series of larger, passenger carrying airships. In the work, Danelek not only lays out a plausible scenario, but demonstrates how the craft might have been built using materials and technologies available in 1896 (including speculative line drawings and technical details). The ship, Danelek proposes, was built in secret to safegard from patent infringement as well as to protect investors in case of failure. Noting that the flights were initially seen over California and only later over the Midwest, he speculates that the inventor was making a series of short test flights, moving from west to east and following the main raillines for logistical support, and that it was these experimental flights that formed the basis for many – though not all – of the newspaper accounts from the era. Danelek also notes that the reports ended abruptly in mid-April 1897, suggesting that the craft may have met with disaster, effectively ending the venture and permitting the sightings to fall into the realm of mythology. While highly conjectural, the book does make a reasonable case for the craft having been of terrestrial rather than extraterrestrial origin.
During the 1896-1897 wave, there were many attempts to explain the airship sightings, including suggestion of hoaxes, pranks, publicity stunts and hallucinations. One man suggested the airships were swarms of lightning beetles misidentified by observers (Jacobs, 30).
Jacobs believed that many airship tales were due to “Enterprising reporters perpetrating journalistic hoaxes.” (Jacobs, 16) However, Jacobs notes that many of these accounts “are easy to identify because of their tongue-in-cheek tone, and accent on the sensational.” (ibid.) Furthermore, the supposed authors of many such newspaper hoaxes make their hoax obvious "by saying – in the last line – that he was writing from an insane asylum (or something to that effect)." (Jacobs, 17-18)
Some argued that the airship reports were genuine accounts. Steerable airships had been publicly flown in the US since the Aereon in 1863, and numerous inventors were working on airship and aircraft designs (the idea that a secretive inventor might have developed a viable craft with advanced capabilities was the focus of Jules Verne's 1886 novel Robur the Conqueror). In fact, two French army officers and engineers, Arthur Krebs and Charles Renard, had successfully flown in an electric-powered airship called the La France as early as 1885, making no fewer than seven successful flights in the craft over an eleven month period. Also during the 1896-1897 period, Bosnian inventor David Schwarz built an aluminum-skinned airship in Germany that successfully flew over Templehof before being irreparably damaged during a hard landing. Both events clearly demonstrated that the technology to build a practical airship existed during the period in question, though if reports of the capabilities of the California and Midwest airship sighted in 1896-97 are true, it would have been considerably more advanced than any airship built up to that time.
Several individuals, including Lyman Gilmore and Charles Dellschau, were later identified as possible candidates for being involved in the design and construction of the airships, although little evidence was found in support of these ideas.
Early citations of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, all from 1897, include the Washington Times, which speculated that the airships were "a reconnoitering party from Mars"; and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, which suggested of the airships, "these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking." (Jacobs, 29) In 1909, a letter printed in the Otago Daily Times (New Zealand) suggested that the mystery airship sightings then being reported in that country were due to Martian "atomic-powered spaceships." (Clark 2000, 123)
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