By Tony Brunt
For a little over a month in the winter of 1909 hundreds of New Zealanders reported seeing "airships" of varying shapes and sizes moving about in the sky. Sighting reports came in from people over the length and breadth of the country and in the areas of maximum airship activity public interest in the subject reached such a high level that crowds gathered on the streets at night in the hope of seeing the "phantom ship", as it was then called.
My research in old newspaper records indicates that more than one object was involved, although at no time during the sighting flap was a simultaneous sighting of two or more craft reported to any newspaper. Sightings were reported in both daytime and night-time and most were made at long range. In the small number of close-range sightings reported no witness was apparently ever closer that about 100-200ft.
At the time of the flap no manoeuvrable airships or gas-filled balloons were being flown in New Zealand. The newspapers which accepted the airship hypothesis and did not try to explain the sightings away as misinterpreted natural phenomena plumbed for the belief that a back-country inventor was responsible for the objects. This theory fell into disfavour when the phantom airships were reported over eastern Australia as the New Zealand wave died.
The airship activity began - and was most intense - over the southern end of the South Island where numerous settlements had sprung up during the gold rush years before. In the following weeks the objects apparently moved northwards, working their way up country before apparently moving on to Australia.
The following account tries only to outline a representative cross-section of the total of sightings that occurred in New Zealand, with an emphasis on the more interesting reports.
The first sighting of something strange apparently occurred in Southland in 1908. At the height of the 1909 flap a correspondent wrote to an Otago newspaper (1) stating that he and two other men had seen a strange aerial light on three separate occasions while they were out trapping in Southland the previous winter (June-July-August 1908). Once they had seen a powerful light like a searchlight moving in the sky and two other lights were also seen streaking about.(2)
The 1909 sightings began in July. The first newspaper to report a sighting was the Clutha Free Press, of Balclutha, which stated on the 13th that several residents in nearby Stirling had sworn that they had seen the lights of what could only have been an airship moving about in the sky a few nights before. (3) A break of several days occurred and then the airship was again sighted at Kaka point, also only a few miles distant. Somewhat belatedly on 27 July the Clutha Leader, of Balclutha, gave an account of the sightings. A Mr. George Smith told the paper that the object was seen by residents at the beach every Sunday. The newspaper continued:
On Saturday night (24 July) some half-dozen boys were playing on the beach at Kaka Pt. near Mr. Bates and saw a huge illuminated object moving about in the air. It appeared as if it was going to alight at Kaka Pt. The light from it was distinctly reflected on the roof of Dr. Fitzgerald's cottage. The boys thought it was being attracted by their lantern and ran away and left in on the beach. The airship then glided around the rocks at the old pilot station and nearly came in contact with them. It shortly afterwards disappeared. The boys said it was as big as a house.
'On Sunday night the mysterious object again made its appearance at the beach and was seen by Mr. George Smith and Mr. Poulter about 8.30pm. Mr.Smith viewed it through a very powerful night glass. It was apparently over My Aitkenhead's house when he first saw it, but it glided high in the air and sailed north in the direction of Kaitangata, sweeping west and east and finally disappearing over the horizon. About 10.30pm. Mr Smith was called out by Mr. Poulter to see the airship which had again made its appearance. This time it headed out to sea and eventually disappeared over the horizon or into the sea. As seen through the glass Mr. Smith said it appeared to be a fair size, dark superstructure with a powerful headlight and two smaller ones at the side. It might convey the impression of being under control, and likewise of moving fast. Mr Smith did not jump to any conclusions. " It was seen by people at the beach every night last week and it will probably be seen again tonight", said Mr. Smith yesterday. "If it appears again within range some of the boys are going to try to 'prick the bubble' with a bullet."
On 19 July at the coastal town of Oamaru, one hundred miles north, three residents also reported sighting a flickering light moving in the sky. From this time on reports came flooding in. On 23 July a particular well-researched sighting occurred at Kelso. A small group of school children and some residents reported that an airship came down and bobbed around in the sky over the school for a few minutes. An Otago Daily Times reporter entrained for the small town and on 28 July cabled back his report:
All those scholars who saw the ship were interrogated singly and independently and were asked to draw an impression of what they had seen. The result was six drawings, the degree of resemblance and unanimity of which was nothing short of dumb-founding to all sceptics.
Special interrogation of the boys revealed the fact that none had drawn the diagram before nor had they been interested in airships prior to witnessing this one. One of the boys in addition to the side view was able to draw it from beneath as the ship passed over his head. This showed two sails on each side. One boy drew a revolving propeller at the rear.
The report went on to say that there was a box beneath the body of the ship but no one could be seen in it. The vessel was entirely black in colour. One boy said that he had seen the propeller reverse and the vessel suddenly turned sharply. The six drawings were reproduced in the paper on 31 July. A composite of these drawings would look something like Fig 1.
On 24 July the airship was again seen near Kelso.(4) A dozen tradesmen who were working six miles away watched it through telescopes and field glasses in the early evening. They saw it about two miles away. It was cigar-shaped with a carriage suspended below it and it had a large headlight. On about this date a Riwaka resident, 600 miles north, reported seeing a light rising and falling at intervals and zig-zagging across Tasman Bay.(5) Back in the Otago area residents at Clinton were reported briefly (6) as having seen the object and heard the occupants talking.
About this time the Clutha Free Press received a letter from a correspondent who said that an airship had come down at Port Molyneux. Some Japanese occupants had alighted who had conversed with him.(7) Unfortunately no further details are available on this case.(8)
On 27 July a new type of airship was seen near Balclutha. The Clutha Leader of 30 July reported:
On Tuesday about 10.00am. Mr. Allen Mitchell, son of Mr. J. R. Mitchell, of Lambourne, and Mr. Alex Riach, while working at Lambourne near the mouth of the Pomahaka River, saw high in the air apparently over Messrs. Begg Bros. At Pukepeto a large boat-shaped structure floating in the air. It appeared to be coming straight towards them and they expected it to come over their heads in the direction of the Blue Mountains. It dipped up and down in the air with an easy motion and they could see it easily and had a good view of it, the distance away being about two and a half miles and pretty high in the air. Their first impression as to its shape were confirmed. It was distinctly boat shaped and they could see on the top of it what appeared to be a long pole. It continued with a dipping and ascending motion towards them for some time and then swerved to the left and crossed the river and headed across to Whitelea and disappeared.
At about this date at Broken River, near Lyttelton, a newspaper correspondent and other people reported (9) they had seen a bright star approach the town from the south. It stayed in the area for about an hour and at times was so bright its reflection could be seen on the hillsides.
On 28 July an airship apparently came down over the city of Dunedin. A resident in the North Eastern Valley reported (10) that he was awakened in the early hours, long before daybreak, by a peculiar noise that he took to be an earthquake. "I was awakened by a horrible noise at about two o'clock this morning," he told a reporter. "The noise was like a ship dragging her anchor up or the windlass of a steamer with dry gear wheels working. I got up and went round to the front and I saw something floating up past Knox College. It was a great big black thing with a searchlight attached."
By now the airship sensation was at its peak. Reports were flooding in to newspapers in the lower half of the South Island. The two Dunedin newspapers, the Star and the Otago Daily Times gave the sightings startling in-depth coverage. The space the stories occupied, especially on 29-31 July would be easily equivalent to full front page coverage in modern newspaper layout.
On the night of 29 July a number of people in Timaru saw a strange light over the sea moving northwards (11) and a short distance north of Temuka, a police constable and two others watched a large headlight and a smaller one behind moving about. (12) A few miles northwards at Geraldine a number of people reported (13) seeing a light in the sky. All agreed that the shape of the ship was that of a blunt-headed cigar and that it carried two searchlights, which swept the sky upwards and in various directions. On the same night two women returning from a dance at Waikaka, in Southland, reported (14) seeing lights of an airship which changed in colour from white to red to violet to green and then to orange.
A different kind of airship was reported on the afternoon of 29 July. A young man in Christchurch said (15) that he had seen a cone-shaped object in the sky, which gave the impression of being under control. That night, an airship was reported for the first time on the rugged West Coast of the South Island.(16) Passengers on the Hokitika train watched a mysterious light in the sky on approaching Greymouth. When the train arrived at Nelson Creek Station, the passengers crowded on the platform to watch. The object came inshore and descended close to the breakers. It bobbed up and down for a time and then moved off against a strong wind. The early morning of the next day saw a sighting that created great interest back in Southland. The Gore Standard reported that 'the airship' came down near Syndicate No 2 dredge working on a river in the Waikaka Valley some miles north of Gore. At about 5.00am, two lights broke through the mist and then the forms of two figures sitting in the air machine could be seen. The ship was narrow and boat-shaped. The dredge winchman, Mr F. Green, said the object came quite close to the dredge, circling around for several minutes as he and the second dredgeman watched. At times it moved very fast and then slowed, at other times it would poise itself and then dip bird-like and rise again.
The object shot up into the mist leaving a yellow glare on the haze and then reappeared in a gap in the direction of Otakarama and disappeared. The master of the dredge arrived in Gore a few days later and he confirmed that his two men had seen the object. They watched it for some time before calling him from his sleep. However by the time he had dressed, the object had gone.
On the day of this sighting the Clutha Leader published a letter from a correspondent who, like everyone else, had his own theory about the aerial visitors:
Mr. Robert Grigor, surveyor, Balclutha, propounds a new theory which is certainly as feasible as the airship theory. He writes:
"With reference to the mysterious lights as seen at Sterling, Kelso, Milton and Invercargill, I make bold in all seriousness to look at the occurance as a visitation from another world made by beings so far advanced in intellect and knowledge as at our present rate of progress in discovery and invention we may be at no very distant date.
The Chinese had a written literature 3000 years before us, and, if the progression had been made at the same rate as we are making now, what might our knowledge and power be? Unfortunately the Chinese stood comparatively in the same plane, and made little progress. Not so the beings that are now visiting us.
I do not think that we may be afraid respecting the form in which those beings may present themselves to us. In Holy Writ we are told that God created man in his own image. Is it not reasonable to suppose, with the high ideal before us, that they are men of superior intellect, endowed with wisdom and knowledge acquired in long generations through which they have progressed, and that they have been able to solve some of the natural mysteries which we have as yet been unable to grasp.
We will presume that they have been able to make a machine capable of going through space - say an airtight cylinder supplied with compressed air from their own atmosphere, capable of keeping them alive for an indefinite period, with radium as a motive power and for light. They arrive in our atmosphere in the vicinity, and are hovering around to get accustomed to our atmosphere. They see the electric light in Kaitangata and the li8ghts about the Waikaka dredges and Mataura, and they are seen at Kelso and Invercargill, which is probably the largest town they have as yet been able to discover. They seem to be able to live at an altitude of 3000ft or 4000ft and their first landing will certainly be at that height on some of our high lands.
Can we do anything for them? They may be in sore trouble after their supernatural journey. The height may be observed with an instrument and communication might be possible by captive balloon if they are not so high. Our searchlights might help and wireless telegraphy might be tried. Our present knowledge of the spectroscope could analyse the composition of the light. So many reports are now to hand that even the Government might take a part in the investigation as I think it is a matter of great importance and well worth the attention of astronomical experts. Mr. Wragge, (Clemence L. Wragge, an astronomer touring at that time) might give his version on the affair which is now exciting our district. Thousands of watchers are now on the lookout."
The Oamaru Mail of 30 July stated quite justifiably that:
There is something uncanny about the rumours that airships are hovering over the earth in the extreme north and south of this country. Airships appear, just at the moment, to be in the air. The trouble is that, not unusually, they have not cared to keep there, but have been victims of the law of gravitation. (This is a reference to the Zeppelin experiments in Germany.)
But the samples which have adorned the heavens In New Zealand appear to be less given to this fault of instability than those which have been produced in the world's greatest centers. Ours, according to all accounts, are amenable to absolute control. They show no tendency to fall and break themselves into kindling wood. The wonder is why, if, with comparatively slender resources of knowledge, mechanical ability, and money, New Zealand inventors of flying machines can succeed as well as is make out, difficulty is still experienced in the Old World in making them safe and effective.
The next day three interesting sightings were recorded. The Mataura Ensign, of Gore, report a farm-hand at Greenvale, while feeding horses in the early morning, heard a strange whirring sound which frightened the animals. On looking out he saw an airship overhead about 150ft long. It had head and tail lights and was moving so fast that when he woke up his mates the lights were faint in the distance. Also in the early morning a resident of Grosvenor St., Dunedin, reported seeing an airship. (17)
At one stage he saw a light (bright yellow) shoot up what looked like a mast and stay at the top. In the afternoon a Fairfax resident reported (18) seeing an airship while he was at Akatore. At 4.55pm. he saw a dark object shoot over the brow of the hills in the east and rapidly climb towards the west. He got a side view of the object which he described as cigar-shaped but bulkier, with a box-like structure underneath in the center.
From about this date sightings in the South Island gradually diminished. One of the last and most interesting was reported briefly by a Marlborough Sounds man who claimed he saw an airship at a low altitude. (19) When it was over his launch its occupants threw missiles at him. When they struck the water they made a strange fizzing sound before sinking. Unfortunately no further details were available on this sighting.
In the North Island meanwhile reports had started in late July and, strangely enough, from the northern region first. Lights were seen at Auckland from about 26 July although never at close range. (20)
The Thames Star reported on 31 July that the airship had been seen by two highly respected citizens. "It has come at last," said The Star, "We have been expecting the dreaded news for weeks and though we have chafed at the delay we consoled ourselves with knowledge that it was bound to come." The paper went on to say that the two residents had seen a strong light at about 1000ft circling over the town and then sailing off majestically in the direction of Miranda. The light was very strange resembling a search light, and was able to penetrate a long distance. It appeared to have a dark mass above it.
The New Zealand Herald, of Auckland, also reported that the manager of a farm at Dargaville in the north observed for about 15 minutes a cigar-shaped object which moved along the coast five miles from the shore.
On 3 August sightings
were recorded all over the Hawkes Bay area. (21) Easily the best report
came from Waipawa. The Hawkes Bay Herald, of Napier, wrote on August
He was riding near the racecourse and his horse became restive. He discovered as the cause that a large torpedo-shaped structure was passing over his head. The airship, he states, was painted grey and three persons were visible, one of whom shouted out to him in an unknown tongue. The ship rose to a great height, showing lights at prow and stern, and, after circling around, disappeared behind a hill. On the same night another resident saw a ship-like structure high in the air, whence proceeded a humming sound. The ship was so high that it appeared only a yard or so long. A faint light came from the ship. Another resident asked her husband about the same hour that night, "What is the humming noise?" Others are coming forward with evidence of seeing lights etc. Generally, however, the stories are all being received with the greatest skepticism." (22)
On 5 August a correspondent of the Wanganui Chronicle said that he had seen the airship while passing over the Wanganui bridge at about 11.30pm:
I distinctly saw a large airship flying down the river from Aramoho and passed out of sight in the direction of Castlecliff. It was flying at a height of about 200ft and I could distinctly see its two large wings, which made a hissing sound. I calculate it was traveling at 90 miles an hour at the least. It had a powerful light in the front and also one on the other side.
On the same night two "wild eyed youths" dashed into the Chronicle office at 7.00pm and said that only a quarter-of-an-hour before they had seen a huge airship passing over in the direction of Mosstown.
Orange-tinted lights were seen around Palmerston North a few days later, especially in the area of Stoney Creek. The Palmerston North Standard reported that a schoolboy who got up by mistake at 4.30pm. saw a very large orange-coloured light coming up the Manawatu River at a height of about 100ft. The light appeared to flash from side to side.
At the gold mining town of Waihi sightings were made on 9 August though none were at close range. A New Zealand Broadcasting Service documentary of 1961 ran a short interview with an elderly Waihi woman who saw the object from her front door at about 8.30pm.
"It was like a big cigar shape," she said. "Dark, was sailing along in the sky slowly. Not very quick and it had bluish green lights on the front which shone and had lights on the side. Looked like a window and behind it was a light that was leaving a trail like the Southern lights. And it wasn't traveling very fast, not like the planes of today, and there was no noise."
A day or two before the Waihi sighting, a clergyman in Melbourne, Australia, reported sighting an airship. Cabled sighting reports were also received from Mossvale and Goulburn in New South Wales.
At this point the New Zealand sightings ceased; for the rest of August no more sightings were reported. Then suddenly on 1 September an airship reappeared over Gore, in Southland, and over a period of several days was reportedly seen by hundreds of residents. (23) With this strange and fleeting reappearance the airship sightings in New Zealand ended for 1909. The New Zealand wave was preceded, as is now known, by similar sightings in Britain during March, April and May of 1909. (24) The USA experienced similar sightings from December 1909, well into 1910. (25) In 1913, unidentified dirigible shaped objects visited Southern England (26) and in 1914 South Africa. (27)
Prior to 1909, sightings of unidentified airship-type-objects were made over New Mexico in 1880 (28) and over the USA in 1896 and 1897. (29)
It is significant that the early sighting waves we know of all occurred over English speaking countries. It seems probable that the great wave which occurred between 1909 and 1914 was in fact world-wide in nature, the lack of information from other countries, being due possibly to the fact that records of such early sightings probably do not exist in many of the less developed societies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
1. Otago Daily Times,
Dunedin, 31 July 1909.