At the start of the twentieth century, flying was the latest in a number of new technologies to capture public imagination. The American Wright Brothers are recognised as first to invent and fly a heavier-than-air craft in 1903, although Canterbury’s Richard Pearse is said by some to have beaten the Wrights at taking to the air. In Europe, German Count Zeppelin’s airships were flying from 1900.
Between June and August of 1909, a wave of mysterious aircraft sightings were reported in New Zealand. Beginning in Southland and travelling up the country, making stops both urban and rural areas, the craft was described as egg or cigar-shaped, equipped with lights and an undercarriage, and flew completely silently. Reflecting concerns of the time, hundreds of onlookers and the media speculated the machine and its crew may have been local inventors, Martians, or German intelligence-gatherers.
In a July report, children and adults at Kelso School in Otago saw the craft with crew in broad daylight one Friday lunchtime, and it was also seen the next day. Scientific explanations (fire balloons, flocks of birds) failed to quell what was becoming a frenzy. The Reverend P W Fairclough’s letter calling for calm was published nationally. “The airship craze is getting beyond a joke. There is a danger of our level-headed community becoming a laughing-stock not only to New Zealand, but to Australia and even to the greater world beyond… I hope this extraordinary popular delusion will speedily sink”. In Whanganui, the Chronicle took a dismissive tone, noting “there is nothing convincing to report”. But within weeks, the airship arrived in local skies.
On the evening of 3 August, “two wild-eyed youths dashed into the Chronicle office” reporting a “huge airship” passing over Mosston. Another eyewitness on the Town Bridge reported seeing an airship fly down river from Aramoho towards Castlecliff: “It was flying at a height of about two hundred feet and I could distinctly see its two large wings, which made a hissing sound … Sir, seeing is believing”. Two members of the telephone exchange had watched lights travel over Durie Hill the night before, and Feilding residents also saw them.
On Wednesday 11 August at 3.25am, Charlie Baker of Taylorville was “waiting for a lady friend coming from a party” when he saw a well-lit airship travel towards town from Maxwell, stop over Durie Hill and return the same way. Travelling to where he thought the airship stopped, he found no trace of its visit, aside from a milkman who saw it as well, but concluded, “I am quite satisfied now there is something in these strange sights after all”.
Suddenly, in mid-August, sightings in New Zealand ceased. From September 1909, the mystery airships moved to Australia, and a large wave of sightings in Britain was reported in 1913 amidst fear and rumours of war with Germany. There were also sightings in Canada and South Africa.
New Zealanders struggled to explain the phenomenon in 1909, and an explanation has never been found. The likeliest is that most people saw nothing at all, and were influenced by current events and the exaggerated reports of others. The timing of the sightings is interesting; they took place only months after a rare meteorite landed off the coast of Castlecliff, and less than a year after the massive impact event in Tunguska, Siberia. In a period when humans were taking to the skies – and the skies were coming to humans – airship visitors from parts unknown were not as far-fetched as we might think!
Scott Flutey is a Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.