Mysterious Airships and Phantom Flying Machines

Mysterious airship flap 1896-1897

A mystery airship

What was roaming the skies between 1896 and 1915? Were they airships created by some mad and secretive inventor? Mysteriously technologically-advanced airplanes? Ghost blimps from past conflicts? On this 80th anniversary of the crash of the USS Akron**, we look at some mysterious flying machines.

There were two important mystery airship flaps: one in 1896-97 and the other in 1909. A case could also be made for a flap just before the Great War. I do not claim that any or all of these are true reports. Contemporary hoax reports were rampant.  There are many sites online devoted to mystery airships and early UFO reports. And while I have not had time to study all of them in detail for duplications of my postings,  I will be pleased if any of these reports are new to enthusiasts.

A caveat: One slight difficulty in studying airship reports is that the term seems to have been used interchangeably for any sort of aerial craft: balloons, aeroplanes, dirigibles, and blimps.

 Mysterious Dirigible Balloon Passes Over Chattanooga.

Chattanooga, Jan. 14. A white dirigible balloon coming from the south, passed over Chattanooga at 11 o’clock this morning. A man was discernible in it. Winston-Salem [NC] Journal 15 January 1910: p. 8

I do not have space to quote the myriad of 1896-97 reports (see the sources at the end of the post), but here is a contemporary editorial expressing skepticism, even if it is a slam at a rival paper.

The Galveston News has been regaling its readers of late with voluminous dispatches from its corps of correspondents describing a mysterious flying machine that is alleged to be hovering over Texas, and seen at many places. A paper that resorts to such fakes to interest readers who pay for news is indeed heard up. It would be more interesting for the News’s editors and its correspondents to get on a jag and describe the different species of animals they saw in their deliriums. Beeville [TX] Bee 23 April 1897: p. 2

Searchlights are a common feature of aerial invaders, whether aeroplane or airship.


Wilson, Sept. 9 Thursday night about 8:15 o’clock quite a number of Wilsonians witnessed an unusual sight in the northern heavens. They aver that they saw an aeroplane which seemed to be about four hundred feet up in the air going at a rapid rate of speed in a northeasterly direction, and that flashes from a powerful searchlight cut the air in every direction. Charlotte [NC] Observer 10 September 1916: p. 6


Great Dirigible Said to Be Making Night Trips Over Desert

Los Angeles, Sept. 8. That a mysterious dirigible airship flies almost nightly at great speed over the desert, south of Parker, Ariz., sweeping the country with powerful searchlights, was the assertion here today of A.W. Martin, president of the Vista Land company. Dr. E.J. Vermilyea of Redlands and H.E. Olund, superintendent of the Calzona Mines company. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 8 September 1915: p. 1
[Why do I think this was a squib designed to get the names of the Vista Land and Calzona Mines companies in front of a gullible public?]

On the other hand, this earlier article, quoted from the Washington Post suggests why airships might have business over the desert:

Aerial Smuggling

From the Washington Star

Ever since large dirigible balloons were perfected there have been visions of up-to-date smuggling by means of these machines. English cartoonists have been varying this theme with a series of pictures showing how the customs may be evaded by modern scientific methods. The possibility is not at all remote that any country that has a land boundary or an easily crossed water border may in a few years be exposed to invasion by the tariff dodgers in gas bag and aeroplane. An illustration of this is afforded in the course of a dispatch from Eagle Pass, Tex., which avers that guns and ammunition have been for some time conveyed from that state into Mexico by means of an airship. Reports are in circulation that a mysterious dirigible has been making nocturnal flights recently and it is hinted that the Mexican government is deeply interested in the character of its cargo.

This may well give the fiscal authorities of the United States concern. Our Canadian border is long and difficult of patrol. If the dirigible is developed, as now promises, to the point of freight-carrying capacity, what is to prevent an enterprising importer from running light goods of a highly dutiable character into the Dominion and transhipping them from some point near the boundary into the United States by the aerial route? Must this government establish a chain of searchlights and airship guns along the entire border from Lake Superior to Puget sound and patrol the great lakes and the St. Lawrence river with high-firing gun boats?

Considering what enterprise is shown by smugglers nowadays in the effort to get past the  inspectors, it is hardly to be doubted that some use will be made of the dirigible or the aeroplane in this same behalf. It is quite within the possibilities that this country may have to reorganize its customs service in order to cope with modern conditions. Colorado Springs [CO] Gazette 10 September 1909: p. 8

Sometimes the phantom aerialists share traits with Ivan Sanderson’s USOs, seen coming and going from various bodies of water:

Mysterious Dirigible Goes in to the Water off Wolfe Island

Whether persons along the lake front of Kingston, Ont., Tuesday afternoon saw a mirage or whether Ontario beverages proved too heavy for them is uncertain but at any rate there are those who vouch for the truth of the tale of the landing of a huge dirigible balloon off the Wolfe Island shore. Those who claim they saw the big ship saw she swooped down over the lake without a moment’s notice and then with a rush dropped into the lake and disappeared beneath the waves.

As soon as the news spread of the appearance of an airship the shore was lined with curious folks who at once attributed the presence of the big balloon to the Kansas City National Elimination race in which seven balloons left the latter part of last week on endurance and long distance flights. It was believed that this was the “Uncle Sam” one of the leading entries in the big race.

Several small lake craft put out to the scene of the balloon plunge but found nothing. No trace of the aircraft could be found with field glasses and nothing was seen after of the occupants who occupied the basket of the ship, according to the story.

All of the entries in the balloon race have been located, the one making the longest flight landing on the battlefield of Bull Run in northern Virginia. The others landed in Michigan and that part of the country. Waterdown [NY] Daily Times 1 August 1912: p. 9

Reports of strange lights over Lake Erie continue to this day:


The Mysterious Flying Machine Said to Have Been Seen near There, Headed for Lake Erie.

Special Dispatch to the Leader.

Sharon, Pa., April 22. Jay Latimere and C.W. Wallace of this place, and Attorney E.E. Andrews, of Youngstown, O., claim that the air ship passed over this part of the State last evening about dusk, at a height of about 2,000 feet and was headed for Lake Erie.

It was running at a high rate of speed. They say three men were on board, and the ship was plainly visible. They are reliable citizens and their story is generally believed. Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 April 1897: p. 1

This article is rude about the Irish:

Another Strange Flying Machine Is Seen Over Ireland

London, Aug. 21. The latest account of a mysterious flying machine comes from Mount Charles, County Donegal.

The story, which deals with the usual cigar-shaped airship, commenced early Tuesday morning, when the mysterious shape was seen moving slowly over the district.

This must have been very early indeed for the next sentence in the report says:

“At half past five it was distinctly seen moving slowly.”

The inhabitants of Mount Charles must be partial to the early dip, for the reporter adds: “Early bathers were first attracted by the whirl of the propellers, but in a short time many residents turned out and had a clear view of the cigar-shaped flyer going on its way.”

The villagers heard the voices of the occupants of the car very plainly, the story ends. Even the Hibernia county reporter gives no hint of the voices having a guttural inflection.

It may be mentioned that Mount Charles is a small one-street village about three and one-half miles from the town of Donegal, on the narrow gauge railway which runs from Londonderry to Killybegs. Denver [CO] Post 22 August1909: p. 24


Seen at Night Hovering Over the Salton Sea by Many Has Large Wings

Los Angeles, Cal., June 4. A special dispatch to the Times from El Centro says:

“All Imperial Valley is excited over reports of a mysterious airship which is making nightly flights over Salton sea.

“At first the ship appeared to be stationary at a point directly over Salton sea, near the intake of the Alamo and new Rivers. Then it began a rapid flight, passing directly across Salton sea an disappearing in the shadow of the San Jacinto mountains.

“At Brawley a party of twenty men is said to have observed the machine through field glasses. Its appearance was that of a basket fastened between two wide wings, and when the turn was made it is said the propeller could be plainly seen. The observers were unable to distinguish any person in the basket.” Jonesboro [AR] Evening Sun 5 June 1909: p. 1

A curious report of a wrecked airship/triplane near Hammond, Indiana.


Hammond, Ind., Hunters Come Across Flyer’s Remnants Abandoned by Mysterious Aeronaut.

Chicago, Dec. 10. Remnants of a wrecked airship were discovered by two Hammond, Ind., men on the sand dunes west of the town. Edward Schottler and A.O. Mitchell, who were on a hunting expedition came across a mass of rubber canvas, bamboo sticks and aluminium rods which they believe once formed a triplane.

“The apparatus looked as though it had fallen a hundred feet or so, because it was broken almost into kindling wood,” said Schottler.

“Persons in the neighbourhood old us a mysterious aeronaut had been experimenting there for a week or ten days. He probably abandoned his flyer after it was wrecked by a fall.”  Bay City [MI] Times 10 December 1909: p. 11

Lights in the sky are too often ambiguous (just ask the police about UFO reports on the planet Venus.)


Strange Object in Northeast Skies Causes Much Speculation.

Many residents of Portland last night were interested in a strange constellation just above the horizon in the northwest. It was visible for about two hours. The spectacle resembled an arc light with the globe broken. Rays shot from the brilliant object and at times formed a tail much like a comet.

There was wild speculation about the identity of the object. Some thought it was a comet, others that it was a meteor, and wild guessers had it a mysterious flying machine with a glaring headlight. There were others who thought it a bad omen and the superstitious were of the opinion that the world was coming to an end. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 10 May1911: p. 1

A novel theory of phantom airships:


That, or German Machine Reconnoitring—Anyway, Some Kind of Aerial Visitor Has Excited Buckingham.

Arvonia, Va., December 19. All the northeastern end of Buckingham County is excited over a most remarkable aerial visitation of some kind which occurred on Thursday night about 10 o’clock, and created such noise that whole countrysides were aroused and alarmed. Many stoutly contend that it was an aeroplane or Zeppelin, as lights fore and aft were observed and the chug of engines could be heard. Why they were sailing at night and in such cold is a mystery. Others say they heard vast volleys of shooting in the heavens, like a company of fifty men firing simultaneously. Others say the noise was that of thunder. Several say they saw at least three distinct lights pass in the heavens.

Three men, who were passing in the road at a late hour, say they saw the air craft, and that it fell with a loud noise in a field between Arvonia and New Canton. They did not investigate the matter, but instead went in the other direction rapidly.

The phenomenon could not have been a hoax or anything like an aerial toy, as it was seen and observed over a wide extent of territory, and everywhere it created intense excitement.

Some think it was an aeroplane, others say it was a Zeppelin airship. Many who know little of geographical conditions say they are certain it was a German aircraft reconnoitring. Still others who are superstitiously inclined, say it was a phantom airship, perhaps the ghost of one of those destroyed in the European war. The best informed think it was a most remarkable aerolite or meteor accompanied by noise like that of shooting.

The United States Weather Bureau has been asked to investigate the matter and determine, if possible, just what the strange occurrence could have been. Richmond [VA] Times Dispatch, 20 December 1914: p. 8

The spying-German-airship motif is repeated in 1915:


Stoutly Aver That a Mysterious Airship is Hovering Over That Place

The “phantom” airship that has been seen by several Miami persons in the vicinity of Cocoanut Grove and fling out above the ocean, was the cause of considerable excitement at Ojus yesterday afternoon, when the machine is said to have circled the town several times, and then to have flown off in an easterly direction.

The station agent of the Florida East Coast Railway company telephoned the local offices that the huge machine flew over Ojus at the height of about seventy or eighty-five feet and apparently was about 50 feet in length, beneath which was some sort of apparatus, which appeared to be a boat.

The airship was seen fling over Cocoanut Grove last Saturday night by several residents of that section, who state that it had large blue lights at the rear and was traveling at an enormous rate of speed. Thus far it has been impossible to ascertain whose machine it is, and what its mission is in this section. Some of those who have seen it believe it to be a German Zeppelin, or spy craft, while others are inclined to the belief that it is one of the government’s flying machines from the aeronautical station at Pensacola.

According to the station agent at Ojus, the airship flew in plain sight of the people all over that place yesterday, took an easterly course and soon disappeared. It was seen in that neighbourhood, the agent said one or two afternoons of last week, and after making off to the east, would return, only to head towards the Everglades.

Thus far, nobody has been discovered who might know something of the air craft, and efforts to locate someone that has seen it alight have proven unavailing. Miami [FL] Herald 27 July 1915: p. 6

An airship was seen to crash in West Virginia in October of 1931. Here are a number of articles on the mystery.

Many of the histories of the USS Akron mention its multiple accidents and fatalities. I wondered if she had been termed a “hoodoo ship” at the time, but could find no evidence. This editorial from the Canton Repository, printed less than a year before the final crash seems to be trying to rationalize away the difficulties: 

Cursed With Attention.

The United States owns and operates the largest rigid airship in the world. Naturally pride in this unique possession is augmented by the fact that the ship also was built in this country.

But the United States also owns and operates the most avid curiosity in the world, which is a fact not entirely fortunate in cases where the largest airship is concerned. There can be such a thing as too much attention.

Curiosity made trouble a few months ago when a band of sceptical congressmen decided to take a ride in the Akron to test her airworthiness. It did not matter that they knew not the first thing about airships. Neither did it matter that the day they were to take their ride, the ship snapped a cable and broke off its rudder before a frantic crew could get control of its vast bulk again. That was the taxpayers’ tough luck.

When it was announced that the ship would fly across the continent to take part in the naval manoeuvres off the coast of California, curiosity was freshened again, this time on a big scale. For four anxious days and n nights the public has hung on news of the Akron’s progress. No fact and few conjectures have been passed by. It has been a splendid nervous experience.

Despite the fact that the ship is safe, the impression has been left that facilities for handling it on the ground are woefully inadequate. It has injured a number of men and killed two. Out of its natural element, the air, it seems too big to handle. It is destined to make endless trouble.

This is going to be the cause of a deplorably large amount of public worrying as the Akron gets about the country in the next few years. No detail of trouble will develop that won’t be seized upon immediately by the semi-professional fretters. If ever an instrument of national device was cursed by too much attention, it is the Akron—pride and joy of a nation whose curiosity knows no restraint. Repository [Canton, OH] 13 May 1932: p. 4

On the other hand, after the deadly crash, Admiral Richard E. Byrd came right out and said what was on peoples’ minds. When asked whether he thought the mishap would wreck the airship program, he responded:

“You bet it will; there seems to be a hoodoo on the airship, one thing right after another is happening to them. I can’t understand what happened to the Akron. I just can’t understand it.” Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 4 April 1933

The Admiral was correct about the airship program’s demise, although we cannot say whether the USS Akron was truly a “hoodoo airship.”  Still, its loss and the crash of its sister ship, the USS Macon in 1935, doomed the US military airship program.


Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery, Michael Busby

The Secrets of Dellschau: The Sonora Aero Club and the Airships of the 1800s, A True Story, Dennis Crenshaw.

“The New England Airship Invasion of 1909,” Joseph Trainor in Fortean Studies, No. 1, 1994

The Scareship Mystery, A Survey of Phantom Airship Scares 1909-1918, Nigel Watson

You’ll find several mysterious flying ships and Lake Erie lights in The Headless Horror in the chapter called “The Bloody Hand of Findlay: And Other Mysteries in the Skies. In Haunted Ohio II, I tell the story of the mysterious fate of “The Ghost Blimp” also known as L-8 and America.  For the strange story of inventor John Van Valkenburg and his mysterious 1917 Wonderplane, see my post here.

**The tragedy commemorated today is of the crash of the USS Akron, which claimed 73 lives.  One of the victims was Rear Admiral Moffatt, a proponent of the United States military rigid airship program, which soon became a secondary casualty of this accident. In a terrible irony, some men who died in the Akron had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah in 1925.

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