Mystery airships that filled skies of US still unexplained

Biden says he told Pentagon to shoot down the Chinese balloon

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A number of objects flying have been spotted flying in US airspace in the last few weeks. They were quickly identified as Chinese balloons, gently floating in the high atmosphere, a difficult-to-navigate space just outside of the visible atmosphere and slightly before the exosphere, the layer that separates the rest of the atmosphere from outer space. Washington swiftly shot the balloons down, at sites over Alaska and the mainland US.

But while the story has gripped the world, with many hinting that it could bring forth a new kind of aerial warfare, the US is no stranger to mysterious aircraft floating across its airspace. 

Between 1896 and 1897, the US was gripped by UFO fever. Reports about a “mysterious airship” filled the newspapers of the time, with titles from Massachusetts to Minneapolis, Ohio to California all confirming sightings.

Later described by some as the ‘Great Airship Wave’, the first sightings came in 1896, beginning in California.

On November 23, 1896, a story reported by the San Francisco Chronicle — as reported by Readex — was picked up by many newspapers all across the US. Some of the headlines read, ‘All in the Air: A Mysterious Airship Puzzles the People of California’, ‘Airship a Fact: A Son of Maine has Mastered the Secret’, and, ‘An Airship: Residents of Sacramento, Cal., Are Treated to a Rare Sight; Aerial Navigation a Reality’.

What made the reports so mysterious was not so much the fact that there was an airship but that anything was flying at all.

The Wright Brothers did not successfully fly any kind of airship until 1903, and while attempts had been made before this, like in Paris in 1852, Robert E Barthomolew, writing in his 1990 report, ‘The Airship Hysteria of 1896-97’, described those efforts as “crude and erratic at best”.

A longer news report, published in the Duluth News Tribune, on November 23, 1896, read: “About 1 o’clock last Monday morning the inhabitants of Sacramento, who were astir at that hour, claim to have seen an airship passing rapidly over the city.

“Some merely said they saw a bright light, while others went so far as to say they saw a cigar-shaped flying machine and heard human voices from it. The residents of Oakland also say they saw the same sight a few nights ago.”

This is where things get complicated. Anxious to prove to their readers that the mystery airship wasn’t a hoax, many of the newspapers included an interview with who they described as the airship’s inventor’s attorney, a Mr George D. Collins.

On November 23, 1896, the Sioux City Journal quoted him as saying: “It is perfectly true that there is at last a successful airship in existence and that California will have the honour of bringing it before the world. I have known of the affair for some time and am acting as attorney for the inventor.

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“He is a very wealthy man who has been studying the subject of flying machines for fifteen years and who came here seven years ago from the state of Maine in order to be able to perfect his ideas away from the eyes of other inventors. During the last five years, he has spent at least $100,000 on his work.

“He has not yet secured his patent, but his application is now in Washington. I cannot say much about the machine he has perfected, because he is my client and, besides, he fears that the application will be stolen from the patent office if people come to know that his invention is practicable.

“I saw the machine last week, at the inventor’s invitation. It is made of metal, is about 150 feet long and is built to carry fifteen persons. There was no motive power as far as I could see; certainly no steam.

“It is built on the aeroplane system, and has two canvas wings eighteen feet wide, and a rudder shaped like a bird’s tail. The inventor climbed into the machine and after he had been moving about the mechanism a moment, I saw the thing begin to ascend from the earth, very gently. The wings flapped slowly as it rose, and then a little faster as it began to move against the wind.”


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A Dr E.H. Benjamin, a dentist from the California region was shortly attributed as the inventor. But subsequent reports claimed that the whole debacle was fake, and sightings became less and less frequent.

But we’re not entirely sure if the attorney, or the dentist, even existed. Yellow journalism — journalism that presents little or no legitimate sources, not well-researched facts to prop up reports — was rife at the time.

By March 1987 the following year, the Idaho Daily Statesman published an article claiming that a mysterious airship had come “into view in the southeastern portion of the horizon. It was in the shape of a big, bright light, too big for a balloon, and glowed steadily.”

A few days later, on April 3, 1987, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported another sighting: “That mysterious airship still continues to show itself in the West. It was first seen in California, and it has now reached Kansas. With rare modesty, it only makes its appearance at night, and then but little of it is visible except the lights that are on board of it.

“The fact that the scores of people who have seen it at different times all agree in the descriptions which they furnish is certainly something in favour of the truth of the story. As the inventor appears to be working his way East, we, in this latitude, may soon have the opportunity of adding to the number of observers.”

Three days later it was reported to have travelled almost 1,500 miles to Oklahoma, and the Dallas Morning News published an article titled, “Strange Object Seen: And There Shall Be Signs Seen in the Heavens”. Its report read: “Soon a bright light was seen at the front of the object, which seemed to be thrown out in different directions.

“Mr Trumbull called a number of people, who watched the strange shadow object for a long time and are confident it is the mysterious airship seen at so many places during the past few weeks.

“Its outlines were indistinct but a light was thrown out from the front, and at times there were flashes of light along the sides.

“It moved swiftly backward and forward, sank almost to the ground just north of the city, and then rose straight into the air at great speed and disappeared into the darkness of the night.”

Reports like this from publications all around the US continued for the rest of April. But just as soon as they had picked up, they disappeared.

Handheld and easy-to-carry cameras had not yet been invented, so no one actually photographed the mysterious airship. Newspapers instead featured artists’ impressions, and they varied greatly.

Most of the descriptions, however, were similar: a “cigar-shaped” ship floating in the sky.

Explanations at the time were far and varied, too. Some commentators posed that the ships were visiting aliens, others claimed they were earth beings from an as-of-yet undiscovered continent.

Reports like this from publications all around the US continued for the rest of April. But just as soon as they had picked up, they disappeared.

The Dallas Morning News, which made the final report about the airship, even went so far as to suggest it had crashed into a windmill and the pilot’s funeral was happening the following day: “The ship was too badly wrecked to form any conclusion as to its construction or motive power.

“It was built of an unknown metal, resembling somewhat a mixture of aluminium and silver, and it must have weighed several tons.

“The town is full of people to-day who are viewing the wreck and gathering specimens of the strange metal from the debris. The pilot’s funeral will take place at noon to-morrow.”

No one has ever provided an answer as to what the airships were. Many contemporary scholars suggest it was a form of hysteria, much like the UFO craze that took over the US in the mid-20th century, that led people to believe something mysterious was happening.

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