On the night of 23 March 1909, a police constable named Kettle saw a most unusual thing: 'a strange, cigar-shaped craft passing over the city'1 of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. His friends were sceptical, but his story was corroborated, to an extent, by Mr Banyard and Mrs Day, both of nearby March, who separately saw something similar two nights later. In fact, these incidents were only the prelude to a series of several dozen such sightings throughout April and especially May, mostly from East Anglia and South Wales. As the London Standard noted in May, there seemed to be common features to the various eyewitness accounts:
With few exceptions they all speak of a torpedo-shaped object, possessing two powerful searchlights, which comes out early at night.2
So, what was torpedo-shaped and capable of flight in 1909? An airship, of course. The press (metropolitan and provincial) certainly assumed that the most likely explanation for these 'fly-by-nights' was an airship or airships, generally terming them 'phantom airships', 'mystery airships', 'scareships' or something similar.
But whose airship? Where was it from? There were actually very few airships operating in Britain at this time. The first edition of Jane's All the World's Air-ships, first published in 1909, listed just two, with several in the process of being built or bought. One of these was a small army airship, Baby, while the other belonged to the pioneer aviator E. T. Willows. These two small, underpowered aircraft could hardly be responsible for the mystery airship sightings, some of which took place on the same night but at widely separated locations. And although several sightings took place in and around Cardiff, near Willows' base, he was actually in London at the time, exhibiting one of his airships.
A more sinister origin for the phantom airships seemed likely. For in 1909, the world's most powerful airships were all German. Count Zeppelin's monster aircraft were as long as a battleship, could stay aloft for hours or even a day at a time, and could carry a dozen men (or an equivalent load of bombs). No other country had anything nearly so impressive; nor did any aeroplane have remotely the same performance. More importantly, the Anglo-German antagonism was now in full swing. The famous dreadnought panic ('we want eight and we won't wait') had taken place just a few months earlier; and since then certain sections of the press had been obsessed with hunting German spies, who were apparently everywhere. One of the most popular plays on the London stage in 1909 was Guy du Maurier's An Englishman's Home, which dramatised an invasion of Britain by a thinly-disguised Germany -- by now such a cliched plotline that P. G. Wodehouse felt able to parody the genre in his short story, "The swoop!" German periodicals boasted that the Zeppelin would give the British what was coming to them. So it seemed plausible that Germany was sending over its new weapons by night to spy on Britain, or even to practice navigation and bombing techniques for the war-to-come. And Conservative newspapers such as the Daily Mail did not hesitate to use the 'fact' of German aerial espionage as a cudgel with which to beat the Liberal government, for its slow progress in forming a military wing. The Wright brothers were then in London trying to sell their aeroplane to the War Office, which showed little enthusiasm, while reports came in from Germany about the wild popular enthusiasm there for Zeppelins as the answer to the Royal Navy. Little wonder then, if nervous people saw things.
Some of the sightings themselves did support the idea that Zeppelins were responsible. For example, a Mr. Egerton Free of Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, saw a long sausage-shaped airship manoeuvring over the cliffs for a few minutes at dusk. It hovered at 600 feet for a few minutes, and then departed in a north-easterly direction. The next day, Free found 'a curious object', a sort of piston weighing 35 lb and stamped with the words 'Müller Bremen Fabrik'.3 This was taken to mean that it was made in a factory in Bremen, Germany, and the War Office was reported to have confiscated it. But -- aside from the fact that investigations failed to turn up any such factory -- we now know that it was virtually impossible for German airships to have visited Britain in 1909. No German record has ever been found of such flights, which would have been would have been hazardous in the extreme for the underpowered and slow airships of that time. Also, while Essex and Norfolk were likely enough landfalls for airships crossing the North Sea from Germany, South Wales was not. And the mystery airships were almost universally seen to be carrying searchlights, which they played on the landscape below -- a common enough device in drawings of airships at this time (see image above), but not at all common in practice, and not conducive to secrecy, either.
This is all very curious. But it gets curiouser, and indeed, curiouser. The first 'curiouser' comes from the fact that 1909 was not the last year that Britain was visited by phantom airships. A well-publicised incident at Sheerness, Kent, in October 1912, where engine sounds were heard traveling overhead, led to questions being asked in Parliament. And this was followed by dozens of sightings of mystery airships in February 1913, exceeding the 1909 visitations in number and geographic spread, and at times witnessed by crowds of thousands of people. When war came, so did another spate of sightings; in August 1914, the War Office even sent one of its precious few aeroplanes to conduct a fruitless aerial search of the Lake District for the airship rumoured to be based there, and non-existent airships continued to be spotted into 1916.
The second 'curiouser' is because Britain was not the only country where mystery airships were seen. Other times and places where something comparable (multiple and often widespread sightings of non-existent aircraft) occurred include:
- Russia: 1892, 1912-3
- United States: 1896-7, 1904-10, 1914-8
- Canada: 1896-7, 1914-7
- South Africa: 1899, 1914
- France: 1903, 1912
- Denmark: 1908
- New Zealand: 1909
- Australia: 1909
- Sweden: 1909
- Belgium: 1913
- Netherlands: 1913
- Germany: 1913
- Romania: 1913
- Austria-Hungary: 1913
- Norway: 1914-6
Forget about old, weird America -- there's clearly an old, weird world thing going on here. A veritable Scareship Age, in fact, 1892-1918. Later instances could be adduced (the Scandinavian ghost flyer of 1932-4, the Battle of Los Angeles in 1942, the Scandinavian and Greek ghost rockets of 1946) but clearly, activity peaked during the years of flight's infancy.
Many of these episodes can be correlated with wars or war scares. For example, the South African sightings of 1899 took place after Boer officials were warned to be on the lookout for (non-existent) British airships, while those of 1914 were commonly thought to be (actually existing) aeroplanes from neighbouring German South-West Africa, although the range was far too great for this to be possible. Germany's own phantom airships included a supposed Russian airship and an airship crashing in flames into a forest, perhaps seen as the beginning of another Echterdingen miracle.
But others have little to do with war. In particular, the American waves before the First World War were not fearful reactions to foreign aviation developments, but joyous affirmations of native technical genius. For easily the most common explanation given for the presence of an airship was that some lone inventor had been tinkering away for years in a barn, and was now taking his machine out for a series of test flights. For example, the mystery aircraft seen by thousands of New Englanders in December 1909 was reputed to belong to a local businessman, Wallace E. Tillinghast, who told a journalist that he had flown it from Worcester, Massachusetts to New York City (and once around the Statue of Liberty!) But just as with the British phantom airships, the popular explanation does not hold water, for no evidence in support of any of these rumoured inventors has ever subsequently come to light. And the large number of simultaneous (or nearly so) sightings makes it impossible to believe that so many secret aircraft were out and about on the same night. For example, on 23 December 1909, an airship-with-searchlight was reported to have flown off into the west from Marlboro, Massachusetts in the late evening; while another was seen to do the same thing from Southbridge, 40 miles away -- while yet another was seen late that night over Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. (By the way, night flights were a extremely hazardous undertakings for aeroplanes at this time, the first (known!) one took place in Argentina the following March, though I think Zeppelins had already performed this feat.)
So, this is where Joseph Corn's idea about the essential difference in the popular response to aviation between Britain and America comes into play. Americans were essentially optimistic about the coming of flight. In seeing airships that weren't actually there, they were affirming their faith in the beneficial nature of aviation, and in their nation's ability to master it. But when Britons saw airships that weren't there, they were projecting their fears of foreign invasion and domination onto the night sky. Very early on, it seems, the British learned to associate aircraft with danger, not opportunity.
It's not quite that simple, of course. For one thing, it is possible to find more optimistic interpretations of the British scareships. Some newspapers did speculate that it was a local invention, in particular the Liberal Manchester Guardian; but this was not the majority viewpoint, and it certainly wasn't the "obvious" one. Similarly, one explanation proffered during the massive series of sightings in the United States in 1896-7 was that the airship was a new weapon being developed for use by Cuban rebels against Spain. Even then, however, it was still a reassuringly American invention. It should also be noted out that strange lights in the sky were not always thought to be man-made machines; those seen at Egryn in North Wales in 1905 were interpreted against the backdrop of the Welsh Revival then sweeping the land. Even Martians were invoked, on occasion, or remnants of the lost tribe of Israel (!) Such alternatives seem to have been more the exception than the rule during the Scareship Age.
Another problem is that nearly all we know about the phantom airships comes from contemporary newspaper accounts, and it's not clear how far these can be trusted. In 1966, for example, a journalist in New Zealand tracked down and interviewed four of the surviving witnesses to one of the spectacular airship sightings of 1909. They had been children at the time, and could remember all the fuss and excitement; but although they had been named and quoted in contemporary newspaper reports, only one could remember actually having seen anything. And journalists were not above outright fabrication: the Aurora, Texas airship crash of 1897 was invented by one such scribe. And of course, even when the witnesses were real, their stories may not have been. Moreover, just because the newspapers thought the phantom airships belonged to German spies or American inventors doesn't necessarily mean that all their readers did too. But at least some did. A Great Yarmouth, Norfolk man wondered 'What are the Germans up to?'4 when he heard the sound of an engine overhead, and this appears to be what most other people were wondering too.
The astute reader will notice that I haven't speculated as to what people were actually seeing, since in the vast majority of cases they can't possibly have seen what they thought they were seeing. The reason is that for my purpose here, belief matters more than reality. And that belief appears to have been shaped by national political and cultural characteristics, hope and paranoia, which shaped what the Manchester Guardian called 'The gathering cloud of rumour'.5 Real or not, the phantom airships were direct reflections of their age: the Scareship Age.
Some suggested reading: on the British scareships, Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989) and David Clarke, Scareships over Britain: the airship wave of 1909, Fortean Studies 6 (1999), 39-63; on the 1909 New England wave, Stephen Whalen and Robert E. Bartholomew, "The great New England airship hoax of 1909", New England Quarterly 75 (2002), 466-76; on phantom airships in the English-speaking world more generally, Nigel Watson, The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Worldwide Phantom Airship Scares (1909-1918) (Corby: Domra, 2000).
Image source: R. P. Hearne, Aerial Warfare (London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1909), front cover.