Where again?


View Mystery aircraft, Australia, 1918 in a larger map

My next step in characterising the 1918 Australian mystery aircraft scare was to plot all the sightings Google Maps, which you can see above. I've used differently-coloured icons for different time periods to give an idea of the progression over the course of 1918: blue is January and February; red, March; green, April; cyan, May; yellow, June; purple, July; magenta, August through November. There are too many for Google Maps to show at once in an embedded map (without me learning JavaScript) but the rest can be seen here. Each icon is named for the location and has an attached date, but no other information. I dithered over which map mode to use but in the end settled on good old satellite mode, as it gives an idea of the terrain but also has good social data such as roads and towns (even if these are from 2012, not 1918). Of course you can switch between them yourself.


View Mystery aircraft, Australia, 1914 in a larger map

I've made similar maps for the other war years, without colour-coding by month as there were too few sightings to warrant it. The maps for 1915 and 1916 are for the same reason very uninteresting, so I won't embed them here. The 1914 map is above; the 1917 one below.


View Mystery aircraft, Australia, 1917 in a larger map

As I've discussed, the date is often vague and at this level that applies to the location too. The information provided in the intelligence files is usually reasonably specific as to the town or locality; in only one case was I unable to find, even roughly, the place where a mystery aircraft was said to be seen ('Reef Creek, South East district, SA'; it's not in the national gazetteer or the state one). But below that level it's more variable. Sometimes there were sightings outside towns, on roads or railways or from remote properties. Again I've not been very fussy about this and have generally gone with however the sighting was classed at the time. For example, an aeroplane was reported to have chased a train early one morning from Kaniva to Dimboola. Where do I place the marker: Kaniva, Dimboola, or somewhere in between? I put it on Dimboola because that's where the Navy's index lists it, probably because that's where the police report came from. Also, sometimes the information I have only states where the aircraft was thought to be, not where it was seen from, and that is an estimation fraught with observer bias. So what I'm saying is don't place too much faith in my icon placement. It's another one of those things I don't care about too much -- it's not terribly important to me to be able to distinguish between a sighting in Hope Street or one in Smith Avenue, at this point what I'm trying to see are any large-scale patterns.

And for that it has been useful. It was already clear that Victoria was far and away where most of the mystery aircraft were seen in 1918, with NSW second (Terrigal/Terrigal Haven alone had eleven reports, though only three involved people other than the Moir family or Gunner Naughton) and the other states a long way behind. The map reinforces that impression; but it does more, because it shows that within Victoria some areas were favoured much more than others. Zooming in helps here:


View Mystery aircraft, Australia, 1918 in a larger map

There were no mystery aircraft reported from the Riverina region in the north, nor from the central area around Bendigo or the Alps (of course, there weren't many people living there either). The northeast had only a handful. By contrast, the Mallee and the Wimmera in the west of the state had a significant number of sightings. The red icons in the northeast mostly mark sightings which fell on the same day early in the scare, 21 March, including one by a policeman: it was taken very seriously and a pair of investigators came up from Melbourne travelling through the Mallee seeking out witnesses. There was another burst around Ouyen a month later. The activity in Wimmera included hotspots at Casterton (three sightings) and Hamilton (four), and the only occasion when an aeroplane was seen to land (according to the press, anyway; the eyewitnesses, a drover and a boy, said no such thing when they were eventually interviewed by police and military intelligence).

But the real heartland was the arc from the Kinglake ranges north of Melbourne, through Melbourne itself and right around the southeast coast to Orbost in Gippsland, also taking in the Latrobe Valley inland. Again there are many hotspots within this area: Bairnsdale with at least five sightings was the most visited by mystery aircraft in the whole state, though the first was not until May, quite late in the scare. Inverloch had four, Sale, Orbost and Yarram three. While Melbourne is massively underrepresented, given that in 1918 it had 51% of the state's population, given the difficulty of seeing anything at all in an urban night sky I think it had a reasonable amount, including one from West Footscray where I lived as a child; 'Anxious' of Brighton wrote in to the Herald (which passed the letter on to the censor) to ask whether the 'mysterious aeroplane' they had seen early on 7 May 'might be the German one that is about'. What was going on in these places? Why were they so prone to mystery aeroplane sightings? I don't have an answer, and I may not ever have a convincing one, but it's time to start digging deeper.

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