The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — I

The Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918 had its parallel in New Zealand, where there were even fewer real aeroplanes to confuse the issue: no military aviation at all and just two privately-owned flying schools. Here I'll track how the scare was reported in the press (repeating myself, somewhat) from the start of 1918 up until late March/early April, when there seems to be a qualitative change in the coverage; in following posts I'll examine later press responses as well as the archival evidence.

The earliest sighting I've found reported in 1918 actually took place on the last day of 1917, at Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island, where

A number of local residents are emphatic in saying they observed an aeroplane flying from the direction of Oropi on Monday evening [31 December 1917] at 9 30 o'clock. A party of four ladies, just after leaving the Methodist Church, and when opposite Mr Carmichael's residence in Devonport Road, noticed brilliant lights in the sky and a little later distinctly observed the wings of an aeroplane. The machine was travelling at a rapid rate and followed a course on the eastern side of the harbour, disappearing from view to the northward. It was flying at a great height. The members of the party are positive that the object was an aeroplane.1

There weren't any more mystery aeroplanes for a full two months, until 1 March. Then, at Tahuna, a suburb of Nelson at the north end of the South Island, a woman who had been out for an early-morning swim reported that 'on looking out to sea she saw two seaplanes quite distinctly. They were flying together near the surface of the water, and then separated, one going in the direction of the eastern hills', eventually being lost in the clouds.2 She was described as 'rather diffident about telling the story', but also as 'so positive as to what she had seen that she spoke to the press 'in order to ascertain if the planes had been seen by anyone else'.3 An earlier rumour 'that a seaplane had been seen in the Sounds' had been laughed off.4

A week later at Christchurch (also on the South Island, about 250km away but on the other side of the Southern Alps),

What appeared to be an aeroplane with lights was seen by several people in the city yesterday evening [5 March 1918] between 7 o'clock and 7.15. It seemed to be travelling in a south-westerly direction, at a rate estimated at something like 20 miles an hour, and was at a considerable height. To some, at first sight, it looked like a planet, but its fairly rapid movement dispelled that idea. Others surmised that it was a fire balloon, but to other observers it looked like an aircraft under control.5

After seeming 'to pass along the edge of a dark bank of cloud in the southern sky' it was lost to sight.6 The Sockburn flying school was contacted but disclaimed responsibility.7 This report prompted a letter to the Press, signed 'Leestonian', asking if anyone else had seen 'a well-lighted aeroplane late at night south-west of Christchurch? Repeatedly, during the moonlight cloudless nights lately, the members of our household have watched this visitor, and towards morning apparently as far south as the Ninety-mile beach it was seen distinctly'.8 On 11 March, it was reported that 'For several evenings, about 7.30 o'clock, a bright light has come from the east, starting near Sumner, and going rapidly west [...] On Friday night [8 March 1918] it appeared between 7.15 and 7.30, passed over the southern part of the city at a great height, and gradually disappeared in banks of western cloud'.9 However, by now scepticism had set in, as it was said that fire balloons were 'evidently' the cause: 'There appears to be no doubt that the liberation of fire balloons recently has given rise to tales of mysterious aeroplanes'.10 The reports were met with amusement in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, where the Observer's 'They Say' column (a mixture of jokes, gossip and commentary) reported that 'Mysterious aeroplanes have been seen flying over Christchurch. Travellers from the south report that Christchurch is importing a brand of whisky warranted to create Zeppelins, let alone Gothas'.11

The next mystery aeroplane reports came from the Bay of Plenty area once again, near the end of March. The Auckland Star reported that 'Two different persons claim to have to seen an aeroplane yesterday [26 March 1918] flying over the sparsely populated back country of Waingarara [...] in a southerly direction towards Urewera' at around 1pm, and that 'In one instance the noise of the engines drew the observer's attention to the machine'. Apparently 'The strange aeroplane is not one of those belonging to the Kohimarama Flying School'.12 Further details soon emerged: the 'aeroplane had been seen during the day hovering over Taneatua' and environs; one of the witnesses was a man named McGougan and two stationhands employed by P. Keeghan; and news of the aeroplane 'was sent around by telephone to the inhabitants of the district'.13 However, according to T. M. Wilford, Minister of Justice, 'the Commissioner of Police had reported to him that enquiries had been made into the story. The particular individuals who were supposed to have seen an aeroplane had been interviewed, and not one of them had heard or seen the alleged aeroplane'.14

Around about this time, at the end of March and the start of April, there was a change in the way the press treated mystery aircraft stories, which I'll discuss in another post.


  1. Bay of Plenty Times (Tauranga), 4 January 1918, 2

  2. Colonist (Nelson), 2 March 1918, 2

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Press (Christchurch), 6 March 1918, 6

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 8 March 1918, 7. I'm not sure which 'Ninety-mile beach' this is -- it's obviously not the famous one at the northern tip of the North Island. 

  9. Auckland Star, 11 March 1918, 4

  10. Ibid. 

  11. New Zealand Observer (Auckland), 16 March 1918, 7

  12. Auckland Star, 27 March 1918, 2

  13. New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 28 March 1918, 6

  14. Evening Post (Wellington), 5 April 1918, 6

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4 thoughts on “The mystery aeroplane scare in New Zealand — I

  1. What amazes me, as in the case of the British Columbian mysery airship thing, is that we're talking about such small populations. I suppose that we're getting closer to the case where we can say that, at some point during these scares, everyone was seeing (or, rather, dreaming) mystery planes.

  2. Post author

    Errol:

    Thanks, that's something anyway. I wonder what the deal is with 90-mile beaches -- there's one in Gippsland, too, which is 94 miles long, whereas the North Island one is only 55 miles long. Then again, 80 Mile Beach in WA is actually 140 miles long...

    Erik:

    I think it's a still a long way off saturation, even in the smaller communities (though in the next post in the series I'll discuss indications in the press that thousands of people were seeing these things; the published reports seem to have been only the tip of the iceberg, as was definitely the case in Australia). But I suspect knowledge of the sightings did reach saturation, via the bush telegraph (e.g. the passing of rumour by telephone, as indicated in the Bay of Plenty hoax story). Which would indeed be necessary (assuming that the mystery aeroplanes weren't actually there) for a true epidemic to break out.

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