It is seventy years since since 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold saw nine crescent-shaped objects flying at high speed past Mt Rainier; in other words, seventy years since the emergence of the UFO phenomenon. Often, when I talk or write about phantom airships, the topic of UFOs comes up, and with good reason. The similarities are obvious: both modern UFOs and the earlier mystery aircraft are to a large extent unknown objects seen in the sky, upon which we project our own fears and fantasies. Once those fears and fantasies reflected the concerns caused by coming of flight; then they reflected the concerns of the dawn of the rocket/atomic age.
And yet, when the topic of UFOs does come up, for the most part I will do no more than note the obvious correspondences, and disclaim any interest in the modern manifestation of the phenomenon. In other words, I run the other way. So why is that?
Well, firstly, I am being slightly disingenuous when I say I'm not interested. After all, it was through a youthful interest in UFOs that I became interested in phantom airships, by way of a brief period volunteering for Project 1947, an attempt to collate press reports of UFOs particularly from 1947 and before. This was back in the microfilm era of newspaper research; I put in a lot of effort looking through Australian newspapers looking for UFO accounts without much gain. My one significant find -- a sighting by multiple witnesses of five egg-shaped objects gliding above Port Augusta in broad daylight in February 1947 -- seems to have itself been lost in the archives, because it was independently rediscovered a few years later. I'd already moved on by that point, but Project 1947 did introduce me to the study of phantom airships.
So why did I move on? Partly for the reason most people probably wouldn't go near the subject in the first place. While I respect the work done by Project 1947 and similar groups, like Magonia Exchange, as well as some individual researchers who take a rational approach, ufology as a whole is a clown parade. Tagging along is a good way to lose your bearings. All the raking over of old cases does not seem likely to ever produce anything of lasting value. If there is ever a breakthrough in what all these sightings really are, it will come from outside ufology: from science, most likely. I doubt it's anything particularly extraordinary, if there is anything left after misperception and hoaxing.
The other, perhaps more principled reason I don't get involved with UFOs is that they are not quite the same thing as mystery aircraft, in the same way that PTSD and shell shock are not quite the same thing. That is to say, they are clearly related, overlapping phenomena but they are also culture-bound, and that's precisely the part that interests me. The first UFO waves are perhaps a recognisable continuation of mystery aircraft scares, with theories about local inventors or German airships replaced by ones about Russian rockets or alien spacecraft. But they evolved into something much bigger, a far more complex cultural phenomenon ranging across different media from books to comics to film to music to (now) the internet, connecting to a whole spectrum of weird ideas from alien abduction to cattle mutilations to space Nazis (and many, many more). Where the phantom airship waves came and went with little lasting impression on public memory (there were no airshipologists, as somebody once said), UFOs have remained in common awareness for most of the last two generations; understanding the one doesn't necessarily help in understanding the other.
In the end I'm not so interested in the things themselves, as what they reveal about the societies that see them. So, as a historian of Britain and of aviation, it's mystery aircraft for me.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (widely claimed to be an 1871 photograph of a phantom airship in clouds; in actuality an image of rime ice with a cigar for scale. The Wikipedia mystery airship article still includes it, but at least notes the correct origins).
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