A miscellany of Australian mystery aircraft, 1903-1940 — I

Melbourne Leader, 25 May 1911, p. 28

It's been a while since I've done a mystery aircraft post, so here are a few Australian ones I've been saving up for a rainy day (or days):

The first is a rare mystery balloon sighting. On 11 May 1903 two 'lads' Gill and Luke, reported seeing 'a balloon in mid air in the direction of Lake Wellington', near Sale in Gippsland, Victoria.((The Age (Melbourne), 20 May 1903, 8.)) They were not believed at first, but on 19 May Robert Dowd, a 'young man, employed by Mr Breheny', reported that

he saw the balloon to-day about one mile in the air over the Sale to Stratford road. He drew the attention of a man named Benjamin White to the object. Dowd says he distinctly saw the oval form with ropes attached, and a man in the car, with network all around him. The balloon disappeared in the direction of Lake Wellington.((Ibid.))

Locals were still dubious, as they (quite reasonably) 'felt that if any resident of the lakes district had become possessed of a balloon the fact would have come to light before now'.((Ibid.)) The only references I can find in the local press report comments from Fred Newnham, who claimed to have seen the 'balloon' himself near Clydebank but realised that it 'was nothing more than a flight of birds'.((Gippsland Times (Sale), 25 May 1903, 2.)) He expanded on his explanation in a later edition:

Mr Newnham says that despite what our contemporary((Another local newspaper, presumably, but I can't find it in Trove.)) says to the contrary the so-called balloon was nothing more than some thousands of small birds that assumed in their flight various shapes. Mr Newnham states that he is borne out in this by Mr Jas. Cobain, and yesterday observed that they appeared at times as much like a ship as a balloon, and he laughs at the idea of being mistaken.((Gippsland Times (Sale), 28 May 1903, 3.))

Next is a mystery aeroplane seen over Melbourne on 29 April 1911. It was seen from at least two different places. A number of workers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (a secular place of worship), including a telephone electrician and his assistants, and Henry Mantes, a club attendant, all saw the machine flying from the city south-westerly towards Government house and then disappearing out of sight. Mantes gave a full statement to the Argus, giving the time as 8.40am. He noted that he had seen two aeroplane flights before, those of Hammond and Cugnet, and thought this one was flying very high: 'nearly 1,000ft', he estimated.((Argus (Melbourne), 2 May 1911, 6.)) As it was quite distant, he could not see the pilot.

Another, unnamed witness was from Bromley St in South Yarra. She saw it (or another aeroplane) much later in the day:

On Saturday [29 April 1911] aftemoon at half-past 5 o'clock, I was standing in my verandah when I saw what appeared to be an aeroplane over the northern horizon. It was very high in the air and was moving fast. I ran inside the house to get field-glasses but when I returned the object was too small to be distingiushed. It was travelling in a south-easterly direction. A girl friend who was with me also saw the object, and watched until it was out of sight.((Ibid.))

According to a later report, there were also witnesses in Burnley, not too far from the MCG.((Australasian (Melbourne), 6 May 1911, 39.))

The only known local aviators were both ruled out. The MCG workers assumed it was Hammond (shown flying over Melbourne above), but he was in Sydney at the time (where he had some choice words to say on the topic of mystery aeroplanes), while the other possibility was Duigan who was confirmed as being in Bendigo. The aeroplane in both cases was heading in the same direction (south-west), though many hours apart; it can't have been the same flight. South-west is the direction of Altona, where both Hammond and Cugnet had flown at times.

There was a sequel of sorts: another mystery aeroplane sighting five days later, this time at Penshurst about 270km west of Melbourne:

a little after six o'clook on Thursday [4 May 1911] evening last (writes our Penshurst corespondent) [...] a mysterious object was observed flying over Penshurst, and persons about Bell-street at the time referred to, hastened to accept the invitation to 'Come and see the airship.'((Hamilton Spectator, 8 May 1911, 4.))

Witnesses, observing its flight 'at a great rate' to the east, estimated the airship's height at 1500ft.((Ibid.))

One gentleman who witnessed the sight describes it as a dark object about the size of a man, and from ten to twelve miles away, in the direction of Mount Napier. The sky that evening was beautifully clear, and all who saw the aerial mystery are unanimous that it was neither cloud, nor bird.((Ibid.))

The 'size of a man' seems rather small for an airship!

The Melbourne and Penshurst mystery aeroplanes came at around the time the Yamba 'aeroplane' (or folk sculpture) was found on a northern NSW sandhill, and as I've suggested previously there seems to have been a small mystery aircraft wave around then. Here's the expanded list:

  • Riddell, Vic, 29 April: 'mysterious lights [...] seen in the sky [...] showing flashes of red, green and white'((Sun (Sydney), 3 May 1911, 10.))
  • Melbourne, 29 April: 'an aeroplane' seen by several witnesses in different suburbs (see above)
  • Penshurst, Vic, 4 May: 'an airship' (see above)
  • St George, Queensland, 5 May: 'a flying machine carrying two men'((Sydney Mail, 17 May 1911, 55.))
  • Bega, NSW, 7 or 8 May: 'an aeroplane'((Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9 May 1911, 6.))
  • Bathurst, NSW, 4 June: 'an aeroplane' with 'lights'((The Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1911, 7.))

Next: preachers and smugglers.

Image source: Melbourne Leader, 25 February 1911, 28.

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