In 1909 airship technology was still at an experimental stage and even Zeppelins at that stage could not have reached our shores. Yet in 1909 many in Australia and New Zealand claimed they saw airships in the skies. The flap began in New Zealand and quickly moved over the Tasman.
The first recorded sighting occurred at Kelso, South Island, on July 23, 1909, and was witnessed by a woman and several school children. The Australasian newspaper of August 14, 1909, reported, It had come over from the hill on the east side of the school... and sailed across the plain to the gorge on the other side. He [a schoolboy] watched it all the time, and saw it altogether about 10 minutes. When it got over near the gorge, about seven miles [11.2kms] away, it seemed to come lower... It remained stationary for a few minutes, and then turned and came back... As it passed over he saw that it had supports on each side, but these sails did not move. There was a wheel at the rear revolving rapidly. There was a large box beneath the body of the ship, but he could not see any men in it. The vessel was entirely black in colour.
The same edition of the Australasian also reported a sighting at Central Otago, South Island. One lady, Mrs. Brand, speaks to having seen an object with three lights, and what appeared to be two large fans. The object was steering in a straight line, but with a motion like that of a boat. It was in view for about half an hour... The lady is confirmed in her story by her husband... Several children ... have drawn pictures of it, which agree closely in general detail.
During the following weeks sightings apparently occurred throughout the Shaky Isles. On the North Island, the Hawkes Bay Herald of August 6 carried the story of a man who was riding near the Waipawa racecourse and his horse became restive. He discovered the cause was a large torpedo-shaped structure passing over his head. The airship, he states, was painted grey and three persons were visible, one of whom shouted out to him in an unknown tongue. The ship rose to a great height, showing lights at prow and stern, and, after circling around, disappeared behind a hill.
From New Zealand attention soon turned to Tasmania.
On August 14, 1909, the Hobart Mercury reported that in late July a mysterious light... as from the headlight of an airship was observed near Hobart, and that a light too bright, and too near the earth to be a star, and which, moreover moved rapidly in various directions, has been seen from various coastal districts. Ten days later the Mercury carried this spectacular description a UFO, err airship, seen at Colebrook. It made its appearance in the south-east somewhat low down over the hilltops, and seemed, at one time, to assume the shape of a torpedo; at another, like that of an umbrella, and carried head and side lights, which flashed at times like the searchlights of a warship. After gyrating about in a strange manner it disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared. This report is given in all seriousness....
Meanwhile, aerialitis, as it was called, was also sweeping the mainland.
In early August 1909 Rev. B Cozens, chaplain to the Port Melbourne Seamens Mission, was spending the weekend at Kangaroo Grounds, east of Melbourne, when he observed a fleet of airships, and on the Melbourne Argus on August 7 published his eye-witness account.
At 10 oclock on Saturday night my wife and I saw two beautiful revolving lights high up on the air above the Dandenong Range. These lights whirled like the propellers of ships, slowed down, dipped, and rose again, as if they were beating up in a zig-zag course against the wind. They were about six miles [9.6kms] apart, and about half a mile [800m] in the air over the top off the range. They changed from white to red, and then to blue, as if they were revolving beacons with three-coloured slides... We watched the lights from 10 till 12. One of the lights had almost moved out of sight over the back of the Divide by that time, and the other was working towards the same place. I rose at 2 oclock and saw the second [light] nearly over the range, and five more very dim in the distance, driving up in the track of the one we had seen... The whole impression of their movements was that of machinery.
During this period many Melburnians also saw mysterious lights. One Fitzroy resident, in letter to the Argus, recounted seeing in the east what I thought was a star of wonderful brightness. Then it seemed to move and form into two or three. First I thought it was a balloon sent up with lights and I expected to see it die out. Once it was obscure, as if a cloud was passing it. Then, again, it burst out in brilliant colours. I watched it for half an hour, and when I retired it was still shining. It was moving slowly, but sparkling like diamonds. To the naked eye the lights looked like pendants hanging.
Government astronomers claimed that the lights were either the conjunction of Venus with Jupiter then visible in the western sky, or else Mars, which was comparatively close to Earth. But sighitngs of airships continued.
In NSW the Sydney Morning Herald of August 10 reported, A good deal of excitement was occasioned to-night by the appearance of a mysterious light or an illuminated body to the south-east of the town [Moss Vale]. Quite a number of people gathered in the main street, and speculation was rife as to the meaning of the strange illumination. Above the large light some large body was distinctly visible, as the rays of light were reflected upon it surface. The supposition generally held is that the mysterious floating body is either a large balloon or airship... in a few minutes it was found to move a considerable distance.
The same edition further reported, Passengers on to-nights Melbourne express were afforded a view of the mysterious night-light which has been observed floating above the southern highlands and coast between Mittagong and Wollongong during the last two nights. When the express reached Hilltop quite a score of passengers crowded on to the platform at each end of the corridor carriages on the lookout for the airship... Their vigilance was soon rewarded, for as soon as the express hauled out from the deep cuttings a large, bright light became visible a few miles away towards the coast. Apparently it was in motion, and could be plainly distinguished from the stars, but the distance was too great to detect the nature of the floating body. Its elevation appeared to be about 2000ft.
Sightings, it seems, occurred across NSW. The Albury Banner of August 20 told readers, A peculiar light was seen at Tumut between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday by several respectable people. It was described as being like a large lantern suspended in the western sky. Later it was seen to travel at a very rapid speed towards the west... A strange shape visible in the sky at night attracted a great deal of attention at Hay. It was seen by a number of people in the east shortly before 10 oclock, being very brilliant and resembling a motor lamp. Afterwards it travelled across the eastern sky, and was lost to view away to the north-east towards midnight.
On August 19 the Hobart Mercury noted, Goulburn has had a weeks display during which the light has... been observed to move up and down and sideways, and once gave a pyrotechnic exhibition, several stars falling about it. Mittagong and Moss Vale also saw the strange light on several nights, and Narrabri, in the north-west, watched it perform a series of evolutions on three successive nights, moving with the rapidity of an airship, at a high altitude, and eventually disappearing south. Nearer Sydney, an Ashfield resident watched a light in the eastern sky with glasses last Thursday night. There was an explosion like a rocket, and it became extinguished.
If the contemporary press is any guide airships were seen across the continent, and as the Hobart Mercury put it, People everywhere are seeing visions. Every fine night somewhere fiery cars are seen flashing across the sky like a Greek goddess on a mission to earth. These visions have been seen in England, Ireland, America, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, New South Wales, and now in Tasmania - and theres evidence the authorities took it seriously indeed.
During the height of the scareship flap the Australian Government actually offered a 10,000 pounds prize to the first Australian inventor who demonstrated a flying machine suitable for use in war. The Hobart Mercury of August 23 noted, That announcement disclosed the fact that an astonishing number of inventors in these States were at work upon aviation. These inventors doubtless are working in secret, and possibly many of the objects seen in the air at night have relation to their experiments. It has been playfully suggested that the Martians are endeavouring to send signals to the earth.
The reward was never claimed.
In Australia aerialitis ended as abruptly as it had begun but continued in New Zealand until mid September 1909.
Many believe the 1909 airship scare was the first major UFO flap of the twentieth century.
Source: The Australasian Ufologist Magazine Vol. 5 No.3 Pgs 7-8 (Diagrams)