Nov 25, 2022 I Brent Swancer

A Strange Wave of Mysterious Phantom Airships in New Zealand

One area that has long been skirting the periphery of the UFO phenomenon is that of mysterious airships that have appeared at various times throughout history, and one notable wave of these occurred in New Zealand in the 1900s. It started in July of 1909, when a Mr. John Boyd, of Stirling was with two other locals in the vicinity of the railway station in the Clutha river delta area, in the Otago province of New Zealand, when they witnessed a strange bright light hovering in the sky, which they at first took to be just a bright star, but then it began moving, swaying and doing several maneuvers such as dipping and rising, as well as growing in brilliance. They now had the impression that it was some sort of airship, although unlike anything any of them had seen before, and an article in the Otago Daily Times says of it:

Between half-past 10 and 11 on the night stated, our informant and two other residents of Stirling were standing in the vicinity of the railway station when they sighted the mysterious light. “It first came into our view from the east,” said the narrator,” and we thought it was a meteor or a falling star, but the light grew in brilliance. It moved about the hills above Kaitangata sometimes swooping down from a height of apparently 2000ft [610m] to about 1000ft [305m] and even lower. Then it would turn and make away towards the sea, or would dip completely out of sight behind the hills. It seemed to move with as much ease, and even grace, as a bird on the wing. The light carried was a strong and steady one, and whenever the ship, or whatever it was, turned, we thought we could see a dark, opaque body. Certainly we could see, without a doubt, the reflection of the light in the clouds. It was a white light with a reflector, just what would be used by an airship driven by an electric motor. When she was sideways on we thought we could see the reflection as of a black body above and below. It was a marvellously mystifying sight.” He said he had been puzzling over the matter and consulting with a few familiars, and the only conclusion he could come to was that the light was that of an airship, probably being made the subject of an experimental cruise.

The witnesses apparently watched the strange sight for around a half an hour before it gradually moved off out of sight. Boyd would come to the conclusion that it must have been the work of an inventor with “a workshop somewhere in the lonely Wangaloa hills.” It would soon become apparent that several other witnesses in the area had also seen the strange sight, with all of them giving a very similar description, but there could be found no record of any aircraft scheduled to be in the area at the time. After this, in the coming weeks other sighting reports of mysterious airships began coming in, with some reports mentioning up to five of these objects at a time, while others described hearing a sound like a fog horn when they were around. The Clutha Free Press says of some of these reports that followed Boyd’s original account as follows:

Ridicule and rigid cross-examination have failed to shake the theory that a light, supposed to belong to an airship, was hovering over the Wangaloa Hills, near Kaitangata, on Sunday night. The narrative of this extraordinary apparition was supplied to the Free Press (Balclutha) by several eye witnesses who are prepared to sign an affadavit to the truth of their statement…. The story has been received with some incredulity, but the kite and balloon theories advanced have been scouted as being as widely improbable as the airship. Seeing that the gentlemen who witnessed the phenomenon are of unimpeachable integrity, residents are at a loss what to make of it. ‘If it isn’t a hoax, or an airship, what is it?’ is a question being generally asked.

Several in Balclutha testify that they have seen a similar object to that already described, at night. An employee in this office saw a lighted object hovering apparently over Inch Clutha one night last week, but he concluded it was a fire balloon sent up by someone as an “airship” joke. Others have seen partially illuminated objects floating in the air; people coming up by the late train from Owaka on Saturday night speak of the airship they saw in the direction of lower Inch Clutha, and several in Balclutha saw the same thing, while people from Clinton yesterday morning went one better and declared they not only saw the mysterious object but averred they heard the occupants talking.

Not long after this there was a spectacular report made by a Mr. Gibson, of Kelso, who claimed that he was a teacher and that he and his students had seen a mysterious airship “shaped like a boat, with what seemed like the figure of a man seated in it” in broad daylight. This mysterious object apparently circled over the school for a time before heading out towards the Blue Mountains. At around the same time, other witnesses also saw the object, and a newspaper report would read:

There is not the slightest doubt that the airship was seen at Kelso yesterday at noon. I have eye witnesses to prove this. It is cigar or “boat” shaped and pointed at each end. Those who saw it had no idea of the probable height of it above them. It did not appear to be very long in build, but was very broad. The children who saw it say that it had a pontoon-shaped part above the boat and a short pole or mast, in the centre. It flew over and past the school ground, turned round, and went back the way it came. It was flying along very easily, and had no trouble in turning. It came from the direction of the Blue Mountains and over the wooded hill [The Wooded Hill] above Kelso, and seemed to make back direct to the mountains again. It was seen by at least five persons, and their statements are all in accord.

Many of these witnesses would draw sketches of the object and all insisted it was true. The airship was now becoming a bit of a media sensation, with articles on these sightings appearing in a range of newspapers, and the sightings continued to come it. One hot spot for sightings of the mysterious airship at the time was the beach at Kaka Point, and a report of it would read:

On Saturday night some half-a-dozen boys were playing on the beach at Kaka Point near Mr. Bates and saw a huge illuminated object moving about in the air. It appeared as if it were going to alight at Kaka Point. The light from it was distinctly reflected on the roof of Dr. Fitzgerald’s cottage. The boys thought it was being attracted by their lantern and ran away and left it on the beach. The “airship” then glided round the rocks at the old pilot station and nearly came in contact with them. It shortly afterwards disappeared. The boys said it was as big as a house.

On Sunday night the mysterious object again made its appearance at the beach, and was seen by Mr. George Smith and Mr. Poulter about 8.30. Mr. Smith viewed it through a very powerful night glass. It was apparently over Mr. Aitkenhead’s house when he first saw it, but it glided high in the air and sailed north in the direction of Kaitangata, sweeping west and east and finally disappearing. About half past 10 Mr. Smith was called out by Mr. Poulter to see the airship, which had again made its appearance. This time it headed out to sea and eventually disappeared over the horizon or into the sea. As seen through the glass, Mr. Smith said it appeared to be a fair-sized, dark superstructure with a powerful head-light and two smaller ones at the sides. It might convey the impression of being under control, and likewise of moving fast. Mr. Smith did not jump to any conclusions. It was seen by people at the beach every night last week and “it will probably be seen again to-night,” said Mr. Smith yesterday. If it appears again within range, some of the beach boys are going to try to “prick the bubble” with a bullet.

The airships were now becoming a full blown phenomenon and sensation that was spreading out to other areas as well, with a wave of numerous reports coming from other regions to the north and south. A collection of some of these sightings was compiled by the Otago Daily Times, and reads:

This thing was again seen at about half-past 6 o’clock on Saturday night here by several other persons about five or six miles on the opposite side of Kelso from the Blue Mountains, in a north-westerly direction. The strong light on it first drew these people’s attention to it, but after a time the light went out, and they could then see some smaller lights, which remained in view for some five or ten minutes. As these lights were well above the hills, which are in that direction, and were not stationary, but moved along all the time, these people are fully satisfied now of the existence of this flying machine, more especially after seeing the strong light flash out and disappear again.

Alfred Guinan saw the light on the same occasion. It was flashing as though the ship were turning round in circles. It was in sight for about half an hour, and would go over by the hill and come back into about the same place. His elder brother saw it with him. Three members of another family saw the light about 6.30, but none of these witnesses was available. To these observers a flashlight and smaller lights were visible. A boy named R. Russell saw the lights from about 9 o’clock till 9.30. The light from the ship sometimes shone on the hills, making them visible. He said he was able to see a dark shape, and he drew a long cigar-shaped sketch in proof of his statement.

Early in the evening of Saturday, July 24, some 10 or 12 Dunedin tradesmen, who are working about six miles distant from here, saw it. It was viewed through coloured glasses and telescopes, and they all agree to its being an airship. They distinctly saw the cigar-shaped balloon with a carriage suspended below. The headlight was very powerful, and it was white in colour. The ship circled around several times, and was about two miles distant from those watching. It rose and fell while circling around, and then went off in the direction of the Hokonuis. It returned about 11 p.m., when rain commenced to fall. It was very high this time and sailed diagonally towards the Blue Mountains. These people ridiculed the airship theory previously, but when one of their number was seen to-day he was quite emphatic as to its existence. The following Dunedin residents, who are at present employed here [at Crossans Corner], testify to having actually seen the object in addition to the lights:– Mr. and Mrs. Callender, Mr. Tyrie, senior, Mr. and Mrs. Tyrie, junior, Mr. Sheridan, and Mr. Biggs, also several others.

The lights were distinctly visible by the Potter family last Saturday evening, in addition to which they state they could hear the noise of some machine at work. Mr. Keach (manager for Elliot Bros. Dunedin) has seen the lights on several occasions, and, when questioned, stated that the light was quite different to that of the stars, and there was no possibility of any error in the matter. Evidence has since come to hand of the lights having been seen last night, but the evidence of the Dunedin tradesmen is quite sufficient to dispel any doubts, as is also the statement of Mr. McKinnon. Local residents are keeping a sharp watch for the return of the airship. The people who saw it so distinctly on the evening of July 24 are certain that it was not the planet Mars. They are quite convinced from their observations that what they saw was in reality an airship, and they gave me full liberty to use their statements. As the large headlight went out they could see a smaller light, apparently on the structure below the balloon part. They could hear no noise, although they are of the opinion that the large light, from the manner of its appearance and disappearance, was an electric light driven by a motor.

The most important and trustworthy evidence was given by Mrs. Ferguson. She saw the light one night prior to Saturday night in the direction of Waipahi. It looked like a meteor and disappeared behind the trees. On Saturday night a little before 9 o’clock as she was driving into Kelso she saw the light above the Blue Mountains. This disappeared above Tapanui. The light was very strong, and dazzled her eyes, so that she could not see at first on looking down how to guide her horse. It was of a reddish colour. On returning from Kelso she again saw the light, and stood on the Tapanui Hill watching it for some time. Her mother, whom she had gone to meet at Kelso, returned home on Sunday night, and said she had seen the light on Saturday night at Waipahi.

The lights of the airship were seen tonight by at least 11 people. The Rev. Thomas Paulin, Presbyterian minister, his wife, and children saw it about 6.45. Mr. Paulin describes it as something like a very brilliant star, greatly magnified. It was travelling very fast towards Mount Wendon, and was well above the skyline, but at last it seemed to travel downwards. The light then became more and more dim, and went completely out. In addition to the bright light there was a smaller light, as though it was at the end of the vessel. Its manner of disappearance was not that of any star, as it faded and did not disappear suddenly.

Mr. McKinnon saw the vessel at the same time from a different position in the town. It was dim at first, but seemed to be coming towards him, and became much brighter by fits and starts. It came from the north-west direction. As it came nearer both he and his family could discern a big black body behind the light. This oscillated from side to side as though affected by air currents. They thought it would pass overhead, but the light grew dim all at once, and then gradually faded away. The dark body could not be seen when the light went out. Mr. McKinnon did not see any smaller light. A man driving along the road, as well as several other people, also saw it.

While most reports described the ship or ships as being completely silent, there were occasionally mentions of the craft making various noises such as whirring, a horn, clanking machinery, or the sound of a propeller. Indeed, there were cases in which the witness had not even actually seen the ship, but rather had heard it. One such report from the Otago Daily Times reads:

Mrs. Mayo, however, has heard sounds which she assumes come from an airship. When she was in bed on Friday [23 July] at 11.30 p.m. there gradually came to her ear a dull rolling whirring noise. It seemed like a motor or threshing mill. She listened intently, as the noise puzzled her. Gradually it became clear that the noise was not on the ground. It drew nearer – a rolling noise like a drum a long way off; not a tap, tap, but a dull roll mixed with which was a squeaking or piercing sound. She got frightened, jumped out of bed, and went on to the verandah. A great vibrating noise came from the roof. The sound approached from the southward, passed close overhead, and died away to the north in the direction of the mountains. She looked out as well as she could, but could see nothing, and she went back to bed. In the morning the horses in the paddock next door seemed frightened, and marks showed that they had been galloping round. Mrs. Mayo was the only person who heard this noise, but her house is away from the township.

While this was going on there was much discussion and speculation as to what it all meant. Some ideas included that it was just balloons or kites, flocks of birds, some mad inventor testing out his flying apparatus, anomalous cloud formations, or even just hoaxes or hallucinations. One scathing and skeptical article in the Christchurch Evening News would write it all off as a bunch of country bumpkins getting drunk and seeing things, and it reads in part:

It is about time some enterprising southern journalist made a trip to the Blue Mountains and investigated the airship rumours. We are not hopeful of any very sensational revelations. It must be remembered that it is a prohibition district, and if the investigators should by any chance discover a still or other contrivance for the manufacture of stimulants, of the ‘chain lightning’ order, it would be unnecessary to enquire further why the inhabitants see trailing stars at night time and curious objects bobbing about in the clouds by day. They should really take more water with the local decoction. It may be exhilarating; but it is fair to destroy the peace of mind of the whole country by such alarming reports from an ordinarily peaceful and remote country district. Besides, if the people of Kelso are not careful, they will soon be seeing far more unpleasant things than phantom airships.

Although there were certainly skeptics, it was also pointed out by others that none of the mundane explanations really could account for what was being described, and many of the witnesses were known as sane, sober, and reliable people who would not be inclined to be making up tall tales. The Otago Daily Times would launch a full investigation into the phenomenon, interviewing witnesses and especially interrogating the schoolboys who had witnessed the airship at their school, and they would come away convinced that something very odd was going on, indeed. The report says:

A busy afternoon’s investigation utterly dispels any supposition that the reports about the airship are entirely mythical. There is far too much evidence for the belief to be easily dispelled. Naturally, speculation has gone to an extreme, but after careful sifting, certain facts remain undoubted definite facts. All those scholars who saw the ship were interrogated singly and independently, and were asked to draw an impression of what they had seen. The drawings were done separately, and with no reference whatever from one to another. The result was six drawings, the degree of resemblance and unanimity of which was nothing short of dumbfounding to all sceptics. Special interrogation of the boys revealed the fact that none had drawn the diagram before, nor had they been interested in airships prior to witnessing this one. One boy, in addition to drawing a side view, was able to draw a diagram of the vessel from beneath as the airship passed over his head, and this showed two sails [possibly more like fins or wings] on each side. Another boy produced a peculiar-looking object, which was somewhat puzzling at first, but which ultimately seemed to resolve itself into one wing seen from an angle with a revolving propellor at the rear.

As the reports continued to come it through the end of July and into August, they were generating not only a mix of awe, skepticism, and in some cases ridicule, but also fear. The performance of the object or objects being seen was beyond what any sort of normal airplane or airship would have been capable of at the time, so there was the idea among a certain segment of the population that some enemy state or terrorists had come up with some new experimental type of aircraft. Indeed, there were even reportedly posses of armed men going out with the hopes of shooting the thing down, and there was a general feel of a mass hysteria going on at the time. The sightings continued on into the beginning of August, after which they seem to have just stopped as suddenly as they had started and the news reports dried up, leaving us without any real answers. What were these strange airships that were terrorizing the region at the time? Were they experimental aircraft, the work of a mad scientist, some mundane phenomena, or something else? The strange airship flap of New Zealand remains unsolved, and it remains a strange little historical oddity we may never have answers for. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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