The phenomenon began in the southernmost part of the country, spread northwards, and was widely reported in local newspapers.

The ‘1909 Kelso Airships’ of New Zealand

Establishing an early and accurate timeline


In July-August 1909 many New Zealanders reported seeing ‘small airships’. The phenomenon began in the southernmost part of the country, spread northwards, and was widely reported in local newspapers. Until now, UFO researchers have relied mainly on the later northern media sources, because these are easier to access. Their material omits important southern details and ignores important context. It includes undifferentiated misidentifications and hoaxes, so that details of the earliest, most authentic events are blurred – the UFO signal is drowned out by noise. This confusion is often used to discredit all Kelso Airship reports as a moral panic.

Therefore, establishing context and an accurate timeline for the first ‘airship’ sightings are key elements when evaluating the unusualness of these events.

Accessing early material:

Much original 1909 newspaper material is difficult to access. I left New Zealand for Australia in late 1978, but have since visited local archives in Timaru (where I grew up), Oamaru, Christchurch, Dunedin (notably the Hocken and McNab collections), Balclutha and Tapanui, over several decades, to track down more 1909 airship material.

Back in 1909, most New Zealand provincial towns with more than 2000 residents produced a local newspaper, as a daily or weekly. Many small towns had two papers. The four main cities had mass-circulation morning and evening dailies, as well as a series of smaller weekly papers. (“   The estimated populations of the four chief centres at the end of June [1909] were Auckland 93,544; Wellington 73,667; Christchurch 76,709; Dunedin 61,279” – North Otago Times, 27 July 1909.)

There were some 60 North Island newspapers and 70 South Island newspapers in print. These fed mostly local catchments, servicing a total of one million European settlers and 80,000 indigenous Maori. (A table of the 1909 papers I know about is provided at the end of this article. So far, about 40 have been accessed by ufologists for their ‘airship’ content.)

Newspapers played an important socialising role in early New Zealand and provide a rich data source for the 1909 airships. (In this article I use their material fully whenever possible, to better convey social sensibilities of the period.) Many papers had Government Post & Telegraph Department offices nearby. They routinely swapped important local and overseas news by electric telegraph, mailed their issues to each other, and plundered one another’s copy. (A submarine cable linked New Zealand to Australia from 1876; Australia was linked by cable to Asia and Europe via Darwin and Java after 1872).

Many short-lived local newspapers were never properly archived and are now incomplete or entirely lost. For example, most records for the Ellesmere Guardian ended up in the Editor’s attic. After his death, incoming house buyers used old newspapers from the attic as painting drop-sheets, before realising they were unique and passing the residue on to the central Christchurch library. All 1909 issues of the Ellesmere Guardian have been lost to renovation.

For several decades now, the National Library of New Zealand (NLNZ) has coordinated a major project to conserve the country’s newspaper heritage. In recent years, it has placed many records on the internet, for anyone to access. UFO researchers can now download many 1909 airship articles from the ‘NLNZ Paperspast’ website (check these out on, which is updated as more material becomes available.

However, the present NLNZ Paperspast website still lacks material for many important airship sources that I know about – such as, the Clutha Free Press, Christchurch Evening News, Cromwell Argus, Geraldine Guardian, Gore Standard, Southern Cross, Southern Daily News, Tapanui Courier, Temuka Leader, and Timaru Post.

First Contact:

The Clutha Free Press archives I have managed to find are particularly fragmented. After a 25-year search, I have given up hope of sighting an original of the 13 July issue which began the 1909 wave – it has probably been extinct for decades. However, during peak interest in the Kelso airships, other newspapers reprinted sufficient portions of the article for me to recreate it (especially the Dunedin Otago Daily Times, 16 July; the New Plymouth Daily News, 22 July; the Timaru Post, 14 July), as follows:

1909 July 11 (Sunday, 2230hrs)

KAITANGATA, Otago, New Zealand (S46°17’, E169°51’)

(Clutha Free Press, Balclutha, New Zealand, Tuesday 13 July 1909)


A resident of Stirling whose veracity we have always been accustomed to look upon as absolutely unimpeachable called upon us yesterday with the story ofa

strange light seen in the sky over the Wangaloa Hills [170m, S46°17’, E169°54’] on Sunday night [11 July, 1909].

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.

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 [Stirling Railway Station, S46°15’, E169°47’] 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 [177m, S46°15’, E169°54’] 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.

After watching it for a good half hour the ship moved off in an easterly direction, whence it had first come into view. I left my companions and made off home, and then a peculiar thing happened. I had been walking for ten minutes, and chanced to look skyward, and lo and behold! there was the mysterious light, high up in the sky and moving off inland in a westerly direction, towards the Blue Mountains [S45°55’, E169°22’], as it seemed to me.”

Further questioned on the matter, the informant said he believes some Dunedin man is at work on an airship, and it is quite possible he may have a workshop somewhere in the lonely Wangaloa hills, whose steep gullies are traversed only by sheep. The inventor may have come out on Saturday night with some friends for the purpose of a trial run.

“If that is the explanation,” concluded our informant, “the inventor has struck something that will knock Count Zeppelin and Wilbur Wright sideways, for as I gazed at that grand light sailing easily through space on Sunday night I involuntarily ejaculated, ‘My, what would I not give to be on that ship.’ It seemed to embody the very poetry of aerial motion.”

Some other readers may be able to throw some light on this mysterious occurrence.

(NOTE: My additional context comments are in italics, within square brackets.)

Intriguingly, a small, newspaper-publishing elite colluded to protect the identity of the well-known “unimpeachable source”. This has always suggested to me that HE was someone important, someone of high status within the community, who might be embarrassed by publicising such an ‘abnormal’ experience – in short, someone who is an excellent UFO witness. This omission has frustrated me for 30 years.

The prosperous Clutha river delta area (called Inch Clutha) includes Kaitangata, Stirling and Benhar. The area is flat, fertile farming land, and in 1909, it included coalmines, quarries, a dairy factory, brick and pipe works. It had excellent rail, telegraph and postal facilities, but roads were still primitive (petrol-driven cars were still a rarity).

After the 1861-64 gold rush, Otago was the wealthiest New Zealand province. Dunedin, while the smallest of the four main centres, was the richest, most important city. It was the hub of an excellent rail service network, with excellent port facilities at Port Chalmers.

All witnesses were likely part of a wealthy, literate, entrepreneurial European middle class.

Most UFO researchers do not mention how some newspapers did not embrace the local phenomenon, and refused to print any airship stories. Others, while ‘surrounded’ by the phenomenon, remained highly sceptical (these were usually small papers, with no field reporters, only “correspondents”). So, while trawling through the NLNZ Paperspast site recently to check my database, l came across one news item in the Bruce Herald (a sceptical paper with direct historical and business links to the Clutha Leader), which ‘outs’ the original Stirling source:

(Bruce Herald Milton, New Zealand, Thursday, 29 July 1909)

That “Air Ship.” WHAT IS IT?

……..While not denying that there is some mysterious lights [sic] to be seen at night, and some mysterious thing through the day except those who have seen the phenomenon, the majority are sceptical as to its being an airship.

One gentleman who heard the noise last evening saw an object with from four to five bright lights. The sound was similar to a fog horn. He was quite satisfied that it was not an airship whatever else it was. The lights were visible only for a brief period and then appeared to go out. He does not think the object disappeared behind the Akatore hills [S46°07’, E170°10rs’].

It is stated to us as a fact that the lights seen last evening in the direction of Akatore [S46°07’, E170°11’] were lights used by Messrs Hamilton on the traction engine, and the fog horn and noise heard was their traction engine itself. We have not been able to see Messrs Hamilton to ascertain the correctness or otherwise of this story. We give it as it was told to us,

On relating the foregoing to a gentleman who called on us he said that Messrs Hamilton had seen the lights as they were getting home with their engine shortly before 7 o’clock last night and blew the horn to attract attention.

It is reported that the mysterious airship has been seen in the Milburn district travelling from the Horse Shoe hills [S46°03, E170°02’] to the Gorge hills [S46°04’, E170°03’]. – (Milburn Correspondent.)

Professor Wragge’s “Voyage through the Universe” is alleged to have some connection with the airship theory. Those who attend his lecture this evening will be able perhaps to elucidate the mystery or connection of the two.

The first to see the alleged airship and notify the press of his discovery was, we understand, Mr John Boyd, of Stirling. The Kelso people were the next to see the vision.

We have heard of fire balloons being set adrift in the Clutha district, but whether these have anything to do with the “airship” theory is only speculation. The daylight vision at Tapanui is set down as a flight of black swans.

The “airship” has been seen at Oamaru, Dunedin, Milton, Kaitangata, Stirling, Kelso, and Orepuki. The same sorts of lights have been visible at Auckland.

In any case all is speculation. Some are sceptical as to an airship being about, and any theory that any foreign power is spying out the land by this is pure moonshine. There is nothing to hinder them to get about all over the country without let or hindrance.

Those troubled with “nerves” are getting food for speculation, while the more phlegmatic are hanging back till the mystery is solved.

Bryan Dickeson Copyright (c) 2015


Finding John Boyd and friends

Further web-searching of NLNZ Paperspast material reveals that in 1909 John Boyd was aged 32, born in Otago, in either 1876 or 1877. He was one of 11 children (7 sons and 4 daughters), to Edward Boyd and Jane Boyd (nee Haggart), both highly-respected Otago settlers. They arrived from Scotland in 1858, before the Otago Gold Rush of 1861-1864.

The Bruce Herald of 30 November 1916, includes an obituary for Mr Edward Boyd Senior, with background details on the Boyd family and its long commitment to and involvement with, the Presbyterian Church and the Benhar-Stirling communities.

An elder son (Eden Johnson Boyd, “E.J. Boyd”) was a Balclutha city councillor from 1885 (also very involved in local affairs generally) and Balclutha Mayor from 2011-2013. NLNZ Paperspast items include many reports about his community involvement with various local and provincial committees.

John Boyd was a younger son, literate, sociable, musical, and of above-average intelligence (a Clutha Leader item of 23 December 1887 reports he was second-equal in his Standard IV class). In an item in the Clutha Leader (8 March 1907), when in charge of his father’s herd of 40 cows near Benhar, John discusses the pros and cons of a new automated milking system. Articles in the 1909 Clutha Leader report John as a founding member and Secretary for the local ‘Glee Club’ – a social group organising musical entertainments, and of him chairing a session of the Benhar Debating Club.

The Clutha Leader (2 June 1911) reports John Boyd’s marriage (aged 34) to Florence Hilda Turner (“Hilda”, 30) on Wednesday 31 May 1911: “The bride graced a beautiful ivory silk voile dress, nicely braided with cream silk braid, and wore the orthodox orange blossoms, and embroidered veil, etc. etc.” This was a posh, civilised, and well-connected affair. So far, I do not have an obituary for John Boyd, but the media record endorses the view of John Boyd as an excellent, high-status, “absolutely unimpeachable” witness.

The “two other residents” who saw the Kaitangata UFO remain unknown. Such detail may still be held in local police archives, available through FOI requests. (Unfortunately, local researchers usually find accessing such records, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.)

Keeping the Kaitangata ‘airship’ flying

John Boyd’s sighting would have been completely forgotten by now, if not for three further fortuitous developments:

  • Journalistic input from the Otago Daily Times
  • The ‘Kelso Airship’ sightings, and
  • Louis Bleriot’s flight across the English Channel
  1. The Otago Daily Times investigates

The Dunedin metropolitan, the Otago Daily Times, maintained a solid network of reporters and contributors throughout Otago. It circulated throughout New Zealand and was probably the country’s most prestigious paper (copies of it are archived in the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia). The Times soon followed up on the Stirling incident. On Friday 16 July 1909 it reprinted most of the initial Clutha Free Press article, prefixed by:

“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.     ” 

The Times material was soon circulated throughout Australasia through the United Press Association wire service, but created little interest at first – most newspapers ignored it. However, the Times recorded early airship reports in great detail and remains the main southern media source for most UFO researchers.

Further media reports were few at first – vague, and mostly gossip or hoaxes. The Clutha Leader (a rival to the Clutha Free Press) reported haughtily on Tuesday 27 July 1909, that:

“ ….  Several in Balclutha [S46°14’, E169°44’] 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 [island, S46°17’, E169°47’] 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 [S46°27’, E169°39’] on Saturday night [24 July 1909] speak of the airship they saw in the direction of lower Inch Clutha [S46°19’, E169°49’?], and several in Balclutha [S46°14’, E169°44’], saw the same thing, while people from Clinton [S46°12’, E169°22’] yesterday morning went one better and declared they not only saw the mysterious object but averred they heard the occupants talking.

  … Mr. Smith [of Kaka Point, Point, S46°23’, E169°47’] 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. 

  1. Kelso ‘takes off’: more local newspapers drawn into the debate:

Meanwhile, the Otago Daily Times told its readers on Monday 26 July 1909 that:


The mysterious “airship” has been seen again, this time in broad daylight. On Saturday Mr. Gibson, of Kelso [S45°54’, E169°13’], telephoned us stating that at noon on Friday [23 July 1909], the school children beheld in the air a strange machine, which they described as shaped like a boat, with what seemed like the figure of a man seated in it. The “airship” approached from the direction of the Blue Mountains [S45°55’, E169°22’], circled high over the school, and then disappeared in the direction whence it came. The phenomenon was also observed by Mrs. James Russell, of Kelso.

Our Kelso correspondent telegraphed as follows; – “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.”

This daylight account, which mentions an aviator, was circulated throughout New Zealand by the UPA wire service. It created great public interest and launched the “Kelso Airships” as a media phenomenon. The Clutha Leader (27 July 1909), reported the Kelso sighting as:


The “Airship” is now reported to have been seen at Kelso [S45°54’, E169°14’] in broad daylight, at mid-day on Saturday [actually Friday 23 July]. It was seen by at least five persons. The school children beheld in the air a strange machine which they described as shaped like a boat with what seemed like a figure of a man seated in it.

The “airship” approached from the direction of the Blue Mountains [S45°55’, E169°22’], circled high over the school and then disappeared in the direction whence it came. It is cigar or boat shaped and is pointed at each end. 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. “Several in Balclutha testify that they have seen a similar object to that already described, at night, [etc, etc. as above] …..

The same Clutha Leader article, reported the earlier Kaka Point events in some detail:

On Saturday night [24 July, 1909] some half-a-dozen boys were playing on the beach at Kaka Point [S46°23’, E169°47’] 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.

[Other newspaper reports indicated this airship headed towards the Blue Mountains]

On Sunday night [25 July 1909] 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 [S46°17’, E169°51’], 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.

A number of residents of Invercargill [S46°25’, E168°22’], says last night’s Star, were astonished shortly after 11 o’clock on Saturday night [24 July 1909] to see a strange light hovering in a cloudless sky at an altitude of about 2000 to 3000 feet. It resembled something like a fire balloon. It was travelling northwards with an up and down, wave-like motion.

We should not be surprised to see a few “airships” in the vicinity of Balclutha one of these nights.”

Later reports indicate the first airship probably spent some days ‘camping’ near Mt Wendon [S45°49’, E169°00’], slightly northwest of the Blue Mountains. So the Kaka Point events indicate there may have been two ‘airships’ – the situation becomes more complicated: Kaka Point is 14km south of Kaitangata and 5km south of the Clutha River mouth. Kelso is 62km northwest of Kaitangata and west of the Blue Mountains (further inland), while Invercargill is 120km to the southwest. The “airship” (or “airships”) phenomenon seems to be moving outwards from the Inch Clutha region, in a wave.

Newspaper media speculation and ‘discussion’ became more intense: The Christchurch Evening News (27 July 1909), stated:

“It is about time some enterprising southern journalist made a trip to the Blue Mountains and investigated the airship rumours. As in the case of the Mount Kembla tiger [Australia], which was strongly suspected of being a bull, 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 piece [sic] 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.”

[* a reference to the alcohol prohibition movement in New Zealand at this time. Hallucinations from imbibing moonshine in ‘dry’ areas were a common suggestion for airship sightings.] 

  1. Louis Bleriot and “Aerialitis”

Just when it seemed the New Zealand “airship” craze was about to fade away, it gained new energy from the other side of the world, when:

At 4:15 a.m. on Sunday 25 July 1909, watched by an excited crowd, French aviator Louis Blériot made a short trial flight. Then, on a signal that the sun had risen, he took off across the English Channel from Hesbaraque, four miles from Calais, in brilliant sunshine. He flew at approximately 45mph (72km/h) at an altitude of about 250ft (76m), without a compass. The French naval destroyer Escopette (Musket) initially acted as an escort, but Blériot soon overtook her and flew on alone until he sighted the English coast on his left, as a grey line.

Blériot had to adjust his course westwards, and followed the coastline a mile offshore, until he spotted Charles Fontaine, a correspondent for Le Matin waving a French flag to signal where he should land — a patch of gently-sloping meadow near Dover Castle. Blériot flew through a dip in the cliffs, circled to lose height, and cut his engine to make a “pancake” landing, behind the castle. His plane was slightly damaged, but Blériot was unhurt. It had taken the 20 horsepower monoplane 36.5 minutes to fly the Channel.

Blériot won a generous Daily Mail prize of £1,000 and a trophy; news of the event was cabled around the world and the aviator became an international celebrity!

The Otago Daily Times reported Blériot’s triumph on 27 July 1909, just one day afterwards (New Zealand time is 12 hours ahead of GMT/Paris time) — the public began to take an increasing interest in all forms of aerial activity.

From this point, northern newspapers snidely referred to bouts of aerialitis “down south” – as a kind of “aviation fever”, whenever reporting such matters.

The Kelso Airship up close

Meanwhile, the Otago Daily Times began to a more serious look at the possibility of a local aviator, working in secret:

Otago Daily Times, Tuesday 27 July 1909


KELSO, July 26: This thing was again seen at about half-past 6 o’clock on Saturday night [24 July] here by several other persons about five or six miles on the opposite side of Kelso [S45°54’, E169°13’] from the Blue Mountains [S45°55’, E169°22’], in a north-westerly direction. [This location equates to Crossans Corner, S45°55’, E169°09’; Mt. Wendon lies to the northwest.] 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.

It was also seen by a lady [Mrs. Ferguson] on Friday [23 July] who lives about six miles from here in a southerly direction [This location equates to Glenkenich, S45°58’, E169°14’], and who called her mother out of the house and showed it to her.  They could not think at the time what such a thing sailing about in the air could mean, but this same lady saw it again on Saturday night [24 July], about 9 o’clock, flying over Kelso as she was driving in to meet the late train, and, being better prepared for such a such a thing after seeing it the night before, she is positive that it was an airship.  Saturday night here was beautifully clear and moonlight [sic], and this lady knew nothing at that time about the people seeing it earlier in the evening. At this time (9 o’clock on Saturday night) it was apparently returning from a cruise round and returning to the Blue Mountains, as it was going in that direction when it was last seen by her.

One boy who saw the ship on Friday [23 July] at noon was naturally in a state of great excitement when he reached home, and told his parents about seeing the airship. His father could hardly credit the boy’s story, and, to test him, told him to sketch what he had seen [this was George McDuff, who saw his airship on Saturday 24 July!]. The boy did this, and they compared the sketch with a picture in the Windsor Magazine, and, as the sketch compared very well with the picture, the father was convinced that the boy had really seen what could be nothing else but an airship.

(Note: References to a mast and an aviator being seen on the airship have now gone!

As a general rule from the 1909 airship sightings, whenever ‘bodies’ are reported, close investigation reveals none were really seen.)

The Otago Daily Times sent its Special Reporter to Kelso to investigate these incidents directly. His first report, is extensive and conveys a sense of astonishment:

Otago Daily Times, Thursday 29 July 1909.



KELSO, July 28: 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.

Immediately upon arrival here I went to the most available man – the stationmaster (Mr. Gibson) – who placed me in the hands of Mr. A. McKinnon, manager of Messrs Wright Stephenson, and Co.’s office [the local Stock and Station agency]. With great consideration, Mr. McKinnon placed his time at my disposal, and conducted me to those people most able to give reliable evidence. A daylight view of the phenomenon being admittedly of highest value, resort was first made to the schoolhouse in search of those children who saw the ship on Friday at noon. 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.

The salient facts of the boys’ testimony may be condensed as follows:– It may be said first, as an explanation of why no men saw the vessel, that it was dinner hour, when everyone was inside. One woman – Mrs. Russell, — however, saw it, and her evidence confirms the school children’s story.

Thomas Jenkins gave a very clear account of the whole incident. He saw the vessel first at 12 o’clock as he was going home from school [at the northern end of Kelso]. It had come over the hill on the east side of the school, which is very close to the hill [called “The Wooded Hill”, although all tree cover there had long been milled, S45°54’, E169°14’], and sailed across the plain to the gorge on the other side [Pomahaka River Gorge, S45°51’, E169°08’]. He watched it all the time, and saw it altogether about 10 minutes. When it got over near the gorge, about seven miles away, it seemed to come lower and appeared to enter the gorge, being below the level of the hills [less than 300m above sea level?]. It remained stationary for a few minutes, and then turned and came back. In returning it rose higher, and sailed away towards the Blue Mountains. As it passed over [overhead at Kelso, S45°54’, E169°13’] he saw that it had supports on each side (this was the boy who drew the picture from beneath), but these sails [fins, wings?] did not move. There was a wheel at the rear revolving very rapidly [a propeller?]. There was a box beneath the body of the ship, but he could not see any man in it. The vessel was entirely black in colour.

Thomas McDonald saw the vessel twice — as he was going and coming from school. The first time he saw it he thought it was a bird, but he saw it better the second time. It came from the Blue Mountains, and took two turns over the township. After he had been home he saw it as it was going back. It would be about 10 or 11 minutes from the time he first saw it till the last time. He distinctly saw a propellor at the rear whirling very fast.

Alice Falconer was coming back to school when she saw it just going over the hill towards the Blue Mountains. It looked small, and was very high in the air. She told her teacher and others about it. When she saw it, it was going very fast, and did not take long to get out of sight.

Cyril Falconer was with other boys on the school ground when the airship passed over. A big wheel [propeller?] was revolving at the rear. He saw this reversed, and the vessel suddenly turned. He was in sight of Mrs. Russel, but was not with her. (His description of the sharp turn agrees thoroughly with Mrs. Russell’s statement.) This boy drew an angular picture which appeared to represent the ship as it was turning, with a wheel [propeller] at the back. Other children saw it, but these gave the clearest accounts.

Mrs. Russell, evidently the only adult who saw the phenomenon, said she was going down towards the station [heading southwards] about 12 o’clock when she saw a streak of blackness shoot over the hill on the left and apparently come straight towards her. Then it suddenly turned and swerved away over some trees out of her sight. She was very frightened when she saw it, as she had been ill. In appearance it was just like a boat. It was black in colour. She saw it for just a few minutes. It was travelling very fast at first, but when it turned it came lower and went somewhat slower. She did not notice any wheel at the rear or any sails, but was very flustered, as she thought the end of the world had come. On being asked if she could make a drawing, Mrs. Russell drew a sketch resembling a long boat, with sharp angular bows and a tapering stern. She did not notice any mast. It must have been, she thought, within 300 or 400 yards of her when it turned.

George McDuff saw the vessel at dusk on Saturday [24 July], and drew a more detailed sketch than the others. He was nearing his home about 5 p.m. when he saw the vessel going north. It was not travelling very fast.


The evidence as to the mysterious lights is much more abundant than that concerning an actual sight of the airship in daylight. The earliest sight of the lights in Kelso was obtained by Miss Mary Guinan a fortnight ago. The first recorded sight of the light was obtained at Stirling [Sunday 11 July] prior to the 13th inst. [Tuesday], on which date the Clutha Free Press published the news. It was seen on the night of the 14th [Wednesday] by Miss Guinan as she was on her way to a friend’s house. It was then in the southwest quarter of the sky and travelled in the direction of the Blue Mountains, getting more and more dim until gradually it went out. She thought at first that it was a star, but when, a couple of days later, she saw news of the supposed airship at Kaitangata she at once concluded that it was this she had seen. On Saturday night [24 July], she saw the light again about 9.30. It was moving along rising and falling. She watched it, and after a time it flashed brilliantly, like a meteor. It seemed to make the sky round about paler.

Alfred Guinan saw the light on the same occasion [Saturday 24 July]. 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.

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 [southwards, S46°08’, E169°14’]. 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 [S45°54’, E169°13’] she saw the light above the Blue Mountains. This disappeared above Tapanui [immediately west of the Blue Mountains, S45°57’, E169°16’]. 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 [on Wooded Hill Road, S45°55’, E169°15’] 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.

All the witnesses so far had heard no noise of machinery from the airship.

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.

Two other families were awakened on the same night, but they cannot say definitely what woke them. One man says that he and his wife woke suddenly, as though aroused by a noise like a door slamming suddenly, but it was a still night, and he knew that no door would slam like that. A woman in another house lying in the direction which the ship would take from Mrs. Mayo’s house to the mountains, was awakened at the same time by a noise, the cause of which she does not know.


Everything so far mentioned has been absolute fact. Naturally objections are urged against the theory of an airship. An alleged explanation of the black airship seen by the school children is that it was a large flock of black swans flying close together. No explanation is, however, proffered of the whirling propellor, or as to why the flock should indulge in two complete circles above the township, go over to the gorge, stay there for a time, and return whence it came. Nor is it suggested that a flock of swans would find it necessary to generate electricity as they fly and provide a headlight for night manoeuvres. This theory does not find much favour, and the majority firmly believe in “something mysterious.” Some suggest that a local invention is being perfected, but the difficulty is how have the building operations been carried out with such secrecy. In reviewing the manoeuvres of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night and the subsequent disappearance, it must be remembered that those nights were calm, while since then some wind and low clouds and mist have prevailed. Last night a watch was maintained here till midnight, but with no result. The weather tonight is dull and cloudy, but watchers are on the alert.

Regarding the different places at which the light was seen on Saturday night it seems possible that only one ship is concerned. It was last seen in this district about 9.30 by Mrs. Ferguson from Tapanui Hill, travelling eastwards and southwards.

At 10.5 some railway men at Owaka [S46°27’, E169°39’] saw it approaching Kaitangata [S46°17’, E169°51’]. The airline is about 40 miles, but allowing a good visual margin of, say, five miles each way, that would make some 30 miles to be travelled in a little under an hour from the Catlins district. It disappeared seawards.

The lights of the airship were seen tonight [Wednesday 28 July] by at least 11 people. The Rev. Thomas Paulin, Presbyterian minister, his wife, and children [in Kelso] 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 [S45°49’, E169°00’], 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 [from Mount Wendon?]. 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.

(ends quote)

Otago Daily Times, Saturday 31 July 1909


The following figures are those drawn independently before our reporter by those persons who saw the airship on Friday [23 July] and Saturday [24 July]:–

Drawn by Agnes Falconer, school girl.

Drawn by Thomas Jenkins. The bottom view of vessel is also drawn by this boy.

Drawn by Thomas McDonald, who saw the propellor whirling.

This is the drawing of George McDuff, who saw it at 5 p.m. on Saturday [24 July].

This shape was indicated by Mrs. Russell, who saw it very briefly, and was very much upset, as she had just had an illness. Allowances must therefore be made, but even so, a distinct resemblance can be seen to bottom view following.

This is the bottom view drawn by Thomas Jenkins.

These figures were all drawn independently before our reporter, and with no assistance from anyone. Only two children were in the room at the same time, and these were entirely separated. In every case save one these were the first drawings attempted by scholars. In the one case, young McDuff, who saw it on Saturday, had already drawn one to convince his father, but this was not by him when he drew the one shown here.

In comparing the drawings a striking resemblance must be admitted to exist. This is particularly the case with those of Alice Falconer, Thomas McDonald, and Thomas Jenkins, while a resemblance certainly exists in the case of the bottom view by Thomas Jenkins and the shape indicated by Mrs. Russell.

Mrs. Russell admits that she was so frightened by the apparition that she was totally unable to notice details, and says it was simply the perfect shape of a boat, bluffer at the bows than at the stern. The narrow neck and the swelling outwards and the tapering to the stern may be taken as indicating the wings of Jenkins’s drawing from the bottom view. The most interesting of the other drawings is that by McDuff, who gives more detail than the other boys. The evidence of one boy, Cyril Falconer, is very valuable, as he says he saw the propellor whirling rapidly and then reversed. This reversing was followed by a sudden swerve, which was witnessed by Mrs. Russell, and which carried the ship out of her sight behind some trees.

The body of the vessel was also seen by observers in Kelso on Wednesday evening [28 July]. Mr. A. McKinnon describes it as being huge and black, and swaying from side to side behind the headlight which illuminated it. It was heading towards his party, when it suddenly faded out. As it was dark [mid-winter] — 6.45 p.m. — he was unable to draw it, but he certainly saw a body, and surmises that the swaying motion was caused by air currents.

(ends quote)

NOTE: Airship reports from Kelso use the terms propellor and wheel without discrimination. This arises because most people in 1909 still did not know much about propellers, or how they worked in aviation. In Otago, driving meant by horse and cart, and people were familiar with cartwheels and their spinning spokes, which looked similar to spinning propeller blades.

(A British children’s comic-book, Chums, popular in New Zealand in 1909, featured an “action” series, The Peril of the Motherland, with battles between British and German iron-clad airships, which also functioned as submarines. Illustrations in the early 1909 issues of Chums, show ‘airships’ running with all propellors at stop, later episodes show some propellors on, others off, and the final episodes show all propellors spinning – indicating that at the time, propeller function was not well understood, generally.)

Airship sightings were now being reported from other parts of the country. However, many of these areas had a more sceptical or “fun” approach to the phenomenon. A wide variety of novel causes were being suggested, and numerous fire balloon hoaxes were duly reported.

The public debate became particularly lively in Letters to the Editor columns and generated a backlash from the aviation and scientific ‘establishments’. Several readers commented that the local aircraft appeared to be faster, quieter and more robust than Bleriot’s state-of-the-art monoplane. The Times led the way:

Otago Daily Times, Tuesday 3 August 1909 (from McNab Collection, Dunedin Public Library)


Narrators have testified to seeing hovering about in the daytime an obviously tangible flying machine, the description of which accords sufficiently with the familiar types of aeroplane. We hope that New Zealand has come to the front through having produced an uncommonly successful type of aeroplane — Otago Daily Times.

SIR, — The machine that has been seen and described by so many people in Otago has not, in the judgement of the writer, in any one instance the slightest resemblance to one of the various types of aeroplane which are familiar objects to thousands of our inhabitants who have seen pictures in books and magazines, or to the hundreds of our city dwellers who have witnessed splendid kinematograph representations of aeroplanes in full flight. With quite remarkable unanimity the story of one and all, from Mr. Bailey, at Oamaru, to Mrs. Russell and the school children at Kelso, from Mr. Lambourne and Mr. Riach to the dredge hands at Gore, describes with fairly close accuracy one of the lighter-than-air types of airship, in other words, a steerable or dirigible balloon. This machine is as distinct from an aeroplane as a steam roller is from a motor car. The Zeppelin type of airship is familiar to many of our school children, and in one of their most popular magazines, Chums, has just concluded a thrilling story The Peril of the Motherland, in which numerous airships are described as having taken a most prominent and important part. No end of pictures are shown, but none of the machines are like those drawn by the children. There are moveable wings in most of these pictures, and there is no understructure, the passengers being carried inside the vessel. Mrs. Russel’s picture is to my mind quite convincing as is that of Master Jenkins, seen from below; this is the only one which depicts the lateral arms or stays, connected, no doubt, with the steering apparatus. If these children were romancing, is it not certain that more detail would have been given — the three sets of wings, for instance or, several propellors? In the children’s drawings no wings are shown except by Master Jenkins, for he alone noted “the thing” and drew it as it looked overhead — the only position in which the wings or stays would show. The other children showed a lateral view, from which point the stays would not be noticed. The only part of the account I hesitate to accept is the “whirling” wheel or screw at the stern. Wright’s aeroplane, and Farman’s also, both of which, by kinematograph, I have seen repeatedly in full flight, show the propellor at the stern only when motionless. When the engine is started the propellor disappears in a grey sort of blur, and no doubt the propellor of an airship would be similarly invisible at fast speed. Possibly, how, the airship engine can be run more slowly, and in that case the screw would be seen. It would have to slow down to stop for the reverse motion to be seen, and the turn or swerve made possible. I am quite willing to believe in the description of those who saw the appearance in daylight, but the various lights seen all over the island must be largely discounted, and do not necessarily imply a fleet of airships. They may be, as has been said, fire balloons or kites with lights. Even birds with lights have been liberated by human fiends. Moreover, there may be boys with electric flashlights (as seen at Ravensbourne), wags with lanterns on hillsides, electric fireballs, luminous clouds, etc. There seems to be no authentic account from any of those who saw the airship in the daytime of an engine at work. The noise heard by those who saw lights only need hardly be taken seriously, and the reports of them have not been so well corroborated as the daylight stories.

Now, with regard to the origin of this airship, I pinned my faith at the start to the German cruiser theory, and I will stick to that till it is proved right or wrong. If the ship belongs to an Englishman — I use the term in its widest sense — we shall soon know all about it; if it belongs to the Germans, it may disappear, and we may know it no more. Where is this cruiser Seestern and where is the Condor? One or both of these boats may have dirigibles of this type stowed away on board. Deflated, “the thing” may be quite compact, and the gas generator — of course, a more unwieldy piece of goods — remains on board when “the bird” flies away. Motor spirit in comparatively small quantity would be needed, as the airship is able to economise and take advantage of all wind currents; and she might float for miles before a favourable breeze at a great rate of speed, with the engine at a standstill. At the same time it should be noted that she could carry spare cans of petrol with little or no difficulty, as the question of weight does not so seriously concern a machine of this description as it does an aeroplane. The exhaust pipe of the engine could supply warmth, which would be very necessary at high altitudes at this latitude, and it could also supply boiling water for cooking purposes. The balloon as described is large enough to support several men, possibly three or four — reports from Gore say two, — and to carry food, water, and motor spirit to last a week at least; and at the pace this machine travels, probably over 20 miles an hour — not over our obvious roads, but as the crow flies, mark you — she could reach her base, say, outside Milford Sound, or well off the coast, in a day at the most.

I am afraid I am not in the least bit sanguine as to the owner of the airship turning out to be an inventive New Zealander. First, we have undoubted evidence that this is a dirigible balloon, which has been seen at heights varying from a few hundred to several thousand feet. It keeps in the air for hours at a time, and is seen at places considerably far apart — at such times as imply a fair turn of speed; in fact it performs feats that are not approachable by any flying machine of the heavier than air type up to the present date. All descriptions of those who have seen it point in the same direction. Now, the making of such a structure locally is out of the question. First, there are the making and the transporting of a big gas generator to some secret spot, the production or importation and transport of the fabric, rubber, silk, netting, and fittings for the huge gas envelope, the importation or making of the engine, the placing of a large order for motor spirit, extending over many months during construction and trials, and the thousand and one details that would be bound to come to notice. Moreover, one of the many workmen necessary to build such a structure would be sure to “give the show away.” Besides all this, there would be no common sense in all this secrecy if the machine were locally constructed. It is such a success that the constructor would have been glad to have come forward long before this and claimed the honour which would rightly be his. The Wright brothers were close and secretive until they were sure of themselves and their machine, though many people knew what they were doing; but as soon as their machine really could fly they came out and took the credit that was due to them. This machine which is hovering over us is no new thing, but a well-perfected and thoroughly-reliable and carefully-tested airship of almost certainly European construction. the long pole seen by some carries the wireless apparatus and can keep the vessel in touch with her base wherever she goes; whenever “called up” she can reach it in a few hours, and for all we know “she may go home every night.”

I should like to say, in conclusion, that those of your readers who have not seen the airships and aeroplanes by the kinematographs should take any opportunity of doing so and seeing one of the most interesting sights of the century. It is a most impressive scene to view an aeroplane at work. There are many types of these — monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes — all of them based more or less on the box kite pattern. First, you see in the workshop or shed the great steel tube and canvass structure about 20ft high and, say, 40ft or 50ft wide, with a long “box kite” tail sticking out at right angles to it. There are engine, chains, levers, stays, handles, wire, and propellor. The aviator climbs quietly into his seat beside the engine, looks carefully round, and nods to an attendant, who “starts her up” by pulling over the propellor. There is a whirring grey circle, the propellor and engine is running. You are then shown another picture almost precisely the same, save that the aeroplane is now on its starting platform ready for flight. A weight is released, and this, falling heavily from the platform, so pulls on a rope attached to the ship that it shoots her along an inclined plane as a catapult does the missile it propels. Away she soars into the air, and as she turns and swoops, this way and that, and rounds great clumps of trees in easy fashion, she casts great shadows on the pools of water on the marshes where the trials are taking place. Then away in the distance over the trees, you see something moving swiftly. It gets larger. “Here she comes,” all cry out. Larger and swifter it approaches; finally it rushes towards you and passes high up, the aviator, like a little doll, seated motionless in the centre. So she soars and turns, rising and falling, swooping and gliding, and finally she comes quietly to rest on the ground amidst the crowds of spectators, who have been watching and waiting for the descent. One feels thrilled as one watches the flight, and you realise you have seen something marvellous, and that at last man can really fly. — I am, etc. AVIATOR.


SIR, — The airship craze is getting beyond a joke. There is a danger of our level-headed community becoming a laughing-stock not only to New Zealand, but to Australia and even to the greater world beyond. We do not want to be advertised in that way, and that is my excuse for writing seriously about it.

I consider that the explanation of the affair is to be sought in psychology. The world has had a great many examples of “extraordinary popular delusions,” such as the South Sea Bubble, the tulip mania in Holland, the credulity which floated Titus Oates into infamy, the persecutions of witches, and dredging booms. These phenomena arise in times of public excitement, when every whisper and shrug is taken as evidence, and the capacity to weigh matters is for the time submerged by some human passion, such as fear or greed. Such a time of excitement has been brought perilously near by the German scare, the Dreadnought episode, and the conquest of the air. Everything is ripe and ready for a popular delusion.

A spark starts the conflagration. Some imaginative person, deeply interested in airships, sees some moving object, possibly a flight of birds, or a whisp of vapour. The wish is father to the thought. He sees an airship! One confident statement encourages many others, who have seen something to which they paid no particular attention, to assume that the statement explains their own experience. Probably a toy balloon, which is kept aloft by a tiny flame started the “mysterious light” tales. Others at once remember having seen lights. Some have seen rabbiters’ lanterns on the hills, others a meteor coming almost end on, and so appearing to move slowly, and others have simply seen stars or planets, which moved in relation to terrestrial objects as the observers walked along. It is quite certain that many have seen the fiery red planet Mars and watched it as the “mysterious light.” They saw it over the Peninsula about 9.30, and in two or three hours it was over Ravensbourne. It is a curious fact that, in this age of education, multitudes of people do not know that stars and planets rise and set, like the sun. A recent writer on astronomy says that he was once consulted by a great scholar, who was writing a treatise on Greek Astronomy. The scholar was surprised to learn that stars rise and set!

Another source of illusion is found in “complementary colours.” A woman once informed me that she had an omen before her husband died. She had been at an Anglican service in a private house. She sat near the door, and looking out at the sky she saw a huge white square with a black cross in the centre of it. She knew then that trouble was at hand. Her black-covered prayer book, with a gilt cross on it, lay on the table as she spoke. The explanation was obvious. Her eyes had unconsciously rested for some time on this book. Then she looked at the sky, and the black gave the white square and the gilt the black cross. Anyone can experiment in this, using vivid colours. The application is easy. Someone has been gazing at a lamp, or has lit his pipe, gazing at the flame of the match. Then he looked at the sky and saw mysterious lights, or at a distant house and saw lurid flames upon it.

But let me now speak of the possible motives for secret flying. I believe there are no great fortresses or arsenals about Oamaru, or Greymouth, or even Kelso — in fact, there is nothing in New Zealand to reward an aerial spy. The whole country is free for whoso list to go where and how he likes. If we had a Metz to spy out, the spy would not fly in the dark, and if he did he would not carry lights. Outside of Seacliff [an asylum for the insane, north of Dunedin] there is no motive for a spy ship. As to the private inventor, there is no earthly reason why he should go to the Blue Mountains. How would he carry his material and where would he get his gas? European inventors have not found such secrecy necessary. They, poor fellows, have been experimenting for years, but in New Zealand, it appears, several inventors have all hit upon prodigious success within a day or two of each other and have flown over mountains without a hitch! Here, again, there is neither motive or probability.

The juvenile witnesses gave clear proof of psychological causes. Their sketches all represent the gas-bag ship, and have the propellors fixed to the end of the gas-bag! This is clearly their idea of how it ought to be. One lad, in his side view, seems to place the propellor on the car, but in his bottom view he fixes it on the end of the cigar-shaped balloon. I think it is the same boy who saw the propellor reversed to turn the ship. This again is psychological, and shows the boyish idea of how turning is effected. Consider also the speed attained, according to this observer. He saw the ship come over a hill, pass by him and go to a gorge seven miles away, stay there a few minutes, and then come back over his head and go over the Blue Mountains. What is the distance? Say 20 miles; and he saw the ship for 10 or 11 minutes! An aeroplane has attained half this speed, but the pace of the gas-bag is very much less.

I hope, for the credit of the community, that this extraordinary popular delusion will speedily sink into the backward and abysm of time.

May I add that the entertaining article on comets and their influence which you reprinted is worthy of a medieval astrologer, and has not a single point of contact with recent science?

Mr. Wragge mentions the new theory, so extensively exploited by Arrhennius in his Worlds in the Making, of electrified solar dust carried into space by the pressure of light. This dust may account for aurorae and such hemispheric phenomena, but certainly not for moving points of light. — I am etc. P.W. FAIRCLOUGH

From the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Volume 4: Otago and Southland, 1905):

“THE REV. P.W. FAIRCLOUGH, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the [Methodist] Circuit Superintendent, was born in South Australia, and came over to the West Coast of New Zealand[‘s South Island] at the time of the gold rush [West Coast, 1864-67]. There he became a local preacher, and being recommended for the ministry, was trained under the Rev. A.R. Fitchett, and was subsequently under the care of Principal Fletcher, at the Newington College in Sydney. More than half of his thirty years’ ministry has been given to the Canterbury district. Mr. Fairclough is a man of original mind, and is a capable preacher, an effective writer, and a brilliant platform speaker. He was elected President of the [Methodist] Conference in 1897, and is now Chairman of the Otago District. Mr. Fairclough was for six years editor of the denominational paper, in which he strongly supported woman’s franchise and temperance legislation.”

Contemporary Kelso location and witness photos from the Otago Witness, a weekly pictorial newspaper (4 August 1909), in the Hocken Library collection, Dunedin, show:


This photograph was taken from hill [The Wooded Hill] over which the object came. After coming over the hill it circled twice over the township, went right across to gorge seen in the distance, turned there, and came back. It was in view for about ten minutes.

The Figure (1) in foreground is where some of the school children were playing when they saw it; (2) indicates where Mrs Russell was proceeding along railway line when she saw it. It turned suddenly and disappeared from her view behind the trees. This sudden turn was seen by Cyril Falconer from another position and he says it was caused by a reversal of the propeller at the rear. (3) The gorge in the distance is Pomahaka Gorge; the hill to the left [of the gorge] is Mount Wendon, and that to the right is [Mount] Dusky. The Blue Mountains (not in view) stretch to the right [actually behind the photographer!] of the picture.


Back Row; R. Russell, Mrs Russell, Agnes Falconer, T. McDonald.

Front Row; T. Jenkins, Cyril Falconer, A. Russell, G. McDuff. [Better views of the front row children, are available in Otago Witness material on the NLNZ Paperspast site.]

The “secret aviator”

The improved version of Pearse’s 1903 aeroplane, patented in 1907

Back in Inch Clutha, any interest in a local aviator who might be working in secret, varied greatly. At the time two very distinct types of aircraft were known:

  1. Lighter than air; Balloons and dirigibles – these tended to be very large (eg. the 135 metre Zeppelins), unwieldy and wind-affected; they required strong engines and propellers to be effective against any wind. In New Zealand all known balloons were spherical. The top “world” balloon speed in 1909 was between 15-20kph.
  2. Heavier than air; A fusion of two technologies (traditional box kites and ‘modern’ aerofoils/wings); as mono-, bi-, or tri-planes. More manoeuvrable than balloons. As petrol engines got lighter and more powerful, aerofoil-based designs triumphed. Top 1909 speed for Blériot’s monoplane was 72kph, the Wrights’ biplane, 40kph.

The 1909 New Zealand airships were small, dirigible-shaped craft, which performed like aeroplanes. They were more robust and sophisticated than either aircraft type then available, and flew higher, further and faster. Commentators expressed great pride at the local development of a superior aircraft.

During the 19th Century, New Zealand’s first aviators had flown spherical, gas-filled balloons purchased in Europe or the United States. By 1909, local inventors were toying entirely with large kites and aerofoils; none appears to have been working with dirigible balloons.

I now have an extensive archive of early New Zealand aviator material; the locals usually welcomed all the media publicity they could get. New Zealand had about a dozen alive and active during 1909, but none can be linked in any way to the Kelso airship sightings. And there was very little, if any, aircraft-engine development going on in New Zealand.

Although aircraft achievements overseas and local airship reports attracted considerable public attention, the media’s inability to find any local inventor responsible, caused problems.

The most successful early aviator in New Zealand was Richard Pearse. In March 1903, the reclusive Pearse flew a monoplane, powered by a petrol engine which he built from scratch. It travelled several hundred metres into a hedge, near Waitohi, in South Canterbury – a truly remarkable achievement. Pearse’s aircraft patents and fragments of the machines he built are now housed in the Museum of Technology, Auckland. At the time of the Kelso airships, Pearse was still living in Waitohi in South Canterbury.

The possible reality of a mysterious, unidentified, aviator-less airship with no obvious purpose was beginning to alarm many people. It had now been seen from less than 100 metres away. Its superior capabilities were such that public concern was becoming palpable. There were newspaper reports of groups of young men in Tapanui and Kelso taking rifles onto the Blue Mountains and The Wooded Hill areas, hoping to “shoot the airship”.

(Mount Wendon was more distant from these settled areas and does not appear to have been reconnoitred at all.)

Otago Daily Times, Friday 6 August 1909




KELSO, August 5:  The Kelso airship has been seen again — not only the lights, but the object itself. Early in the evening of Saturday, July 24, some 10 or 12 Dunedin tradesmen, who are working about six miles distant from here [Crossans Corner, S45°55’, E169°09’], 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 [Hokonui Hills, southwestwards, S46°04’, E168°44’]. 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 torch mentioned by the Tapanui Courier as having been waved over Kelso by some irresponsible young men was not seen here, and I regret that the intervening hills between Kelso and the Blue Mountains [The Wooded Hill] were the cause of the Tapanui hoax failing.

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. These people have not yet seen the sketches which appeared in the [Otago Daily] Times, as they do not get the paper where they are.

The phenomenon seems to have persisted around Mount Wendon for over a week:

Mataura Ensign, Monday 9 August 1909.



In view of the great interest taken in the mysterious sights seen in the heavens recently over a wide area from the reported “airships”, the following account from an actual beholder of the phenomenon (Mr Thomas Potter, Norwood, Kelso) is of interest.

“I have noticed in recent issues of your paper accounts of the mysterious lights that have been seen about various districts during the last fortnight by some of your reporters and correspondents, some of them putting the phenomenon down to fire balloons heliograph reflections, the planet Mars, or small boy practices. In the first place I do not think that the planet Mars has got quite so close to us yet. Now I can vouch that we have an airship in our midst, for I with four or five others have seen it at a very close distance, being only a few hundred yards away. The night that we observed the vessel was Saturday, July 31, and she was travelling from the Blue Mountains making for Mount Wendon. The ship passed close to my house and the hum of the propellors was quite plainly heard. Not thinking of airships, we did not go out for a few seconds, and when we did the vessel was from 20 to 25 chains away [400-500 metres]. Owing to a fairly strong wind blowing, she was travelling very low – I would say about 80 feet [25 metres] from the ground. For some time we could only see the rear light as she was going direct from us.

“The light was one that you would see on a traction engine; a white dazzling light, not a dull one like a fire balloon would give. From my homestead the vessel only made one tack until she disappeared over the top of Mount Wendon. Then we could see the two side lights, which were red in color and smaller than the rear light. The vessel then made a straight course for Mount Wendon, and after disappearing over the mountain she hove in sight for a second or two with a rising and falling motion. The vessel was travelling dead against the wind; a wind that I would say was travelling from four to five miles per hour. By the time the vessel took to travel from my homestead to Mount Wendon, I would say she was doing 18 miles an hour [29km/h].

“Without a doubt we have an airship in our midst: but whether she is of New Zealand or German construction I will leave to an abler man than myself to judge. I see by the paper that the vessel was seen in Alexandra at the same time that we viewed it [this turned out to be a hoax]. If so, there are two airships.”


The aircraft seen was definitely not an aeroplane. Its reported size lets you estimate the volume of gas held in the bag/body of the craft, and hence its lifting power, if it was a balloon. However, the 1909 “airships”, as reported, are simply too small to be a balloon. One would barely lift a man as well as its own weight. For example:

The White and Red fore lights were seen in night-time events. Although no witness reports give definite dimensions, various published accounts strongly suggest the following values:

  •   Length (max) = 12+3 metres
  • Gas volume   = 85+20 metres3
  • Lift capacity   = 100-150 kg (hydrogen fill)
  • Speed            = 50-100 km/hr (or more)

Also, it is hard to properly distinguish fine details when looking at dark (matt black) objects, which reflect light poorly. Some degree of variability in witness accounts is to be expected. The weather was most probably overcast, which meant there were no shadows (by fins, etc.) to help highlight details.

Plausible airship reports were now coming in from:

  • Oamaru and the Kakanui Ranges [S45°07’, E170°24’, Monday evening 26 July],
  • Kauroo Hill [Kauru Hill, S45°06’, E170°45’, Thursday morning 29 July],
  • Greymouth [S42°27’, E171°12’, Thursday afternoon 29 July]*, and
  • South Canterbury [Timaru S44°24’, E171°15’, Temuka S44°15’, E171°17’, Geraldine S44°06’, E171°14’, Thursday evening 29 July]*.

* These reports reinforce the possibility there were two or more ‘airships’.

(Less-detailed accounts were now being reported from New Zealand’s North Island. Further reports also started coming in from eastern Australia – Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales – these Australian cases merit further consideration.)

As airship reports worked their way through the New Zealand media, they fuelled a public debate that ran for some three weeks.

We know from weather reports in newspapers that the weather had been unusually mild for that winter. This good weather meant more people were outside longer in the evening, as possible witnesses. The end of the 1909 Airship wave in Australasia coincides with a rapid deterioration in weather, with severe storms and widespread flooding.

Without an obvious and identifiable source for the ‘airships’, and an increasing number of hoaxes, public doubts rose. Most papers remained highly sceptical and downplayed or ridiculed the reports until even the Otago Daily Times lost interest.

Moral panics:

Moral panics have been invoked inconsistently since about 1830 to account for sporadic and spontaneous, if widespread, outbreaks of public hysteria or irrationality. The term invariably embodies negativity from whoever is using it. Today, moral panics are most often attributed to media ‘malfunctions’, such as race riots and shock-jock morality campaigns.

From the internet, moral panics have several distinct features (many of which are discredited in sociological literature – check the internet for a broader discussion). According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, these must include:

  • Concern – There must be the belief that the behaviour of the phenomenon in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
  • Hostility – Hostility towards the phenomenon in question increases; they become ‘folk devils’. A clear division forms between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the phenomenon in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ are vocal and the ‘folk devils’ appear weak and disorganised.
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the phenomenon.
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared, due to waning public interest or news reports changing to another topic.

While some of the later, localised 1909 airship incidents have one or two of Goode/Ben-Yehuda’s characteristics, the initial reports tend to lack them. The first witnesses show more curiosity, interest – even national pride. Their detailed accounts indicate that an unknown physical phenomenon initiated the 1909 airship wave, rather than some kind of phobia.

We can now bring together key details, and create a proper timeline to show how the 1909 wave began and evolved into something more interesting – for UFO sceptics, the devil is in the detail. The wealth of airship information now available to anyone, makes the 1909 Kelso Airship wave one of the most enduring and interesting mysteries of colonial New Zealand.

1909 South Island newspapers:(71)

Akaroa Mail/Banks Peninsula Advertiser (Akaroa)

Alexandria Herald/Central Otago Gaz (Alexandria)

Ashburton Guardian (Ashburton)

Bluff Press and Stewart Island Gazette (Bluff)

Bruce Herald (Milton)

Buller Miner (Westport)

Buller Times (Westport)

Buller Post (Murchison)

Canterbury Times (Christchurch)

Cheviot News (Cheviot)

Christchurch Evening News (Christchurch)

Christchurch News (Christchurch)

Christchurch Press (Christchurch)

Christchurch Star (Christchurch)

Christchurch Weekly Press (Christchurch)

Clutha Leader (Balclutha)

Clutha Free Press (Balclutha)

Colonist (Nelson)

Cromwell Argus (Cromwell)

Dunstan Times (Clyde)

Ellesmere Guardian (Leeston)

Evening Star (Dunedin)

Geraldine Guardian (Geraldine)

Golden Bay Argus (Collingwood)

Golden Bay Times (Takaka)

Gore Standard (Gore)

Grey River Argus (Greymouth)

Hokitika Guardian (Hokitika)

Inangahua Herald (Reefton)

Inangahua Times (Reefton)

Invercargill Weekly Times (Invercargill)

Kaiapoi Record (Kaiapoi)

Kaikoura Star (Kaikoura)

Kaikoura Sun (Kaikoura)

Kumara Times (Kumara)

Lake County Press (Arrowtown)

Lake Wakatip Mail (Queenstown)

Lyttelton Times (Lyttelton)

Marlborough Express (Blenheim)

Marlborough Press (Picton)

Mataura Ensign (Gore)

Motueka Star (Motueka)

Mt Benger Mail (Roxburgh)

Mt Ida Chronicle (Naseby)

Nelson Evening Mail (Nelson)

New Zealand Truth

North Otago Times (Oamaru)

Oamaru Mail (Oamaru)

Otago Daily Times (Dunedin)*

Otago Witness (ODT, Dunedin)

Otaki Mail (Otaki)

Otautau Standard/Wallace County Chronicle (Otautau)

Palmerston & Waikouaiti Times (Palmerston Sth)

Southern Cross (Invercargill)

Southern Daily News (Invercargill)

Southland Times (Invercargill)

Southland Weekly Times (Invercargill)

Southlander (Invercargill)

Standard/Northrn Canterbury Guardian (Rangiora)

Taieri Advocate (Mosgiel)

Tapanui Courier (Tapanui)

Temuka Leader (Temuka)

Timaru Herald (Timaru)*

Timaru Post (Timaru)

Tuapeka Times (Lawrence)

Waikouaiti Herald (Hawksbury)

Weekly Budget (Dunedin)

West Coast Times (Hokitika)

Western Star (Riverton)

Winton Record (Winton)

Wyndham Farmer (Wyndham)

Wyndham Herald (Wyndham)

1909 North Island newspapers:(57)

Auckland Star (Auckland)

Bay of Plenty Press (Whakatane)

Bay of Plenty Times (Tauranga)

Bush Advocate (Dannevirke)

Dannevirke Evening News (Dannevirke)

Dominion (Wellington)

Eketahuna Express (Eketahuna)

Evening Post (Wellington)

Feilding Star (Feilding)

Foxton Herald (Foxton)

Free Lance (Wellington)

Gisborne Herald (Gisborne)

Gisborne Times (Gisborne)

Hastings Standard (Hastings)

Hawera & Normanby Star (Hawera)

Hokianga Times (Kohukohu)

Hot Lakes Chronicle (Rotorua)

Hutt and Petone Chronicle (Petone)

Inglewood Times/County Chronicle (Inglewood)

Kaipara & Waitemata Echo (Helensville)

Kawhia Settler and Raglan Advertiser (Kawhia)

King Country Chronicle (Te Kuiti)

Levin Daily Chronicle (Levin)

Levin Times (Levin)

Manawatu Standard (Palmerston North)

Manawatu Times (Palmerston North)

Martinborough Star (Martinborough)

New Zealand Herald (Auckland)

New Zealand Mail (Wellington)

New Zealand Times (Wellington)

North Auckland Times (Dargaville)

Northern Advocate (Whangarei)

Northland Age (Kaitaia)

Observer (Auckland)

Ohinemuri Gazette (Paeroa)

Pahiatua Herald (Pahiatua)

Patea County Press (Patea)

Poverty Bay Herald (Gisborne)

Raglan County Chronicle (Raglan)

Rodney/Otamatea Times, Waitemata/Kaipara Gazette (Auckland)

Taihape Times (Taihape)

Taranaki Central Press (Stratford)

Taranaki Daily News (New Plymouth)

Taranaki Herald (New Plymouth)

Te Aroha News (Te Aroha)

Thames Star (Thames)

Waihi Telegraph (Waihi)

Waikato Argus (Hamilton)

Waikato Times (Hamilton)

Waimate Daily Advertiser (Waimate North)

Waimate Witness (Manaia)

Wairarapa Daily Times (Masterton)

Wairarapa Age (Masterton)

Wairoa Bell (Dargaville)

Wanganui Herald (Wanganui)

Woodville Examiner (Woodville)


  • Brunt, Tony, (Feb. 1967), The New Zealand UFO Wave of 1909, reprinted in Xenolog 100, (Sept-Oct, 1975, pp. 9-12), and Xenolog 101, (Nov-Dec,1975, pp. 12-16)
  • Dickeson, B. and Fleury, P., (1997), Australasia’s Phantom Zeppelins of 1909
  • Dykes, Mervyn (1981), UFOs over New Zealand (pp. 16-31)
  • Fulton, Harold H. (1957), Mysterious objects haunt skies of 1909, many strange sights witnessed some 48 years ago, in Flying Saucers, Official Quarterly Journal of CSI (NZ), Vol. 4., No. 4.,(pp. 23-26)
  • Stott, Murray (1984), Aliens over Antipodes (pp. 9-54)