The reported ships were usually said to be a type of dirigible, and were usually differentiated from gliders or hot air balloons. The best-known wave of airship tales was largely confined to North America, but according to Jerome Clark, similar reports were made worldwide, early as the 1880s, and late as the 1990s. Of the 1896-1897 series of airship sightings, historian Mike Dash wrote,Not only were [the Mystery Airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings ... The 1896-1897 airship wave is probably the best investigated of all historical anomalies. The files of almost 1500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.
The best-known of the Mystery Airship waves began in California in 1896. Afterwards, reports and accounts of similar airships came from others areas, generally moving east.
Some accounts during this wave of airship reports claim that occupants were visible on some airships, and encounters with the pilots were reported as well. These occupants were said to be human, though their behaviour, mannerisms and clothing were sometimes reported to be unusual. One witness from Arkansas-- allegedly a former state senator Harris -- was supposedly told by an airship pilot (during the tensions leading up the Spanish American War) that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its "Hotchkiss gun" to "kill Spaniards". (Jacobs, 10)
In one account from Texas, three men reported an encounter with an airship and with "five peculiarly dressed men" who reported that they were descendant from the lost tribes of Israel; they had learned English from the 1553 north pole expedition led by Hugh Willoughby.
At least two airship tales were taken as at least possibly genuine by generations of later ufologists:
- An account by Alexander Hamilton of Leroy, Kansas supposedly occurred about April 19, 1897, and was published in the Yates Center Farmer’s Advocate of April 23. Hamilton, his son, and a tenant witnessed an airship hovering over his cattle pen. Upon closer examination, the witnesses realized that a red “cable” from the airship had lassoed a heifer, but had also become entangled in the pen’s fence. After trying unsuccessfully to free the heifer, Hamilton cut loose a portion of the fence, then "stood in amazement to see the ship, cow and all rise slowly and sail off." (Jacobs, 15) Some have suggested this was the earliest report of cattle mutilation (In 1982, however, UFO researcher Jerome Clark debunked this story, and confirmed via interviews and Hamilton's own affidavit that the story was a successful attempt to win a Liar's Club competition to create the most outlandish tall tale).
- An account from Aurora, Texas (as related in the Dallas Morning News) reported that an airship had smashed into a windmill-- later determined to be a sump pump -- belonging to a Judge Proctor, then crashed. The occupant was dead and mangled, but the story reported that presumed pilot was clearly "not an inhabitant of this world." (Jacobs, 17) Strange "hieroglyphic" figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled "a mixture of aluminum and silver ... it must have weighed several tons.”"(ibid.) (In the 20th Century, unusual metallic material recovered from the presumed crash site was shown to contain a percentage of aluminum and iron admixed.) The story ended by noting that the pilot was given a "Christian burial" in the town cemetery. In 1973, MUFON investigators discovered the alleged stone marker used in this burial. Their metal detectors indicated a quantity of foreign material might remain buried there. However, they were not permitted to exhume, and when they returned several years later, the headstone -- and whatever metallic material had lay beneath it -- was gone ....