For added information on flights, here are a few firsts:
First Hot Air Balloon took flight September 19, 1783, making an unmanned flight lasting 10 minutes.
First practical airship/blimp took flight 1852.
The Wright Brothers airplane took flight December 17, 1903.
The best known of the mystery airship waves began in California in 1896. they were mirrored by a series of sightings that took place in Britain, starting in 1909. Afterwards, reports and accounts of similar airships came from other 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 often appeared to be human, though their behavior, mannerisms and clothing were sometimes reported to be unusual. Sometimes the apparent humans claimed to be from the planet Mars.
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 1,500 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.
November 17, 1896, in San Francisco, CA when hundreds of residents saw a large, elongated, dark object that used brilliant searchlights and moved against the wind, traveling northwest across Oakland, at 1000' altitude. A few hours later reports came from other northern California cities such as Santa Rosa, Chico, Sacramento, and Red Bluff, all describing what appears to be the same airship, a cigar shaped craft. It is quite possible that this craft was heading for Mount Shasta in northern California.
The airship moved very slowly and majestically, flying low at times, and at night, shining its powerful searchlight on the ground. However, the airship, clearly not a typical balloon or gas filled airship of the time, did at times move erratically, sometimes it would depart as a shot out of a gun, change course abruptly, change altitude at great speed, circle and land and, a previously mentioned, use powerful searchlights to sweep the countryside.
Some witnesses said they could see a dark shape behind the light. A witness named R.L. Lowery reported that he heard a voice from the craft issuing commands to increase elevation in order to avoid hitting a church steeple. Lowery added in what was no doubt meant as a wink to the reader, that he believed the apparent captain to be referring to the tower of a local brewery, as there were no churches nearby. Lowery further described the craft as being powered by 2 men exerting themselves on bicycle pedals. Above the pedaling men seemed to be a passenger compartment, which lay under the main body of the dirigible. A light was mounted on the front end of the airship. Some witnesses reported the sound of singing as the craft passed overhead.
November 19, 1896, edition of the Stockton, California, Daily Mail featured one of the earliest accounts of an alleged alien craft sighting. Colonel H.G. Shaw claimed that while driving his buggy through the countryside near Stockton, he came across what appeared to be a landed spacecraft. Shaw described it as having a metallic surface which was completely featureless apart from a rudder, and pointed ends. He estimated a diameter of 25' and said the vessel was around 150' in total length. 3 slender, 7' tall, apparent extraterrestrials were said to approach from the craft while emitting a strange warbling noise.
The beings reportedly examined Shaw's buggy and then tried to physically force him to accompany them back to the airship. The aliens were said to give up after realizing they lacked the physical strength to force Shaw onto the ship. They supposedly fled back to their ship, which lifted off the ground and sped out of sight.
Shaw believed that the beings were Martians sent to kidnap an Earthling for unknowable but potentially nefarious purposes. This has been seen by some as an early attempt at alien abduction, it is apparently the first published account of explicitly extraterrestrial beings attempting to kidnap humans into their spacecraft.
The mystery light reappeared over Sacramento the evening of November 21. It was also seen over Folsom, San Francisco, Oakland, Sebastopol and several other cities later that same evening and was reportedly viewed by hundreds of witnesses.
One witness from Arkansas, allegedly a former state senator Harris, was supposedly told by an airship pilot, during the tensions leading up to the Spanish American War, that the craft was bound for Cuba, to use its Hotchkiss gun, to kill Spaniards.
In one account from Texas, 3 men reported an encounter with an airship and with 5 peculiarly dressed men, who asserted that they were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and had learned English from the 1553 North Pole expedition led by Hugh Willoughby.
On February 2, 1897, the airship showed itself over the town of Hastings, NE. 3 days later, it was seen 40 miles further south near the town of Invale, Webster County, NE.
Reports started to flow in from all over the state. On February 16th it was sighted over Omaha. More stories appeared. A farmer claimed he'd encountered the airship on the ground, under repair. It is cigar shaped, about 200' long and 50' across at the widest point, gradually narrowing to a point at both ends, the farmer said.
Soon the airship had been sighted all over the midwest including in Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. More stories about encounters with the crew on the ground appeared. Finally in April the excitement reached it's zenith when the airship arrived in Chicago. On April 11th a photograph of the thing was reportedly taken, probably the first UFO photo in existence. Some experts pronounced the photo to be fake.
An article in the Albion Weekly News reported that 2 witnesses saw an airship crash just inches from where they were standing. The airship suddenly disappeared, with a man standing where the vessel had been. The airship pilot showed the men a small device that supposedly enabled him to shrink the airship small enough to store the vessel in his pocket. A rival newspaper, the Wilsonville Review, playfully claimed that its own editor was an additional witness to the incident and that he heard the pilot say: Weiver eht rof ebircsbus!
The phrase he allegedly heard is subscribe for the Review, spelled backwards.
On April 10, 1897, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story reporting that one W.H. Hopkins encountered a grounded airship about 20' in length and 8' in diameter near the outskirts of Springfield, MO. The vehicle was apparently propelled by 3 large propellers and crewed by a beautiful, nude woman and a bearded man, also nude. Hopkins attempted with some difficulty to communicate with the crew in order to ascertain their origins.
Eventually they understood what Hopkins was asking of them and they both pointed to the sky and uttered something that sounded like the word Mars.
An April 16, 1897, a story published by the Table Rock Argus claimed that a group of anonymous but reliable witnesses had seen an airship sailing overhead. The craft had many passengers. The witnesses claimed that among these passengers was a woman tied to a chair, a woman attending her, and a man with a pistol guarding their apparent prisoner. Before the witnesses thought to contact the authorities, the airship was already gone.
In 1897 the Washington Times speculated the airships were a reconnoitering party from Mars. The same year, the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch suggested these may be visitors from Mars, now fearful of invading the planet they have been seeking.
April 15, 1897 - Mount Vernon, IL. What appeared to have been the mysterious airship was seen here by more than 100 persons last night.
April 15, 1897 - Carlyle, IL.The airship was spotted this evening travelling fast in a northwestern course.
April 15, 1897 - Quincy, IL. The Wabash passenger train which arrived here at 10 o’clock tonight raced for 15 minutes with the alleged airship. They first sighted it near Perry Springs, 52 miles east of Quincy. All of the passengers saw it, but all they could see was 2 lights, one white, the other red.
April 15, 1897 - Hillsboro, IL. The airship was seen in the western heavens by a number of reputable citizens last evening.
April 15, near Kalamazoo, MI. There were reports that the airship had crashed and exploded. They declare the report to have been like that of heavy ordnance and to have been immediately succeeded by a distant sound of projectiles flying through the air, a newspaper story proclaimed.
An account from Aurora, Texas, related in the Dallas Morning News on April 19, 1897, reported that a couple of days before, 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. Strange hieroglyphic figures were seen on the wreckage, which resembled a mixture of aluminum and silver, it must have weighed several tons. 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 lain beneath it was gone.
On April 19, 1897, The Center Farmer’s Advocate published the account of Alexander Hamilton of Leroy, KS, who along with his son and a tenant, sighted an airship hovering over his cattle pen. A red cable from the space ship lassoed a heifer, but got entangled in the pen’s fence. Hamilton’s attempts to free the cow were unsuccessful. He then cut a portion of the fence loose and the ship and cow rose off the ground and sailed away.
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.
Despite this, airship sightings continued for a few more days. Some expected the thing to continue on to the east coast, but instead reports about it faded and by the end of April the flap was over.
An interesting aspect of the Great Airship Scare was a rumor that the space ships were the invention of some genius who wasn’t ready to announce his creation to the public. Thomas Edison was widely speculated to be the mind behind the airships and in 1897, to quiet the rumors, he issued a statement denying all responsibility.