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The Kelso Aerial Mystery 1909


Raoul Butler

Though UFO sightings are coming up fairly regularly in New Zealand, there have been three major episodes which made the headlines. These occurred in 1909, 1952 and 1978.

Back in 1909 it was known as the Kelso Aerial mystery. The term UFO or Unidentified Flying Object, was unknown in those days.

It began late in July, 1909, with a report from Balclutha of mysterious lights in the night sky. At first there was little interest as it was thought some boys had attached a light to the end of a kite. That would account for the swaying motion observed. But then came the second account from Kelso of an airship-shaped object with what appeared to be a man seated in it. There were even daylight sightings. Kelso school children claimed it had flown over and past their school and that it had a pontoon-shaped part above a boat with a short pole or mast in the centre. On that occasion it was seen by at least five people besides the school children. All claimed it appeared to come from the direction of the Blue Mountains and return in that direction.

A few days later it was seen again in Kelso. It had a strong light, which attracted attention but this gradually faded, to be replaced by several small lights. The object was moving slowly above the hills and was observed for more than five minutes before it disappeared from view. About 200 people in Invercargill claimed to have seen the phenomenon. Twelve workers who were about to board the night train from Catlins saw lights which they took to be from some sort of air ship, travelling in the direction of Kaitangata and Tuakitoto Lakes. When the train stopped at Owaka, several climbed on the roof of the carriage and watched the lights sailing serenely away over the Kaitangata hills. Some boys near Kaka Point described something 'As large as a house' which they thought was going to land. The light from it was reflected on the roof of Dr Fitzgerald's cottage. It glided round the rocks of the old pilot station and then disappeared. Some dredge hands at Gore described an airship with two figures on board. After the initial accounts, other reports began to come in thick and fast. Dunedin, Winslow, Timaru and Winchester produced newspaper stories and the report from Methven's local policeman, who had been an observer, added credibility to the sightings. There was a suggestion that the object could house a German spy from the yacht 'Seestern'. By the end of July, stories were coming from around Christchurch.

In Auckland, strange lights had been seen in the direction of East Tamaki, some were seen heading across the Tasman. Accounts soon appeared in Australia of strange lights seen over New South Wales. And then they all just seemed to fade away. So what had people seen? At the time, there was intense interest in aviation. About the time of the first sightings, on 27 July 1909, Bleriot's first crossing of the English channel from Dover to Calais by monoplane, was making world cable news. There was also great interest in Count von Zeppelin's airship, and, coupled with the expected arrival of Halley's comet in the following year, people were ready for anything rare and exciting in the sky.

Some of the lights were probably natural phenomena - perhaps the Aurora australis in the southern regions. But what is interesting is that the descriptions of the shape of the object were of something people knew - an airship. There was no suggestion of the flying saucer, the familar description of later years. These people were describing an object in terms of something already seen in newspaper pictures. Some even described the boat-shaped piece underneath, like the passenger accommodation of an airship.

Raoul Butler