Fear of Floating
In the spring of 1909, Britons began spotting zeppelins everywhere they looked. As Dan Vergano wrote in our 2009 article “Fear of Floating,” “Zeppelins had been flying for nine years, but this was the first time one had been spotted over England. Designed by Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, the rigid airships were marvels of engineering…. But they had also proven fragile, skittish, and prone to catastrophe: Of the first 10 built, six crashed or burned. By 1909, only two, LZ 3 and LZ 4, had enjoyed some success. LZ 3 made 45 short hops totaling 2,733 miles, while in 1908, LZ 4 made a 12-hour trip of more than 600 miles. But had one really flown from the zeppelin hangar at Friedrichschafen, Germany, to Peterborough, England, and back—a trip of 1,036 miles?”
The short answer is “no.” While the sightings–more 49 in May 1909 alone—went on for four months, reported by several hundred people throughout the United Kingdom, they finally began to subside.
Vergano offers several explanations: Some historians believe zeppelin mania was started by newspapers eager for more readers. Others felt any airship “sightings” were a simple misidentification of Venus, shining brightly in the night sky. And there were copycats: “Pranksters released six-foot-wide fire balloons to spark airship reports,” writes Vergano. “And the Northampton Mercury reported a hoax involving an airship model used for advertising motorcars.”
Photo: The Graf Zeppelin over London, ca. 1930.