15 November 2009


Dennis Crenshaw (In collaboration with P. G. Navarro). The Secrets of Dellschau: The Sonora Aero Club and the Airships of the 1800's. Anomalist Books, 2009.

When he died at the great age of 92 in 1923, Texas butcher Charles A. Dellschau left behind a secret and a mystery. These were a series of note books, filled with paintings of fantastic flying machines, which only came to light when his descendants had a clearout. By a process of serendipity they came to the attention of graphic designer and ufologist Peter Navarro. 🔻
By decoding and translating writings in and around the pictures Navarro pieced together a tale of Dellschau's involvement in a secret society of inventors living in gold-rush California. He created a vivid cast of over 60 characters, and a range of Heath-Robinsonish flying machine, the Aeros, with names like Aero Goosey, Aero Babymyn, Aero Honeymoon and so on. They were the work of this secret group The Sonora Aero Club, and its even more shadowy backer the NYMZA.

At the time of the discovery of these notebooks in the late 1960s there was much interest among ufologists in the mystery airships of 1896/7, and the tales of mysterious inventors which surfaced at the time. Ufologists had originally seen the airships as early flying saucers and had assumed that they came from outer space, but as they studied the airship stories in more depth and realised that many claimed contact with very terrestrial pilots, so the idea of secret inventors began to grow on some of them.

Among those who took up the Dellschau story was Jerome Clark, who made it the centrepiece of his chapter on the airship in his and Loren Coleman's The Unidentified. Clark suggested that the mysterious NYMZA were a group of occult initiates building airships at the bidding of 'the others' (whether extaterrestrials or John Keel's ultraterrestrials was never clear). By the time the book was ready for publication, Clark had repudiated this view in favour of para-depth psychological theorising, and tried, without success, to get this chapter recalled.

As shown in this book, attempts to trace the people in the Sonora Aero Club turned out to be fruitless, and Navarro himself, with obvious reluctance, accepted that the story was the work of Dellschau's imagination. However some of the other people involved including author?/editor? Crenshaw start going deep down into crank territory, with ideas of 26 elements lighter than hydrogen (as hydrogen consists of a single proton and electron its obvious that no chemical element can be lighter, the only 'element' which is, is the very short lived positronium, which consists of an electron and positron orbiting each other before they mutually annihilate), and the ubiquitous Viktor Schauberger.

Meanwhile, Dellschau's work has flown the coop from the world of free energy cranks, just as expertly as any airship, into the realms of high art, and the art establishment is now hailing Dellschau as a great American, naive, self taught, outsider and visionary artist, and just single sheets of his notebooks are selling at prices only bankers can afford.

The story of Dellschau has its fascinations and one might hope that some proper art historians have a real go at trying to track down his life and inspiration in more detail. This book really does not do that, in fact it is not really a proper book at all, more like an assemblage of notes and articles, some repeating each other, others contradicting each other. By far the best part are Dellschau's images, and Navarro's own reconstruction of them.

Perhaps sadly, like publisher Dennis Stacy, I do not believe that the Sonora Aero Club ever existed in the world of physics and geography. Writing in Saucer Smear for July 20th 2004 - http://www.martiansgohome.com/smear/v51/ss040720.htm - Stacy describes Dellschau as a visionary or outsider artist, driven by a manic personal vision and concludes: "In short, Dellschau's Sonora Aero Club, rather than a historical record of a secret society and its unsung pioneers of aviation, should properly be seen as a personal flight of fancy, a near obsession with the advances in aviation that were taking place outside his self-cloistered garret as he drew and dreamed."

I think there are some clues to the origin of the Sonora Aero Club: the images remind you of the magical machines from children's stories, and look at those cute names of the aeros. I would hazard the guess that the origin of the Sonora Aero Club lay in bedtime stories he told his children when they were small, these stories of magical machines, secret societies, exotic codes etc. all appeal to children.

In the last twenty years of his life, alone in his attic, he retreats into this world of the imagination, a place when times were good and he was young, and the future belonged to his children (at least one of whom died). There is a clue to his sudden compulsive creativity in his death certificate (found through http://www.familysearch.org/), his cause of death is given as 'arteriosclerosis', this was a term often used up to the 1970s to describe what we now call dementia or Alzheimer's disease, and there are forms of these which are characterised by a new flowering of creativity. This might be linked to the disinhibition which led to the presumably scatological and sexual language which so shocked the lady translator that she refused to translate them, and the strange rambling quality of the whole.

Dellschau was not quite painting for himself alone, but for the "wonder weaver", not as Crenshaw apparently believes, a sort of detective weaving through a maze, but anyone who can use the images and story fragments to weave their own wonder tales with them, Surely this is what Navarro, Crenshaw and others have done, and the stories in this book owe as much to their imagination as to Dellschau's. Whether the audience is ufologist or art appreciator, this broken old man is leading us back into the realms of pure childhood imagination. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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