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Aero Club

The Fantastical Story of the Flying Club that Perhaps Never Existed


After a fire, 12 drawing books were found concerning the Sonora Aero Club, a secret society that invented airplanes and could be real or imaginary.

Of all the metaphors, only those pertaining to height, ascent, depth,

descent and fall are axiomatic. Nothing can explain them

but they can explain everything. – Gaston Bachelard

In the 1960s a house burned down in Houston, Texas. Among the little that was left was a series of 12 fantastic notebooks that described the Sonora Aero Club, a secret society that had disappeared from history, if it had ever existed, that is. Full of mysterious drawings, on two sides of the paper, like a collage, the notebooks were eventually found in a second-hand store by an art student, and then acquired by museums and galleries. The 12 notebooks describe a society infatuated with flight, and appear to have cross-pollination with the stories of Jules Verne of The Wizard of Oz.

It turns out that the watercolors were the work of one such Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830–1923), a German immigrant who diligently created the notebooks between 1908 and 1921, during his retirement. To date, nobody knows if the Sonora Aero Club existed, of if it was entirely a product of his imagination. But the book describes how he and another 50 or 60 members of the club presented their inventions to each other, and imaginarily piloted their own airplanes over a California flooded with gold prospectors. Perhaps it was precisely the gold rush that led that man to desire, more than ever, to traverse great distances across the skies. The journey to the west had become one of pitfalls, either by land or sea, and many Americans fantasized about reaching California to search for gold but without having to endure the hardships of getting there.

All together, the notebooks bound with string contain some 2,000 pages, each one with an impressive drawing and notes in German, English and a coded language that nobody has been able to completely decipher. But even if they are a fabrication, Dellschau’s dreams represent a historical truth: the USA was a country bewitched by the dream of flying. As the historian of flight Tom D. Crouch points out:

Flight was, after all, the great dream of the ages. It may have been the one technological dream that’s innate in human beings — because of the birds, because other creatures fly and we don’t. It becomes — the dream of flight becomes — psychologically embedded in us, connected to those human desires to escape, to soar over obstacles — whether geographic or obstacles in life.

That possibility is what illuminates the pages of Dellschau. And in fact his fantasies were not so detached from reality, but rather inspired by it. On some pages he drew, for example, the story of the Sonora Aero Club on top of some press cutting that spoke of the coming of the airplane.

Whatever their historical value may be, the works of Dellschau are a treasure trove of enthusiasm and aesthetic sensibility. It tells us of some men – real or not – who got together with the sole purpose of fanning the flames of their imaginations, of encouraging capricious and ingenious invention, to elevate themselves above the clouds in the same skies crossed by those birds they so envied.

In 2013 a book was published telling the improbable and magnificent story. It is a great metaphor of man’s dream of flight and, as Bachelard said, nobody can explain those metaphors but they can explain everything.

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