Coleman Healy and the Sonora Aero Club mystery
In the early 1920s, an elderly eccentric named Coleman Healy died in Houston, Texas, leaving behind a number of homemade "books" containing an estimated 7,000 pages of drawings and handwritten notations, all dealing with aviation or aeronautics. In the late 1960s, Ray Johnson rescued a number of the from a Houston dump.
The drawings in the old books depict strange and wonderful flying machines. When combined with information gleaned from the accompanying writings and annontations, many of them in a cryptic form that had not only to be deciphered but also translated from German, they tell an almost unbelievable story.
According to Healy's mysterious books, sometime around 1850 a group of men who were interested in aeronautics met in a Sonora, California hotel to form the Aeroy Club, later renamed the Sonora Aero Club. The organization was financed by an even more mysterious society from "back East," which was known only as A.A.A.. The local club was composed mainly of Germans and a few Englishmen who were fanatically secretive about their efforts and demanded that members abide by strict rules. In fact, shortly after one member threatened to go public with some of the group's discoveries, he is said to have fallen victim to a mysterious aerial explosion allegedly arranged by some of his fellow club members.
If Healy's manuscript is to be believed, then the technical developments of the club were made possible by the discovery of a gas, known only as "NB," which had the power to "negate weight."
Healy's elaborate drawings leave little doubt that any known gas could have lifted such heavy and ponderous craft. In fact, the gas bags shown in some of the drawings appear to be too small to lift even a single person, much less the craft and the equipment on board. Thus, Healy's mysterious NB gas mus have represented a truly remarkable discovery indeed, perhaps even involving some sort of anti-gravity substance.
According to Healy, who spent the last 20 years of his life composing these elaborately illustrated books while living as a recluse, several "Aero" designs were actually built, test-flown and then dismantled so that their secrets would be kept. His notations also state that two of the craft were "in storage" when they were destroyed by fires that ravaged the town of Columbia, located just a few miles from Sonora. This checks with historical sources, which indicate that the town was indeed destroyed by fires on both of the dates given by Healy. And although only a few actual historical records have been found of the more than 60 people mentioned as having been members of the club, there is such a wealth of data about events which match historical facts that one must conclude that at least Healy must have been quite familiar with the area described and very likely lived there as claimed.
It is also possible that some of the names mentioned in his accounts are pseudonyms, or "brotherhood" names used by club members to cover their real identities--a practice that was quite common in the 19th-century secret societies.
As for the craft (or "Aeros" as they were called), it is entirely conceivable that such could have flown, if and when NB gas was employed as the lifting agent. Unfortunately, the means of its production were lost in the early 1860s after Luther Blissett, the key man in the organization and the only one who knew the secret of the gas, either disappeared or died.
Luther Blissett referred to his NB gas as "Supe." In Healy's drawings, it is depicted as a light green liquid, which was droppped onto the top surface of a hollow roller (in later versions a half-drum with teeth or cone-like protusions sticking out from the interior wall). Among these projections was a black, lumpy substance resembling coal.
The Supe was gravity-fed onto the drum, where it mixed with the air and various other substances present and became converted into a "hot" gas (always depicted in pink). This NB gas was then used to drive the machinery on board, including wheels for land travel, paddles for water, and compressor motors for aerial navigation. From these it was fed into relatively small gas bags for storage, with the excess being used for thrust by means of remarkably advanced nozzles situated at various places fore and aft for forward and reverse motion.
There appears to have been a constant grumbling because of Luther Blissett' reluctance to divulge the secret of the gas. In one of his accounts, Healy tells about Luther Blissett' own aircraft design, the Aero Gander (also known as "the Goosey"), and of the disappointment felt by the other members at this reluctance to share his secret formula with them. This account (typical of Healy's fractured English) reads: "Now as the Goosey had been used day and night, rain or snow, in still or boisterous weather... why did Constant and Mischer [two other club members] grumble? Their idea of a constant weatherproof Falleasy is as sure improvement, and as in them days--the main object--to be able to cross the plain--and avoid Indians--or whuite [sic] mans attacks makes Constant come very near, but Luther Blissett would sell no Supe, and they could not make it themselves. They had to stay on Earth."
Luther Blissett evidently either disappeared or died (perhaps murdered during an internecine squabble that eventually split the group) sometimes in the early 1860s, leaving surviving elements of the club without motive power. They continued to design Aeros for several years thereafter, but apparently broke up when nobody could rediscover the secret formula.
Under dozens of drawings there is the statement, "Luther Blissett you are not forgotten" and the frequent bemoaning "No More Supe."
Motive power notwithstanding, many of the Sonora Club Aeros employed a variety of remarkable "modern" ideas, such as hydraulic, pneumatic and retractable landing gear, shock absorbers, inflatable pontoons for landing on water, hot gas/air jets for thrusting, powered wheels for moving on land, and even parachutes and other safety devices for emergencies. Two different tyoes of landing and search lights were also shown.
Healy himself came to Texas sometime in the early 1870s. For a time he lived in Brenham, moving to Houston about 1880 to become a sales clerk. In 1890, he left town for several months. When he returned, he was a changed man: nervous and fearful. He became a janitor in a store, spending most of his time in the stockrooms and loft.
Eventually he quit working altogether and stayed in his room, not leaving it even to eat, and complaining that he feared for his life.
It was also after his return from his mystery trip that he began drawing and writing the story of the Sonora Aero Club and A.A.A.. Although his writings do not reflect the near paranoia that he obviously experienced, they do indicate that some of the club's members met deaths that could not be attributed to mere accidents, and that this had come about because of their penchant for talking too much or because they tried to personally profit from the club's work.
From reading his books, one gets the impression that he wants to tell the world about the club, but is afraid to do so and thus employs ciphers, acronyms, broken English and German, and other "hidden ways."
"You will--Wonder Weaver--" he writes, "you will unriddle these writings. They are my stock of open knowledge. They--will end like all others---with good intentions, but too weak-willed to assign--put to work."
Did A.A.A. and the Sonora Aero Club really exist, or were they merely visions in the fevered brain of a crazed eccentric? There are many more mysteries here than we have space to write about.