Published: 11:02 AM 6/26/2014
Jay Mark, Special for The Republic
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!
It's a flying saucer dirigible! And it's over Mesa, Arizona.
Newspapers around the country dutifully followed the progress of the efforts of Clarence and Darwin Conrad, a father-and-son team who in the mid-'70s were actively engaged in reviving the age of zeppelins with modern lighter-than-air vehicles.
In the June 17, 1977, edition of the Mesa Tribune, readers were alerted to an impending UFO-like sighting.
"When people in the Valley area see an 80-foot flying saucer floating over the valley within the next few months," the paper wrote, "they won't be too alarmed or think it's an invasion from Mars."
The story begins about 1969 when Clarence Conrad, an electrical engineer and private pilot from Spokane, Wash., began to build an airship modeled on dirigibles popularized in Germany in the 1920s and '30s. It was a passion years in the making.
For years Conrad had been exploring the commercial possibilities of airships. Unable to gain financial support for his efforts, Conrad undertook the effort himself.
Three years later, he moved to the East Valley to open an electrical contracting business and further his pursuit.
His 24-year-old son, Darwin, who had been studying electrical engineering at Brigham Young University, interrupted his education to move from Utah to help his father.
Darwin never returned to BYU. Instead, he abandoned electrical engineering for studies of aeronautical engineering at Arizona State University.
In 1975, believing they were close to completing a flyable machine, the Conrads went to work on the airship full time.
After almost completing a 225-foot cigar-shaped behemoth capable of transporting about "... 30 passengers at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour for a range of about 3,000 miles," a freak, tornadic storm dislodged the craft from its mooring — destroying years of work.
Temporarily setting the damaged project aside, the Conrads began working on a more exotic helium-filled saucer-shaped craft in a field near Williams Air Force Base.
At 80 feet in diameter, it would certainly have gotten attention of people on the ground.
Unlike the destroyed passenger vehicle, the new project was a "rigid, saucer-shaped surveillance ship ..." capable of speeds of up to 75 mph over distances of 1,200 miles, at altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 feet.
Newspaper accounts said the Conrads hoped to have their ship flying by fall 1977.
After investing more than $50,000 and 12,000 hours over six years, the Conrads never did get their ambitious project airborne and ultimately abandoned their efforts entirely.
His vision unfulfilled, Clarence Conrad died in 2002. Darwin moved back to Spokane and went on to a successful aviation and aerospace career. In 1990 he started Rocket Engineering Corp.