Coming in hot!
On November 23, 1944, something happened at an allied base in Cortonburg, Belgium that still hasn’t been fully explained. On that day an American B-17G bomber was closing in on three Allied anti-aircraft gun positions, and looked like it was going to crash right into them.
The soldiers on the ground could see that the bomber’s landing gear was down, and because of the way it was flying, they assumed the plane had been damaged or some of the crew were wounded. It was coming in fast, and the 35,000-pound bomber was falling from the sky right on top of them. They hit the deck and braced for impact as they cursed the pilot of the plane.
An awkward landing…
The bomber just barely cleared the gun positions and smacked the ground like a falling rock. The extreme force of the impact caused the giant bomber to start bouncing, which led to the plane getting off kilter and one of the wings smashed into the earth. Pieces of the propeller were violently thrown through the air like meteors as they spun into the ground.
One hundred feet from the gun position the lumbering bomber finally came to a stop. The engines that worked, kept running and witnesses held their breath. They waited, and waited, and waited some more, but no crew emerged from the Flying Fortress. Soldiers on the ground began wondering, ‘where on earth is the crew?’
Expecting someone to emerge
The men on the ground certainly didn’t know what to think, and definitely didn’t know how to help. No emergency call from the plane announced its unexpected arrival, and the men in the gun positions were worried from the start. Five minutes went by and no crew emerged. Then ten, and fifteen minutes without a sign of life.
After all, this was WWII, and sneaky, back-handed tactics had been employed by both sides. The plane stood eerily in the field. The anticipation began to grow as the three remaining engines continued spinning their propellers. After 20 minutes, finally, a British Major named John V. Crisp decided to investigate, but even Crisp was nervous and extremely cautious in his search.
The search begins
The anticipation continued to grow as the three functional engines continued spinning their propellers. Still no movement, and still no sign of the crew. Time was of the essence, so Major Crisp began searching the exterior of the plane. It wasn’t because he was looking for something, but because he wasn’t an airman, and it took him a minute to figure out how to get inside.
Major Crisp was an officer in the British Army, and he was camped nearby along with the rest of his unit. He wasn’t an airman, as he was in the army, so it took him a few minutes to locate the entry hatch below the fuselage. He was alone when he entered and was about to discover something incredible about this airplane.
There wasn’t a soul on board
Major Crisp was apprehensive in his search, as he expected to find dead or dying men from the aircrew. Why else would no one exit the airplane? Major Crisp pressed on through the thin fuselage that usually held most of the ten crew members of a B-17G.
The Major found some half-eaten chocolate bars, and later commented that, “evidence of fairly recent occupation was everywhere,” but even within the cramped fuselage of the B-17G he couldn’t find anyone. What he did find were twelve parachute packs that hadn’t been used, which was odd, because his search revealed that there was not a single soul aboard the aircraft.
“The Phantom Fortress”
Major Crisp remained the only person on board while he continued his search for clues as to what happened to the crew. He made his way to the cockpit and didn’t notice anything suspicious about the yoke. In other words, the plane had somehow not only managed to fly itself, but land itself too.
After some trial and error Major Crisp managed to turn off the engines on the airplane. He also made his way to the aircraft log and noticed some words scribbled there. But just where was the crew? The ensuing investigation would leave allied forces baffled, and word of “The Phantom Fortress” as Stars and Strips magazine called it, began to circulate.
The investigation begins
Alarm over the incident was shot through the chain of command and an investigation started immediately, as commanders feared the worst for the crew. To make matters even more complicated the B-17G that landed itself didn’t even have a name. Major Crisp then reported the incident to his superiors, and a team was sent out to investigate.
Investigators arrived at the bomber and found the planes serial number, and this enabled commanders in the 8th Air Force to identify the plane as part of the 91st Bomber Group, which was a contingent of B-17Gs that operated out of East Anglia, England. The plane had indeed taken off from there with its crew, but now they were gone.
The crew was located
Once the squadron and plane were identified, questions began to swirl around the crew and what became of the. The plane was littered with evidence that they were on board, at some point. The cover to the Sperry bombsite was removed, which was typical when a bombardier was on a bombing run.
The parachutes were the bigger mystery, and even though they were on board, sometime later all of the men were located; All ten of them were alive and well at an airbase in Belgium. Investigators were absolutely baffled by what they found, and dug into the mystery further.
The mission had them fly over Germany
The B-17G’s mission was to bomb the Leuna oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany, which was a dangerous target given its location in eastern Germany. By that point in the war the allies had been pounding German targets around the clock.
The British bombed German targets by night, while American bomber crews from England and Italy bombed during the day. Because bombing accuracy was such a problem American war planners insisted on daylight missions for more precise strikes. This made American bombers far more vulnerable, and upon Crisp’s search of the aircraft he found a log in the navigator’s station that read, “Bad Flak.”
The bomb bay was hit
Lt. Harold R. DeBolt was the pilot of the B-17G, and even though the plane was new he was an experienced pilot. The bomber made the journey to Germany just fine until the group commenced its bombing run. For some reason the plane was unable to keep altitude with the rest of the group.
That’s when German anti-aircraft fire opened up on the low flying bomber and scored two hits. The bomb bay sustained a direct hit and by some miracle it didn’t set off the bombs. “We had been hit in the bomb bay,” said Lt. DeBolt. “I’ll be darned if I know why the bombs didn’t explode.”
They had to turn around, alone
An engine was also reportedly damaged by a direct flak hit, despite the fact that when the plane was on approach for landing all four engines were still functioning. The crew knew they were in trouble while flying low, alone, and over enemy territory.
The weather had been terrible all day, and the plane experienced a rough flight through towering white clouds. The weather in Europe, like the political climate, was terrible in 1944, and with that, an engine knocked out, and a malfunctioning bomb bay, Lt. DeBolt decided to abandon the bombing run and head back to his base in East Anglia, England.
A second engine quits
Lt. DeBolt added as much power as he could to the engines, but his plane continued to slowly lose altitude. He then ordered the crew to jettison all loose equipment. They did as ordered but the plane continued to fall.
The crew held out hope that the plane would make it back to their airbase, but with each moment that passed their situation looked worse and worse. Then suddenly a second engine stopped turning, leaving Lt. DeBolt no choice; he was going to have to give the order to ditch. He pointed the plane on a course toward Brussels, and ordered the crew to get their parachutes ready.
The parachutes were still on board
The plane struggled to keep its altitude once it was hit, and pilot Harold R. DeBolt turned the plane around and headed back to England. When a second engine became compromised and stopped working DeBolt knew the plane would never make it across the English Channel.
He then set a course for Brussels, Belgium, which was where the headquarters of the 8th Air Force was located. The crew bailed of the plane and DeBolt was the last to leave. He set the plane on autopilot and jumped. They anticipated that the plane would succumb to its wounds and crash into the ground.
The plane reportedly flew miles on its own
Reports of a plane flying by itself were not unheard of in WWII, but a B-17G on two engines had very little chance of remaining in the air. The crew watched the plane fly away, but thick cloud cover caused them to lose sight of the bomber. Unbeknownst to the crew the plane was still in the air when they hit the ground.
It is pretty incredible that the plane flew for miles on its own on only half engine capacity, but that seems to be what happened. The captain reported that he and his crew ditched the aircraft near Brussels, Belgium. For investigators this was anything but a neat and tidy explanation. There were still many discrepancies that still needed to be solved.
The biggest question of all
There was a crew without parachutes, a plane that made it miles on wounded engines, and discrepancies in the investigation report — all unclear, and pale in comparison to the most incomprehensible part of all this the story of the ghost bomber.
The odds that an unnamed plane would make it that far and then land by itself are no less are infinitesimal. Of all the places, angles it could have come in at, approaches and potential touch down spots (which could have been in the middle of the English channel, after all), it’s mind blowing that the plane landed as though it knew how to land itself, which any pilot will tell you is preposterous.
There were conflicting reports on what happened
Part of the mystery surrounds the question of why there were conflicting reports between what the soldiers on the ground saw after the plane landed and the crew’s version of events before they aborted their mission. The crew reported that in the course of their mission, one engine was destroyed, and one quit.
However, the soldiers on the ground reported that all four engines were intact (until one was destroyed upon landing) when the plane made its approach. Though both accounts were recorded in the official investigation, the contradiction was never resolved. Was there a hole in the crew’s story?
Soldiers who found the plane may not have been properly trained
Another discrepancy that was never really resolved was the fact that the crew had reported that they were struck by enemy fire, which is why they felt it was necessary to abort the plane. However, Major Crisp and the other soldiers reported no physical damage on the plane that would substantiate the claim of enemy fire.
However, given the rough, unpiloted landing of the aircraft, one possible explanation for the discrepancy is that Crisp and the other soldiers were not trained to identify the difference between damage from enemy fire compared to damage sustained by the plane due to its rough landing.
The parachutes were still on board
If the crew’s story is true, its bizarre that Major Crisp found all the parachutes on board. While it is plausible that they would decide to abandon the plane if they believed it incurred too much damage under enemy fire, its hard to understand how they evacuated the plane without parachutes.
Unfortunately, the official report does not resolve this discrepancy, so we may never know why the parachutes were left behind. How else could the plane’s crew have survived jumping from a plane if not using the parachutes? The only answer that is remotely possible is that perhaps Major Crisp identified parachute packs that didn’t have parachutes in them (because they were used). But the report doesn’t make that official, therefore we may never know.
The B-17 Flying Fortress is one tough airplane
Maybe Major Crisp got it wrong, and maybe the soldiers on the ground did too, but the fact remains that the B-17G managed to land itself. The B-17G was a very tough airplane and could sustain a considerable amount of punishment. Lt. Debolt may have felt he was doing what best for his crew, but his plane was determined to get them all home.
The B-17 in the above photo was also determined to get its crew home. Just look at the damage it absorbed on its left engine, and with only 1 1/2 wings it managed land. But at least that plane had a pilot and a crew who brought it in. Planes have autopilot functions, but not the ability to auto land!
Was it a miracle?
Of all the ways this incredible story could have ended, it seems that the way it did was the best case scenario. After all, the crew made it out safely, and the damaged plane didn’t cause any further destruction as it made its way back down toward Earth.
Needless to say, there were many stories during the war that didn’t end so well. Perhaps it was a sign to the Allies during the height of the war that fate was on their side, at a time where it might have seemed like all hope was lost.
But the mysteries of World War II don’t end there, as several air crews have encountered incidence without explanation.
Other mysterious sightings of World War II
The level of activity and destruction during World War II was too vast and cataclysmic for every incident, person, and action to be properly investigated. After the war, efforts were more focused on rebuilding than explaining. Such is the nature of war — sometimes we don’t get the answer we are looking for.
The ghost bomber wasn’t the only bizarre occurrence that happened during the war. There were numerous sightings other sightings, sometimes witnessed by entire groups of people, that are unexplained to this day. One such narrative that emerged repetitively was that of mysterious flying orbs, reported by numerous pilots fighting for both sides of the war.
The Night Fighters
Many accounts of unidentified flying aircraft in WWII were spotted by night fighter aircraft. Night fighters, as the name implies, were planes with specifications that made them adept at dog fighting in the darkness of night. The planes often had twin engines, were a bit heavier than their daytime counterparts (e.g. America’s P-51 Mustang and Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire).
In contrast to just about every other plane in WWII, they were equipped with a radar, which enabled them to identify bogeys using their equipment instead of having to spot an enemy aircraft, or rely on ground radar installations hundreds of miles away.
Something strange in the sky
At around the same time as the mysterious landing of the ghost bomber, an American air crew in a night fighter spotted something inexplicable. Their Bristol Beaufighter, a British plane, was equipped with advanced radar, and according to their instruments, everything appeared to be normal. The radar wasn’t registering any foreign objects within proximity, but they could clearly see something up ahead.
The crew of three consisted of three highly trained pilots: Edward Schlueter, radar observer Donald J. Meiers, and intelligence officer Fred Ringwald. What they observed, they described as, “eight to 10 bright orange lights off the left wing… flying through the air at high speed.”
The disappearing act
Meiers radioed ground control units and they confirmed what his radar read: There was nothing there. His radar wasn’t malfunctioning. They were on a combat mission over Germany, so Schlueter decided to have a closer look. The objects had been visible for several minutes, and Schlueter turned the plane toward them.
All of the sudden, as if someone flipped a switch, the lights went away. The crew was baffled. Then the lights reappeared, this time farther away, and then disappeared again. Meiers gave the objects a name which would be used often in 1944 and 1945. He called them: Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters come from a comic book
Meiers was an avid reader of the “Smokey Stover” cartoon, and “foo” was a word Smokey Stover used often when he said, “where there’s foo, there’s fire.” This was fitting because in reality, where there was a Foo Fighter, there appeared to be fire. This is the first known use of the term Foo Fighters (not to be the last thanks to his awesomeness Mr. Dave Grohl, who borrowed the term for his band’s name) in terms of describing an unidentified flying object.
Explanations abound as to their true nature, and none of them quite satisfy the men of the 415th Special Operations Squadron, who Meier and his crew were a part of. They were responsible for more Foo Fighter sightings than any other unit in WWII.
Entries in their war diaries
The official war diary of the 415th contains multiple encounters with the unexplained. Reports of unidentified flying objects date back to September 1941, but there was an extreme uptick in December 1944. Many of the sightings were recorded in official records.
The war diary for the 415th on December 15th reads: “Saw a brilliant red light at 2,000 feet going [east] at 200 MPH in the vicinity of Erstein. Due to [alternative interrogator] failure could not pick up contact but followed it by sight until it went out. Could not get close enough to identify object before it went out.”
The lights seemed to follow them
On December 18th the log reports a similar incident, but this time it was more than just one light. “In Rastatt area sighted five or six red and green lights in a ‘T’ shape which followed [aircraft] thru turns and closed to 1000 feet.” The fact that they followed the planes made them wonder if this was some secret German project — or something else.
“Lights followed for several miles then went out. Our pilots have named these mysterious [Illegible] which they encounter over Germany at night ‘Foo-Fighters.’” When a pilot was later asked how he felt when he witnessed the eerie lights following his aircraft, he said he was, “scared shitless.”
Pilots reported being chased by the Foo Fighters
One such incident on December 23rd had a Beau pilot and his crew in a run for their lives. The pilot first spotted “two orange glows” quickly advancing toward his aircraft from the ground. He radioed in and this time ground radar was able to pick up the objects.
The “glows” leveled out and gave his plane chase. The pilot executed hard turns left and right, and even attempted to lose them in a steep dive, but there was nothing he could do shake them. After two minutes, the glows peeled off while in perfect control and shortly thereafter were no longer visible.
The lights were fast and agile
What became so alarming about Foo Fighters is that they were noticeably faster than the British planes. Also, anytime a pilot tried to make better contact, the Foo Fighters flew away and were always able to outrun them. Perhaps most disturbing was their ability to pull off maneuvers that were decidedly impossible for aircraft of the day.
In an entry from the night of Christmas Eve of 1944, the 415th Squadron’s war diary’s read, “Observed a glowing red object shooting straight up. It changed suddenly to a plan [sic] view of an [aircraft] doing a wing-over and going into a dive and disappearing.”
When the press found out
The crews of the planes were starting to talk, and when the public caught wind of the event, heavily redacted reports were printed in various news publications. They spoke of the objects, but didn’t quite have the details of the aircrews descriptions. One such incident reported by another radar operator said:
“I had frequently picked up a target on the radar screen that appeared to be a conventional aircraft. But… upon being tracked [it] would accelerate to a fantastic speed, which made it impossible to set a rate on and even more difficult to identify. So, we referred to them as ‘ghosts’”
The US military investigated these incidents, and their conclusions don’t quite stack up. A B-17 pilot who was chased by a Foo Fighter (what he called “a small disc”) for over 250 miles later described his encounter with an intelligence officer, and the pilot recounted the explanation he gave:
“It was a new German fighter, but [he] could not explain why it did not fire at us, or if it was reporting our heading, altitude and airspeed, why we did not receive anti-aircraft fire.” At the end of the day, though the orbs were spotted by many, none actually caused any damage or attacked the planes that spotted them.
Possible explanation #1: St. Elmo’s fire
Another explanation given to air crews was a natural phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. St. Elmo’s fire was originally discovered on ships, when the large mast produced a fire like trail that was usually associated with lightning storms or when electrical currents were in the air.
The phenomenon occurs on airplanes in the same type of conditions, often creating a trail of fire on their wingtips. But this explanation did not satisfy pilots, because it didn’t address why the lights were more maneuverable than anything they’d ever seen. If it was St. Elmo’s fire, then it came from a plane, and the pilots were convinced that foo fighters were not traditional aircraft.
Possible explanation #2: Ball lightning
One of the other problems with St. Elmo’s fire is that it most commonly appears like a tracer or a meteor, not a sphere-like shape that was reported by the pilots. However, another natural phenomenon called “ball lighting” does appear in spheres and more closely resembles the pilot’s reports.
The cases of ball lightning in history are incredible. Great flashes that lead to explosions are typical, and some have even killed people. But the phenomenon is very short lived, and never behaves like the bright lights that the pilots saw behind the aircrafts. The pilots rejected this natural phenomenon as a possible explanation.
Possible explanation #3: Silver Balls
Weather phenomenon was not the answer the pilots were looking for, and naturally their curiosity turned toward their enemy in the war: the Germans. A news report released in December of 1944 describes German efforts to disrupt Allied radar and electronic warfare systems.
The Germans would release “silver in color” and “metallic nature” floating balls into the skies. This was after using tiny foil strips released in the air to try and disrupt radar. The Germans were employing use of the silver balls around the same time, but no pilot in the 415th ever reached the conclusion that this is what they saw.
Possible explanation #4: Feuerball/Kugelblitz
It’s no secret that the Germans spent a vast amount of resources developing “wonder weapons” during the course of WWII, and after the war a German Army Major wrote about a couple such weapons. Major Rudolf Lusar claimed that the Germans created Feuerball and Kugelblitz, which were tiny remote-controlled jet aircraft.
They were equipped with klystron tubes, which were meant to send an electric current through the air to disrupt Allied bomber engines. That would explain why the lights followed the planes, but the klystron tube never actually worked. Since this was the case, it seems the Germans would’ve equipped the small aircraft with another, more effective weapon.
Possible explanation #5: Battle fatigue
The fact that these wonder weapons never caused any damage was enough reason for the pilots to dismiss them as a plausible explanation. An alternate explanation suggested was that pilots and crews suffered from battle fatigue, or the strain from flying constant combat missions in high-stress environments.
Incidents of battle fatigue have been known to cause hallucinations. But because so many different aircrews experienced and described such similar occurrences, it’s unlikely that they would have the same hallucination. This, combined with the fact that all the lights sightings were in such a localized area, make this explanation ad hoc to aircrews.
Possible explanation #6: Pilot vertigo
Scientists and psychologists are in the practice of quantifying claims, and they have little use for anecdotal evidence. Project X-148-AV-4-3, as it was called, was conducted by the US Navy shortly after the war, and focused their efforts around “pilot vertigo,” or pilot disorientation.
In his findings, Dr. Edgar Vinacke said, “Since aviators are not skilled observers of human behavior, they usually have only the vaguest understanding of their own feelings. Like other naive persons, therefore, they have simply adopted a term to cover a multitude of otherwise inexplicable events.” Okay Mr. Vinacke, then explain why entire crews of men witnessed the same hallucination.
“Strange globe glowing”
The most promising of explanations from the ones previously given are that the lights were a German wonder weapon. There are still problems with that theory, and it is made more complicated by the fact that Foo Fighters were not specific to the European theater of operations.
In September of 1941, two men on a Polish ship ferrying British troops witnessed a “strange globe glowing with greenish light, about half the size of the full moon as it appears to us.” They alerted an officer, and the three men watched this phenomenon for over an hour. They weren’t pilots, or in an aircraft, so “pilot vertigo” doesn’t explain what they saw.
The official investigation
There were simply too many reports of the previously discussed incidents for the US government to ignore. In 1953 the Robertson Panel convened to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. This was only part of their aim, as other reports surfaced after WWII as well. As such, some of the possible explanations became harder to uphold, and people wanted answers.
The Robertson Panel was initially convened to investigate the occurrence of unidentified flying objects that had been reported flying over the Washington DC area. The investigation was headed by the CIA to determine if these unexplained occurrences were a threat to national security.
“Experimental aviation technology”
Their initial findings were classified, as it included sensitive information about existing military operations, the compromise on which would have posed a threat to national security. Since it’s been declassified, the public has learned that the panel found very un-startling conclusions.
Several top scientists familiar with “experimental aviation technology” headed by Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson gave no official conclusion but instead determined that most instances were the result of the pilots misidentifying flying objects. The instances that don’t fit this finding were concluded to probably be something of a similar nature to misidentification, but more investigation would be needed.
Other explanations have been given but, none seem to fully satisfy observers nor aircrews for that matter. So are these unidentified flying objects actually airframes from another world? It is impossible to say for sure, and all the anecdotal and quantitative data in the world will not explain it with absolute certainty.
As for Foo Fighters, Richard Ziebart who was the historian for the nearby 417th squadron heard many of these stories directly from the pilots of the 415th themselves. He reached this conclusion: “I think the Foo Fighters didn’t show up on radar because they were plain light. Radar had to have a solid object. If there was any bogey out there, the pilots would absolutely be able to tell.”
Sightings over the US
Pilots offer our best source of anecdotal data when it comes to UFOs. To the common observer, a zeppelin or a weather balloon might look like one, but pilots have unique knowledge of the shape and aerodynamics of airframes and are experts in the maneuvering capabilities of aircraft as allowed by simple physics.
Pilots seeing UFOs is not something localized to WWII either, as in the case in 2004 when an F-18 out of San Diego captured spectacular footage of a “tic-tac” shaped object flying at speed. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” the pilot told The New York Times. “I have no idea what I saw.” It seems foolish to think it was an American super weapon, effectively meaning the pilot was tricked by his own government. But they’re out there in many shapes and forms, and since not one pilot has been able to successfully make contact with foo fighters of UFOs (as far as we know), the instances in WWII and since remain a mystery.
This article was originally published on History 101: This WWII Ghost Bomber Mysteriously Landed Itself