A series of encounters between US Navy fighter jets and strange, unknown aerial phenomenon (UAP) in 2004 and 2015, together with more recent incursions into American military exercise areas, has stirred up both interest and debate in the UFO subject since the now-infamous FLIR videos were released into the public domain in 2017. Of course, these were not the first instances of pilots seeing strange flying objects at close quarters, as numerous accounts of American and British military pilots being sent aloft to investigate sightings of UFOs have been recorded since the late 1940s and early 1950s.
What is not generally appreciated by those engaged with the subject is that even these encounters were not the first time that military aircrew had witnessed odd lights and even stranger-looking craft in the skies at close range. In some cases, pilots even fired at these mysterious aerial intruders. To properly examine these cases, we have to go back to World War Two and the stories of what had been known at the time as Foo Fighters (that’s right, Dave Grohl didn’t come up with his band’s name on his own).
Background: What You Know About The Foo Fighters May Well Be Wrong
Ask most UFO enthusiasts about the Foo Fighters and you will probably hear vague stories about US Army Air Force night-fighter crews who saw balls of light following their aircraft over Germany during the last months of World War Two. They may cite the Smokey Stover cartoon, popular among aircrew at the time, as the origin of the name “Foo Fighter”. Some may even throw in cases from the Pacific Theatre of Operations, again dating from the final year of the war, when crews watched “balls of fire” pacing their B-29 Superfortresses on missions over Japan.
While this is a good start, the established narrative regarding the Foo Fighters has been largely incorrect for as long as I can remember, especially when it comes to identifying when the phenomenon began. Pick up a UFO book that covers the subject and you will likely be told that sightings of Foo Fighters started at the end of November 1944 when the term was invented by a member of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron serving in France. We have an article printed in the December 1945 edition of American Legion Magazine to thank for this. It listed the 415th NFS mystery light reports beginning in November 1944, stating “this is the way they began”. Authors in the 1950s and 1960s seemed to take this statement at face value, and so the legend of the Foo Fighters began on a false premise.
What is less well known is that Royal Air Force bomber crews had been reporting strange lights, luminous objects, and large “aeroforms” in the skies over Germany since March 1942. The small number of UFO researchers who have looked at the subject in depth have discovered a huge number of sightings spanning the globe from 1942 onwards, although if you look hard enough, there are also reports of strange lights dating back to the time of the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940. Although the American night-fighter crews used the term Foo Fighters, the phenomenon had been known by many other names prior to that phrase being coined. Terms such as “meteors” and “rockets” were often used in official reports, but many RAF pilots simply referred to the phenomenon as “The Light” or “The Thing”. What is also not widely known is that lights were not the only items aircrews reported seeing. Huge cylindrical objects with portholes, inverted “bathtubs” and huge “blankets” were also sighted.
“You guys must be nuts! Nobody up there but your own plane. Aint seeing things, are you?” – Ground radar station reply to American night-fighter pilot after report of strange lights, November 1944
Over the last twelve months, I have been revisiting and re-evaluating the known Foo Fighter cases, and in the course of my research, have also found some new encounters in preparation for a book I am writing on the subject. Much of the information is buried in Air Intelligence files and squadron war diaries, most of which is barely legible due to the ravages of time on the flimsy wartime grade of paper used. However, many cases never saw official recognition, and researchers have to rely upon aircrew logbooks and personal interviews, in many cases conducted decades after the events being recalled. The vast majority of wartime witnesses are now deceased, and a large proportion took the details of their sightings to their graves, electing to keep quiet about their encounters.
There are well over one hundred known Foo Fighter sightings from the three main battlefronts during World War Two (Western Europe, Mediterranean, and Pacific), but strange lights and unidentifiable craft were also witnessed over both North Africa and the Eastern Front. To give an idea of the encounters that transpired during the war, here are three of those cases, all of which occurred long before the traditionally accepted start of the Foo Fighter phenomenon in November 1944.
“Several projectiles seemed to enter the luminous disc, but without result, although the object was well within range, approximately 150 metres.” – March 1942 encounter over the Ruhr Valley, Germany
A Polish-crewed Vickers Wellington bomber was returning from a raid on Essen just before midnight on 25th March 1942 when the aircraft’s rear gunner spotted a bright light approaching their aircraft. However, instead of a Luftwaffe night-fighter, it resembled a large fuzzy copper-colored ball, about the size of the Moon. Approaching within 200 yards of the bomber, the gunner opened fire, watching helplessly as his tracer rounds entered the ball of light to no visible effect. They did not come out the other side, nor did they inflict any appreciable damage. The strange light then shot forward and took up position off the Wellington’s port wingtip.
Now the aircraft’s nose turret guns could be brought to bear on the strange light, and both gunners blazed away at what was still thought to be a Luftwaffe night-fighter. The pilot executed a series of evasive maneuvers but could not shake the ball of light. It remained at the same fixed distance, seemingly undamaged, for several minutes until it finally flew around to a point ahead of the Wellington, remaining in place for a few seconds before shooting off into the distance and disappearing. Another crew flying behind the bomber also had their own encounter with the object but refused to report the incident for fear of ridicule.
“By turning suddenly and steeply, I was able to chase the light around in a circle until I could aim my four 20mm cannons at it. This I did several times until my ammunition was exhausted, but each time I observed, no apparent change in the behaviour of the light.” – RAF fighter pilot’s 1943 sighting
In the spring of 1943 over North Africa, a New Zealand fighter pilot was followed by an orange-red glow, a light that then moved to sit off his wingtip, matching his every turn, including a series of violent evasive maneuvers designed to throw off potential attackers. Taking advantage of an apparent time lag before the object matched his actions, he managed to fire his Hawker Hurricane’s guns at the light on a few occasions, but to no effect. The pilot could not distinguish what kind of aircraft or object was generating the light, as it was so bright. It grew dimmer as they crossed the front line but once beyond the firing it glowed with its original intensity. The RAF pilot’s mysterious companion vanished as he returned to base. He knew of numerous colleagues who also had run-ins with “The Light”. This encounter, similar in many respects to Commander David Fravor’s now-infamous dogfight with the “Tic Tac”, predated that event by more than sixty years.
“He was terrified, as white as a ghost. Something up there sure scared the hell of out him, he was nearly frantic when he got out of his aircraft.” – The effect on an American night-fighter crewman, October 1944
The US Army Air Force’s 422nd Night-Fighter Squadron had its fair share of sightings in late 1944 and early 1945, including a notable event over western Germany during the first week of October 1944 when an extremely rapid object latched onto the tail of one of the unit’s Northrop P-61 Black Widows. The mysterious ball of light followed the crew’s machine as the pilot threw it into a violent set of evasive maneuvers. Despite his best efforts, he could not shake off his pursuer, and in desperation finally dove into a bank of cloud. The ball of light did not follow. Colleagues in the squadron stated that the pilot’s radar observer was badly shaken by the experience and was “still sucking wind 24 hours later”. The mysterious ball of light was officially logged as a Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-propelled interceptor. There would be many more bizarre encounters with strange lights before the year was out.
Analysis: Were the Foo Fighters Enemy Secret Weapons?
The night skies over the industrial cities of Germany were filled with lights when a raid was in progress. Multi-colored flares were dropped to mark targets and were replaced during attacks as they burned out. The Germans employed decoy flares to distract RAF bomber crews, and Luftwaffe night-fighter crews used “fighter flares” to silhouette enemy aircraft against the clouds, rendering them more visible to their colleagues. Sudden explosive balls of light, accompanied by sparkling lights, were often seen falling slowly towards the ground. RAF crews believed they were German attempts to simulate bombers being shot down in an attempt to lower morale. Nicknamed “Scarecrows”, they featured prominently in intelligence bulletins, and crews were encouraged to believe they were indeed German scare tactics. In reality, they were aircraft being blown out of the sky by flak and night-fighters. However, Allied aircrew had been very familiar with all of these flares and lights. They did not resemble the Foo Fighters in any way, shape, or form.
Because of wartime secrecy and censorship, most reports of strange lights and unconventional flying craft were never publicized due to the possibility that they may have been German secret weapons. Also, individual unit intelligence officers decided whether such reports were officially recorded and then sent up the chain of command for analysis. They frequently dismissed crew testimony and instead asked them whether they had been drinking. If official reports were filed, ribald comments and ribbing from colleagues followed, at least until they too saw something weird and unsettling. The Foo Fighter reports that do exist are a fraction of a much larger number of sightings.
“[The enemy] have several land service rocket weapons, and the introduction of anti-aircraft rockets seems a likely and logical development.” – 1943 Air Intelligence briefing
Both the British and American Air Intelligence staff were completely flummoxed by the reports of strange flying objects and the balls of fire that followed aircraft without committing hostile acts. The early reports of 1942 and 1943, including “rockets” that altered course when pursuing RAF bombers, plus a 200-foot long object with red lights spaced at regular intervals along its length, were thought to be examples of new German secret weapons. Extra-terrestrials and so-called “flying saucers” were still several years off into the future, and they were never considered as a possible explanation. Most reports of mysterious lights were believed to be sightings of decoy flares, airborne searchlights, or rudimentary surface-to-air missiles, items which the enemy were believed to be developing at that time. With the available information to hand, these were rational and sensible suggestions, but with the benefit of hindsight, and a working knowledge of German wartime weapons research and deployment, these suggestions were actually way off the mark.
The RAF had experimented with fitting searchlights into night-fighters but found that they blinded their pilots, rendering the scheme useless, and the Germans refused to devote resources to the subject, instead relying on ground-based installations. Several surface-to-air missile projects were being developed in late 1943 and throughout 1944, however frequent engine and guidance problems, together with political interference, prevented any achieving operational status. Most test launches were failures. Air-to-air rocket mortars were fired at B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators on daylight raids over Germany by defending fighters by mid-1943 onwards, although again these weapons were never used at night. The Luftwaffe almost deployed a wire-guided air-to-air missile in early 1945 but the factory producing the rocket motors was destroyed in a bombing raid.
Once the Luftwaffe started to fly their early jet and rocket-powered interceptors in the autumn of 1944, the strange nocturnal lights were frequently referred to as “jets” in both American and British official records. This, despite the fact that the crews were actually witnessing balls of light, not aircraft, and in any case, the Germans did not operate their jet or rocket types at night at that time. A small number of Messerschmitt Me 262s jet fighters, converted to the night-fighter role, operated in the defense of Berlin from mid-December 1944 but they never flew in areas where Foo Fighters were encountered. The rocket-propelled Me 163 Komet appears in numerous combat reports by RAF night bomber crews, but it was never flown in the dark, as it was almost too dangerous to fly even by day. However, none of these German secret weapons matched the witness reports describing the Foo Fighters’ maneuvers and capabilities.
“Intelligence reports seem to indicate it is radio-controlled from the ground and can keep pace with planes flying 300 miles per hour.” – US newspaper report, 1945
Labeled as new Nazi secret weapons, reports of Foo Fighters started appearing in American newspapers during December 1944, but the armchair experts called upon by editors to comment on the stories were just as clueless as the Air Intelligence staff. As Allied ground forces pushed into Germany during the spring of 1945, the number of sightings dropped almost to zero. When the war finally ended in May 1945, the Foo Fighters seemed to disappear from Western Europe, suggesting that they were indeed German secret weapons. However, scrutiny of captured aircraft factories and testing facilities found nothing that resembled the Foo Fighters. None of the aircraft or missile designs that were discovered, or design plans that were found, matched the tremendous capabilities displayed by the balls of light. Captured scientists and technicians were interviewed but could not shed any light on the matter either. It turned out that the Germans were as much in the dark about the phenomenon as the Allies were.
The focus of the war changed to the Pacific, where similar sightings of strange balls of light, impervious to machine-gun fire, had been witnessed since August 1944, although sporadic reports of odd-looking objects had been filed since the end of 1942. Crews from Major William (“Butch”) Blanchard’s 40th Bomb Group saw mysterious “balloons” over Japan in October 1944, and Blanchard himself would be at the center of the Roswell UFO crash controversy almost three years later. Air Intelligence believed that some sightings in the Pacific were of German technology supplied to the Japanese. Plans for various weapons were indeed donated by Germany towards the end of the war, however, it was too late to put them into production. Once hostilities in the Pacific ended with the dropping of the two atomic bombs, the number of reports dwindled too. Interest in the Foo Fighters waned, and the wartime reports were filed away and forgotten. No one ever managed to put forward an explanation that stood the test of time. The Foo Fighters are as much a mystery to today’s researchers as they were to the intelligence officials of 1944.
Outlook: The More UFOs Change, The More They Stay The Same
Looking back to incidents that occurred nearly eighty years ago may seem like a waste of time to people caught up in the current heady rush of US Navy encounters, UAP photos, and future government briefings. What appears to be forgotten is that the accounts of November 1944 and November 2004 are not too dissimilar when you boil them down to their basics. Drop a P-61 Black Widow pilot into the front seat of a F/A-18F Super Hornet and he might gaze in awe at the new technology on display in front of him. Put him in David Fravor’s position and the P-61 pilot would realize that the “Tic Tac” demonstrates a much higher level of sophistication than the machine he was now flying. Military aircraft may have vastly improved over the intervening sixty years, but whatever our pilots are continuing to come up against during training flights, the mysterious lights and objects are still running rings around them. To this observer at least, it also appears as if those who are supposed to be “in the know” still don’t have a clue what is going on, something else which hasn’t changed since 1944.
“We have encountered a phenomenon which we cannot explain.” – Secret 1945 memo sent from XII Tactical Air Command intelligence staff to the First Tactical Air Force
Trying to ascertain the origin and motives of the Foo Fighters is akin to figuring out what is going on with the current UAP phenomenon. Stories suggest that German pilots also encountered the Foo Fighters during World War Two, but I have not been able to find any reports that stand up to even the briefest scrutiny. Without trying to sound like a debunker, the photographic “evidence” that exists is probably faked, is a film defect, or another mundane occurrence. Pictures that pass these tests subsequently fail in terms of a lack of supporting information. None of the photos I have found in the course of my research have accompanying notes about locations, dates, or names of the aircrew involved, and are therefore treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Without context, they are practically meaningless. I like to think that if annotated photos exist in a military archive somewhere, they presumably sit on a shelf next to pictures of the crashed Roswell craft and the Kecksburg “Acorn”.
Despite a lack of photographic evidence, the Foo Fighter phenomenon is redeemed in terms of the sheer number of witness statements, logbooks, and intelligence reports that confirm the existence of strange lights and other odd flying objects during World War Two, if not their nature. Reports of Foo Fighter encounters are compelling but leave plenty of scope for argument and debate over their veracity, origin, and purpose. Fast forward to April 2021 and a quick read through postings on UFO Twitter tells me that nothing has changed in this respect. UAPs remain unidentified, and people continue to argue over what they represent.
If and when the current spate of UAP sightings is explained to the satisfaction of most commentators and onlookers, perhaps the information we receive will help us understand historical encounters such as the Foo Fighters, Roswell, and Socorro. One could argue that the Foo Fighters are still with us. They might have changed their shape and name, but they are still the same elusive phenomenon that has baffled military personnel who have confronted them in the skies for almost eighty years.
Follow and connect with author Graeme Rendall on Twitter:@Borders750