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Foo Fighters Fly! A Brief and Strange History of a Flying Phenomenon

What were foo fighters?

What were foo fighters?

Lights in the Sky

There was something strange in the night sky during World War II. Baffled fighter pilots and fretful bombardiers reported being harassed by red balls of light that seemingly kept up with them at high speeds. In some cases, the pilots and crews reported that the lights were "dancing" around the aircraft.

These unidentified flying objects never attacked or appeared to offer any harm. Still, their presence was enough to unnerve these battle-fatigued men; especially when they flew in a flak-shrouded sky.

Some called them gremlins—imaginary flying creatures that supposedly tore up planes in flight. Others called them kraut fireballs, considering they were spotted most frequently over Nazi Germany. However, the name that stuck with pilots and air crews was "foo fighter."

The name in its own right is a bit of a mystery. There is speculation about where it came from, but there's no definitive proof of its origin. The same can be said about the object that would bear this name.

For the longest time, nobody was sure what foo fighters were. What is known is that they became the precursor for the UFO sighting craze that started late the 1940s, and they appeared during intense bombing raids over Europe.

Were they UFOs from another planet? Or were they Secret Nazi aircraft? There is some speculation that they may have terrestrial origins or were an unusual creation of war. There's even compelling evidence that they may have been a common optical illusion that was perceived by stressed-laden air crewmen as being something sinister.

Either way, foo fighters have become a legend. They are part of a strange chapter in a horrible war.

The origin of the term "foo fighter" is a bit of a mystery. Some websites reported that the name may have been a derivative of "Kung-fu." How that name came to be used was never made clear. There were also claims that the foo fighters were named after the red sun symbol on Japanese planes. Most sites do agree, however, that the name may have come from a popular 1930s comic strip called Smokey Stover.

While the name's origin is uncertain, the group that first coined the term isn't. Members of the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron are credited with this honor. They were the first to see and report them during their sorties in the European theater of war.

The term "foo fighter" later referred to any unidentified flying objects or phenomena that were witnessed over wartime skies (whether this name was given to actual secret Nazi aircraft—such as the first fighter jet that appeared near the end of the war—has never been determined).

Alleged foo fighters (photo may have been doctored to add them).

Alleged foo fighters (photo may have been doctored to add them).

Although scant reports of foo fighters had been reported earlier in the war, the sightings increased after the Normandy invasion of 1944. Most of the recorded sightings had been made by American and British airmen. Still, they were not alone in reporting these lights. The German pilots saw them, as well as the Soviets.

Most of these sightings were made during night raids. Bombers and fighter escorts flew onward above blacked-out cities and towns and vast oceans. Sometimes, the only light to be seen outside the plane was the running lights of other planes, the stars, the moon, and flak from anti-aircraft guns. Foo fighters became another source of light. Yet, this source was an unwelcome sight for an already alert and apprehensive group of pilots and crew flying over hostile lands.

The lights were not dismissed as being aberrations by military officials. Many took them seriously. The lights were appearing at a time when Nazi Germany was launching a series of secret weapons—in particular the German Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane. In fact, the History Channel's Secret Aircraft of the Luftwaffe speculated that the ball of light was another secret weapon meant to "harass and scare" the allied air forces. However, the show didn't present definitive evidence that proved that such a weapon ever existed.

This leads to another perplexing question: Did the Nazis have technology that would (as reported) keep up with high-flying planes and fly in unison with them? And if this was the case, what was the reason to do so? Intimidate the flyers? If so, it didn't stop the onslaught of bombing raids that happened near the end of the war.

Also, it should be pointed out, that numerous secret weapons and/or plans for other weapons and aircraft were found after the war. But, to date, there has been no document detailing anything resembling the foo fighters.

St. Elmo's Fire

St. Elmo's Fire

The reports of these lights were turned over to prominent scientists. Many believed that the lights may have been the after-effects of flak bursts. But, they never truly came to any conclusion about them. And, to make matters more obscured, information on foo fighters has never been released by military intelligence (if such files actually existed in the first place).

There has been a lot of speculation about what these lights were. Despite claims of them being a super secret weapon of the Nazis, most of the claims and theories on it are based on natural phenomena.

One theory suggests that the pilots saw the rare ball lightning. Others claim it was St. Elmo's fire that was created by the aircraft's wings. St. Elmo's fires are electrical weather phenomena in which tips of masts or plane wings are surrounded by luminous plasma caused by electrical forces in the sky (i.e. lightning). Others hold firm that they're UFOs.

One picture shows a blob of light on a background of deep blue with what appears to be clouds.

The best evidence for its existence is the eyewitness accounts. Many airmen accounted for the sight and actions of these foo fighters. They've often seen it through a plane's windshield canopy, in which light can be easily refracted and create the impression of balls of light in front of them (it may explain why they seemingly moved when they moved their heads).

Many websites—in particular those focusing on the paranormal or UFOs—have published photos that were supposed to be the foo fighters. However, the pictures were often grainy or of poor quality. In other cases, some of these photos (especially when they show a WWII plane in flight surrounded by foo fighters) appear to have been doctored through Photoshop or through an age-old process of "burning" a black-and-white picture (actually exposing a portion of a picture to light or chemical longer than the rest of the photo during its chemical printing process).

One picture shows a blob of light on a background of deep blue with what appears to be clouds. Is this object on the water or in the sky? It's hard to tell. What is certain is that it looks like glare off of a refractive surface or the reflection of a camera flash.


The descriptions of the foo fighters appear to be eerily close to ones made by Kenneth Arnold, the man who unwittingly started the UFO craze. Arnold was flying his plane near Mt. Rainier when he reported seeing "flying saucers" (hence, where the name originated). He described them as disc-shaped lights.

His description, however, matches what many of the WWII airmen reported, with two exceptions: (1) he witnessed his flying saucers below him and (2) in daylight.

Some pilots, however, report that these images are fairly common. In most cases, the disc-like shaped lights were reflections of the sun or the lights on the plane's instruments. This may have explained Arnold's sighting.

It still doesn't give a full explanation for the foo fighter. But, it is possible that some of these sightings of foo fighter may have happened during a full moon night. Also, lights from other planes or flak fire can be a likely clue to the foo fighters' origin.

Whatever may be the case, foo fighters have a special place in military history. It was real to the pilots and it created a lot of panic among the air forces of World War II. As it stands, it will possibly be one of the great mysteries—and legends—of World War II, as well as in modern times.

Original photo of bomber with (most likely) photoshopped foo fighters.

Original photo of bomber with (most likely) photoshopped foo fighters.

© 2016 Dean Traylor


Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on January 12, 2018:

Just to answer some inquiries. Yes, the band named itself after this. No, this article is not about the band.