The Tale of the Ghost Bomber that Landed Itself … Or Did it?

Some of the greatest battles in history were held during World War II, and of those battles were those that occurred in the air. The story of the B-17 “Ghost Bomber” incident was definitely one of a kind, and its explanation is still debated today.

The American Ghost Bomber was a fighter plane that essentially landed itself. And when investigators were finally able to board the mysterious aircraft, they were left only with more questions than answers. Nothing prepared them for what they were about to find out. This story of the mysterious fighter plane led to other inexplicable events that have yet to be explained.

Cortonburg, Belgium

Something happened On November 23, 1944, at an allied base in Cortonburg, Belgium that still hasn’t been entirely clarified. It was on that day that an American B-17G bomber plane was heading towards three Allied anti-aircraft gun positions, and from the looks of it, it was going to crash right into them.

Cortonburg, Belgium

Source: warhistoryonline

Soldiers on the ground saw that the bomber’s landing gear was down, and according to the manner in which it was flying, they assumed the plane was damaged, or some of the crew members were wounded. The 35,000-pound plane was heading down fast, literally falling from the sky. The soldiers on the ground braced for impact.

No One Emerged

The plane barely struck the gun positions and hit the ground. The force was so strong that it caused the giant bomber to bounce, the plane getting off kilter and one of the wings ended up smashing into the earth. The propellers were breaking and being violently flung through the air.

No One Emerged

Source: Mr. Kuznicki Photography

The bomber finally came to a stop around 100 feet from the gun position. The engines that were working kept running and witnesses held their breath in anticipation waiting for the crew to reveal themselves. They waited for crew members to climb out, but no one emerged.

Soldiers only had one question: ‘where is the crew?’

Deciding to Investigate

The witnesses didn’t know what to think nor did they know how to help. There was no emergency call announcing its arrival. After time passed and no crew emerged, they knew something was wrong.

Deciding to Investigate

Source: American Air Museum in Britain

The plane stood in the field with its three remaining engines continuing to run. After 20 minutes, British Major John V. Crisp decided to investigate. But Crisp was admittedly nervous and extremely cautious as he approached the enemy aircraft.

Entering the Plane

The anticipation was growing, but there was still no movement and no sign of life. Major Crisp started searching the exterior of the plane. Since he wasn’t an airman, it took him a moment to find the entrance to the plane.

Entering the Plane

Source: Pinterest

Major Crisp, an officer in the British Army, set up camp nearby along with the rest of his unit. He set out alone to investigate. It took him a few moments to locate the entry hatch below the fuselage.

He wasn’t at all aware of what would come of this moment…

Not a Soul

Major Crisp was apprehensive and expected to find dead or dying men inside. It was the only explanation for why no one exited the plane. Major Crisp kept looking through the thin aircraft that usually held most of the ten crew members of a typical B-17G.

Not a Soul

Source: worldofwarplanes.com

The Major found some signs of life, albeit they were half-eaten chocolate bars. He later commented that “evidence of fairly recent occupation was everywhere,” but didn’t find anyone there. What he did find, however, were twelve parachute packs that hadn’t been used. It only added to the mysteriousness of a man-less aircraft.

“The Phantom Fortress”

Major Crisp was the only person on board while searching for clues as to what happened. He made his way up to the cockpit but didn’t notice anything suspicious. It seemed as though the plane had somehow managed to not only fly itself but land itself too.

“The Phantom Fortress”

Source: Twitter

Major Crisp was able to turn off the engines of the plane. He found the aircraft log and noticed some scribblings on it. But the lack of crew remained the most puzzling part. Where was the crew?

The investigation would eventually lead to headlines of the “The Phantom Fortress” circulating everywhere…

An Immediate Inspection

The incident and its mysteriousness were sent through the chain of command, and an investigation began immediately as the commanders feared the worst. To make matters more complicated, the B-17G that essentially landed itself also didn’t even have a name.

An Immediate Inspection

Source: tombrickhouse.com

Investigators arrived and found the plane’s serial number, allowing the commanders of the 8th Air Force to identify the plane as being part of the 91st Bomber Group. They were a group of B-17Gs that operated out of East Anglia, England. The plane did indeed take off with its crew, but now they were gone…

Locating the Crew

Once the plane was identified, questions were being asked. The plane was full of evidence that there were members on board, at least at some point. Also, the cover to the Sperry bombsite was removed, which was a typical practice when a fighter plane was on a bombing run.

Locating the Crew

Source: mysteriousuniverse.org

The parachutes were a big part of the puzzle. Despite the parachutes being on board and the assumption that the crew jumped out with no equipment, the crew was eventually found. All ten men were alive and well at an airbase in Belgium.

But they had some answering to do…

Their Mission

According to the found crew members, their mission was to bomb the Leuna oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany as it was marked as a dangerous target. By that point in the war, allies had been aiming at and hitting German targets non-stop.

Their Mission

Source: Owlcation

The British were bombing German targets by night, while American bomber crews from England and Italy were bombing during the day. Bombing accuracy was a real problem, so American war planners insisted on daylight missions for the more precise strikes. That meant that American bombers were more vulnerable.

A Direct Hit

Lt. Harold R. DeBolt, the pilot of the B-17G, was an experienced pilot. The bomber was making its way to Germany just fine until the group started its bombing run. At a certain point, the plane was unable to keep its altitude with the rest of the group.

A Direct Hit

Source: Northstar Gallery

That’s exactly the point when German anti-aircraft took the opportunity to open fire on the low-flying bomber, and it hit the plane twice. The plane sustained a direct hit, but somehow it didn’t set off any of 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.”

The pilot had to decide what to do next…

They Abandoned the Bombing Run

An engine was damaged by a direct flak hit, even though all four engines were still functioning when it landed. The crew knew they were in trouble when they were flying low, alone, and over enemy territory nonetheless.

They Abandoned the Bombing Run

Source: thisdayinaviation

The weather was terrible, and the plane experienced a lot of turbulence through the clouds. An engine was knocked out, and the bomb bay was malfunctioning. So Lt. DeBolt decided to abandon the bombing run and head the bomber back to his base in England.

A Decision to Ditch

Lt. DeBolt was doing his best and added as much power as he could to the engines, but the plane was slowly losing altitude. He ordered the crew to dump all loose equipment. They did as he ordered, but the plane was still falling.

A Decision to Ditch

Source: Wikipedia

The crew was hoping that the plane would make it back to their base, but as time was quickly passing, so were their hopes. Suddenly, a second engine stopped turning, which left Lt. DeBolt no choice; he was going to need to give the order to ditch the vessel. He directed the plane on a course toward Brussels.

He commanded the crew to get their parachutes ready…

They Jumped Ship (or Plane Rather)

Once the plane got hit, pilot Harold R. DeBolt turned the bomber around and headed back to England. But when the second engine was compromised, DeBolt knew the plane wouldn’t make it across the English Channel.

They Jumped Ship (or Plane Rather)

Source: army.mil

After setting the plane in the direction of Belgium, where the headquarters of the 8th Air Force was located, the plan was to bail the aircraft. DeBolt was the last to leave. He set the plane on autopilot and jumped. The crew anticipated that the plane would eventually just crash into the ground.

On Auto Pilot

Apparently, there were reports of planes flying by themselves during WWII, but a B-17G on two working engines had little to no chance of remaining in the air. The crew watched as the plane flew away, but a thick cloud caused them to lose sight of it. The plane was still in the air when they hit the ground.

On Auto Pilot

Source: dioramas-and-models.com

Incredibly, the plane flew for miles on its own on a half engine capacity. The captain reported that they ditched the aircraft near Brussels, Belgium.

But that just wasn’t enough information for investigators…

The Biggest Part of the Puzzle

How do you explain a crew without parachutes and a plane that flew alone miles on wounded engines? There were discrepancies in the investigation report as it was all unclear. But there was still the most puzzling part of the whole equation.

The Biggest Part of the Puzzle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

How the plane managed to go that far and land on its own was too strange to understand. Especially with bad weather, it’s mind-blowing how it landed. Any pilot would say it’s impossible.

A Case of Conflicting Reports

There were conflicting reports around what the soldiers on the ground saw when the plane landed and the crew’s version of events before they aborted their bombing mission. The crew reported that one engine was destroyed, and one quit.

A Case of Conflicting Reports

Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

According to the soldiers on the ground, all four engines were intact (until one was destroyed on landing). Both accounts were recorded in the official investigation, but the contradiction was never resolved.

Was there a hole in the crew’s story or the soldiers on the ground?

Not Properly Trained?

Another discrepancy in the reports was that the crew reported that they were struck by enemy fire, which is why aborted the plane. But Major Crisp and the other soldiers reported no damage on the plane that would support the claim of enemy fire.

Not Properly Trained?

Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that Crisp and the other soldiers weren’t trained well enough to identify the difference between enemy fire damage and damage sustained by a rough landing.

Were The Parachutes on Board?

It’s still bizarre that Major Crisp found all the parachutes on the bomber still intact. While it’s understandable that they would abort the mission due to enemy fire, it isn’t plausible that they would evacuate the plane without parachutes.

Were The Parachutes on Board?

Source: Pinterest

Unfortunately, the official report doesn’t resolve this discrepancy, so we might never know why the parachutes were left behind. It’s also remotely possible that Major Crisp saw parachute packs that were in fact used with no parachutes in them.

A Tough Plane

The B-17G was a sturdy airplane and could sustain a substantial amount of damage. Lt. Debolt may have done what was best for his crew, but his plane was also doing lots of the necessary work.

A Tough Plane

Source: Pinterest

The B-17 in this photo another plane that did its job. With the damage absorbed on its left engine and only 1 1/2 wings, it still managed to land. But this plane had a pilot and a crew who brought it in.

Was it a Miracle?

The way the story went down was luckily the best case scenario. The crew made it out safely, and the plane didn’t cause any further destruction as it made its way down.

Was it a Miracle?

Source: firstaerosquadron

There were many stories during the war that didn’t end so well. But the mysteries of World War II don’t end here. There are other occurrences from the war in which several aircrews have encountered incidences without any logical explanation.

There were other stories that remained unexplained…

Mysterious Sightings of World War II

The fact of the matter is that World War II saw too much disaster and chaos to have been able to properly investigate every incident. And after the war, efforts were focused on rebuilding rather than explaining.

Mysterious Sightings of World War II

Source: YouTube

Of the many bizarre and unexplainable stories from WWII, one narrative that emerged many times was that of mysterious flying orbs. They were reported by numerous pilots fighting for both sides.

Night Fighters

Many accounts of unidentified flying aircraft were spotted in WWII by night fighter aircraft. Night fighters were planes adept at fighting in the darkness of night. The planes had twin engines and were a bit heavier.

Night Fighters

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

What they saw was not being verified by their radar…

Something in the Skies

An American aircrew in a night fighter saw something inexplicable. The Bristol Beaufighter, a British plane, was fully equipped with innovative radar, and everything appeared to be normal. But the radar wasn’t registering any foreign objects in its proximity, but they saw with their eyes something ahead of them.

Something in the Skies

Source: History on the Net

The crew consisted of three highly trained pilots: Edward Schlueter, radar observer Donald J. Meiers, and intelligence officer Fred Ringwald. They described what they saw as, “eight to 10 bright orange lights off the left wing… flying through the air at high speed.”

The Foo Fighters

Meiers radioed into the ground control units, and they only confirmed what his radar read –that there was nothing there. They were on a combat mission, flying over Germany. Schlueter wanted a closer look, so he turned the plane toward the objects.

The Foo Fighters

Source: WWII in Pictures

And then suddenly, as if by the flip of a switch, the lights went away. The crew was bewildered. The lights reappeared further away and then disappeared again. Meiers gave these objects a name, which went on to be used often in 1944 and 1945. He called them Foo Fighters.

The term was taken from a famous cartoon…

Where There’s Foo, There’s Fire

Why Foo Fighters? Because Meiers was a reader of the “Smokey Stover” cartoon. “Foo” was a word Smokey Stover used often, saying “where there’s foo, there’s fire.” It was a fitting name because where there were these Foo Fighters, there also appeared to be fire. This is the first known use of the term Foo Fighters when describing an unidentified flying object.

Where There’s Foo, There’s Fire

Source: UFX Home

The men of the 415th Special Operations Squadron, who Meier and his crew were a part of, weren’t satisfied for the lack of explanation for their sighting. They also saw more Foo Fighter sightings than any other unit during the war.

The War Diaries

The war diary of the 415th Operations Squadron includes more than one encounter with the unexplained. Reports of unidentified flying objects go back as far as September 1941, but there were a lot more in December 1944.

The War Diaries

Source: Wikipedia

The diary for December 15th read: “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.”

Followed by Lights

On December 18, 1941, the log then reported a similar incident. But this time there was more than just one light. The log read: “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.” They wondered if it was some secret German antic.

Followed by Lights

Source: Cosmology.com

Lights followed for several miles then went out. Our pilots have named these mysterious [Illegible] which they encounter over Germany at night ‘Foo-Fighters.’” A pilot was later asked how he felt when he saw these lights following his aircraft, saying he was “scared shitless.”

Two Orange Glows

One incident occurred on December 23, 1941, to a Beau pilot and his crew. The pilot spotted “two orange glows” quickly coming towards his aircraft from the ground. He radioed in, and the ground radar was also able to pick up the signals.

Two Orange Glows

Source: Disclose.tv

The “glows” leveled out and started chasing his plane. He made hard turns and attempted to lose them in a steep dive, but the lights were still on him. After a few minutes, however, the glows peeled off in perfect control and they were no longer visible.

Baffling Attributes

One of the more alarming features of these Foo Fighters was that they were noticeably faster than British planes. When a pilot tried to make better contact, the Foo Fighters would fly away always outrun them. And their ability to make maneuvers that were impossible for aircraft of the day is another baffling attribute.

Baffling Attributes

Source: Ancient Code

A log entry from the night of Christmas Eve of 1944, the 415th Squardon’s noted, “Observed a glowing red object shooting straight up. It changed suddenly to a plan [sic] view of a [aircraft] doing a wing-over and going into a dive and disappearing.”

Word Got Out

Word started to get out about these Foo Fighters, and when the public found out, reports were being printed in various news publications. They spoke of the objects, but didn’t quite have enough details – they didn’t have the aircrews’ descriptions.

Word Got Out

Source: www.saturdaynightuforia.com

One 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’”

But is there a better explanation?

Possible Explanations

The US military was investigating, and their conclusions didn’t add up. AB-17 pilot s chased by a Foo Fighter (or what he called “a small disc”) for more than 250 miles later described the encounter with an intelligence officer. He recounted the explanation he gave:

Possible Explanations

Source: sped2work.tripod.com

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.”

St. Elmo’s Fire

Another explanation was given, which referred to a natural phenomenon called St. Elmo’s fire. St. Elmo’s fire was something originally discovered on ships when the large pole produced a fire-like trail that was associated with lightning storms or electrical currents in the air.

St. Elmo’s Fire

Source: Wikipedia

The phenomenon also occurs on airplanes in similar conditions, creating a trail of fire on the wingtips. But this explanation wasn’t what the pilots believed to be as a reason. It didn’t address why the lights were so maneuverable. The pilots were convinced that these foo fighters were not traditional aircraft.

And there was yet another possible explanation…

Ball Lightning

Another natural phenomenon called “ball lighting” was given as another possible explanation. Ball lightning appears in spheres which more closely resembles the pilots’ reports.

Ball Lightning

Source: Gizmodo

There have been cases of ball lightning in history in which great flashes lead to explosions, and some have even killed people. But this phenomenon is short-lived and didn’t behave like the bright lights that the pilots reported. Thus, the pilots rejected this explanation.

Silver Balls

Weather phenomena was not a sufficient explanation for these occurrences. The pilots turned their suspicion towards their enemy in the war: the Germans. A news report from December 1944 describes German efforts to disrupt Allied radar and their electronic warfare systems.

Silver Balls

Source: www.saturdaynightuforia.com

The Germans apparently released “silver in color” and “metallic nature” floating balls into the skies. They were tiny foil strips released in the air. The Germans were employing these silver balls around the same time, but none of the pilots reached the conclusion that this is what they saw.

So another explanation was given…

Feuerball/Kugelblitz

The Germans indeed spent a large amount of time and resources developing “wonder weapons” throughout WWII. After the war, a German Army Major wrote about some of these weapons. Major Rudolf Lusar claimed that they created Feuerball and Kugelblitz – tiny remote-controlled jet aircraft.

Feuerball/Kugelblitz

Source: Freenet

They were equipped with klystron tubes that could send an electric current through the air, disrupting Allied bomber engines. While that could explain why the lights followed the planes, the truth is the klystron tube never actually worked.

Battle Fatigue

Since these wonder weapons never caused any damage, the pilots dismissed them as a plausible explanation. An alternate justification was suggested that pilots and crews were actually suffering from battle fatigue – strain from flying in constant combat missions in high-stress environments.

Battle Fatigue

Source: Wikipedia

Battle fatigue has been known to cause hallucinations. But the problem is that so many different aircrews also experienced and described similar occurrences. So it’s unlikely that they would all be having the same hallucination. Not to mention the fact that all the foo fighter sightings were in a localized area.

Pilot vertigo was the next explanation…

Pilot Vertigo

Project X-148-AV-4-3 was conducted by the US Navy after the war, which focused their efforts around “pilot vertigo,” or pilot disorientation. The study was conducted by Dr. Edgar Vinacke.

Pilot Vertigo

Source: Daily Mail

In his findings, Dr. 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.

Strange Globe Glowing

The most promising explanation from all those provided was that the lights were a German wonder weapon. In September 1941, two men on a Polish ship that was ferrying British troops witnessed a “strange globe glowing with greenish light, about half the size of the full moon as it appears to us.

Strange Globe Glowing

Source: Video Blocks

After alerting an officer, the three men then watched this phenomenon for over an hour. This occurrence would disprove the battle fatigue and pilot vertigo explanation.

It turns out that even in Japan, the foo fighters were being witnessed…

Even in Japan

German and Japanese pilots were also reporting irregular instances in flight. This photo is one of the most famous when foo fighters are referenced. It first appeared in the 1975 photo history by G. De Turris & S. Fusco, “Obiettivo sugli UFO.”

Even in Japan

Source: www.sped2work.tripod.com

People have always debated whether or not this photograph is real. The light in the background doesn’t seem logical and fits the profile of other sightings of foo fighters.

Too Many to Ignore

There were too many reports for the US government to ignore. In 1953, the Robertson Panel investigated the reports of unidentified flying objects. The investigation was also headed by the CIA to conclude whether or not these unexplained occurrences were actually a threat to national security.

Too Many to Ignore

Source: The Black Vault

Their initial findings were classified because they included sensitive information about the existing military operations. But Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson gave no official conclusion, only mentioning that most instances were likely the result of pilots misidentifying flying objects. The foo fighters remain a mystery.