WW2 Bomber Lands With No One Inside

World War II included the greatest air battles ever witnessed. There are theories regarding the B-17 "Ghost Bomber", such as sightings of Foo Fighters and UFOs, but one thing's for sure, it was one of a kind. When investigators finally got on board the mysterious bomber that landed on its own, this led to even more questions. They were not expecting what they found. Have you ever seen anything of the sort?

Coming In Hot!

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Image Credits: History101.com

On November 23rd, 1944, an event at an allied base in Cortonburg, Belgium still can't be fully explained until today. On that particular day, an American B-17G bomber was getting closer to three Allied anti-aircraft gun positions, and it seemed like it was going to crash into them. The soldiers on the ground could tell that the bomber's landing gear was down, and due to the way it was flying, they thought that the plane had been damaged or that some of the crew were hurt. The 35,000-pound bomber was falling quickly right above their heads, so they hit the deck and braced for impact as they shouted obscenities at the pilot.

An Awkward Landing...

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Image Credits: History101.com

The bomber only hardly cleared the gun positions and hit the ground like a giant dead bird. The massive force of the impact caused the giant bomber to bounce, leading the plane to go off-kilter as one of the wings smashed into the ground. Parts of the propeller were forcefully thrown in the air like meteors as they spun and hit the ground. The lumbering bomber came to a halt a hundred feet away from the gun position. The engines that still worked continued running as witnesses held their breath. They waited a little, then waited some more, but it didn't seem like anybody was coming out of the Flying Fortress. Soldiers were astounded; where on earth was the crew?

Expecting Someone To Emerge

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Image Credits: History101.com

The men on the ground had no idea what to think, and certainly didn't know how to help. The plane did not send out an emergency call, so its arrival was completely unexpected, and the men in the gun positions were troubled from the beginning. Five minutes passed without a sign of the crew. Then,  fifteen minutes passed, and nobody emerged from the plane. After all, one must remember that this was WWII, and sneaky, back-handed tactics had been utilized. The plane then stood eerily on the field, and anticipation grew as the three remaining functioning engines continued to spin. After 20 minutes, a British Major called John V. Crisp decided to investigate. However, even he was nervous and extremely careful in his search.

The Search Begins

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Image Credits: History101.com

The anticipation kept growing as the propellers kept spinning. However, there was still no sign of the crew. Time was crucial, so Major Crisp started by investigating the exterior of the bomber. As he wasn't an airman, it took him a while to figure out how to get inside the aircraft. Major Crisp, an officer in the British Army, was stationed nearby with the rest of his unit. He was in the army and wasn't an airman, so it took him a couple of minutes to find the entry hatch located under the fuselage. He entered the plane on his own and was about to discover something incredible.

There Wasn't A Soul On Board

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Image Credits: History101.com

Major Crisp anxiously carried out the search as he expected to see dead or dying men in the plane. What could be the other reason for nobody getting out of the plane? Major Crisp went through the thin fuselage that usually held most of the airmen on a B-17G. The Major discovered half-eaten chocolate bars and later stated that "evidence of fairly recent occupation was everywhere", but even within the narrow fuselage of the B-17G, he couldn't see anyone. On the other hand, what he did find were twelve parachute packs, which was strange because he realized that there was not a single person on board.

“The Phantom Fortress”

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Major Crisp was the only person on the aircraft carrying out the search and looking for clues regarding what happened to the crew. He headed to the cockpit and did not notice anything unusual about the yoke. In other words, this plane had managed to fly and land on its own. After a little trial and error, Major Crisp was able to turn the aircraft's engines off. On the aircraft log, he noticed that some words were scribbled down. But where on earth was the crew? The investigation would leave allied forces puzzled, and, as Stars and Stripes magazine calls it, the legend of "The Phantom Fortress" started to circulate.

The Investigation Begins

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The whole chain of command was alarmed at the incident, and commanders immediately investigated as they were afraid for their crew. To make things even more complex, the B-17G had no name. Major Crisp then told his superiors about the incident, and a team was sent to carry out an investigation. Investigators who arrived on-site to investigate discovered the plane's serial number and this allowed commanders in the 8th Force to know that the aircraft was part of the 91st Bomber Group, a contingent of B-17Gs from East Anglia, England. So, the plane had surely taken off from there with its crew, but where had they disappeared to? 

The Crew Was Located

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Once the plane and squadron were identified, questions began to emerge regarding the grew and what had happened to them. The plane was full of evidence that there was in fact a crew on board at some point in time. The cover to the Sperry bombsite was removed, which indicates that this bombardier was on a bombing run. The parachutes caused an even bigger mystery, and although they were on board, the crew was later located. All ten were alive and well, and they were located at an airbase in Belgium. Investigators were absolutely floored at the discovery, and they decided to dig into this mystery even further.

The Mission Had Them Fly Over Germany

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The B-17G was sent out to bomb the Leuna oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany. As it was located in Eastern Germany, this was an extremely vulnerable target. By that time during the war, the allies had been targeting Germany non-stop. The British bombed Germany at night, while the U.S., England, and Italy bombed them during the day. As accuracy was not easy, American war planners insisted on carrying out bombings during the day as to ensure more precision. Therefore, American bombers were much more vulnerable, and as Crisp searched the airplane, he found a log in the navigating system that said "Bad Flak".

The Bomb Bay Was Hit

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The pilot of the bomber was Lt. Harold R. DeBolt, and although this was a new plane, he was an experienced pilot. The bomber made its way to Germany with no issues, until the group began its bombing run. Strangely, the plane was unable to stay at the same height as the rest of the group. Then, German anti-aircraft fired at the low flying bomber and hit it twice. The bomb bay took a hit, and miraculously, it somehow 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

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Also, direct flak hit damaged the engine, and although the plane was approaching landing, all four engines were still running. The crew knew they were in danger as they were flying low, alone, and in Germany, an enemy territory. The weather had been horrible all day, with the plane experiencing a bumpy flight through huge white clouds. In 1944, the weather in Europe was awful, just like the political tensions, and considering those factors, as well as the fact the engine is hit and the bomb bay is malfunctioning, Lt. DeBolt aborted the bombing run and decided to go back to his base in East Anglia.

A Second Engine Quits

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Lt. DeBolt added as much power to the engines as possible, but the aircraft continued to fall slowly. He then ordered his crew to eject any loose equipment. Although they did as ordered, the plane continued to lose attitude. The crew was hopeful that the plane would make it back to England, but the situation looked increasingly dire. Then, a second engine stopped functioning, which gave Lt. DeBolt no option but to ditch the aircraft. He directed the plane towards Brussels and ordered the crew to get their parachutes ready.

The Parachutes Were Still On Board

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Then, as it was hit, the plane could no longer keep its attitude, so Harold R. DeBolt turned around and headed back to England. When a second engine stopped functioning, DeBolt knew that there was no way it would make it all the way back to England. He then headed towards Brussels, Belgium, the 8th Air Force's headquarters. The crew left the plane, and DeBolt was the last one to do so. He put the plane on autopilot and jumped out. They believed that the plane would finally give in and crash. 

The Plane Reportedly Flew Miles On Its Own

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In WWII, there were some instances of planes flying by themselves, but a B-17G running on two engines was unlikely to remain in the air. The crew watched the plane, but due to thick clouds, they lost sight of it. The plane was still in the air when the crew landed on the ground, but they didn't know. It is hard to believe that the plane flew on its own for miles while only half an engine was functioning, but that seems to be what happened. According to the captain, he and his crew ditched the bomber near Brussels, Belgium. However, this didn't make sense to investigators, and there were still many inconsistencies that needed to be figured out.

The Biggest Question Of All

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This story included a crew without parachutes, a plane that flew for miles with broken engines, and inconsistencies in the investigation report. However, this was nothing compared to the most incomprehensible aspect of the story. The odds that a plane with no crew could make it that far and land on its own are minuscule. Out of all the places it could have fallen in, like in the middle of the English channel, for example, it is incredible that it landed as though it knew how to land itself. Any pilot would tell you that it is nearly impossible.

There Were Conflicting Reports On What Happened

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The story was mysterious because there were conflicting reports between what the soldiers saw when the plane landed, and the crew's version of events before they got out of the plane. According to the crew, one engine was damaged, and one stopped working. However, according to the soldiers, the four engines were completely fine, until the plane made its approach, and one of them was destroyed. Although both sides of the story were recorded in the official investigation, the contradiction remained. Was the crew telling the entire truth?

Soldiers Who Found The Plane May Not Have Been Properly Trained

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Another inconsistency revolved around the fact that the crew said that they were hit by enemy fire, which is why they decided to abort the plane. However, according to Major Crisp, the plane had no physical damage that would be visible on the plane if it was hit by enemy fire. However, due to the rough, unpiloted landing of the plane, perhaps Major Crisp and other soldiers could not tell the difference between damage from enemy fire and damage from a rough landing, which could explain the discrepancy.

The Parachutes Were Still On Board

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If the crew is telling the truth, it is strange that Major Crisp found all the parachutes aboard the plane. While it is possible that they decided to abandon the plane if they thought that the plane had sustained too much damage from enemy fire, why would they evacuate the plane and leave their parachutes behind? The official report could never solve this inconsistency, so we may never know the answer. How else would the crew have jumped out of the plane without parachutes? Major Crisp did locate empty parachute packs on the plane, and those were probably used, as this is the only possible answer. However, this has never been made official, so we may never know the truth.

The B-17 Flying Fortress Is One Tough Airplane

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Perhaps Major Crisp and his soldiers were wrong, but it still a fact that the B-17G managed to land itself. This plane was extremely tough, and it could take a lot of damage. Lt. Debolt had his crew's best interest at heart, but his plane was determined to get them home. The B-17 picture above was also determined to get the soldiers home. If you look at the left-hand side of the photo, on the top, you can see how much damage the plane sustained to its left engine. With only one wing and a half, it managed to land itself. Planes do have autopilot functions, but they don't have the ability to land on their own!

Was It A Miracle?

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It seems like out of all the tragic ways this story could have ended, the best-case scenario happened. The crew was safe, and the damaged plane did not destroy anything further on its way back down to the ground. Of course, many stories during the war didn't end well. Perhaps this was a sign for the Allies that destiny was on their side, especially as it seemed like they were losing hope. But this is only one of the many mysteries of WWII, as several aircrews have seen some things that they couldn't explain. 

Other Mysterious Sightings Of World War II

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There were too much activity and destruction during the war for every conflict, person, and action to be investigated appropriately. When the war ended, the focus was put on rebuilding rather than explaining. That is how wars are - sometimes, things just go unexplained. The ghost bomber wasn't the only strange episode of the war. Many other sightings witnessed by large groups of people have gone unexplained. One of these strange episodes is that of flying orbs that were witnessed by many pilots on both sides of the war.

The Night Fighters

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There were many accounts of unidentified flying aircraft during the war, and those were seen by night fighter aircraft. Night fighter aircraft are planes specified to see in the darkness of the night. These planes usually had two engines, and they were a little heavier than ones used during the day, such as America's P-51 Mustang and Britain's Supermarine Spitfire. Unlike nearly every other plane in WWII, they had a radar that allowed them to identify bogeys without having to spot them manually or rely on the ground radar that is located miles away.

Something Strange In The Sky

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During the same time as the inexplicable landing of the ghost bomber, an American aircrew in a night fighter saw something else that they couldn't explain. Their Bristol Beaufighter, a plane from the UK, had an advanced radar, and according to their instruments, everything seemed normal. However, they could see something ahead. The crew was only three people, but they were highly trained pilots: Edward Schlueter, radar observer Donald J.Meiers, and intelligence officer Fred Ringwald. According to them, they observed “eight to 10 bright orange lights off the left-wing… flying through the air at high speed.”

The Disappearing Act

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Meiers contacted ground control, and they confirmed that there was nothing closeby and that his radar was correct. However, as they were on a combat mission over Germany, Schlueter wanted to be positive that there was nothing. The objects could be seen for several minutes, and Schlueter decided to head towards them. In an instant, as if someone flipped a switch, the lights disappeared. The crew was bewildered. Then, further away, the lights could be seen, before disappearing once again. Meiers gave them a name that stuck - Foo Fighters.

Foo Fighters Come From A Comic Book

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Meiers was a big fan of the "Smokey Stover" comic book, and "foo" was a word Smokey Stover often used, with phrases like: “where there’s foo, there’s fire.” This fit the situation because in real life, when there was a Foo Fighter, it seemed like there was fire. This is the first time the term Foo Fighters was used to describe a UFO. Explanations started to come from left and right, but the crew of the 415th Special Operations Squadron was far from convinced. They had seen more Foo Fighter sightings than any other unit in the war.

Entries In Their War Diaries

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The official war diary of 415th had many unexplainable encounters. UFOs were reported to be seen way back in September 1941, but the sightings accelerated in December 1944. Many of the sightings were reported 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 the object before it went out.”

The Lights Seemed To Follow Them

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On December 18th, a similar incident was reported, but this time, more than one light could be seen in the sky. “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 were following the planes, which made the crew suspect that it was some kind of German project, or perhaps it was something else entirely. “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 UFO, he claimed to be "scared shitless".

Pilots Reported Being Chased By The Foo Fighters

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On December 23rd, the orbs were seen again, and a Beau pilot and his crew were scared for their lives. The pilot first saw "two orange glows" heading towards his aircraft from the ground. He radioed in, and this time, the ground radar spotted the objects. The "glows" leveled out and chased his plane. The pilot began to fly dangerously, right and left, and even tried to lose them in a sharp dive, but it seemed like nothing was working. Only two minutes later, the glows peeled off and suddenly disappeared.

The Lights Were Fast And Agile

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One of the scariest things about Foo Fighters is that they were much faster than British planes. Also, anytime a pilot attempted to get close to them, they would fly away and easily outrun them. The most disturbing part of it all is that the orbs could undergo manoeuvers that were impossible for airplanes at the time. According to a war diary entry from the night of Christmas Eve of 1944 from the 41th Squadron,  “We 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

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The crews of the planes began to talk, and as the public heard the rumors, the media picked the story up, with various news publications speaking about it. They spoke of the strange objects in the sky, but they didn't have the full details of the crew. One such incident from a radar reporter said the following:  “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’”

Possible Explanations

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The US military underwent investigations, but their conclusions didn't add up. A B-17 pilot who was chased by a Foo Fighter for more than 250 miles said the following about the incident: “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

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One of the possible explanations given to the aircrews was a natural phenomenon called St. Elmo's fire. St.Elmo's fire was initially seen on ships when the large mast created a fire-like trail that was usually connected to lightning storms or when electrical currents were present in the air. In the same type of conditions, this can also happen to airlines, creating what looks like a trail of fire on their wings. But pilots were not convinced, as this didn't take into account the fact that these lights maneuvered in a way never seen before. If the explanation was in fact St.Elmo's fire, then the orbs came from a plane, and pilots were sure that this was impossible.

Possible Explanation #2: Ball Lightning

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Another issue with St.Elmo's fire is that it usually looks like a tracer or a meteor, and not like a sphere, as was reported by pilots. However, another natural occurrence called "ball lightning" is sphere-shaped, which is consistent with pilot reports. The cases of ball lightning that were witnessed are extraordinary. They typically lead to explosions, and some have even been fatal. However, the phenomenon happens really fast, unlike the orbs that were seen by the pilots behind their aircraft. Therefore, the pilots rejected this theory as a possible explanation. 

Possible Explanation #3: Silver Balls

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The pilots were not interested in weather-related answers, as naturally, they were suspecting their enemies in the war: the Germans. According to a report released in December of 1944, Germans were actively disrupting Allied radar and electronic warfare systems. To do so, the Germans would release floating balls into the sky which were silver in color and metallic in nature. Previously, they had used tiny foil strips in the air to try and disrupt enemy radars. The Germans used silver balls around the time of the occurrences, but no pilot in the 415th confirmed that this is what they had seen.

Possible Explanation #4: Feuerball/Kugelblitz

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It is widely known that the Germans focused on developing "wonder weapons" during WWII, and when the war finished, a German Army Major wrote about a few of them. According to Major Rudolf Lusar, the Germans created Feuerball and Kugelblitz, which were tiny remote-controlled jet aircraft. These had klystron tubes in order to send an electric current through the air and disrupt Allied bomber engines. This could explain why the lights followed the planes, but there was never actually any electric current. Therefore, it seemed that the Germans may have equipped the small aircraft with another more efficient weapon.

Possible Explanation #5: Battle Fatigue

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Since these wonder weapons never did any damage, the pilots were convinced that this was not a plausible explanation. It was also suggested that the pilots might have been suffering from battle fatigue, or due to strain from constantly flying in high-stress environments. There have been cases of battle fatigue causing hallucinations. But as so many different aircrews witnessed these orbs, it's highly unlikely that they all hallucinated and saw the same thing. Also, the lights were all seen in a localized area, so this explanation did not make sense to witnesses.

Possible Explanation #6: Pilot Vertigo

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Image Credits: History101.com

In their work, scientists and psychologists quantify claims and do not rely on unscientific evidence. Project X-148-AV-4-3 was carried out by the US Navy shortly after the war ended, and this mission focused on 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.” Well, Mr.Vinacke, if this was the case, how do you explain an entire crew of men who had the same hallucinations?

“Strange Globe Glowing”

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The most likely explanation at this point was an unknown German wonder weapon. However, there are holes with this theory too, as Foo Fighters were not specifically observed in Europe only. In September 1941, two Polish men on a ship witnessed a “strange globe glowing with greenish light, about half the size of the full moon as it appears to us.” An officer was alerted, and all three men continued to watch it for more than an hour. They were not pilots or even in an airplane, so this time, it couldn't be explained by "pilot vertigo".

The Official Investigation

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There were too many reports for the US government to ignore this phenomenon. So, in 1953, the Robertson Panel decided to investigate such reports of UFOs. Also, more stories started to emerge, people wanted answers, and it became increasingly harder to explain the sightings. At first, the Robertson Panel was set up to investigate UFOs over the Washington DC area. The CIA headed the investigation in order to determine if these orbs were a threat to national security. 

“Experimental Aviation Technology”

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Initially, they kept their findings classified as it contained sensitive information about the military. However, it has been declassified since, and the public learned that the panel found some unstartling information. Many top scientists who were familiar with "experimental aviation technology" concluded that most of the sightings were the result of pilots misidentifying flying objects. The other sightings were said to be the result of something similar to misidentification, and more investigation would be carried out to get the answer. 

“Plain Light”

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Other explanations were given, but none of them seemed to convince the pilots who had witnessed this phenomenon. So, are these flying orbs from another planet? It is impossible to answer that, and all the data in the world will still not allow us to come to a certain conclusion. Richard Ziebart, the historian for the 417th squadron, who heard many stories from the pilots themselves, came to the following conclusion: “I think the Foo Fighters didn’t show up on the 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

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In regards to UFOs, pilots are without a doubt our best source of anecdotal data. To anyone else, a weather balloon may look like a flying orb, but pilots are experts at aerodynamics and airframes, so they can come to a more informed conclusion regarding what that really was. Pilots witnessing UFOs is not unique to WWII, though, as it was witnessed by an F-18 pilot who captured footage of a "tic-tac" shaped object flying in the air. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” the pilot told The New York Times. “I have no idea what I saw.” It may seem foolish to assume that this was an American superweapon, as this would mean that the American government was lying all along. Therefore, the instances of sightings in WWII remain a mystery. 

Source: History101.com