Aerial Phenomena in the Old Days: A Tale of Sprites and Saucers
The study of UFOs has brought to light many pressing questions over the decades, particularly since the end of the Second World War. Such questions include whether we are alone in the universe, although the UFO subject also inspires us to ask whether our conventional notions of progress and technological innovation are as they seem.
UFO reports over the decades have provided, in the best instances, detailed observations of unusual aerial phenomena which in often appear to represent technological innovations of some variety. Some of these apparent “technologies” appear to be very advanced, especially in relation to the era during which they were reported.
For instance, by the late 1940s, reports of “ghost rockets” over Scandinavia and, in a few cases, the United States as well, suggested technologies resembling the scramjets and guided missiles that would later be developed and deployed some decades later. How, or why these technologies may have been in use during much earlier periods remains a question, though it suggests experimental technologies that may have been under development at that time.
However, even prior to, and throughout World War II, there were unusual reports of aerial phenomenon occurring. These famous “Foo Fighters”, also occasionally called “Russian hail”, borrowed their name from an American comic strip called “Smokey Stover”, whose hero had been known to say, “where there’s foo, there’s fire.”
Modern science interprets many of these aircraft to be a phenomenon called “lightning sprites”; a Washington Post article on June 29, 2015 notes that:
“Lightning sprites are so hard to observe, we’ve only been aware of their existence during the past few decades. Nobel laureate C. T. R. Wilson predicted they existed in 1924, but it wasn’t until 1989 that they were officially discovered (World War II pilots reportedly saw them first, but scientists waved them off for lack of credibility).”
Citing an earlier piece from 2012, WP had similarly reported:
“During World War II (and probably before), high flying pilots were reported to have observed unexplained aerial phenomena (UAP), often now called transient luminous events (TLE’s), particularly in the vicinity of thunderstorms. But at the time, scientists believed that such observations had little credibility. The pilots, they thought, while good at what they were trained to do, lacked the ability to properly identify fleeting aerial phenomena, such as (what we now know are) red sprites, blue jets, and elves, if, in fact, they existed at all.”
This “modern” assessment of what pilots were seeing, beginning in November 1944 over parts of France and Germany, is important both in the context of history, as well as its scientific context. Primarily, it illustrates that a little-known phenomenon, unrecognized by science at that time, was something which led to doubt and dismissal of the pilots who reported it.
Whether all of the “foo fighters” had been varieties of lighting sprite phenomenon, there were nonetheless other kinds of unusual aerial phenomenon seen over parts of Europe that predated November 1944. On Thursday, October 14,1943 strange phenomenon was observed during what is recalled as the “Black Thursday” incident, that led to a loss of more than 100 Air Force B-17s during a raid over Shweinfurt, Germany. Two days later, and intelligence report on the incident described the following:
“Group reports a cluster of disks observed in the path of the formation near Schweinfurt, at the time there were no [enemy aircraft] above. Discs were described as silver colored — one inch thick and three inches in diameter. They were gliding slowly down in very uniform cluster. A/C 026 was unable to avoid them and his right wing went directly through a cluster with absolutely no effect on engines or plane surface. One of the discs was heard striking tail assembly but no explosion was observed. About 20 feet from these discs a mass of black debris of varying sizes in clusters of 3 by 4 feet. Also observed 2 other aircraft flying through silver discs with no apparent damage. Observed discs and debris 2 other times but could not determine where it came from.”
Anecdotal reports of disc-shaped objects do date back even earlier, and by some accounts to the Middle Ages. Additionally, popular references to disc-shaped spacecraft were a frequent motif in science fiction by the 1920s and 30s, in which space invaders were often depicted in exotic looking, disc or saucer-shaped lenticular craft.
However, it was during the 1950s and 60s that reports of what astronomer J. Allen Hynek called “Daylight Discs” became a frequent motif in UFO literature. These were often described as resembling the shape of two saucers or pie-plates pressed together, with a surface life fresh, polished aluminum, though sometimes the “discs” appeared to produce a luminous, colorful corona, particularly at night. These objects would represent the epitome of UFOs in many people’s minds: the famous “Flying Saucers” that had been attributed to Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of a group of objects over Mount Rainier in 1947.
It is interesting to note that just after Arnold’s sighting, he had described the aircraft as being more similar to modern, “flying wing” aircraft. It was his description of their locomotion — like that of “a saucer skipping across the water” — that led to the “flying saucer” term. Arnold’s later descriptions suggest that, in the months and years that followed, Arnold would seem to change his description of the objects, remembering them as being more “saucer like” than his initial descriptions. It may be that, following the flood of contemporary reports of “Daylight Discs” that would follow, Arnold would begin to assume that the aircraft he observed at a distance in the summer of 1947 must have been these same aircraft; the differences in description exist nonetheless, as an interesting point of historical comparison.
As with Arnold’s description of what he saw in 1947, over the years the broader UFO phenomenon has continued to “change shape”, so to speak. Reports of disc-shaped or “saucer” aircraft do still occur from time to time, even in the modern era, as discussed more in depth here. However, it is interesting to note that, while the Daylight Discs would remain a staple among UFO reports for many years, as with many varieties of UFOs reported throughout the decades, these also saw a period of decline. Even J. Allen Hynek would eventually note of the disc reports that, “There are a far greater number of Daylight Disc reports in the early Air Force Intelligence files than in later years, but there is no obvious reason for the decline in reports.”
Much like the automobiles of yesteryear, compared with more advanced vehicles on our roadways today (some representing functional, self-driving cars that will eventually be available for purchase), things always tend to change at the speed of innovation. And somewhere along the way, it would seem that the “flying disc” objects — whatever their origins had been — might have fallen before similar competitive forces, presented by the ushering-in of newer designs of aircraft that continue to defy explanation, at least if the more detailed reports of such things are to be believed.
Thus, perhaps Hynek’s observation of a decline in reports would seem to be a case of “out with the old, and in with the new,” as the old saying goes. Even flying saucers can’t remain “new” forever.