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Some Peculiar Air Mysteries From World War II

World War II was an expansive morass of violence that spanned two regions of the globe and went on to grip the entire world with fear and suffering. It was a turbulent time already infused with a rich history, but scattered amongst the tales of battle and valor are other, more little-known stories of strange mysteries from beyond our understanding. Many of these are connected to the skies of World War II, which were invaded by warplanes, bombs, and explosions, but which also hold some of the most intriguing unexplained mysteries of the era. Here is a selection of some of the weirder unsolved mysteries of the skies of the intense cauldron of human violence that was World War II.

Of all of the planes flying about and tearing up the skies in the era of World War II, many of them obviously never came back, but the strangest of these cases are when they simply vanished into thin air without a trace. One of the most oft-discussed and mysterious vanishings of aircraft revolves around the enigmatic Flight 19, in 1945. The flight in question was actually a group of U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that took off from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on December 5, 1945, on a Naval exercise called “Navigation Problem Number One,” which was for the purpose of carrying out mock bombing runs along an area known as Hens and Chickens Shoals in the Bahamas. It was all a standard, routine flight, and each of the five planes in the squadron was manned by 3 experienced men, with the whole thing under the command of a seasoned pilot by the name of Lieutenant Taylor.

The first half of the mission all went according to plan, the dummy bombs were dropped, and the planes headed off on the second leg of their mission, but this was when things would get strange indeed. The leader, Taylor, began to complain that his compass was on the fritz, and he further proclaimed that the planes were all flying in the wrong direction. As the group of planes floundered about trying to get their bearings, one of the pilots radioed, “I don’t know where we are. We must have got lost after that last turn.” A passing Navy plane piloted by a Lieutenant Robert F. Cox was flying by at the time and overheard the radio chatter, after which he extended an offer of help, as well as a message to the nearest air station of what was going on. In response, he got a chilling message from a frightened sounding Taylor that said:

Both my compasses are out and I’m trying to find Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I’m over land, but it’s broken. I’m sure I’m in the Keys, but I don’t know how far down.

This was strange to say the least, as the group had just successfully fulfilled the first half of their mission near the Bahamas and should have been nowhere near the Florida Keys at that point in time. After this, Taylor, convinced that he was way off course, instructed his squadron to veer off towards the northeast, thinking it would take them home but really only sending them further out to sea. Some of the other pilots in the group protested the move, saying they should fly west, but the order had been given and off they went. At one point Taylor changed his mind and directed them west, but then they changed their course to east once again. It was all rather bizarre behavior to say the least. As this was happening, the radio chatter from Flight 19 became fainter and more distorted, and one of the final transmissions was:

All planes close up tight. We’ll have to ditch unless landfall…when the first plane drops below ten gallons, we all go down together.

This seemed to suggest that Taylor was aware that their fuel was running low and that they were on a one way ticket into the sea, and after that the radio transmissions became plagued by strange static before going silent. The Navy was quick to respond, sending out a search crew almost immediately after this final transmission, but they were unable to find any sign of Flight 19. Indeed, one of the searchers, a Mariner aircraft and its 13 crew members, also suddenly lost communications and dropped off the face of the earth as well to join Flight 19 in the annals of great mysteries. This in turn prompted its own search party and the whole thing turned into a hot mess quite rapidly.

In the end, the Navy would scour over 3,000 square miles of sea in search of the missing planes but would turn up not even a scrap of wreckage. Of course, considering the proximity to the notorious Bermuda Triangle the media was all over this and theories began to fly. One was that Taylor had been somewhat unfit for duty, which had impacted his judgement during the doomed mission. There are reports that he had arrived late on the day of the mission and had for unknown reasons implored the command not to go through with it. This has led to the most popular, “rational” theory that these planes under his questionable state simply made a mistake, ran out of fuel, and crashed into the ocean to never be seen again. The mystery was even tantalizingly “solved” for a time when in 1991 a team of treasure hunters came across the wrecks of five World War II Avengers planes at the bottom of the sea, but these turned out to have not had anything to do with the mysterious lost flight. The fate of Flight 19 remains unknown.

Just as mysterious is a phenomenon that pervaded the war in both the European and Pacific theaters in the form of myriad unexplainable occurrences collectively known as “Foo Fighters.” These typically took the form of inexplicable orbs, lights, glows, and “balls of fire” that darted about in the war-torn skies with inhuman maneuverability to startle even the most experienced pilots, and which were first seen from around 1944. One of the earliest Allied accounts was from Army Air Major William D. Leet, who in December of 1944 was on a mission aboard a B-17 near the Adriatic Sea when he and his crew saw something up there in the clouds that did not belong, a small disc that seemed to defy all laws of physics in its movements and which tracked them for some time. In that very same month another pilot with the 415 Night Fighter Squadron over Hagenau, Germany had his own encounter with glowing orange balls in the sky, saying:

Upon reaching our altitude they leveled off and stayed on my tail. After staying with the plane for two minutes, they peeled off and turned away, flying under perfect control, and then went out.

Another early report is that of Charles R. Bastien, of the Eighth Air Force, who said that he had seen “two fog lights flying at high rates of speed that could change direction rapidly” while on a mission over the region of Belgium. In another report over the Indian Ocean one of the crew of a U.S. B-29 Superfortress says they saw something very unusual near the plane, saying of the bizarre experience:

A strange object was pacing us about 500 yards (475 m) off the starboard wing. At that distance it appeared as a spherical object, probably five or six feet in diameter, of a very bright and intense red or orange… it seemed to have a halo effect. My gunner reported it coming in from about a 5 o’clock position (right rear) at our level. It seemed to throb or vibrate constantly. Assuming it was some kind of radio-controlled object sent to pace us, I went into evasive action, changing direction constantly, as much as 90 degrees and altitude of about 2,000 feet (600 m). It followed our every maneuver for about eight minutes, always holding a position about 500 yards (475m) out and about 2 o’clock in relation to the plane. When it left, it made an abrupt 90 degree turn, accelerating rapidly, and disappeared into the overcast.

Such sightings became rather common and occurred all over the place, often seen by entire crews, and with none of these experienced airmen able to find a rational explanation for what they had seen. The objects were also picked up quite frequently by radar crews and air traffic control, who often claimed that they would accelerate rapidly or vanish from view for no reason. Many pilots tried to take evasive maneuvers but this never really worked, and the occasional attempts to shoot the lights down were equally unsuccessful. These were beyond our comprehension.

Sightings of the Foo Fighters were well reported in the press at the time, and became so numerous that they were obviously not simply a figment of the imagination, and what they could be was heavily speculated upon. The most common explanation was that they were some sort of experimental German aircraft, but this didn’t seem to fit as the mysterious objects were nonthreatening and never seemed to take any aggressive action, and it would also turn out that enemy forces had been seeing the exact same kind of things, which they had conversely thought to be experimental aircraft of the Allies. Other explanations have included that they were the result of some sort of atmospheric phenomenon such as electrical discharges called St. Elmo’s fire, that they were ball lightning or an electromagnetic disturbance, that they were merely afterimages of flashes from explosions, and of course that they were alien UFOs, but the strange phenomenon of the Foo Fighters of World War II has never been fully explained and remains a mystery.

In addition to vanishings and mysterious lights there are also cases of what can only be called “ghost planes.” One famous case of such a mystery is what is often called the “Pearl Harbor Ghost Plane,” and which involves a very odd occurrence that supposedly happened on December 8, 1942, just about a year after the infamous attack. On this day, an unidentified incoming plane was detected flying towards Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from out over the Pacific Ocean, seemingly coming from nowhere. Attempts at radio contact were met with silence, and warplanes were scrambled to investigate the intruder.

On closer inspection the plane was seen to be an out of date model called a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, which had not been in operation since the attack on Pearl Harbor. The mystery aircraft seemed to have seen better days, its shell perforated by numerous bullet holes and the engine sputtering and coughing noticeably, and there seemed to be a pilot within who was bloody and struggling to keep his plane under control. The military escort paced the plane for a while, baffled as to where it had come from and wondering what to do, when the mysterious pilot waved at them and proceeded to crash land. When the wreckage was examined it is said that there was no sign of the pilot that had been seen, and the only clue that could be found was a diary in which it was written that the plane had flown in from the island of Mindanao, a full 1,300 miles away. The pilot has never been located or identified, no reason ascertained for why the plane appeared out of the blue, and the Ghost Plane of Pearl Harbor continues to be a weird World War II mystery.

Probably even more bizarre is a case from November 23, 1944, when a British Royal Air Force antiaircraft unit stationed near Cortonburg, Belgium was surprised by something they saw lumbering towards them in the sky. There barreling in their direction was an American Army Air Corps B-17 bomber, a four-engine heavy bomber so colossal and heavily armed that it was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress.” The plane was coming in rather fast with its landing gear down, and because there was no such landing scheduled and because of the speed of the incoming aircraft it was assumed that it was preparing to make an emergency landing at their base. A communication with the base proved that indeed no such B-17 landing was expected, and the gunner crew braced themselves as the massive aircraft came hurtling in towards a nearby open, plowed field.

It was a rather messy landing to say the least, with the aircraft bouncing and swerving along as the terrified gunners looked on, finally stopping dangerously close to the position after one of its wings clipped the ground, yet it was still in one piece and had not actually crashed. The aircraft sat there looming over the field as its formidable propellers continued to spin in a cacophony of noise, but as the minutes ticked by no one exited the plane. When 20 minutes had passed with no sign of human activity, and the plane just squatting there with its engines running like some growling beast, it was decided to go in and investigate.

The team warily went in, opened the entry hatch located under the fuselage and proceeded to enter, expecting that perhaps the crew had been injured or otherwise unable to get out of the plane. What they did not expect was that the plane would be completely empty. A full sweep through the aircraft showed that not a single crew member was aboard, although it would later be reported that there were signs that the crew had just recently been there and must have vacated the aircraft in a hurry. There were found to be chocolate bars unwrapped and half eaten lying about, a row of neatly folded parachutes, with none apparently missing, and jackets that had been neatly hung up. The superior officer, a John V. Crisp, would say of the eerie scene:

We now made a thorough search and our most remarkable find in the fuselage was about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious. The Sperry bomb-sight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk was the code book giving the colours and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate, partly consumed in some cases.

Where had they gone and how had the plane landed on its own? No one had any idea. Crisp had the engines shut down and the interior was further inspected. The log book was found opened, and the last cryptic words written in it were “bad flak.” Yet considering that all of the parachutes seemed to be accounted for and the exterior of the plane did not have evidence of damage except for what it had incurred in its rough landing, such as the buckled wing and one disabled engine, it seemed to be a rather strange last message.

The mystery B-17 began to be called the “Phantom Fortress,” and nobody knew just how it could have come in to make a landing by itself minus a crew, or what had become of those aboard. It would not be until a team was sent in by the Advanced Headquarters, 8th Air Force Service Command in Brussels, that a picture of what occurred was formed. It was ascertained through the aircraft’s serial number that the plane had been part of a bombing squadron called the 91st Bombardment Group, and that they had been on a mission to bomb oil refineries in Merseburg, Germany, when problems arose.

B-17

According to the bomber’s crew, all of whom were tracked down and found to have been alive and safe, their aircraft at some point had developed a malfunctioning bomb rack and had been forced to abort. They flew off away from the rest of the group but had been hit by enemy fire, which knocked out one of the aircraft’s four engines. There was also a hit on the bomb bay itself, which had caused a bright flash, but rather oddly had not set off the ordnance. The decision was made by the crew of the limping, damaged plane to set a course towards England, but this idea was quickly abandoned when it became apparent that the hobbled aircraft was never going to make it that far.

They changed their course towards Brussels, Belgium, at the same time making the plane lighter by dumping and jettisoning any unnecessary or nonessential equipment on board. When the plane still continued to suffer and a second engine on the struggling plane sputtered out, it was decided that the aircraft would be unable to make the journey, and the crew had then decided to bail out. The B-17 was put on autopilot and left to its fate as the crew jumped to safety. No one thought it would make it very far, let alone somehow land, but land it did. This was all very interesting information, but it still did not seem to explain a lot of odd details. For one, why did ground crew report all 4 engines working as the bomber had approached, with one being damaged only upon landing, when the report said that 2 engines had been knocked out during the mission? Indeed, where was the damage from the claimed enemy fire? Also, why were all of the parachutes still there if the crew had bailed out? Perhaps most mysterious of all, how had a large, cumbersome plane like the B-17 manage to come to a landing without a pilot?

Authorities on the case, as well as crew members of the Phantom Fortress, offered up some theories to try and shed some light on at least a few of the mysteries surrounding the event. For instance, with the engines it could have been that the technical difficulties cleared up on their own after the crew had bailed out, making the plane seem to have 4 fully operating engines on approach, although why they would start working again after being taken out remains mysterious. If the engines had been in bad enough shape for the crew to abandon the aircraft it seems odd that they should kick back into working order on their own and continue whirring away even after the rough landing.

With regards to the lack of any apparent visible damage from enemy fire, it has been suggested that this could have just been simply due to the untrained eyes of the team that initially investigated the plane after it had landed. They were after all a gunner crew, not trained aviators, and may have mistaken the damage reported by the B-17 crew as being from the crash. They simply might not have noticed that the aircraft had sustained battle damage, but then again they were antiaircraft gunners and might have had some idea. With the parachutes, it was surmised that they had possibly mistaken some spare parachutes as the full compliment. However, this is all speculation, and the mystery has never been totally solved.

As to how the B-17 could have come to a landing mostly intact without a pilot, that is still largely a mystery as well. Autopilot is one thing, but landing is another beast altogether. After all, there is that old saying, “Flying is easy, landing is hard.” Even with a pilot landing such an immense aircraft would be very difficult. A pilotless B-17 landing by itself with no one on board was totally unprecedented, and one would expect it to have careened into the ground to crash into a ball of fire and debris, or at least ended up a heap of twisted wreckage, so how could this happen?

Although no one really knows for sure, the main theory is that the plane simply lost altitude slowly, at just the right speed, and with just the right angle of descent to come down relatively softly enough to appear as if it was landing, with the B-17’s legendary toughness and sturdy frame managing to hold it together to keep it from disintegrating. The odds of all of this happening in just such a way seem to be extremely small and unlikely, but is this really possible at all? Also, there is the rather odd detail that this unmanned plane just happened to come down in the exact best place to land under the circumstances, in that wide open field, and not one of the countless other places it could have come down more tragically. This could very well all be pure, blind chance, and these disparate factors all amazingly coming together just right, but it still all seems very strange indeed.

The mystery landing of the “Phantom Fortress” did happen, but the details of how it did remain mysterious and open to speculation. What we do know for sure is that this B-17 was on a bombing mission in Germany, that it did land without a crew in that field, and that the crew members were later found to have been alive and well with quite a story to tell, but questions remain. Are the B-17 crew’s reports or the British gunnery crew’s accounts totally accurate? Why don’t they line up? Did everything happen as they said it did? How could this plane have landed by itself in just the right way and in just the right place to keep from being a mangled pile of metal? Just what in the world happened here?

There is also the ghostly plane that haunted the skies of Northern Italy during the war to rain down destruction upon the countryside, and came to be known to the cowering people as “Pippo.” The rather cartoonishly named Pippo was said to appear only at night, always alone, and would most often perform punishing strafing runs on seemingly indiscriminate targets, either firing with its blazing machine guns or dropping fiery bombs. Sometimes it was said to deploy rather bizarre ordinance, such as exploding pens, incendiary flares, or poisoned candy. Sometimes it was known to drop so-called “butterfly bombs,” which was interestingly a German 2 kilogram anti-personnel submunition used by the Luftwaffe.

The mystery plane seemed to have no rhyme or reason to its choice of targets, unleashing death upon everyone from both Axis and Allied soldiers, to innocent civilians, to farmers working their fields. At other times, the plane would not attack at all, and would merely circle overhead for some inscrutable reason known only to it, all the while emanating that strange, haunting sound said to be unlike any other known aircraft. The terrified people deeply feared the plane, and would retreat into their homes at the slightest sign of the unique, unmistakeable, and rather strange unsettling “pip-pip” sound it was said to make, perhaps the origin of its relatively non-threatening sounding name. Once inside, the lore suggests that it was necessary to turn off or block all lights or else the phantom plane might choose your house as its next target.

Most of the time the bizarre phantom plane remained unseen and cloaked in darkness, its odd sound and the destruction it delivered the only evidence that it was even there at all. In every case, Pippo would appear from nowhere, go about its dark work, and then simply vanish. In more than a few cases it was said to sometimes vanish into thin air right in the middle of one of its attacks, as if it had never been there at all, with only burning rubble and dead bodies testament to the fact that it had made its presence known. It is unsure just where Pippo came from, what type of plane it was, or who was piloting it. Those loyal to the fascist government regime blamed the plane on the Allies, while those siding with Allied Forces thought it to be a Luftwaffe or Italian Air Force aircraft. Most of the terrified people claimed that there was no pilot at all, and that it was a ghost plane powered by some malevolent force loyal to no one or even the devil himself.

There are scarce records of this phenomenon in the official aviation literature. Accounts of Pippo are known of mostly through oral tradition, letters, diaries, and newspaper reports, but as phenomenal as the idea of a spectral plane flying solo missions over the Italian countryside may seem, it has been mostly agreed upon that the stories have some grain of truth to them and were likely based upon an actual plane. However, it is not clear just what its origins could have been. One possibility was that it was the Italian government orchestrating a propaganda campaign against the Allies or some kind of psychological warfare, by having one of their own planes attack its own civilians and then blame it on the enemy to turn public opinion against them. Others say it was some loose cannon pilot waging a personal vigilante war against his enemy, perhaps on some unknown vendetta. There is also the possibility that the plane could have been one of the many tactical night missions launched by the Allies in the aftermath of gaining the upper hand in Italy.

At this time, there were numerous solitary sorties done in the dark of night which were meant to halt German troop movements and prevent them from reinforcing their ranks. For such perilous missions, the Royal Air Force made much use of a type of aircraft called the de Havilland Mosquito, which was known for its rather unusual and distinctive buzzing drone, a fact that could explain the persistent detail of Pippo’s unusual sound. It has been surmised that the planes on these solo night missions, such as the Bristol Beaufighter, Northrop P-61, or de Havilland Mosquito, may have given rise to the stories of a lone ghostly plane terrorizing the populace. Still others stand by the theory that Pippo was exactly what many of the citizens thought it was; a phantom or ghost hellbent on some unknowable purpose.

There are other cases like this as well, and this has only been a section of the many air mysteries of World War II. It seems that even as the sky exploded and warplanes buzzed overhead there was something more to just the blood and the carnage. Beyond the violence and the fog of war were also mysteries that have never really been satisfactorily explained, and which serve to put a new sheen of the weird over one of the most tumultuous and bloodiest times in human history.