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Foo Fighters

Aliens do some pretty weird things. If you believe everything you read on the internet, they gave our ancient ancestors very specific information about how much certain stars weighed, they come by every now and then to chop open our cattle, they fly around in imitation zeppelins and drop garbage on our cities and, of course, they enjoy telling incredible, revolutionary secrets, such as the cure for cancer, to our least believable citizens.

For whatever reason, these goofy visitors from beyond also took a keen interest in our military airplanes for a short period during the Second World War and then flew back into mystery. I’m talking about Foo Fighters, baby.

The name Foo Fighter comes from a comic strip from the 30s, the zany stories about a loveable goofball firefighter and his madcap antics. His trademark phrase was “where there’s foo, there’s fire,” which explains why he referred to his occupation as Foo Fighting.

But of course, I am not here to talk about comics, hilarious though they may be. In the 1940s, Foo Fighters were little balls that followed around our airplanes flying over Europe and the South Pacific. Sometimes they looked like translucent fireballs, sometimes like metal spheres, and they were sighted by both sides during the war. The Germans thought it was an American weapon and, again, if you believe everything you read on the internet, Hitler spent a huge portion of his war budget investigating them. The Americans thought they were an Axis weapon, and originally christened them “Kraut Fireballs,” quite possibly the coolest name for anything, ever.

The Foo Fighters engaged in pretty odd behavior. They were most often seen attached to the wings of aircraft, but occurred slightly less frequently as detached balls that trailed the ship. Sometimes they appeared in flying formation, sometimes they performed intricate aerial maneuvers, sometimes they just sort of faded out.

I’ve said it before, and now I shall reiterate: my goal in life is to find a story about UFOs where every person who saw them agrees on exactly what’s going on. They were balls of light, no they were solid, they moved in straight lines, no they didn’t, they were on the wings, no they weren’t, so on and so forth.

What was the official explanation? Static electricity. For whatever reason, electricity builds up in the fuselage of an aircraft and it starts to discharge. Of course, during the war, the Americans had some pretty important issues on the table, so once we realized that there was no proof the Foo Fighters were Axis weapons, our scientists went back to what they were doing and didn’t exactly break their backs trying to explain this goofy little problem.

I can understand that and I can respect that. If the wingtips of your bombers glow a little once in a while, as long as the wingtips do not proceed to break off of the rest of the airplane, it’s hardly a wartime priority. However, this lack of serious study at the time now results in every historical revisionist, occultist, and general nutcase in the woodwork to make claims about aliens, Atlantis, Bigfoot, so on and so forth.

Let me change gears for a moment. Back during the historical period on which every romance novel is based, that is to say, back when human beings made a habit of sailing the oceans in giant, wooden sailing vessels, they had a problem with Foo Fighters. Lights would dance around the masts of the ship, they would trail the vessel, they would wiggle about and perform aerobatics in the air.

This sentence will give you time to gather your jaw off of the floor, where it has surely dropped after this revelation. The aliens have always been with us! They spied on our aircraft during the War in the same manner by which they spied on our Galleons and Frigates as they were chasing down whales to kill! Well, disassemble that tin-foil hat and go back to using it for wrapping luncheon meats: no such thing happened. Since they didn’t have comic books in those days, sailors named the lights after the only other book everyone had read (the bible) and christened the phenomenon St. Elmo’s Fire. St Elmo, also called Erasmus, was one of the fourteen holy helpers, and was martyred. He protects not just sea-going vessels, but helps out with stomach cramps, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: St Elmo’s Fire is nothing more than static electricity building up in the rigging of a ship before a thunderstorm. To their credit, UFO enthusiasts rarely claim that these ocean-going Foo Fighters were actually alien spacecraft, yet, when the same thing happens to airplanes in the modern day, they refuse to accept the simple explanation and prefer one based on space people.

The case isn’t as clear cut as this, of course. The UFO enthusiast can raise a number of questions about the differences between Foo Fighters and St Elmo’s Fire that seem, at first glance, to invalidate any link. Let’s look at them.

First, they ask why Foo Fighters appeared only during World War Two, and not in the modern day. Modern airplanes are vastly different than the propeller driven craft in use during the war. They are made with different materials, they come in different shapes, and they fly at much faster speeds. Any one of these variables would be enough to, perhaps, change the probability of a static electricity buildup.

But there are still propeller aircraft in service, and people regularly fly around in vintage airplanes, so why don’t we see more cases of it? Well, I’m no statistician, but consider this: during World War Two we had an enormous number of airplanes in service. A small fraction of these airplanes reported seeing Foo Fighters. Today, we have a tiny fraction of that number of airplanes still flying about. So therefore, we should only be seeing Foo Fighters near a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of airplanes. That seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why Foo Fighter sightings fell so precipitously after the war: fewer airplanes flying means fewer opportunities for Foo Fighters to form.

St. Elmo’s Fire is sort of lethargic: it kind of hangs around the masts of a ship and glows for a little while, then it disappears. The Foo Fighters move around and do tricks. Consider this: a Galleon, or Frigate, or Schooner, or what have you, travels at something like ten miles an hour. World War Two-era fighter and bomber aircraft travel at hundreds of miles per hour. Imagine you’re a pocket of static electricity. In one case, you’re being rocked by the gentle winds of a slow-moving ship; in the other, you’re rocketing through the atmosphere several dozen times more quickly. Under which circumstance do you think you’re going to move around more? With the slow-moving air around ships and the fast-moving, complex air currents around aircraft, it’s completely logical that if St Elmo’s Fire is going to form around an airplane, it’s going to get bounced around more.

Am I claiming that every single thing that our pilots saw during the war can be easily explained away? Of course not. As a science-minded person, I know that not every single instance of everything can be easily explained, especially when so little research on the subject was performed and most of the data consists of (notoriously unreliable) eyewitness accounts. On the other hand, I know this does not mean that one has free license to invent unfounded stories about space people.

The Foo Fighters may make decent music (I wouldn’t know) but they do not constitute some sort of alien observation experiment. The answer is much more terrestrial and much more grounded in science, not science-fiction.

Be seeing you.

First published in The Triangle on 22 July 2005.