UFOs in the sky over a small town.

When most people hear "foo fighters," they’ll immediately think of the band led by rock legend Dave Grohl. The phrase, however, is a lot older than the band. It’s actually an old word for UFOs, dating back to World War II. By the 1990s, UFOs were firmly a part of popular culture, spurred by TV shows like "The X-Files" (which Grohl would later make a cameo appearance on). Being a UFO enthusiast himself was what led him to pick the name, but the old sightings of the actual foo fighters date back to before terms like UFO and flying saucer were part of our everyday lexicon; these words were first used in the mid-to-late 1940s but didn’t become widely recognized in until the 1950s.

One of the most prominent early UFO sightings happened during the latter years of World War II. According to The History Channel, it was in November 1944 that three U.S. Air Force personnel saw unexplained lights up in the sky during a night flight. Fred Ringwald, Ed Schlueter, and Donald J. Meiers, all Air Force lieutenants, were on a night flight over the Rhine Valley when a series of 8-10 bright orange lights appeared over the hills. They mistook them for enemy fighters at first, but by the time they’d turned their plane to intercept them, the lights had vanished. Reportedly, the three were hesitant to mention what they’d seen at first, but other pilots in their squadron soon also reported that they’d seen similar things.

The first of the foo fighters

World War II "Black Widow" bomber plane.

While many later UFO sightings come from eyewitnesses disputed as unreliable, the foo fighters were seen by reliable members of the military, lending credibility to the reports. The three airmen, Ringwald, Schlueter, and Meiers, were part of the U.S. Air Force 415th Night Fighter Squadron, based in South France at the time, and in late 1944 saw reports of unidentified lights in the sky start to come in thick and fast from their fellow aircrews. Pilots began to refer to any and all sightings as "those f*cking foo fighters," describing them as strange glowing lights, white, orange, red, or "fiery." They could make seemingly impossible maneuvers in the sky before vanishing without a trace. According to a 1945 report by Time, pilots described them as like flares, following their aircraft uncomfortably closely for miles, even at high speeds. One in particular mentioned red fireballs off his wing tips, which didn’t leave until he dropped into a dive at 360 miles per hour.

Seemingly, there were a variety of objects reported as foo fighters; sightings included things like lights flying in formation and wingless cigar-shaped objects. Rather than moving at random, the lights seen by pilots appeared to be "under perfect control at all times." With such a plethora of reports, it was only a matter of time before the term "foo fighter" made it into popular culture. It was first popularised by an article in The New York Times on January 2, 1945.

Naming the lights in the sky

Mysterious lights in the night sky.

The name "foo fighter" is purposefully silly sounding, giving an appropriately absurd name to seemingly absurd circumstances. Trapped in such a deeply stressful situation, keeping a sense of humor was a coping mechanism for American military personnel during World War II. The choice of a comical name worked to take the edge off what were no doubt deeply unsettling experiences for aircrews in the sky. After all, at the time, radar was still a new technology and U.S. pilots had only been involved in nighttime operations for a few years. The night skies were still very much unfamiliar territory for American pilots, and the constant chance of seeing unexplained things while flying would be enough to unnerve even the most steadfast of pilots.

The name itself most likely came from an American comic strip by the name of Smokey Stover. Popular at the time, Stover himself was a firefighter, with the comic detailing his wacky adventures. The nonsense word "foo" was used frequently in the comic, thrown in at random for the sake of absurdist comedy. The name could possibly have come from the phrase "where there’s foo, there’s fire," or possibly from a 1938 book entitled, simply, "The Foo Fighter." It was reportedly Donald J. Meiers who coined the term, according to Smithsonian Magazine. As one of the first of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron to see the lights for himself, it feels appropriate that he’d be the one to name them.

Illustration of a flying saucer by an aircraft wing.
British World War II bomber planes in formation,
V-2 rocket in flight, 1943.
Photograph of a ghost rocket over Sweden.
Alleged flying saucer photograph from 1952.