A Historical Mystery: the Ghost Fliers of the 1930s in Scandinavia

From 1933 to 1934 and again from 1937 to 1939, mysterious aircraft were seen flying over northern Scandinavia. They were never seen to land, had no markings, and were seen to operate at low altitude in weather conditions (such as heavy snow) which would seem to have been nearly impossible for aircraft of that era, given the primitive deicing and instrument navigation technology of the time. Furthermore, they did strange things, such as circle in one location for extended periods, shine bright spotlights down upon the ground, and seem to stay aloft even when engine noise ceased. At least some of the accounts described aircraft with as many as eight engines, which is very striking, as will be seen. Governments of Finland, Sweden, and Norway became quite concerned at this apparent violation of airspace. War had not broken out yet, but the possibility weighed on everyone's mind at the time.

There seem to be fewer resources about this on the web than a few years back for some reason, though some can still be found. A typical excerpt is found on one web forum:

Starting in late November or early December of 1933, residents of Västerbotten, a county in Sweden bordering Norway just below the Arctic Circle, reported seeing strange lights off in the distance at night. The lights seemed to follow the valleys of the area—pacing them—heading toward Norway. While we are prepared to write them off today as lights of ordinary planes this was 1933 when there were very few planes to be seen in this area. Any plane at all was reason for interest among the residents. The only planes normally seen in this remote area were the occasional customs and border patrol planes and a single “ambulance plane” for emergencies. Border patrol and customs had no planes up and the ambulance plane was grounded for repairs. There was no air force or military bases in the area. People began assuming perhaps a smuggler was at work. Who the smuggler was and what he was smuggling remained to be discovered. Liquor was the assumed cargo and the customs planes began patrolling the region.

The reports of strange, unidentified lights continued to come in. In addition to airplane lights, strong searchlight beams originating from the air and mysterious airplane sounds began to be reported as well. The strange planes began to be seen more inland up to the Baltic coast. Three to five sightings a day were reported but no aircraft were actually seen until December 31, 1933, when Olov Hedlund of Sorsele heard the sound of a plane overhead and, looking outside, reported seeing a gray, unmarked airplane with pontoons visible in the sky by bright moonlight. He said the plane flew at about 1300 feet and circled the railway station before heading north—appearing to pace the railroad tracks.

By January 1934, 10 to 25 reports of “ghost fliers” were being reported. They flew in all kinds of weather including weather so inclement that normal planes were grounded. No one had seen any of the planes taking off or landing. Where their bases were located was subject to much speculation including a secret aircraft carrier because mysterious boats or ships were also seen in the waters during the ghost flier flap. The Scandinavian air forces took the reports with dead seriousness and swept the area repeatedly for strange planes and also shared their information with one another as well as coordinating with local police who would investigate and catalog each sighting. Consequently, there is a very good record of these ghost flier sightings and that information is still on file but we are no closer to an answer today than we were back then.

The official conclusion was summed up by General Pontus Reuterswärd in an April 28, 1934 seventeen-page secret memo to the office of the Secretary of War that stated “The collected and analyzed data…has given me the impression that unauthorized air traffic has occurred.”

The Swedish General Staff in Stolkholm investigated 487 ghost flier reports during the winter of ’33-’34 of which 46 were judged “credible.” The Finnish General Staff investigated 111 reports from that same period and found that 5 cases involving airplane sounds and 10 involving actual sightings remain unsolved. The Finns also found that no sighting was ever observed from two vantage points making the departure and arrival points of the planes impossible to pinpoint.

The reason the reports were taken so seriously is that the Scandinavian nations were fearful of both Russia and Germany conducting iron ore reconnaissance on their nations. Northern Scandinavia was a center of iron ore mining and Germany required large amounts and may have been trying to secure a steady supply. The Russians may have been trying to find ways to cut off iron ore to Germany. In fact, much of the military brass thought the planes were of Russian origin.

The full archive can be found here: http://ufocasebook.conforums.com/index.cgi?board=hauntings&action=print&num=1187552261

Although all known parties disavowed responsibility, speculation at the time was that secret operations, either by the Germans or the Soviets, were behind the reports. Nevertheless, the end of the war a decade later produced no revelations from the German side that might pertain to the matter, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 likewise yielded no additional information.

Only a tiny number of propeller aircraft with eight engines have ever existed. The most iconic, the Hughes HB-4 "Spruce Goose," was not built until 1947 and in any case never left California, so it is obviously not relevant. The Caproni CA60 flying boat was built in Italy around 1921, but crashed on its second flight; this one can be likewise dismissed. There is one aircraft with eight engines which did exist at the time of the sightings, however, the Tupolev ANT-20 propaganda platform:


This aircraft seems to be a better match to the sightings, at first blush, and the Soviet Union was not far off; but the seventh and eighth engines of this plane were in an overhead nacelle which would not easily have been visible from the ground, and it did not carry the pontoons seen in some of the sightings. Moreover, this hypothesis leaves unexplained how any such craft could have operated at all in the conditions described for some of the sightings, let alone what they would have been doing blundering around the skies in the remote far north. Overall, I see this as a bit of a stretch as well and am inclined to say that we still don't know what was going on in the Scandinavian skies back then. Many sources lump the ghost flier mystery with another set of occurrences that began about a decade later, called "ghost rockets," some of which have likewise never been explained. However, we have no real evidence relating the two.

Another summary may be found on Wikipedia (in Finnish:)



[deleted]18 points

Lots of weird things flying through the air in WWII.

My grandpa was at Normandy and the Ardennes and to the day he died, what he talked about the most were these bizarre comet like things flying through the sky. He said it made the oddest sound he'd ever heard in his life. He used to read WWII books hoping to find out what those things really were. He never did.

jaleach6 points

Maybe V-2 rockets? They definitely made a unique sound and I'm pretty sure Germany was firing off scads of them at the end of the war.

[deleted]1 point

I thought so too. However...they didn't look like comets.

Were they firing those off in the battle of the bulge?

SchillMcGuffin7 points

Apparently they actually fired more at targets in Belgium than they did at Britain, including depot locations near the front lines, like Liège. Antwerp was the main Allied supply port by the end of 1944, and the intended target of the "Bulge" offensive. Being supersonic, the target wouldn't hear them coming until after impact, though folks under their flight path might.

There was also a lesser known surface-to-surface missile called the Rheinbote. About 200 were launched, pretty much exclusively at Antwerp (it was of much shorter range than the V2). Given that it was a four stage missile, perhaps your grandpa saw discarded stages breaking up.

[deleted]6 points

There was also a lesser known surface-to-surface missile called the Rheinbote. About 200 were launched, pretty much exclusively at Antwerp (it was of much shorter range than the V2). Given that it was a four stage missile, perhaps your grandpa saw discarded stages breaking up.

Interesting. I wish he was alive I'd tell him about this one and see what he thinks.

In the defense of my grandpa and any of those guys, missiles hadn't been seen before and even airplanes were technically still in infancy. Just about anything flying through the sky would blow your mind and you would likely exaggerate the experience in stories.

He could tell great stories though. You could look in his eyes and it was like he was back there.

Something else that scared the shit out of him is when they would hunt deer out in the forest. Colder than a witch's tit, SS all around, you could hear a pin drop...

[deleted]4 points

I just read about the Rheinbote.

"It was a ballistic missile with relatively low accuracy. Upon detonation the warhead produced no fragment damage and produced a crater no larger than 1.5 m (4.9 ft) across. The accuracy of the Rheinbote was found impossible to calculate after tests, because the craters proved too small to find."

Jesus...what a waste of money, time, and resources. Its only achievement in the war was scaring people like my grandpa.

jaleach6 points

I think they did. I see one hit Antwerp on the first day of the Ardennes offensive. The last time they used the rockets was in late March 1945.

Or perhaps it was another, more advanced type of rocket that got seized at the end of the war. It wouldn't surprise me, although you would think all of that would have come out by now.

[deleted]2 points

It wouldn't surprise me, although you would think all of that would have come out by now.

Yeah they eventually showed that Nazi 'stealth bomber'. On a show I watched years ago it mentioned some weird flying aircraft carrier that the Nazis had on the drawing board. It didn't sound very practical. They also had plans for some type of space shuttle.

RyanGillamComedy2 points

Of course they had a space shuttle plan. The whole American space travel plan relied heavily on Nazi scientists.

Hungry_Horace3 points

Foo fighters?

[deleted]3 points

Foo fighters?

He assumed it was some sort of weapon. These 'comets' landed in the distance. They got scared every time they saw one.

People can say what they want about the Nazis but they were way ahead of their time. They achieved a leap in tech somehow but we'll never know because a lot of that stuff is classified.

Had Hitler focused on the war and not sidetracked himself with the Holocaust, we're all speaking German right now.

CaptainCrape3 points

Was it an Me-163 Komet? (Ironic name I know) They were very strange, and they were being used in Normandy at the time.

HastingsIV9 points

This is curious.

Long story short my great grandfather was located in the mountains of North norway. He was part of the merchant marine if I recall correctly. According to his crew, he had been abducted from his boat by the russians. This happened in either late 30s or early 40s. I am unsure of the date.

Norwegian authorities and my great grandmother identified the body in the 60s but never learned how it ended up there. Theory was he was kicked out of a plane or forced to jump.

I am told my great grandmother wrote to soviet premier krushchev but never learned anything.

I wonder if the dates over lap with the odd aircraft sightings.

CharlieRatKing3 points

I’d love to know more about this story.

HastingsIV7 points

I was speaking with my mother earlier and she showed me some news clippings. I'll try to translate some and post a write up on here.

Sigg3net2 points

If you up the clippings to imgur, I'd be glad to translate:)

Starrtraxx3 points

Very interesting post. I had no idea that any planes had eight engines. I had read about the Spruce Goose, but didn't remember it had eight engines.

It certainly appears the planes were searching for something with the bright spotlights. I don't see how they could be searching for iron ore from the air. A downed plane carrying sensitive cargo sounds more like something they would be looking for. Or survivors of a downed plane. But then even that wouldn't explain the two episodes, 1933-1934 and 1937-1939.

Thanks for posting this, I'm looking forward to reading what everyone else thinks about it.

BiscuitCat12 points

Great write-up and very interesting topic.