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Charles Lindbergh & The Gremlins


Android Futureman
Aug 7, 2002
I was looking through an encyclopedia of ghosts and spirits when I came across the entry for gremlins. Now, I had heard that Roald Dahl had created them based on a joke pilots said to each other, but instead the article insisted that they had been reported on planes as early as the 20's. It even said that Charles Lindbergh reported seeing them on his transatlantic flight, as reported in an autobiography at some point.

This is the book I checked out, of which the ad mentions just a bit of this:
Entries include:
Gremlins: small, pesky spirits that first appeared in British military aircraft during World War II; Charles Lindbergh reported their presence on board his famed transatlantic flight
Poltergeists: beings that may be linked to the presence of adolescents whose repressed emotions may somehow activate paranormal forces
Ghostbusters: real-life researchers into the paranormal.

I also ran across this:
The Ghostly flight of Charles A. Lindbergh

For Charles A. Lindbergh, the most extraordinary moments of his 1927 transatlantic flight may have taken place during the trip's twenty-second hour.

Enveloped in a dense fog, staring blankly at the instrument panel, battling an overwhelming desire to sleep, Lindbergh felt himself becoming as formless as a ghost.

"I existed independently of time and matter," he recalled nearly fifty years later. "I felt myself departing from my body as I imagine a spirit would depart.... Emanating into the cockpit, extending through the fuselage as though no frame or fabric walls were there, angling upward, outward, until I reformed in an awareness far distant from the human form I left in a fast-flying transatlantic plane. But I remained connected to my body through a long-extended strand, a strand so tenuous that it could have been severed by a breath."

Lindbergh realized others would attribute his out of body experience to extreme fatigue; in his autobiography, the aviator responded to that logic. " My visions," he wrote," are easily explained away through reason, but the longer I live, the more limited I believe rationality to be."

Does anybody know anymore about this, or about any other sightings of gremlins pre-Roald Dahl's book?
Not much to add really, just that the "Spirit of St. Louis" had a strange design feature. The main fuel tank was placed directly infront of Lindbergh (he didn't want to be caught between it and the engine if he had to have a forced landing). It would have normally been placed behind his seat. My point is that the fumes from the tank might have had an hallucinogenic effect. Coupled with the lack of sleep and boredom (he couldn't see out of the plane and had to use a periscope - not that he would have seen much, anyway) must have sent his head into a spin.


Does anyone know if the business with the fly, immortalized by Jimmy Stewart, actually happened (ie reported by Lindbergh)?
I Really like this film, 'The Spirit of St. Louis', has anybody got it? or can I watch it on you tube or something? its one of my favourite films, Im desperate to get a copy of this film, ive tried everything to get it but cant seem to get a copy of it, the last time I tried to dvd it, it got all fucked up. I tried to order it from H.M.V. they aint got it, neither have virgin. what can I do? Please help?
Frobush said:
Not much to add really, just that the "Spirit of St. Louis" had a strange design feature. The main fuel tank was placed directly infront of Lindbergh (he didn't want to be caught between it and the engine if he had to have a forced landing). It would have normally been placed behind his seat. My point is that the fumes from the tank might have had an hallucinogenic effect. Coupled with the lack of sleep and boredom (he couldn't see out of the plane and had to use a periscope - not that he would have seen much, anyway) must have sent his head into a spin.

Putting the fuel tank ahead of the pilot isn't all that unusual in terms of aircraft design - other options include putting the pilots' seat on top of or in from of the tank. Also, AFAIK, aviation fuel isn't a hallucinogen. And, if Lindbergh had smelt any fumes from it, it would've been enough for him to abandon his flight. Leaking fuel and fires are, after all, one of the worst hazards that can beset an aircraft.
Frobush said:
Does anyone know if the business with the fly, immortalized by Jimmy Stewart, actually happened (ie reported by Lindbergh)?

Billy Wilder said:
But it was not to be, so we had to invent ... because I did not want to have voice-over. I had to invent a fly that finds its way into the cockpit, and Lindbergh, played by James Stewart, talks to the fly. The fly is very good, because when Lindbergh talks to the fly, he says, "Look, you're good luck, because nobody's ever seen a fly crash."
Billy Wilder said:
But it was not to be, so we had to invent ... because I did not want to have voice-over. I had to invent a fly that finds its way into the cockpit, and Lindbergh, played by James Stewart, talks to the fly. The fly is very good, because when Lindbergh talks to the fly, he says, "Look, you're good luck, because nobody's ever seen a fly crash."

They bump into a lot of windows, mind you.
My original understanding, as a child during the years following World War Two was that the term "gremlin" had been entirely made-up by American members of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) active in England.

But I later realized that the term went back in the RAF until the 1920s or even the First World War.

And far from being an invented term it seems to derive from the Erse (?) word gruaimin, "ill-tempered little fellow."

But perhaps there was also some word-play between "Gruamin" and the American military aircraft manufacturer Grumman?

EDIT - I corrected "Gruman" to "Grumman" to agree with EnolaGaia's post below.
"Gremlins" are a fascinating subject and I very much thank Mr. Ring for starting the thread. But mightn't there be a more appropriate place for it than here under "Ghosts"?
Coupled with the lack of sleep and boredom (he couldn't see out of the plane and had to use a periscope - not that he would have seen much, anyway) must have sent his head into a spin.

the conditions sound close to getting on for sensory deprivation... and don't know what the engine noise was like on one of those things, but it might not have helped either...
OldTimeRadio said:
"Gremlins" are a fascinating subject and I very much thank Mr. Ring for starting the thread. But mightn't there be a more appropriate place for it than here under "Ghosts"?

I hesitated at first to put it here as well, but the Lindbergh gremlins sound more along the line of spirits or poltergeists than the little critters from the Gremlins film.
OldTimeRadio said:
... But perhaps there was also some word-play between "Gruamin" and the American military aircraft manufacturer Gruman?

I don't know about 'back then', but there is a connection nowadays ...

For years I've used the facetious term 'grumlin' to refer to Northrop Grumman employees ... :twisted:
The gruamin/Grumman connection didn't really occur to me until I was keyboarding last night's post but once it did it's inescapable.

So if "Gremlins" had/have any sort of physicial or even semi-physical existence, Loren Coleman's "Fortean name game" may come into play here.

Yes, Gremlins had apparently been known previously to the RAF but it wasn't until the introduction of Grumman aircraft to England during the American participation in World War Two (and I suppose previously under Lend-Lease) that Gremlins became known around the world.
Before I was being treated for bipolar disorder, I had a few odd experiences, not quite that extreme, but I chalk them up to brain chemistry. They were also sometimes similar to panic attacks, and if anyone's ever had one of those, they know the feeling of unreality that accompanies them.

The best example I remember is driving home late at the end of some road trip, heading north on I-75 (still south of Detroit), and having the feeling I was actually sitting back behind my body a little, watching rather than actually driving. Happily, it didn't last too long, because it scared me. Although I was on the expressway, there were curves in the road, and I was "watching" the car manoeuvre without any sense I was actually turning the wheel, etc. Obviously, it was a case of "going into auto-pilot" coupled with some bipolar "expansive" or euphoric feeling. But anyway, I'm sure a "normal" brain (not bipolar) can produce similar effects due to fatigue, etc.
BTW, are there actual descriptions of the "gremlins" from anyone, including Lindbergh? I assume the gremlins and the "out-of-body" experience must be two different things?
decipheringscars said:
BTW, are there actual descriptions of the "gremlins" from anyone, including Lindbergh?

Have you tried entering "gremlins" into Google or Yahoo image search?

But my understanding is that it is not gremlins who are observed so much as the supposed results of their malignant activities.
The book that I was reading to start this thread described them as ill-defined gaseous shapes.
"ll-defined gaseous shapes" sounds like a "before" ad for Alka-Seltzer.
Watched the spirit of St. louis last night,starring James Stewart, and it was a bit strange, but during the take off (The main take off to Paris in the appauling rain) the flight number on the plane which i think was NA21 written on the right hand wing perhaps, but will check it, seemed to read NAZI at an angle? Obviously Charles Lindbergh was seen as as pro nazi for his anti-war stance at some point, did Hollywood do this as a subtle reminder, or was hollywood involved in some kind of subtle pro Nazi statement, reminding the audience that this man who travelled across the Atlantic single handed in an aeroplane was an aspiring supporter of the master race? Or was it all just some kind of weird coincidence, Why would Lindberge choose that number anyway, so on and so forth...anyone wish to debate, or can offer some explanations?
gazzo10 said:
... the flight number on the plane which i think was NA21 written on the right hand wing perhaps, but will check it, seemed to read NAZI at an angle? ...
The reg. N° on the original plane appears to have been, N-X-211.

The registration number is most commonly cited as "NX-211" or "NX211". According to the registration documentation available at:


... the official registration plate, etc., was not issued until June 1927 - *after* Lindbergh flew the plane across the Atlantic.

The registration was cancelled the following year, probably in response to the plane being 'retired'.
OldTimeRadio said:
decipheringscars said:
BTW, are there actual descriptions of the "gremlins" from anyone, including Lindbergh?

Have you tried entering "gremlins" into Google or Yahoo image search?

But my understanding is that it is not gremlins who are observed so much as the supposed results of their malignant activities.

That was always my impression too, but if you (generically speaking) make a serious claim of an experience of gremlins, I would think there would have to be some reason you believe the entities exist rather than just using a name to describe a phenomenon of mechanical malfunctions - or else you'd just say you'd experienced the malfunctions and jokingly call it "gremlins."

However, I guess I'm not interested enough to research it, even on Google. I just thought someone here would have a quick answer. :?
Thanks chaps for the original plane number, but i was specifically looking at the 'films' interpretation' of the plane number. Please watch the film with the take off scene in the rain, as the plane begins to make its way off to Paris we capture the flight number as reading quite clearly 'NAZI' Was this a genuine goof by hollywood? or deliberate misinterpretation? But what a weird coincidence? My own belief is that it was formatted by the subconcious belief systems of the crew making the film and that was its expression! There are probably other films where this has occured or even books.
Going back to the idea of Gremlins, my Godfather, who was in the RAF with my dad, always thought the Gremlins and Foo fighters (the lights seen by aircrew around the 'planes) were somehow linked to air crew that had been killled in previous raids who had come back to be with their comrades.

He pointed out that the German aircrews experienced similar phenomena and that it would be natural for departed comrades to tag along with those they had formed such close bonds with in life.
Some interesting views on both Lindberg and Gremlins.

I have been led to believe that during WWII "gremlins" were blamed for equipment malfunction as it was easier to point to an mischeavious imp as the cause rather than point to a fellow member of the (conscripted) armed forces.

Given the conscript nature of the wartime forces, it cannot be too much to conjure that some people just plain didn't want to be there, didn't like being ordered around, and ultimately couldn't careless.

It was either that or focus on the mysterious "Fifth Column" working for the enemy - too many accidents blamed on sabotage though, and morale crash dives as the troops feel they can't escape this omnipresent foe and give up.

Thus "Mr Nobody" came the default target.

At least, that's what I've been led to believe....
My understanding is that the Gremlins came about around about WW1 onwards and they gained their name from the bastardisation of a popular beer at the time, whose name I can never recall. Nothing to do with the Grumman aircraft at all.

They gained greater popularity in WW2 when aircrews were flying at higher altitudes for longer and so had greater pressure upon them and more extreme exhaustion which may have caused either mistakes through tirednesss, which was accepted as a peril of wartime, or the aircraft were malfunctioning through flight/combat stress

Gremlins was a name given to something that was an inescapable fact of war. Mistakes and malfuntions would happen. And they may have come out of the clinically recognised combat stress/exhaustion. Lets face it, if you were on scramble for up to 20 hours a day, or flying 8 hour missions in the pitch dark over enemy territory for 6 monthst at a time, then you'd start seeing things.

Then aircraft had to be flown for every second, autopilots didn't really come in till the heavy bombers of 42 onwards and even then they weren't perfect. :D
A more recent and highly detailed article:

Gremlins: A Pilot’s Worst Nightmare
It’s an old pilot’s tale: the idea that airplanes are sometimes infested with tiny mischief makers

by Robert O. Harder10/15/2019

ON AUGUST 3, 1944, AS WORLD WAR II STILL RAGED IN MAINLAND EUROPE, Royal Air Force Captain Geoff Wikner set out to deliver an Avro Lancaster from Strathaven, England, to the RAF Scampton air base in Lincolnshire. Wikner wanted to take advantage of the clear skies and good visibility that day and test his first engineer on the plane’s feathering routine: The engineer had to position two fingers under the feathering button and yank it out at just the right moment, preventing the bomber’s engines from overrunning their maximum revolutions.

The exercise went smoothly until the plane suddenly veered to port. The engines had cut out. Thinking fast, Wikner immediately maneuvered the Lancaster toward the nearby Skellingthorpe airfield. He came in too high and too fast, but he wrestled the Lancaster down safely for an emergency dead-stick landing. Then, just as he hit the runway, the bomber’s engines suddenly roared back to life.

Wikner was left to wonder what had caused the anomaly. Was it mechanical error? Or was it the handiwork of one of those devilish gremlins he had heard about from other aviators who had experienced similarly freakish incidents?

Mark Sheldon, one of Australia’s top fighter pilots, was among those who believed that gremlins weren’t just optical illusions or figments of the imagination. “The whole thing is, they more or less reflect your mood,” he once explained. “If you fly carefully and well, they treat you good; if you fly badly, they act badly by you.”

THE EARLIEST REFERENCE TO THE AERIAL MISCHIEF MAKERS THAT WOULD COME to be known as gremlins may have been in The Spectator, a British magazine, which noted just after World War I that “the old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious spirits whose purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life.”

In the 1920s, sporadic reports began filtering in from RAF pilots in Malta, the Middle East, and India of “gremlins” attempting to harm them and their flying machines. An entry on gremlins in The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend notes that “it was not until 1922 that anyone dared mention their name.” A British pilot who crashed into the sea in 1923 specifically blamed gremlins for the accident, citing cockpit chaos and engine sabotage. In April 1929 the journal Aeroplane published a poem that called gremlins a flyer’s nemesis. In 1939 the word made its first appearance in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which cited as a reference incidents in India reported by RAF bomber crews.

It is one of the most storied of aviation legends: the idea that flying machines are sometimes infested with nefarious gremlins—“little people” who tinker wantonly with various aircraft components. Endlessly creative in their antics and completely devoid of scruples, their devilment seems to know no limits. Physical descriptions of gremlins vary widely, though oddly enough, few airmen have claimed to have actually seen one. Gremlins are usually said to be about a foot tall, with long noses and brightly colored skin, most often hues of green or blue. Especially large feet with suction grips allow for walking in and outside the plane. The gremlins’ overall features are cartoon-like. They wear parts of vintage flight gear and bug-eyed goggles, although, as with other cartoon characters, clothing can be optional. They invariably sport wild and devious expressions when on their appointed rounds. All have magical powers.

Fanciful tales of gremlin-like creatures abounded long before the aviation era, of course. European folklore is filled with stories of such mischievous imps as elves, fairies, and goblins, all of whom interfered with human life—sometimes playfully, sometimes maliciously.

The etymology of the word “gremlin” is murky. Some say it derives from the Old English greme or gremian, meaning to vex or annoy, which was then coupled with goblin. But there are other plausible explanations. In Irish Gaelic gruaimin can mean “ill-tempered little fellow.” The German gramlein can be rendered into something like “a small bit of grief.” Even Fremlins, a British brewery established in 1861, has found its way into the mix of theories. In the late 1930s, one story goes, an RAF bomber command unit in India coined the word by combining Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Fremlins beer, the only brand available there.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, gremlin ancestors began to acquire and hone skills as craftsmen, benevolently helping Robert Fulton perfect his steamboat, Benjamin Franklin in his kite-flying electrical experiments, and so forth. But with the dawn of the air age in the early 20th century, gremlins metamorphosed into something more sinister. When World War I broke out, inexplicable events began to occur in and around the new flying machines, a sure sign that this particular strain of medieval gnome had quite literally spread its wings and flown into the latest technology.

And once one or two of the aerial trolls were reported on the prowl in the ranks of the RAF, they multiplied like rabbits. Seemingly offended by the very existence of aircraft, gremlins approached their work on the widest possible front. Previously reliable engines failed to catch when a mechanic propped the propeller; storage batteries were unaccountably drained of juice; fuel that had been carefully filtered through chamois still clogged carburetors; nuts came loose on critical bolts even when mechanics swore they had been firmly tightened; and landing gear wouldn’t lock down, causing crashes.

The gremlins also vexed flight crews. Extra maps placed in kit bags somehow vanished in flight, particularly on occasions when a faulty compass forced a crew off a planned course; a mysterious wrench would be found next to the magnetic compass; and a perfectly good sextant would abruptly lose its bubble level midway across an ocean. When wireless radios were first installed in aircraft, gremlins clapped in glee; there was no end to the ways in which they could distort reception and fill frequencies with static.

THE GENERAL BREAKOUT OF THE GREMLIN LEGEND BEGAN IN THE EARLY YEARS OF WORLD WAR II. Leading up to and during the Battle of Britain in 1940, with dominion pilots from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa taking part in defending the Home Isles, their various cultures jelled into a coherent fighting force that began to weave previous gremlin accounts from the various British air services, as passed down through the far-flung squadrons in the eastern empire, into the RAF’s newfound élan.

The mystique and mythology of the creatures steadily expanded. In April 1942 came an article in the Royal Air Force Journal, by Hubert Griffith, a former pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, titled “The Gremlin Question.” Griffith humorously related how he had recently found himself attached to an RAF wing in northern Russia. He had never heard of gremlins until his flying mates schooled him on the matter. “They operate in droves or swarms,” he recalled being advised. “One imagined them [as a] procession of rats led by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

Griffith was further told that there were “Mediterranean Gremlins as well as East Fifeshire Gremlins” and that pilots throughout the RAF “seem to be on nodding terms with them.” He was assured that the gremlins were not always malevolent, that they could be playful and have a sense of humor. “Who could actually draw the outline of a Gremlin?” Griffith asked rhetorically. “Is he a ‘presence’ rather than a personality, a spirit than an embodiment?”

Soon gremlins began hitching rides on American aircraft. In August 1942, a report in the Camden (New Jersey) Courier Post suggested that the creatures were “now at work on the U.S. Army Air Force.” What may have been the first appearance of a gremlin in an American aircraft was reported by Sergeant Z. E. White, a waist gunner aboard the B-17E Flying Fortress Big Punk, who said his gun had jammed just as he sighted down on a German fighter plane during a battle over the North Sea. After landing, White related the story to Pilot Officer Oscar Coen, one of the original three members of the RAF’s American Eagle Squadron, and “a noted Gremlinologist.” Coen nodded and simply said: “Gremlins.”

That same year, American journalists in England attached to the newly arrived U.S. Eighth Air Force—most notably Peter Edson and Gladwin Hill, members of “The Writing 69th”—filed a number of newspaper stories about gremlins, introducing them to the American public. (Also known as “The Flying Typewriters,” the journalists trained to fly and accompanied bomber missions over Germany.) According to Hill, gremlins were bat-eared, long-nosed, garishly costumed creatures who “live in nooks but are allergic to crannies…Habitat: Obscure, but a large colony is known to exist between Whitechurch and Newbury, probably in a rubbish dump.”

At about the same time, Quentin Reynolds, the celebrated American war correspondent, also took note. In an article for the October 1942 issue of Collier’s magazine titled “What Every Pilot Knows,” Reynolds revealed “the real reason for the [gremlins’] fiendish warfare.” It was, he wrote, because “the RAF lads made one mistake—they laughed at the Gremlins, and the fact is the Little People, above everything else, do not like to be laughed at.” He recounted one day hearing a mysterious soft voice—which may well have belonged to a gremlin—advising him that there was only one solution: “You’ll have to get the RAF to stop laughing.”

And before they became famous B-29 men, the three key airmen on the Enola Gay—Paul Tibbets, Tom Ferebee, and Dutch Van Kirk—played a role in expanding the mythos while serving aboard Flying Fortresses together in Europe. In 1942 Tibbets’s crew was debating a name for their new B-17F when their rather cerebral radio operator, Sergeant Orville Splitt, came across an RAF poem that enumerated the various domains of different colored gremlins. Because the poem made no mention of red gremlins, Splitt figured that they must be among the few “good gremlins.” The crew readily concurred, and thus one of World War II’s most famous B-17s acquired its name: the Red Gremlin.

Within the pilot community, it was probably the airmen of the high-flying Photographic Reconnaissance Units at England’s RAF Wick, RAF St. Eval, and RAF Benson that led the gremlin “publicity” charge. To bolster their own courage, or to somehow account for various malfunctions, or perhaps even to provide a bit of rear-end covering, these Spitfire pilots found it convenient to blame gremlins for nearly all their misfortunes. The most insidious of these gremlins were branded enemy agents. “There I was directly over the Abbeville airfield, the place filthy with Me-109s,” one of the pilots said, “when one of those bloody Hun gremlins jammed the camera toggle!”

THE MYTH BECAME WOVEN INTO THE FABRIC OF THE MILITARY AVIATION COMMUNITY. By the end of 1942, every airman in England—American or British—seemed to have his own gremlin story.

As stories spread among military units, the varieties of gremlins expanded exponentially. In a 1943 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, journalist Chester R. Hope reviewed the variants as follows: “Jockeys” were able to sit cross-legged between the wings of a wayward seagull or pigeon and guide the bird into the windscreen of a fighter plane in flight. “Cavity types” had shovel-shaped noses that they used to dig runway holes in the paths of fighters or bombers coming in for landings, while “Incisors” chewed mercilessly on strut wires. “Puffs” used their big stomachs to suck air out from under wings, causing turbulence just as gunners took aim at their targets, spoiling their shots; similarly, “Optics” loved to hide in bomb sights, turning on the optic glow of their red or green eyes just as a bombardier was lining up his sights on a target. Above 10,000 feet, “Strato-gremlins” took over for the others. The members of this genus, Hope wrote, were “lined inside and out with fur in such a frosty blue tint that it creates virtual invisibility, and they carry oxygen tanks on their backs.”

Gladwin Hill wrote of bat-eared gremlins, or “duticulatus prangiferus,” that had sharp noses and elbow spurs for causing rips in wing fabrics and long teeth for gnawing fuel lines. Four-eyed gremlins, widely admired by RAF pilots, have two sets of eyes, one in front of their heads and one in back, allowing them to see in all directions at once.

Water gremlins, a genus that pilots would like to eradicate, specialized in disabling carburetors by spurting water into fuel lines. “Bombii” gremlins, the Associated Press reported in 1943, could “make a bomb turn handsprings and land far from the target.” Gremlin cousins called “Gablins,” according to another account, specialized in making “unthinking soldiers repeat vital military information to persons unauthorized to receive it.”

When the American Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) was formed in 1943, the female flyers adopted the lady gremlin “Fifinella” as their mascot, complete with colorful insignia. Baby female Fifinellas were “Flippertygibbetts”; baby males were “Widgets.”

Young gremlins of both sexes had very high voices and chattered incessantly. Since they didn’t have suction boots like older gremlins, they typically stayed inside the aircraft and had fun knocking instrument gauges out of whack.

Gremlins, Hill playfully wrote, “weave their clothes out of pocket fuzz” and “live mainly off the stuffing out of the empty olives which are served in martini cocktails.” The top gremlin, the boss of all bosses, he said, was known as the “Grand Walloper.” Hope, just as playfully, wrote: “They live in little houses made of paper clips, which explains why paper clips, never known to wear out in use, must constantly be replenished.”

WHILE GREMLINS WERE AT FIRST MAINLY A MILITARY PHENOMENON, they established their first major beachhead in popular culture in 1942 when filmmaker Walt Disney penned a fanciful column that appeared in U.S. newspapers, accompanied by his own drawings, relating some of the tales circulating in the RAF. “Ever seen a real Gremlin?” Disney wrote. “No? Well, maybe it’s because you haven’t been up in a British Spitfire swapping bullets with a Messerschmitt, or dodging German flak in a bombing raid over Hamburg.”

The following year Roald Dahl, an RAF fighter ace and writer, put more wind beneath the gremlins’ wings. While serving as an assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Dahl published his first children’s novel: The Gremlins, a fable of tiny creatures who flew on missions with Spitfire and Hurricane pilots. The book was a hit; so much so that Disney approached Dahl about turning it into a feature film.

With Dahl’s assistance, Disney Studios developed a series of gremlin characters and began preproduction on the film. During that time, Dahl recounted his own experiences with the creatures in a story that appeared in U.S. newspapers, featuring original drawings by Disney. But the film project stalled, partly because Dahl insisted that gremlins were exclusively an RAF icon and that he was their original creator. He insisted on final script and production approval, which prevented Disney from establishing formal rights to the gremlin story. Disney also felt that the involvement of the British Air Ministry, which had given Dahl permission to work in Hollywood and had a hand in the film contract, would prove unduly restrictive.

Walt Disney reluctantly abandoned the motion picture project but pursued his newfound fascination with gremlins in other ways. Issues 33–41 of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, published from June 1943 to February 1944, featured a nine-episode tale starring a character named Gremlin Gus, marking the first appearance of the creatures in comic book form.

Gremlins made other appearances in other pop-culture arenas during World War II. In addition to different versions of Dahl’s children’s book, Warner Bros. Studios—home of Bugs Bunny and Merrie Melodies—produced a number of colorful cartoon stories featuring gremlins.

A FEW “LONGHAIRS” AS PILOTS CALLED INTELLECTUALS, ALSO FELT COMPELLED TO WEIGH IN. In February 1944, at what appears to have been the high-water mark of gremlin activity, an article in The Journal of Educational Sociology asked: “What are some of the circumstances that have led so large a body of men to believe so vividly in the existence of…vicious little creatures that they are consciously aware of their actual presence under certain conditions?” Its author, Charles Massinger, went on to conclude there was little doubt that the gremlin phenomenon “can be considered pathological in its origin.…Both illusion and hallucination come under the general category of false-sense impressions [sic].”

Massinger was oblivious to the fact that pilots dearly love to “rag” the uninitiated. How sweet it must have been, after realizing a mark was vulnerable, to engage in a tall tale told in such earnestness that it seemed only to confirm the teller’s veracity. “Why that engine just up and quit on me and down we went!” a pilot might report. “Ol’ Tex—he’s my rear gunner, you know—why he yelled, ‘Skipper, say right now you believe in them Sparkplug Gremlins; say it out loud!’ Well, I did so and just before we hit the water, that big beautiful Allison fired right up and purred like a kitten all the way home.” The aviators became caught up in their own game and, without really realizing it, piled more wood on the gremlin fire.

By the end of the war, gremlins had become firmly entrenched in Western flying lore. In the years to come, their mystique would spread well beyond the military. Charles Lindbergh’s experience during his epic 1927 New York-to-Paris flight is a classic example. In his autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh related what happened to him during the most critical period of the crossing—the 21st and 22nd hour just before dawn, when he had been without sleep for nearly 48 hours. “The fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences…transparent, moving, riding weightless in the plane,” Lindbergh wrote. “I feel no surprise.…Without turning my head, I see them…clearly.”

He goes on: “These phantoms speak with human voices—friendly, vapor-like shapes, able to vanish or appear at will, to pass in and out through the walls of the fuselage as though no walls were there.”

Gremlins have also figured in many print, motion picture, and television treatments. In 1947 Dahl published Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, a serious, adult novel about a race of nature-loving gremlins trying to escape the human world of continuous warfare. A 1963 television episode of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner, featured an evil gremlin attempting to rip an engine from the wing of the airliner in which Shatner is flying. The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of gremlin-oriented films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1984 hit film Gremlins.

In 2006 a new generation was introduced to the gremlin mythos when Dark Horse Comics published The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production, a restored and updated print version of the never-realized World War II film, featuring an introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin. Dark Horse subsequently published a comic-book miniseries starring gremlin characters.

A special edition of Dahl’s original book was produced in 2007 to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. Distributed exclusively through the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, it included a brief history of the book, and its dust jacket featured the air force commemorative anniversary seal. The initial print run sold out at all participating exchange service locations on the first day.

A final aspect that deserves consideration is an idea first advanced by Ernest K. Gann, the famed aviator and author. Gann suggested the possibility of an unseen, often capricious hand whose self-appointed purpose was to balance the yin and yang in human life—one man’s good fortune to be offset by his own or another’s grim fate. Why was he spared, Gann wondered, when his DC-4’s tail did not break off, while on the same day another pilot in an identical airplane, with the identical structural fault, suffered a fiery death? In his classic book Fate Is the Hunter, Gann labeled it as such—fate—for indeed, as he pondered, what else could it be? He was not fully satisfied with that conclusion, though he was never able to offer a better explanation.

Is it really so remarkable that early pilots, confronted with the poorly understood science of flying and themselves subject to sudden, unexplainable events, would feel the need to offer something tangible to account for why a friend suddenly perished and they were still happily flying? Would airmen not do what all humans have done for millennia when confronted with similar dilemmas—snatch the inexplicable away from the cosmos and give it form back here on Earth? After all, isn’t that why humans conjured fairies, goblins, gnomes, leprechauns, and their ilk in the first place?

Why not, then, add gremlins to the list? Gremlins offer one way, no matter how outrageous or weakly reasoned, to explain why a camera toggle switch suddenly freezes or one aircraft’s tail falls off and another’s doesn’t. In the end, it all comes down to taking a timid peek at the transcendent—a grasping, very human attempt to put a face on the Great Unknown. MHQ

Robert O. Harder flew 145 combat missions during the Vietnam War as a B-52 navigator-bombardier. A former commercial pilot and certificated flight instructor, he is the author of The Three Musketeers of the Army Air Forces: From Hitler’s Fortress Europa to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Naval Institute Press, 2015).

This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue (Vol. 32, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Gremlins!