Mantell UFO Incident
8 - 11 minute read
The Mantell UFO incident was among the most publicized early UFO reports. The incident resulted in the crash and death of 25-year-old Kentucky Air National Guard pilot, Captain Thomas F. Mantell, on January 7, 1948, while in pursuit of a UFO.
Historian David Michael Jacobs argues the Mantell case marked a sharp shift in both public and governmental perceptions of UFOs. Previously, mass media often treated UFO reports with a whimsical or glib attitude. Following Mantell’s death, however, Jacobs notes "the fact that a person had dramatically died in an encounter with an alleged flying saucer dramatically increased public concern about the phenomenon. Now a dramatic new prospect entered thought about UFOs: they might be not only [[extraterrestrial life|extraterrestrial] but potentially hostile as well." (Jacobs, 45)
Mantell was an experienced pilot; his total flight history consisted of 2,167 hours in the air. His sister avowed Mantell had been honored for his part in the Battle of Normandy during World War II. 1
On 7 January 1948, Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky received a report from the Kentucky State Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Maysville, Kentucky. Reports of a westbound circular object, 250-300 feet (80-90 m) in diameter, were made from Owensboro, Kentucky, and Irvington, Kentucky.
At about 1:45 p.m., Sgt Quinton Blackwell saw an object from his position in the control tower at Fort Knox. Two other witnesses in the tower also reported a white object in the distance. Base commander Colonel Guy Hix reported an object he described as "very white," and "about one fourth the size of the full moon ... Through binoculars, it appeared to have a red border at the bottom ... It remained stationary, seemingly, for one and a half hours." Observers at Clinton County Army Air Field in Ohio described the object "as having the appearance of a flaming red cone trailing a gaseous green mist" and observed the object for around 35 minutes.2 Another observer at Lockbourne Army Air Field in Ohio noted, "Just before leaving it came to very near the ground, staying down for about ten seconds, then climbed at a very fast rate back to its original altitude, 10,000 feet, leveling off and disappearing into the overcast heading 120 degrees. Its speed was greater than 500 mph in level flight." 3
Four P-51 Mustangs of C Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron Kentucky Air National Guard already in the air—one piloted by Mantell—were told to approach the object. Sgt Blackwell was in radio communication with the pilots throughout the event.4
One pilot's Mustang was low on fuel, and he quickly abandoned his efforts. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (the first head of Project Blue Book) notes that there was some disagreement amongst the air traffic controllers as to Mantell's words as he communicated with the tower: some sources5 reported that Mantell had described an object "[which] looks metallic and of tremendous size," but others disputed whether or not Mantell actually said this.
The other two pilots accompanied Mantell in steep pursuit of the object. They later reported they saw an object, but described it as so small and indistinct they could not identify it. Mantell ignored suggestions that the pilots should level their altitude and try to more clearly see the object.
Only one of Mantell's companions, Lt. Albert Clemmons, had an oxygen mask, and his oxygen was in low supply. Clemmons and a Lt. Hammond called off their pursuit at 22,500 feet (6,900 m). Mantell continued to climb, however. According to the Air Force, once Mantell passed 25,000 feet (7,600 m) he blacked out from the lack of oxygen (hypoxia), and his plane began spiraling back towards the ground. A witness later reported Mantell's Mustang in a circling descent. His plane crashed at a farm south of Franklin, Kentucky, on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line.
Firemen later pulled Mantell's body from the Mustang's wreckage. His wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 p.m., the time of his crash. Meanwhile, by 3:50 p.m. the UFO was no longer visible to observers at Godman Army Air Field. The Mantell Incident was reported by newspapers around the nation, and received significant news media attention. A number of sensational rumors were also circulated about Mantell's crash. Among the rumors were claims that Mantell's fighter had been shot down by the UFO he was chasing, and that the Air Force covered up evidence proving this. Another rumor stated that Mantell's body was found riddled with strange holes. However, no evidence has ever surfaced to substantiate any of these claims. In 1956, USAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book study into the UFO mystery, would write that the Mantell Crash was one of three "classic" UFO cases in 1948 that would help to define the UFO phenomenon in the public mind, and would help to convince Air Force intelligence specialists that UFOs were a "real", physical phenomenon. (Ruppelt, 30)
Mantell was later buried at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.6
The Venus Explanation
The Mantell Crash was quickly investigated by Project Sign, the Air Force's new research group which had been created to study UFO incidents. Though Project Sign's staff never came to a conclusion, other Air Force investigators ruled that Mantell had misidentified the planet Venus, and, wrongly believing that he could close in to get a better look, had passed out from the lack of oxygen at high altitude.
However, this conclusion was later changed, because although Venus was roughly in the same position as the UFO, astronomers working for Project Sign ruled that Venus would have been nearly invisible to observers at that time of day. The cause of Mantell's crash remains officially listed as undetermined by the Air Force.
Skyhook Balloon Explanation
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a professor of astronomy and a scientific consultant to Project Sign, suggested Mantell had misidentified a US Navy Skyhook weather balloon. Others disputed this idea, noting that no particular Skyhook balloon could be conclusively identified as being in the area in question during Mantell's pursuit. Despite its shortcomings, others thought the Skyhook solution was plausible: the balloons were a secret Navy project at the time of Mantell's crash, were made of reflective aluminum, and were about 100 feet (30 m) in diameter, perhaps consistent with Mantell's description of a large metallic object, and may furthermore be consistent with the motions reported by the other UFO witnesses. Since the Skyhook balloons were secret at the time, neither Mantell nor the other observers in the air control tower would have been able to identify the UFO as a Skyhook. Furthermore, later research by Project Sign and UFO skeptics alleged that multiple Skyhook balloons had been launched on 7 January 1948 in Clinton County, Ohio, approximately 150 miles (250 km) northeast of Fort Knox. UFO skeptic Philip Klass argued that wind currents at that time would have blown the balloons close to the area of the Mantell Incident. This hypothesis was never proven, as Ruppelt writes:
Somewhere in the archives of the Air Force or the Navy there are records that will show whether or not a balloon was launched from Clinton County AFB, Ohio, on January 7, 1948. I never could find these records. People who were working with the early skyhook projects "remember" operating out of Clinton County AFB in 1947 but refuse to be pinned down to a January 7 flight. Maybe, they said. The Mantell Incident is the same old UFO jigsaw puzzle.
If a Skyhook balloon was involved in the crash of Mantell's aircraft, the Air Force would have been loath to admit the presence of the balloon for more than mere reasons of security since it would have also meant admitting that a DoD program caused the dispatch of a Kentucky Air National Guard aircraft with fatal consequences for its pilot.
Inexperience with the P-51
Researchers (see Clark, 1998) have also noted that while Mantell was an experienced pilot, he was rather new to the P-51, and that this relative inexperience could have been a factor in the crash. This does not, of course, account for the identity of the UFO.
- Jerome Clark; The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial; Visible Ink, 1998; ISBN 1-57859-029-9
- David Michael Jacobs; The UFO Controversy In America; Indiana University Press, 1975; ISBN 0-253-19006-1
- Philip J. Klass. (1974). UFOs Explained, Random House, hardback ISBN 0-394-49215-3 Vintage Books paperback, ISBN 0-394-72106-3.
- Curtis Peebles. (1994). Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 1-56098-343-4.
- Edward J. Ruppelt. (1956). The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Doubleday Books.
- UFO Casebook: The Death of Thomas Mantell (includes official documents)
- The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Chapter Three, The Classics -- Edward J. Ruppelt
- 1948, The Death of Thomas Mantell, UFO Casebook Files
- 1948-Death of Thomas Mantell:By Billy Booth, About.com
- An Analysis of the Thomas Mantell UFO Case