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USAF pilot chases "UFO" and dies in crash:

The Mantell case:

Thomas Mantell

Captain Thomas Mantell of the US Air Force, hero of the second world war, has piloted with great success, until his death while trying to catch up with an unidentified flying object he was trying to intercept.

Table of contents:

Click! Summary of the events.
Click! Detailed report.
Click! Reinvestigation of the case by Ed. Ruppelt, head of project Blue Book.
Click! August 21st, 1952 newspaper article.
Click! January 8th, 1948 Franklin Newspaper article.
Click! Update of the Mantell case, article by Jerry Washington & Annie Macfie.
Click! Timeline.
Click! Discussion.
Click! References.

The story by Capt. Edward Ruppelt:

On January 7 all of the late papers in the U.S. carried headlines similar to those in the Louisville Courier: "F-51 and Capt. Mantell Destroyed Chasing Flying Saucer." This was Volume I of "The Classics," the Mantell Incident.

At one fifteen on that afternoon the control tower operators at Godman AFB, outside Louisville, Kentucky, received a telephone call from the Kentucky State Highway Patrol. The patrol wanted to know if Godman Tower knew anything about any unusual aircraft in the vicinity. Several people from Maysville, Kentucky, a small town 80 miles east of Louisville, had reported seeing a strange aircraft. Godman knew that they had nothing in the vicinity so they called Flight Service at Wright-Patterson AFB. In a few minutes Flight Service called back. Their air Traffic control board showed no flights in the area. About twenty minutes later the state police called again. This time people from the towns of Owensboro and Irvington, Kentucky, west of Louisville, were reporting a strange craft. The report from these two towns was a little more complete. The towns people had described the object to the state police as being "circular, about 250 to 300 feet in diameter," and moving westward at a "pretty good Clip." Godman Tower checked Flight Service again. Nothing. All this time the tower operators had been looking for the reported object. They theorized that since the UFO had had to pass north of Godman to get from Maysville to Owensboro it might come back.

At one forty-five they saw it, or something like it. Later, in his official report, the assistant tower operator said that he had seen the object for several minutes before he called his chiefs attention to it. He said that he had been reluctant to "make a flying saucer report." As soon as the two men in the tower had assured themselves that the UFO they saw was not an airplane or a weather balloon, they called Flight Operations. They wanted the operations officer to see the UFO. Before long word of the sighting had gotten around to key personnel on the base, and several officers, besides the base operations officer and the base intelligence officer, were in the tower. All of them looked at the UFO through the tower's 6 x 50 binoculars and decided they couldn't identify it. About this time Colonel Hix, the base commander, arrived. He looked and he was baffled. At two thirty, they reported, they were discussing what should be done when four F-51's came into view, approaching the base from the south.

The tower called the flight leader, Captain Mantell, and asked him to take a look at the object and try to identify it. One F-51 in the flight was running low on fuel, so he asked permission to go on to his base. Mantell took his two remaining wing men, made a turn, and started after the UFO. The people in Godman Tower were directing him as none of the pilots could see the object at this time. They gave Mantell an initial heading toward the south and the flight was last seen heading in the general direction of the UFO.

By the time the F-51's had climbed to 10,000 feet, the two wing men later reported, Mantell had pulled out ahead of them and they could just barely see him. At two forty-five Mantell called the tower and said, "I see something above and ahead of me and I'm still climbing." All the people in the tower heard Mantell say this and they heard one of the wing men call back and ask, "What the hell are we looking for?" The tower immediately called Mantell and asked him for a description of what he saw. Odd as it may seem, no one can remember exactly what he answered. Saucer historians have credited him with saying, "I've sighted the thing. It looks metallic and it's tremendous in size.... Now it's starting to climb." Then in a few seconds he is supposed to have called and said, "It's above me and I'm gaining on it. I'm going to 20,000 feet." Everyone in the tower agreed on this one last bit of the transmission, "I'm going to 20,000 feet," but didn't agree on the first part, about the UFO's being metallic and tremendous.

The two wing men were now at 15,000 feet and trying frantically to call Mantell. He had climbed far above them by this time and was out of sight. Since none of them had any oxygen they were worried about Mantell. Their calls were not answered. Mantell never talked to anyone again. The two wing men leveled off at 15,000 feet, made another fruitless effort to call Mantell, and started to come back down. As they passed Godman Tower on their way to their base, one of them said something to the effect that all he had seen was a reflection on his canopy.

When they landed at their base, Standiford Field, just north of Godman, one pilot had his F-51 refueled and serviced with oxygen, and took off to search the area again. He didn't see anything.

At three fifty the tower lost sight of the UFO. A few minutes later they got word that Mantell had crashed and was dead.

Several hours later, at 7:20 P.M., airfield towers all over the Midwest sent in frantic reports of another UFO. In all about a dozen airfield towers reported the UFO as being low on the southwestern horizon and disappearing after about twenty minutes. The writers of saucer lore say this UFO was what Mantell was chasing when he died; the Air Force says this UFO was Venus.

The people on Project Sign worked fast on the Mantell Incident. Contemplating a flood of queries from the Press as soon as they heard about the crash, they realized that they had to get a quick answer. Venus had been the target of a chase by an Air Force F-51 several weeks before and there were similarities between this sighting and the Mantell Incident. So almost before the rescue crews had reached the crash, the word "Venus" went out. This satisfied the editors, and so it stood for about a year; Mantell had unfortunately been killed trying to reach the planet Venus.

To the Press, the nonchalant, offhand manner with which the sighting was written off by the Air Force public relations officer showed great confidence in the conclusion, Venus, but behind the barbed wire fence that encircled ATIC the nonchalant attitude didn't exist among the intelligence analysts. One man had already left for Louisville and the rest were doing some tall speculating. The story about the tower-to-air talk, "It looks metallic and it's tremendous in size," spread fast. Rumor had it that the tower had carried on a running conversation with the pilots and that there was more information than was so far known. Rumor also had it that this conversation had been recorded. Unfortunately neither of these rumors was true.

Over a period of several weeks the file on the Mantell Incident grew in size until it was the most thoroughly investigated sighting of that time, at least the file was the thickest.

About a year later the Air Force released its official report on the incident. To use a trite term, it was a masterpiece in the art of "weasel wording." It said that the UFO might have been Venus or it could have been a balloon. Maybe two balloons. It probably was Venus except that this is doubtful because Venus was too dim to be seen in the afternoon. This jolted writers who had been following the UFO story. Only a few weeks before, The Saturday Evening Post had published a two-part story entitled "What You Can Believe About flying Saucers." The story had official sanction and had quoted the Venus theory as a positive solution. To clear up the situation, several writers were allowed to interview a major in the Pentagon, who was the Air Force's Pentagon "expert" on UFO's. The major was asked directly about the conclusion of the Mantell Incident, and he flatly stated that it was Venus. The writers pointed out the official Air Force analysis. The major's answer was, "They checked again and it was Venus." He didn't know who "they" were, where they had checked, or what they had checked, but it was Venus. The writers then asked, "If there was a later report they had made why wasn't it used as a conclusion?" "Was it available?" The answer to the last question was "No," and the lid snapped back down This interview gave the definite impression that the Air Force was unsuccessfully trying to cover up some very important information, using Venus as a front. Nothing excites a newspaper or magazine writer more than to think he has stumbled onto a big story and that someone is trying to cover it up. Many writers thought this after the interview with the major, and many still think it. You can't really blame them either.

In early 1952 I got a telephone call on ATIC's direct line to the Pentagon. It was a colonel in the Director of Intelligence's office. The Office of Public Information had been getting a number of queries about all of the confusion over the Mantell Incident. What was the answer?

I dug out the file. In 1949 all of the original material on the incident had been microfilmed, but something had been spilled on the film. Many sections were so badly faded they were illegible. As I had to do with many of the older sightings that were now history, I collected what I could from the file, filling in the blanks by talking to people who had been at ATIC during the early UFO era. Many of these people were still around, "Red" Honnacker, George Towles, Al Deyarmond, Nick Post, and many others. Most of them were civilians, the military had been transferred out by this time.

Some of the Press clippings in the file mentioned the Pentagon major and his concrete proof of Venus. I couldn't find this concrete proof in the file so I asked around about the major. The major, I found, was an officer in the Pentagon who had at one time written a short intelligence summary about UFO's. He had never been stationed at ATIC, nor was he especially well versed on the UFO problem. When the word of the Press conference regarding the Mantell Incident came down, a UFO expert was needed. The major, because of his short intelligence summary on UFO's, became the "expert." He had evidently conjured up "they" and "their later report" to support his Venus answer because the writers at the Press conference had him in a corner. I looked farther.

Fortunately the man who had done the most extensive work on the incident, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, head of the Ohio State University Astronomy Department, could be contacted. I called Dr. Hynek and arranged to meet him the next day.

Dr. Hynek was one of the most impressive scientists I met while working on the UFO Project, and I met a good many. He didn't do two things that some of them did: give you the answer before he knew the question; or immediately begin to expound on his accomplishments in the field of science. I arrived at Ohio State just before lunch, and Dr. Hynek invited me to eat with him at the faculty club. He wanted to refer to some notes he had on the Mantell Incident and they were in his office, so we discussed UFO's in general during lunch.

Back in his office he started to review the Mantell Incident. He had been responsible for the weasel worded report that the Air Force released in late 1949, and he apologized for it. Had he known that it was going to cause so much confusion, he said, he would have been more specific. He thought the incident was a dead issue. The reason that Venus had been such a strong suspect was that it was in almost the same spot in the sky as the UFO. Dr. Hynek referred to his notes and told me that at 3:00 P.M., Venus had been south southwest of Godman and 33 degrees above the southern horizon. At 3:00 P.M. the people in the tower estimated the UFO to be southwest of Godman and at an elevation of about 45 degrees. Allowing for human error in estimating directions and angles, this was close. I agreed. There was one big flaw in the theory, however. Venus wasn't bright enough to be seen. He had computed the brilliance of the planet, and on the day in question it was only six times as bright as the surrounding sky. Then he explained what this meant. Six times may sound like a lot, but it isn't. When you start looking for a pinpoint of light only six times as bright as the surrounding sky, it's almost impossible to find it, even on a clear day.

Dr. Hynek said that he didn't think that the UFO was Venus.

I later found out that although it was a relatively clear day there was considerable haze.

I asked him about some of the other possibilities. He repeated the balloon, canopy reflection, and sundog theories but he refused to comment on them since, as he said, he was an astrophysicist and would care to comment only on the astrophysical aspects of the sightings.

I drove back to Dayton convinced that the UFO wasn't Venus. Dr. Hynek had said Venus would have been a pinpoint of light. The people in the tower had been positive of their descriptions, their statements brought that out. They couldn't agree on a description, they called the UFO "a parachute, an ice cream cone tipped with red," "round and white," "huge and silver or metallic," "a small white object," "one fourth the size of the full moon," but all the descriptions plainly indicated a large object. None of the descriptions could even vaguely be called a pinpoint of light.

This aspect of a definite shape seemed to eliminate the sundog theory too. Sundogs, or perihelia, as they are technically known, are caused by ice particles reflecting a diffused light. This would not give a sharp outline. I also recalled two instances where Air Force pilots had chased sundogs. In both instances when the aircraft began to climb, the sundog disappeared. This was because the angle of reflection changed as the airplane climbed several thousand feet. These sundog-caused UFO's also had fuzzy edges.

I had always heard a lot of wild speculation about the condition of Mantell's crashed F-51, so I wired for a copy of the accident report. It arrived several days after my visit with Dr. Hynek. The report said that the F-51 had lost a wing due to excessive speed in a dive after Mantell had "blacked out" due to the lack of oxygen. Mantell's body had not burned, not disintegrated, and was not full of holes; the wreck was not radioactive, nor was it magnetized.

One very important and pertinent question remained. Why did Mantell, an experienced pilot, try to go to 20,000 feet when he didn't even have an oxygen mask? If he had run out of oxygen, it would have been different. Every pilot and crewman has it pounded into him, "Do not, under any circumstances, go above 15,000 feet without oxygen." In high altitude indoctrination during World War II, I made several trips up to 30,000 feet in a pressure chamber. To demonstrate anoxia we would leave our oxygen masks off until we became dizzy. A few of the more hardy souls could get to 15,000 feet, but nobody ever got over 17,000. Possibly Mantell thought he could climb up to 20,000 in a hurry and get back down before he got anoxia and blacked out, but this would be a foolish chance. This point was covered in the sighting report. A long-time friend of Mantell's went on record as saying that he'd flown with him several years and knew him personally. He couldn't conceive of Mantell's even thinking about disregarding his lack of oxygen. Mantell was one of the most cautious pilots he knew. "The only thing I can think," he commented, "was that he was after something that he believed to be more important than his life or his family."

My next step was to try to find out what Mantell's wing men had seen or thought but this was a blind alley. All of this evidence was in the ruined portion of the microfilm, even their names were missing. The only reference I could find to them was a vague passage indicating they hadn't seen anything.

I concentrated on the canopy reflection theory. It is widely believed that many flying saucers appear to pilots who are actually chasing a reflection on their canopy. I checked over all the reports we had on file. I couldn't find one that had been written off for this reason. I dug back into my own flying experience and talked to a dozen pilots. All of us had momentarily been startled by a reflection on the aircraft's canopy or wing, but in a second or two it had been obvious that it was a reflection. Mantell chased the object for at least fifteen to twenty minutes, and it is inconceivable that he wouldn't realize in that length of time that he was chasing a reflection.

About the only theory left to check was that the object might have been one of the big, 100-foot-diameter, "skyhook" balloons. I rechecked the descriptions of the UFO made by the people in the tower. The first man to sight the object called it a parachute; others said ice cream cone, round, etc. All of these descriptions fit a balloon. Buried deep in the file were two more references to balloons that I had previously missed. Not long after the object had disappeared from view at Godman AFB, a man from Madisonville, Kentucky, called Flight Service in Dayton. He had seen an object traveling southeast. He had looked at it through a telescope and it was a balloon. At four forty five an astronomer living north of Nashville, Tennessee, called in. He had also seen a UFO, looked at it through a telescope, and it was a balloon.

In the thousands of words of testimony and evidence taken on the Mantell Incident this was the only reference to balloons. I had purposely not paid too much attention to this possibility because I was sure that it had been thoroughly checked back in 1948. Now I wasn't sure.

I talked with one of the people who had been in on the Mantell investigation. The possibility of a balloon's causing the sighting had been mentioned but hadn't been followed up for two reasons. Number one was that everybody at ATIC was convinced that the object Mantell was after was a spaceship and that this was the only course they had pursued. When the sighting grew older and no spaceship proof could be found, everybody jumped on the Venus band wagon, as this theory had "already been established." It was an easy way out. The second reason was that a quick check had been made on weather balloons and none were in the area. The big skyhook balloon Project was highly classified at that time, and since they were all convinced that the object was of interplanetary origin (a minority wanted to give the Russians credit), they didn't want to bother to buck the red tape of security to get data on skyhook flights.

The group who supervise the contracts for all the skyhook research flights for the Air Force are located at Wright Field, so I called them. They had no records on flights in 1948 but they did think that the big balloons were being launched from Clinton County AFB in southern Ohio at that time. They offered to get the records of the winds on January 7 and see what flight path a balloon launched in southwestern Ohio would have taken. In a few days they had the data for me.

Unfortunately the times of the first sightings, from the towns outside Louisville, were not exact but it was possible to partially reconstruct the sequence of events. The winds were such that a skyhook balloon launched from Clinton County AFB could be seen from the town east of Godman AFB, the town from which the first UFO was reported to the Kentucky State Police. It is not unusual to be able to see a large balloon for 50 to 60 miles. The balloon could have traveled west for a while, climbing as it moved with the strong east winds that were blowing that day and picking up speed as the winds got stronger at altitude. In twenty minutes it could have been in a position where it could be seen from Owensboro and Irvington, Kentucky, the two towns west of Godman. The second reports to the state police had come from these two towns. Still climbing, the balloon would have reached a level where a strong wind was blowing in a southerly direction. The jet stream winds were not being plotted in 1948 but the weather chart shows strong indications of a southerly bend in the jet stream for this day. Jet stream or not, the balloon would have moved rapidly south, still climbing. At a point somewhere south or southwest of Godman it would have climbed through the southerly moving winds to a calm belt at about 60,000 feet. At this level it would slowly drift south or southeast. A skyhook balloon can be seen at 60,000.

When first seen by the people in Godinan Tower, the UFO was south of the air base. It was relatively close and looked "like a parachute," which a balloon does. During the two hours that it was in sight, the observers reported that it seemed to hover, yet each observer estimated the time he looked at the object through the binoculars and time wise the descriptions ran "huge," "small," "one fourth the size of a full moon," "one tenth the size of a full moon." Whatever the UFO was, it was slowly moving away. As the balloon continued to drift in a southerly direction it would have picked up stronger winds, and could have easily been seen by the astronomers in Madisonville, Kentucky, and north of Nashville an hour after it disappeared from view at Godman.

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. By assuming the shape of one piece, a balloon launched from southwestern Ohio, the whole picture neatly falls together. It shows a huge balloon that Captain Thomas Mantell died trying to reach. He didn't know that he was chasing a balloon because he had never heard of a huge, 100-foot-diameter skyhook balloon, let alone seen one. Leave out the one piece of the jigsaw puzzle and the picture is a UFO, "metallic and tremendous in size."

It could have been a balloon. This is the answer I phoned back to the Pentagon.

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This page was last updated on October 9, 2001.