|Mantell UFO incident
The Most Publicized Early UFO Reports
|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 7th, 1948, while in pursuit of a supposed
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
reserved for silly season news.
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 but potentially hostile as well."
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
On January 7th, 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 to 300 feet (91 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.
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
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. 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 sources 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
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.
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
Another rumor stated that Mantell's body was found riddled with strange
holes. However, no evidence has ever surfaced to substantiate any of
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.
Mantell was later buried at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.