Mantell UFO incident

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Locations of Fort Knox and Franklin, Kentucky

On January 7, 1948, 25-year-old Captain Thomas F. Mantell, a Kentucky Air National Guard pilot, died in the crash of his P-51 Mustang fighter, after being sent in pursuit of an unidentified flying object (UFO). The event was among the most publicized early UFO incidents.

Kentucky Air National Guard The unit of the US Air National Guard for the State of Kentucky

The Kentucky Air National Guard is the air force militia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, United States of America. It is, along with the Kentucky Army National Guard, an element of the Kentucky National Guard.

Unidentified flying object Unusual apparent anomaly in the sky that is not readily identifiable

Unidentified flying object (UFO) is the popular term for any aerial phenomenon that cannot immediately be identified. Most UFOs are identified on investigation as conventional objects or phenomena. The term is widely used for claimed observations of extraterrestrial spacecraft.


Later investigation by the United States Air Force's Project Blue Book indicated that Mantell may have died chasing a Skyhook balloon, which in 1948 was a top-secret project that Mantell would not have known about. [1] Mantell pursued the object in a steep climb, and disregarded suggestions to level his altitude. At high altitude he blacked out from a lack of oxygen, his plane went into a downward spiral, and crashed.

Project Blue Book was one of a series of systematic studies of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) conducted by the United States Air Force. It started in 1952, the third study of its kind, following projects Sign (1947) and Grudge (1949). A termination order was given for the study in December 1969, and all activity under its auspices officially ceased in January 1970. Project Blue Book had two goals:

  1. To determine if UFOs were a threat to national security, and
  2. To scientifically analyze UFO-related data.
Skyhook balloon

Skyhook balloons were high-altitude balloons developed by Otto C. Winzen and General Mills, Inc. They were used by the United States Navy Office of Naval Research (ONR) in the late 1940s and 1950s for atmospheric research, especially for constant-level meteorological observations at very high altitudes. Instruments like the Cherenkov detector were first used on Skyhook balloons.

In 1956, Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (the first head of Project Blue Book) wrote 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 convince some Air Force intelligence specialists that UFOs were a "real", physical phenomenon. [2] The other two "classic" sightings in 1948 were the Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter and the Gorman dogfight. [3]

Edward J. Ruppelt was a United States Air Force officer probably best known for his involvement in Project Blue Book, a formal governmental study of unidentified flying objects. He is generally credited with coining the term "unidentified flying object", to replace the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disk" - which had become widely known - because the military thought them to be "misleading when applied to objects of every conceivable shape and performance. For this reason the military prefers the more general, if less colorful, name: unidentified flying objects. UFO for short."

The Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter occurred on July 24, 1948 in the skies near Montgomery, Alabama. Two commercial pilots, Clarence S. Chiles and John B. Whitted, claimed that at approximately 2:45 AM on July 24 they observed a "glowing object" pass by their plane before it appeared to pull up into a cloud and travel out of sight. According to Air Force officer and Project Blue Book supervisor Edward J. Ruppelt, the Chiles-Whitted sighting was one of three "classic" UFO incidents in 1948 that convinced the personnel of Project Sign, Blue Book's predecessor, "that UFOs were real," along with the Mantell UFO incident and the Gorman dogfight. However, later studies by Air Force and civilian researchers indicated that Chiles and Whitted had seen a meteor, possibly a bolide, and in 1959 Project Blue Book formally stated that a meteor was the cause of the incident.

Gorman dogfight aviation accident

The Gorman UFO dogfight was a widely publicized UFO incident. It occurred on October 1, 1948, in the skies over Fargo, North Dakota, and involved George F. Gorman, a pilot with the North Dakota Air National Guard. USAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt wrote in his bestselling and influential The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects that the Gorman Dogfight was one of three "classic" UFO incidents in 1948 that "proved to [Air Force] intelligence specialists that UFOs were real," along with the Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter and the Mantell UFO incident. However, in 1949 the US Air Force concluded that the Gorman Dogfight had been caused by a lighted weather balloon.

Historian David M. Jacobs argues the Mantell case marked a sharp shift in both public and governmental perceptions of UFOs. Previously, the news 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 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." [4]

David Michael Jacobs is an American historian and recently retired Associate Professor of History at Temple University specializing in 20th-century American history. Jacobs is particularly well known in the field of ufology for his research and authoring of books on the subject of alleged alien abductions.

News media elements of the mass media that focus on delivering news

The news media or news industry are forms of mass media that focus on delivering news to the general public or a target public. These include print media, broadcast news, and more recently the Internet.

In the United Kingdom and in some other places, the silly season is the period lasting for a few summer months typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media. It is known in many languages as the cucumber time. The term is first attested in 1861, was listed in the second (1894) edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and remains in use at the start of the 21st century. The fifteenth edition of Brewer's expands on the second, defining the silly season as "the part of the year when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting ".


Three F-51D Mustang of the 165th Fighter Squadron, the unit in which Mantell was serving F-51Ds 165th FS Kantucky ANG in flight.jpg
Three F-51D Mustang of the 165th Fighter Squadron, the unit in which Mantell was serving

Mantell was an experienced pilot; his flight history consisted of 2,167 hours in the air, and he had been honored for his part in the Battle of Normandy during World War II. [5]

On 7 January 1948, Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky, received a report from the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Madisonville, Kentucky. Reports of a westbound circular object, 250–300 feet (80–90 m) in diameter, were received from Owensboro and Irvington. [6]

Godman Army Airfield airport in Kentucky, United States of America

Godman Army Airfield is a military airport located on the Fort Knox United States Army post in Hardin County, Kentucky, United States. It has four runways and is used entirely by the United States Army Aviation Branch.

Fort Knox US Army post in Kentucky, United States

Fort Knox is a United States Army post in Kentucky, south of Louisville and north of Elizabethtown. It is also adjacent to the United States Bullion Depository, which is used to house a large portion of the United States' official gold reserves. The 109,000 acre base covers parts of Bullitt, Hardin, and Meade counties. It currently holds the Army Human Resources Center of Excellence to include the Army Human Resources Command. It is named in honor of Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery in the American Revolutionary War and first United States Secretary of War.

Kentucky Highway Patrol was founded in 1936 when the Division of Highway Patrol was created as a part of the Kentucky State Highway Department. The Highway Patrol began with 40 officers who enforced traffic laws on Kentucky roads. By 1948 the Kentucky Highway Patrol had 200 officers.

At about 1:45 p.m., Sergeant 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. Colonel Guy Hix, the base commander, 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. [7] 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 (800 km/h) in level flight." [8]

Four F-51D Mustangs of C Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron Kentucky Air National Guard—one piloted by Mantell—were already in the air and told to approach the object. Blackwell was in radio communication with the pilots throughout the event.

One pilot's Mustang was low on fuel, and he quickly returned to base. Ruppelt notes that there was some disagreement amongst the air traffic controllers as to Mantell's words as he communicated with the tower: some sources [9] reported that Mantell had described an object "[which] looks metallic and of tremendous size," but according to Ruppelt, others disputed whether or not Mantell actually said this. [10]

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 that they could not identify it. Mantell ignored suggestions that the pilots should level their altitude and try to more clearly see the object. [10]

Only one of Mantell's wingmen, Lt. Albert Clements, had an oxygen mask, and his oxygen was in low supply. Clements and the third pilot, 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 on a farm south of Franklin, Kentucky, on the Kentucky–Tennessee state line. [11]

Firemen later pulled Mantell's body from the Mustang's wreckage. His seat belt was shredded, and 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 Airfield. [11]

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. According to UFO historian Curtis Peebles, among the rumors were claims that "the flying saucer was a Soviet missile; it was [an alien] spacecraft that shot down [Mantell's fighter] when it got too close; Captain Mantell's body was found riddled with bullets; the body was missing; the plane had completely disintegrated in the air; [and] the wreckage was radioactive." [12] However, no evidence has ever surfaced to substantiate any of these claims, and Air Force investigation specifically refuted some claims, such as the supposedly radioactive wreckage. [12] Captain Ruppelt wrote that "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] said that...Mantell's body had not burned, not disintegrated, and was not full of holes; the wreck was not radioactive, nor was it magnetized." [13] Mantell was the first member of the Kentucky Air National Guard to die in flight. [14] According to John Trowbridge, historian of the Kentucky National Guard, "There is a real X-Files twist to this, too. Mantell lived almost his entire life in Louisville, but he was born in a hospital in Franklin, only a few miles from where he was killed." [15]

Venus explanation and rejection

The Mantell crash was investigated by Project Sign, the first Air Force research group assigned to investigate UFO reports. One writer noted that "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...the word 'Venus' went out. Mantell had unfortunately been killed trying to reach the planet Venus." [16] An Air Force major who was interviewed by several reporters following Mantell's crash "flatly stated that it was Venus." [17]

In 1952 USAF Captain Edward Ruppelt, the supervisor of Project Blue Book, Project Sign's successor, was ordered to reinvestigate the Mantell Incident. Ruppelt spoke with Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer at Ohio State University and scientific consultant to Project Sign and Project Blue Book. Hynek had supplied Project Sign with the Venus explanation in 1948, mainly because Venus had been in the same place in the sky that Mantell's UFO was observed. [18] However, by 1952 Dr. Hynek had concluded that the Venus explanation was incorrect, because "Venus wasn't bright enough to be seen" by Mantell and the other witnesses, and because a considerable haze was present that would have further obscured the planet in the sky. [18] Ruppelt also noted Dr. Hynek's statement that Venus, even if visible, would have been a "pinpoint of light", but that eyewitness "descriptions plainly indicated a large object. None of the descriptions could even vaguely be called a pinpoint of light." [19]

Skyhook balloon explanation

Having rejected the Venus explanation, Captain Ruppelt began to research other explanations for the incident. He was particularly interested in a suggestion by Dr. Hynek that Mantell could have misidentified a United States Navy Skyhook [20] weather balloon. In Madisonville, Kentucky "the object was seen through a telescope [and] identified as a balloon by one observer." [21] Additionally, between 4:30 and 4:45 PM an astronomer at Vanderbilt University "watched an object in the sky...viewed through binoculars, he said it was a pear-shaped balloon with cables and a basket attached." [22]

However, 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 this objection, Ruppelt thought the Skyhook explanation 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, consistent with the description of the UFO as large, metallic, and cone-shaped. 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. But this was never proved, as Ruppelt wrote: [23]

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.

Project Skyhook was legally linked with General Mills, the cereal company, Jean Piccard, the French Balloonist, and Otto C. Winzen of Winzen Research. [20]

Inexperience with the F-51

Researchers [24] have also noted that while Mantell was an experienced pilot, he was rather new to the F-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.

Thomas Mantell biography

Thomas Mantell
Born(1922-06-30)30 June 1922
Franklin, Kentucky, U.S.
Died7 January 1948(1948-01-07) (aged 25)
near Franklin, Kentucky, U.S.
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States of America
Service/branchFlag of the United States Air Force.svg United States Air Force
Years of service1942–1948
Rank Captain
Unit 440th Troop Carrier Group
Battles/wars World War II (Operation Overlord)
Awards Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal

Captain Thomas Francis Mantell Jr. (30 June 1922 – 7 January 1948) was a United States Air Force officer and a World War II veteran. Mantell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courageous action during the Operation Market Garden, [25] and an Air Medal with three Oak leaf clusters for aerial achievement. [14] [15]


Mantell graduated from Male High School in Louisville. On 16 June 1942, Mantell joined the United States Army Air Corps, finishing Flight School on 30 June 1943. [14] During World War II, he was C-47 Skytrain pilot assigned to the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group, which air dropped the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy, France on 6 June 1944 and participated in Operation Market Garden.

Mantell, then a lieutenant, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism while flying over Holland on 18 September 1944 during Operation Market Garden. He was the pilot of a cargo plane, named Vulture's Delight, towing a glider, when it came under heavy anti-aircraft fire. All but one of the rudder and elevator controls were disabled, and the aircraft's tail was afire. Mantell's crew chief fought the fire with live ammunition detonating. Rather than release the glider, Lt. Mantell decided to continue with his mission. The glider was released at the correct location, and Mantell returned to base. Upon inspection, his aircraft was so damaged that it appeared to be unable to fly. Mantell was nicknamed "Shiny" by his comrades. This was because of his "constant well-scrubbed look." Mantell was also described as "able to think fast and act quickly." [26]

After the war, Mantell returned to Louisville, joining the newly formed Kentucky Air National Guard on 16 February 1947. He became a F-51D Mustang pilot in the 165th Fighter Squadron.

Following his death in January 1948, Mantell's remains were sent to Louisville for burial in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.[ citation needed ]

Captain Thomas F Mantell, Jr. Marker in Franklin, KY about the crash of his aircraft and death in pursuit of a UFO in 1948. Capt. Mantell Marker.jpg
Captain Thomas F Mantell, Jr. Marker in Franklin, KY about the crash of his aircraft and death in pursuit of a UFO in 1948.

On 29 September 2001, the Simpson County Historical Society unveiled a historical marker in honor of Thomas Mantell in his hometown of Franklin. The marker is located at the exit off Interstate 65.



The Mantell incident is one of the earliest UFO incidents to attract widespread public attention. It is considered one of the "classic" UFO incidents from the late 1940s.

The Mantell incident was featured in the 1956 quasi-documentary Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers. The film helped spur public interest in UFOs and speculation that UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin. The incident was also featured in the 1975 Toei Animation movie Kore ga UFO da! Soratobu Enban (これがUFOだ! 空飛ぶ円盤). [27]

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  1. Ruppelt, p. 56.
  2. Ruppelt, p. 30.
  3. Ruppelt, pp. 44–45.
  4. Jacobs, p. 45.
  5. "Mantell Pt 3". Archived from the original on 2005-01-12.
  6. Ridge, Francis (2010). The Mantell Incident (PDF) (1st ed.). NICAP. p. 1. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  7. "News Release of Clinton County Army Air Field dated 8 January 1948".
  8. "Report of Albert Pickering".
  9. quoted in Michael D. Swords' (2000) "Project Sign and the Estimate of the Situation Archived 2008-10-29 at the Wayback Machine "
  10. 1 2 Ruppelt, p. 48.
  11. 1 2 Peebles, p. 23.
  12. 1 2 Peebles, p. 24.
  13. Ruppelt, pp. 52–53.
  14. 1 2 3 "Kentucky: National Guard History eMuseum. Captain Thomas Francis Mantell Jr". Commonwealth of Kentucky. Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2011-06-03. On Saturday, 29 September 2001, the Simpson County Historical Society unveiled a historical marker in honor of Thomas F. Mantell, Jr.
  15. 1 2 Berry Craig (9 November 2011). Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The History Press. pp. 40–43. ISBN   978-1-60949-397-4 . Retrieved 2012-06-03. The blue and gold plaque stands outside the Simpson County tourist office.
  16. Ruppelt, p. 49.
  17. Ruppelt, p. 50.
  18. 1 2 Ruppelt, p. 51.
  19. Ruppelt, p. 52.
  20. 1 2 Global Security. "Project Skyhook". Intelligence. Retrieved 2013-09-07.
  21. (Peebles, pp. 23-24)
  22. (Peebles, p. 24)
  23. Adam. "Chapter Three: The Report On Unidentified Flying Objects".
  24. see Clark, 1998.
  25. Kevin Randle. "An Analysis of the Thomas Mantell UFO Case" (PDF). National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Retrieved 2011-01-08.
  27. "Kore ga UFO da! Soratobu Enban (movie)". Anime News Network . Retrieved June 23, 2019.

Additional references