Mantell Incident

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 7 January 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 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 UFO’s: they might be not only extraterrestrial but potentially hostile as well."

Overview

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.

On 7 January 1948, the 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 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 Fort Knox airfield control tower. 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."

Four P-51 Mustangs already in the airone piloted by Mantellwere 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.

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. Mantell continued to climb, however. According to the Air Force, once Mantell passed 25,000 feet he blacked out from the lack of oxygen, 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 Goodman or the others in the control tower. 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.

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. The 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 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 would show that multiple Skyhook balloons had been launched on 7 January 1948 in Clinton County, Ohio, approximately 150 miles northeast of Fort Knox. UFO skeptic Philip Klass would argue that wind currents at that time would have blown the balloons close to the area of the Mantell Incident.

Inexperience with the P-51

Researchers 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.

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