It’s January 7, 1948, and four pilots from the Kentucky National Air Guard are on a routine mission, flying Mustang P-51 fighter planes. Then a message comes in from the control tower at Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox. It seems that a mysterious object has been spotted in the sky. Subsequently, three of the pilots go into a steep ascent to investigate.
Only three of the pilots chased after the unidentified object as the fourth, Lieutenant Robert Hendricks, had run low on fuel and headed back to base. Pulling their joysticks back to climb into the sky, Lieutenant A. W. Clements, Lieutenant B. A. Hammond and the flight leader, Captain Thomas Mantell, soared heavenwards.
Naturally enough, it was Mantell that led the rapid ascent. In fact, a Mustang P-51 can climb to an altitude of 42,500 feet. A pilot called Doug Matthews proved that in 1956 when he set the altitude record for this particular aircraft, flying in a plane called The Rebel. But that was hardly an everyday feat – Matthews had made elaborate preparations for his successful record attempt.
One of the things that Matthews made sure of was to carry a supply of oxygen. Yet of the three men who headed for the heavens in their P-51s that day, only one, Clements, had oxygen on board. That was perfectly normal, however. Since the planes had been on a routine flight with no need to go to excessive altitudes, there was no requirement for them to have oxygen supplies.
But now the three were rapidly gaining altitude, and they had spotted the object that had attracted the attention of the people on the ground. Pursuing it, whatever “it” was, they went through 15,000 feet and then 20,000 feet. But when they got to 22,500 feet, both Clements and Hammond began to feel the debilitating effects of the lack of oxygen at that altitude.
Speaking to the Louisville, Kentucky, The Courier-Journalin January, 1948, Hammond recalled that, “I felt a little shaky at 15,000 feet because I realized we were supposed to take oxygen at 12,000. By the time I hit 22,000 I was seeing double.” Hammond pulled out of the chase. But Mantell continued to climb, and that would prove to be a serious error of judgment.
Before we find out the fate of Mantell – and what it was exactly that he and his buddies were chasing – let’s find out a bit more about the captain. Born in June 1922, Thomas Francis Mantell Jr. was a native of the city of Franklin in Kentucky. He was the first-born of three siblings. Mantell received his schooling at Louisville Male High, and then he signed up as an aviation cadet with the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.
When Mantell signed up for his flight training, America was already embroiled in the Second World War after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He must have known, consequently, that his chances of seeing active service were high. Perhaps auspiciously, Mantell completed his training at flight school on June 30, 1943, the very day of his 21st birthday.
After graduation, Mantell was assigned to the 9th Air Force’s 440th Troop Carrier Group, part of the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron. Commissioned with the rank of lieutenant, he then flew C-47 Skytrains. These modified versions of the Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner acted as the airborne warhorses of the U.S Army during the Second World War.
By 1943 WWII had turned into a sprawling conflict stretched across the globe, and the young lieutenant had been posted to England. There Mantell was stationed at the Royal Air Force base of Bottesford, an airfield set in countryside about 100 miles to the north of London. The Allies used the base as a take-off point for both parachute missions and bombing raids.
By February 1944, Mantell’s unit was busy preparing for D-Day, the Allied invasion of France that took place on June 6. When the invasion kicked off, the 96th Squadron’s planes flew over France to drop paratroopers. As the battle of Normandy then went on, the airborne unit flew repeated missions to ferry men and supplies from England to France.
Then came Operation Market Garden, a mission that Mantell and his comrades in the 96th would be fully involved in. This operation was intended to open a second front in Western Europe against Hitler and his Nazis in addition to the invasion of France. This time, the target was the Netherlands and that country’s border with northern Germany.
Operation Market Garden started on September 17, 1944. At its heart was a massive airlift of American and British troops, some 30,000 men, into southern Holland. They were to seize eight bridges that crossed waterways and the River Rhine from the Netherlands into Germany. Unlike D-Day, there would be no amphibious landing – all the troops would be transported in by air.
That was where Mantell and his crew came in. But this mission would be different from the one he carried out on D-Day. Instead of flying with a cargo of paratroopers, his C-47 Skytrain would be towing a glider full of men ready for combat. His plane, dubbed “Vulture’s Delight,” would be attached by a cable to Waco CG-4A glider.
These gliders, designed by the Waco Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio, were capable of carrying 13 men, a 75mm howitzer or a jeep. They were constructed with a wood and metal frame covered in fabric and were dragged through the air on a 107-foot long cable. Almost 14,000 of the gliders were built.
As Operation Market Garden got under way, Mantell’s plane dragged that lumbering glider over the Netherlands. Sustained anti-aircraft fire over the Netherlands rocked the Skytrain, and its tail went up in flames. The flight chief then fought the blaze as ammunition aboard the plane popped and cracked. The aircraft had also lost some of its controls. Given the condition of his plane, at this point Mantell could justifiably have released the glider even though he hadn’t yet reached the assigned landing zone.
But Mantell chose to continue with his mission despite the serious damage to his plane. Somehow, the pilot got the glider to the landing zone and released it there. He then managed to fly his Skytrain back to the safety of the base in England. Unfortunately, Operation Market Garden was a failure despite the efforts of Mantell and his 96th buddies. German resistance was stiffer than expected.
By the time Mantell landed in England, his plane was scarcely airworthy. But despite the fact that Operation Market Garden had to go down as an Allied setback in the campaign to defeat Germany, Mantell’s personal courage during the mission had not gone unremarked. As a result, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After his highly eventful war service, and by now holding the rank of captain, Mantell joined the Kentucky Air National Guard in 1947. In fact, he was one of the outfit’s founding members. He was assigned to the 165th Fighter Squadron. The fact that he was now in a fighter squadron was significant.
Mantell was already a seasoned pilot with plenty of combat experience. But up until now, he’d flown the C-47 Skytrain, a transport aircraft. Mantell was posted to Standiford Field, a base that is today Louisville International Airport. There he would by piloting the Mustang P-51 fighter planes, a far cry from the much more sedate Skytrains.
Although still only 25 years old, Mantell had 2,167 hours of flying experience under his belt, and for 1,608 of those hours he had been principal pilot. In contrast, by the time that fateful day, January 7, 1948, came round, he had only 67 hours of experience at the controls of a P-51. That may have been a telling factor in what happened on that January flight.
So let’s get back to that day. Events started off with a report by the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unknown object in the skies not far from Madisonville, Kentucky. Staff at Fort Knox’s Godman Army Airfield picked up this report. What you have to remember is that during this time in America and around the world, UFOs were a massive story.
During 1948 there was even an official U.S. government investigation into the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects in the skies. The investigation was called Project Sign, and although it was conducted by the U.S. Air Force with government sanction, it was kept entirely secret. However, that didn’t stop the press of the day reporting the massive spike of UFO sightings in the U.S. in 1947 and into the following year.
Indeed, one of the most famous of all UFO incidents happened in 1947, the Roswell event. That had involved an alleged alien spacecraft crash landing near Roswell, New Mexico. That generated front-page headlines such as the Roswell Daily Record’s “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region.” Today, we can be pretty certain that the flying saucer was actually an Army Air Force weather balloon.
But in this overheated atmosphere of flying saucer hysteria, reports of a UFO in the sky were not taken lightly. And after the Kentucky Highway Patrol alert, one of those in the control tower at Godman Airfield, Sergeant Quinton Blackwell, believed that he’d spotted the object in question as had two of his colleagues. Colonel Guy Hix, the base commander, was now summoned to the control tower.
Hix examined the object through binoculars. He later described it as being a brilliant white and about a quarter the size of the full Moon. He went on to say that he’d observed it for around 90 minutes and that during the time it had not moved. As luck would have it, there were four Mustang P-51s in the air and in the right place at that moment.
And as we’ve seen, the senior officer of those four P-51s was Captain Mantell. He was now ordered to investigate this unexplained object. The four planes soon became three as Lieutenant Robert Hendricks, low on fuel, was forced to head for their base at Standiford. But Mantell was determined that he and his remaining two buddies should give chase to this strange object.
There’s some confusion over the report that Mantell made back to the Godman control tower by radio. Later, some said that he’d reported seeing a large object with a metallic appearance. Others disputed that Mantell had actually used those words. In any case Mantell, followed by the other two Mustangs, now threw his plane into a precipitous ascent.
Lieutenant Clements, one of the pilots accompanying Mantell, was later to say that what his captain had radioed across that he’d spotted the object dead ahead of them. So they followed Mantell as he flew his plane in a rapid climb. But soon, at around 22,000 feet, Clements and Hammond lost sight of their captain.
A contemporary report inThe Courier-Journal said that both Hammond and Clements had agreed that the last they had seen of their captain, he had been “still climbing into the sun.” After they’d left Mantell still ascending, the next thing his fellow pilots heard was that their captain had in fact crashed to the ground, sustaining unsurvivable injuries.
The Air Force account of Mantell’s crash stated that the captain had exceeded an altitude of 25,000 feet and then blacked out due to oxygen deprivation. Out of control, his Mustang had spun down to the ground. Captain Tyler, an officer at the Standiford base, told The Courier-Journal that he believed the plane would have started breaking up after it had plunged to 15,000 feet.
It was left to local firefighters to recover Mantell’s broken body. The pilot’s wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 in the afternoon. This was judged to be the precise time of his crash and presumably his demise. In the meantime, about 20 minutes or so after the crash, the UFO had disappeared from the scene.
Predictably enough, this heady combination of a UFO sighting and the tragic death of a decorated war hero became a media sensation. And this was also material that was ripe for UFO enthusiasts as well as every crackpot conspiracy theorist in the country and indeed around the world. Bizarre stories started to circulate almost immediately.
Many of these wild tales ghoulishly concerned the remains of Captain Mantell. Some said his body was shot through with multiple gunshot wounds. Others claimed that the corpse was missing altogether. Some claimed the wreckage was radioactive, while others said that Mantell’s plane had been shot down by hostile aliens aboard the UFO.
Needless to say, none of these stories was backed up by a shred of evidence. But as we’ve seen, the idea of UFO’s piloted by aliens had taken a grip on the public imagination. One man, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, while researching his 1956 book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, took the trouble to investigate some of the more eccentric theories.
In his book, Ruppert wrote, “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.”
Of course, the other question was what exactly Mantel had been pursuing. One theory said that he had actually had Venus in his sights. This seemed to be supported by a statement made by Lieutenant Clements to The Courier-Journal. Clements told the newspaper that Mantell had said to him, “Look, there it is at 12 o’clock.” And what Clements said he’d seen was a “bright shining object that looked like a star.”
But our man Ruppelt, who, as well as writing a book, re-investigated the incident for the U.S. Air Force in 1952, spoke to an Ohio State University astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek. Hynek told him that Venus would not have been bright enough then to be visible in the sky. So that put paid to that theory.
In fact, like so many UFO mysteries, there turned out to be perfectly plausible explanation involving neither aliens nor flying saucers. It turned out that at the time of the Mantell incident, the U.S. Navy had a highly secret project: the Skyhook weather balloon. Ruppelt believed that Mantell and others had probably seen one of these balloons, which were 100 feet across and made of shiny aluminum.
Of course, there are those who dispute this explanation to this day. However, one thing that’s indisputable is the impact that the Mantell incident had on the world of ufology. Both the public and official bodies had previously treated UFO reports as something more amusing than sinister. However, this incident, involving the death of a decorated Air Force pilot seemed much more worrisome. And henceforth, many took the idea of UFOs a lot more seriously than previously.