It’s January 7, 1948, and four members of the Kentucky National Air Guard are flying Mustang P-51 fighter planes on a routine mission – but what is about to happen is anything but routine. First, 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. So, three of the pilots subsequently spin into a steep ascent in order to investigate – and the incident that follows will prove fatal.
Pulling their joysticks back to climb into the sky, Lieutenant A. W. Clements, Lieutenant B. A. Hammond and the flight leader, Captain Thomas Mantell, soar heavenwards. The fourth member of the group, Lieutenant Robert Hendricks, is running low on fuel, however, and so he heads back to base.
And, naturally enough, it’s Mantell that leads the rapid ascent. The Mustang P-51 can climb to dizzying heights, too: as far as 42,500 feet above ground. A pilot called Doug Matthews proved that in 1956 when he set the altitude record for this particular model in a plane called The Rebel. But that was hardly an everyday feat, as Matthews had made elaborate preparations for his successful record attempt.
One of the things that Matthews had made sure of before he took to the skies, for example, was that he had a suitable 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, though. Since the planes had been on a routine flight with no need to go to excessive altitudes, there was no requirement for them to each have oxygen supplies.
But now the three pilots are rapidly gaining altitude, and they spot the object that had attracted the attention of the people on the ground. Pursuing it, whatever “it” is, the trio climb to 15,000 feet and then 20,000 feet above sea level. But when the men get to 22,500 feet, both Clements and Hammond begin to feel the debilitating effects of the lack of oxygen at that altitude.
Speaking to Louisville, Kentucky’s The Courier-Journal in January 1948, Hammond recalled, “I felt a little shaky at 15,000 feet because I realized we were supposed to take oxygen at 12,000 [feet]. By the time I hit 22,000 [feet], I was seeing double.” And at the time, Hammond therefore pulled out of the chase. Yet Mantell continued to climb – and that would prove to be a serious error of judgment.
But before we find out the fate of Mantell – and what it was exactly that he and his buddies were chasing – let’s first learn a bit more about the captain. Born in June 1922, Thomas Francis Mantell Jr. was a native of the city of Franklin in Kentucky and the first-born of three siblings. And after he had finished his schooling at Louisville Male High, he signed up as an aviation cadet with the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.
Of course, when Mantell enrolled in flight training, America was already embroiled in the Second World War after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Kentuckian 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.
And by 1943 WWII had turned into a sprawling conflict stretched across the globe, meaning the lieutenant was eventually 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, then, Mantell’s unit was busy preparing for D-Day – the Allied invasion of France that would go on to take place on June 6. And when the invasion kicked off, the 96th Squadron’s planes flew over France to drop paratroopers. As the battle of Normandy went on, the airborne unit also flew repeated missions to ferry men and supplies from England to France.
Then came Operation Market Garden – a mission in which Mantell and his comrades in the 96th would be fully involved. This endeavor was intended to open a second front in Western Europe against Hitler and his Nazis in addition to the invasion of France. In particular, the target was the Netherlands and that country’s border with northern Germany.
Operation Market Garden started on September 17, 1944, and at its heart was a massive airlift of American and British troops – some 30,000 in all – into southern Holland. These troops were to seize eight bridges that crossed waterways and the River Rhine from the Netherlands into Germany. And unlike the events of D-Day, there would be no amphibious landing; instead, all the men would be transported in by air.
That was where Mantell and his crew came in, although the mission would be different from the one he carried out on D-Day. You see, rather than flying with a cargo of paratroopers, his C-47 Skytrain would be towing a glider full of men ready for combat. Specifically, Mantell’s plane – dubbed “Vulture’s Delight” – would be attached by a cable to a Waco CG-4A glider.
These gliders – which were designed by the Waco Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio – were capable of carrying either 13 men, a 75mm howitzer or a jeep. They were each constructed with a wood and metal frame covered in fabric and were separately dragged through the air on a 107-foot-long cable. Almost 14,000 of these gliders were built.
As Operation Market Garden got underway, then, Mantell’s plane dragged that lumbering glider over the Netherlands. Sustained anti-aircraft fire over the Netherlands rocked the Skytrain, however, with the result being that its tail went up in flames; the aircraft also lost some of its controls. And the flight chief ended up fighting the blaze as ammunition aboard the plane popped and cracked. So, given the condition of his plane at this point, Mantell may have been justified in releasing the glider – even though he hadn’t yet reached the assigned landing zone.
Mantell chose otherwise, however, and decided to continue with his mission despite the serious damage to his plane. And, somehow, the pilot got the glider to the landing zone and released it there before flying his Skytrain back to the safety of the base in England. Unfortunately, though, Operation Market Garden was a failure despite the efforts of Mantell and his 96th buddies – not least because the German resistance was stiffer than expected.
And by the time that Mantell landed in England, his plane was scarcely airworthy. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Operation Market Garden had to go down as an Allied setback in the campaign to defeat Germany, the pilot’s personal courage during the mission had not gone unnoticed. 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. And the veteran was subsequently assigned to the 165th Fighter Squadron – which was by itself a significant move.
You see, while Mantell was already a seasoned pilot with plenty of combat experience, he’d only previously flown the C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft. Following his entry into the Air National Guard, though, he was posted to Standiford Field – a base that is today Louisville International Airport. And there he would be piloting the Mustang P-51 fighter planes, which were 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. What’s more, for 1,608 of those hours, he had been principal pilot. In contrast, by the time January 7, 1948, came around, Mantell had only 67 hours of experience at the controls of a P-51. And this may have been a telling factor in what happened on that fateful flight.
So let’s get back to that day. The action began after a report by the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unknown object in the skies not far from Madisonville, Kentucky. Then staff at Fort Knox’s Godman Army Airfield got wind of the news. And it should be noted 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 had reportedly involved an alleged alien spacecraft crash-landing near Roswell, New Mexico, and naturally the incident generated front-page headlines at the time. Today, though, we can be pretty certain that the UFO was actually an Army Air Force weather balloon.
But in this overheated atmosphere of flying saucer hysteria, reports of a mysterious vision 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 therefore summoned to the control tower.
Through binoculars, Hix subsequently examined the sight, which he later described as being a brilliant white and about a quarter the size of the full Moon. The colonel went on to say that he’d observed the object for around 90 minutes and that during the time it had not moved. As luck would have it, though, 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 Mantell – who was now ordered to investigate this unexplained object. The four planes soon became three as 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 phenomenon.
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, by contrast, have 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.
Clements – one of the pilots accompanying Mantell – was later to say that his captain had spotted the object dead ahead of them. He and Hammond followed Mantell, then, as he flew his plane in a rapid climb. But at around 22,000 feet, the two lieutenants lost sight of their captain’s aircraft.
A contemporary report in The Courier-Journal said that both Hammond and Clements agreed that Mantell had been “still climbing into the sun” in his last moments of visibility. After they’d left Mantell ascending, the next thing his fellow pilots heard was that their captain’s plane had in fact plummeted to the ground – and he had sustained unsurvivable injuries as a consequence.
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 then 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, however, to recover Mantell’s broken body. And when the pilot was retrieved, it was revealed that his wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 in the afternoon – possibly the precise time of his accident. 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. The news was a boon to UFO enthusiasts, too, as well as every conspiracy theorist in the country. And somewhat inevitably, bizarre stories about the events of that January day started to circulate almost immediately.
Many of these wild tales ghoulishly concerned the remains of Mantell. Some said that his body had been shot through with multiple gunshot wounds, for example, while others claimed that the corpse was missing altogether. It was also suggested that the wreckage of Mantell’s plane was radioactive. Perhaps most outlandishly of all, though, was the theory 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 UFOs piloted by aliens had taken a grip on the public imagination. And while researching his 1956 book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt took the trouble to investigate some of the more eccentric hypotheses.
In his book, Ruppelt 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, and this seemed to be supported by a statement made by 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 Ruppelt – who also re-investigated the incident for the U.S. Air Force in 1952 – spoke to an Ohio State University astronomer that seemingly put paid to this assertion. Dr. J. Allen Hynek told the writer, you see, that Venus would not have been bright enough at that time to have been visible in the sky.
In fact, like so many UFO mysteries, there turned out to be a perfectly plausible explanation that involved neither aliens nor flying saucers. At the time of the Mantell incident, the U.S. Navy had a highly secret project: the Skyhook weather balloon. With that in mind, Ruppelt believed that Mantell and others had probably seen one of these balloons, which were 100 feet across and made of shiny aluminum.
But while the truth of the matter may have been fairly prosaic, the Mantell incident nevertheless made its own impact on ufology. Before that day in January 1948, the public and official bodies had previously treated UFO reports as more amusing than sinister. After the death of a decorated Air Force pilot, though, such events seemed much more worrisome. Ultimately, then, many took the idea of UFOs a lot more seriously than they had previously.