The Mantell Incident

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
March 3, 2019
Last Updated
October 13, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
16 min read
Posted in
UFOs, Cover-Ups

What is perhaps interesting about the tragic case of Thomas Mantell is that for decades it was put to bed as solved, even by most in the UFO community. The apparent explanation was reasonable enough. At least on the surface.

However, over half a century later with the UFO debate still raging on into the twenty-first century, new information, research, and witnesses would appear to suggest that a cover-up of sorts could very well have been in place. And what’s more, at least for a prolonged period of time, it worked.

Thomas Mantell blended into an image of a UFO over the clouds

Thomas Mantell

What is also interesting about the Mantell case, is that the world’s populace, particularly the American public would begin to drift away from the flippant approach to the UFO question among the realization that such an incident had caused the death of a young man in the prime of his life. Perhaps Dr. David Jacobs said it best when he wrote:

…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!

That the Mantell case is important is without a doubt. Might, however, that importance be in what some claim to be a successful covering up of a truly bizarre event with very real and tragic consequences? Perhaps it is a case that still has secrets to reveal and information to divulge?

Indeed, when we remember that the Roswell incident took place only six months previously, as well as the number of UFO incidents that followed the Mantell case, both in 1948 and in the years that followed, we might be correct in thinking there were events taking place in the background of recorded history.

Reports From The Ground Of A “Large, Circular, Metallic” Object Over Kentucky

On the afternoon of the 7th January 1948 at 1:20 pm, after several calls from residents in Owesnboro, Irvington, and Maysville areas of Kentucky, Kentucky State Police would inform Godman Air Force Base of a “large, circular, metallic” [1] object hovering overhead, apparently near to the US Gold Reserve at Fort Knox.

Aware of the aerial anomaly, Godman tower operators would contact nearby Wright Field in Ohio to enquire if any of their aircraft were in the area. The reply was they weren’t.

Just short of half an hour later at 1;45 pm, Sergeant Quinton Blackwell witnessed the object visually from inside the Godman control tower. Two other personnel also witnessed the “large, white, umbrella-shaped object” that appeared to change color several times. Colonel Guy Hix would later state:

Through binoculars, it appeared to have a red or pink border at the bottom and remained stationary for seemingly one and a half hours!

Personnel at other US military bases also witnessed the strange object. For example, witnesses at Clinton County Army Air Field in nearby Ohio would state the object had a “gaseous green mist” trailing a “flaming red cone”.

Perhaps the witnesses at Lockbourne Army Air Field, also in Ohio, would prove even more intriguing. They would report:

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 (around) 10,000 feet, leveling off and disappearing into the overcast heading 120 degrees. Its speed was greater than 500 miles per hour in level flight!

At the time, four F-51 Mustang jets were already airborne en route to a field in the north of the state. They received orders to break off their planned route and investigate the strange object.

“It Looks Metallic And Of Tremendous Size!”

The unit was led by 25-year-old Thomas Mantell, an experienced pilot with over 2,000 hours in the air and with honors from World War Two. He would lead the unit to the location of the mystery object. One of the planes, however, had to abandon the mission almost immediately due to low fuel.

As they approached the object, according to the control tower, Mantell would state the object “looks metallic and (is) of tremendous size!” Perhaps interestingly, one of the Air Force investigators in the case and leader of the now infamous Project Blue Book debacle would claim that some control tower personnel claimed to not have heard this description.

Suddenly, the object began to climb with considerable pace. Mantell and the other two F-51 jets began to climb in pursuit. However, both of the other pilots were forced to abandon the chase. Mantell, though, continued. His last radio to the control tower at 3:15 pm, almost two hours after the object was first reported, would state:

It’s going up now, and forward as fast as I am…that’s 360 miles per hour…I’m going up to 20,000 feet! If I’m no closer, I’ll abandon chase!

No one heard from Mantell again. After refueling the two F-51 Mustang jets would embark on a search mission, however, despite covering hundreds of miles, they would find nothing. Later that evening, however, Kentucky State firemen would discover the wreckage of his plane. And his body.

It wouldn’t take long for several rather disturbing rumors to begin to circulate.

Wreckage of Mantell's plane

Wreckage of Mantell’s plane

Wild Rumors Amid Basic Details

Rumors, pieces of information, and general hearsay began to circulate around the base and the community following the discovery of Mantell’s dead body and his crippled plane.

Claims that Mantell was shot down by a “Soviet missile” or an “alien spacecraft” would gain equal ground in days immediately following the incident. As would such grim details as his body was “riddled with holes” or even that he was decapitated in the crash.

Other rumors would go as far as to say the body was completely missing or that the plane was radioactive. All such rumors would be denied. And, in truth, it appears most are without serious foundation.

However, it would also become apparent that the investigation wouldn’t be as thorough as it perhaps should be.

The Air Force would suggest that Mantell had become unconscious due to lack of oxygen shortly after his last transmission. He was likely, dead from suffocation before his plane hit the ground, which it did, judging by his stopped watch, at 3:18 pm.

This is perhaps most likely. Especially when we take into account a witness on the ground who remembers seeing Mantell’s F-51 descending to the ground in “circular” motions suggesting the plane was in freefall.

The Investigation “Needed A Quick Answer!”

The Air Force would charge Project Sign with investigating the incident, an unofficial forerunner to the Blue Book Project. Writers noted at the time how the Air Force “work fast on the Mantell incident”, apparently realizing they “needed a quick answer” on the issue.

This would suggest, much like the Project Blue Book investigations would prove to be, that the Air Force was not so much interested in truth, but in providing the most mundane explanation possible and to keep the public uninterested in such sightings, and those who saw them afraid to report them.

So, when the Air Force would suggest what Mantell and the other witnesses had seen was merely the planet Venus it was rejected by almost everybody. When Dr. Allen Hynek would reinvestigate the case several years later in 1952 under the Blue Book name, he would suggest that “Venus wasn’t bright enough” for the pilots to have seen it, even if they would mistake it for a UFO, which is itself unlikely.

Project Skyhook – The “Weather Balloon” Explanation!

Following the outright and almost universal rejection of the idea that Mantell was “chasing Venus”, focus would shift onto the United States Navy Skyhook Program, which was a “weather balloon”. While the circumstances surrounding the Mantel case perhaps lend themselves a little more to this explanation more than the Roswell incident, then, like now, the apparent audacity to offer up an almost exact explanation is eye-brow raising at the very least.

Perhaps the fact that they used witnesses from nearby university campuses at Madison and Vanderbilt did nothing to soften the suspicion in some that a cover-up was in motion. Much like it had been several months earlier in the desert of New Mexico. Only this time, a United States’ Air Force pilot had lost his life.

It would, on the surface, appear a relatively sound explanation given some of the descriptions as “tear-dropped” or “umbrella-shaped”. As well as the descriptions of the “fluid nature” at times of the exterior. This is perhaps an important detail apparently noticed by Mantell. Given his experience as a pilot, if he was close enough to make out such detail, he surely would have been close enough to realize his target was, in fact, a weather balloon.

Skeptics argue that the top-secret nature of the Skyhook Project meant that few had seen the weather balloons up close before. This is perhaps true. But even taking this into account, a weather balloon, even in 1948, would not look so alien to an experienced pilot. Certainly for them not to make an educated guess as to what it might be.

Newspaper clipping of the incident

Newspaper clipping of the incident

The “Same Old UFO Jigsaw Puzzle!”

We should note that while accepted by most at the time, even then some would reject the Skyhook balloon explanation. They would note that no such balloons were in the region at the time, and no records exist to back up the claim. Perhaps Ruppelt’s own words on this are damning enough against the claim. He would write:

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 7th, 1948. I never could find these records. People who were working with the early skyhook projects ‘remember’ operating out of Clinton County Air Force Base in 1947 but refuse to be pinned down to a January 7th flight. Maybe, they said. The Mantell Incident is the same old UFO jigsaw puzzle!

Was there something so secret taking place that they simply refused to talk at all?

If we assume it was a weather balloon for a moment, how does that explain the descending of the craft? And then the climb which went directly upwards at great pace, according to witness reports. While balloons can indeed become victims of the changing wind currents, this tends to take place at higher altitudes.

Over half a century later, further claims and whistleblower-type claims would suggest those who did were right to doubt the official explanation. Before we look at those, however, we will briefly examine UFO sightings in 1948, particularly in the United States. And more specifically, how the public’s perception of them was changing.

1948 – A Year Of “Classic UFO Cases”

Captain Edward J. Ruppelt would write in 1956 that three “classic UFO cases” in 1948, including the Mantell incident, were crucial in shaping the UFO phenomenon in the public’s mind. He would also follow this up by stating they “would help to convince Air Force intelligence specialists that UFOs were a real physical phenomenon”.

What is interesting is that Ruppelt was the supervisor of the Project Blue Book study. But he would later completely retract his statement and claim that the incident was nothing more than the weather balloon.

Many researchers have drawn comparisons to the Air Force’s handling of this case and the Roswell incident only six months previously. Were these apparently “one-off” cases actually very much part of persistent activity involving disc-shaped craft from elsewhere in the Universe?

There are several such cases to mention, some of which we have examined previously. We will first look at the remaining two “classic” UFO accounts of 1948. The incidents that it would appear drastically shifted both the military’s and the public’s perception regarding UFO sightings.

The Chiles-Whitted UFO Encounter

In the early hours of 24th July 1948, at around 2:45 am just outside Montgomery, Alabama, two Eastern Airlines pilots would witness a “glowing object”. It would scream past their plane at an altitude of around 5,000 feet. [2]

Chief pilot, Clarence Chiles, and co-pilot, John Whitted, would notice a “dull red glow above and ahead of the aircraft”. Within seconds, the object went past the right-hand side of their Douglas DC-3 aircraft at incredible speed. It then went directly upwards with a “tremendous burst of flame” and disappeared into the clouds overhead.

The whole incident would last no longer than 15 seconds. In their report they would state:

(It) looked like a wingless aircraft (and) it seemed to have two rows of windows through which glowed a very bright light, as brilliant as a magnesium flare!

They would further describe it as a clear “torpedo-or-cigar shape” with flames emerging from one end. One passenger, a “C.L. McKelvie” would also claim to witness a “bright streak of light” pass by his passenger window.

Due to their being many sightings by amateur astronomers that evening, the Air Force’s ultimate findings were that the object was a meteor. This, despite the very purposeful and steep climb away from them. And amazingly, that remains the conclusive explanation today.

“UFOs Are Interplanetary!”

However, much like in the other cases highlighted and mentioned here, the Chiles-Whitted incident was one where an apparent U-turn on the part of the US Air Force took place. Captain Edward Ruppelt would lead the initial investigation under Project Sign.

They would work out the course of the UFO based on the information of the two pilots. When they did, it revealed that the object should have passed directly over Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Georgia. To their amazement, when they contacted the base to enquire of any incidents, they would report an “extremely bright light pass overhead at high speed”.

Perhaps amazingly given the ultimate findings of the incident only three months later, Project Sign staff would prepare a brief report to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Hoyt S. Vandenberg. In the “TOP-SECRET” report, they clearly state it is “Project Sign’s conclusion that UFOs are interplanetary”.

Despite this, the US Air Force would label incident nothing more than a meteor sighting in October 1948. Interestingly enough, at around the time when this “conclusion” was released to the public, another incident was already capturing their imagination. Another one involving an apparent chase of a UFO.

The Gorman Dogfight

On the evening of 1st October 1948 over the town of Fargo, North Dakota, US Air Force pilot, George Gorman, would become involved in a “dogfight” [3] with a craft of unknown origin. Like Thomas Mantell, Gorman was only 25-years-old. He had also served extensively as a fighter pilot during the Second World War.

Following the war, Gorman left active duty, but would serve in the North Dakota National Guards. On this evening, with the National Guards unit, he was piloting a P-51 Mustang jet as he made his way cross-country in a preorganized flight.

By 8:30 pm, the unit passed over Hector Airport. Many pilots decided to bring their planes into land for the night. However, with the night largely clear and cloudless, Gorman would make the decision to continue for a little while longer.

He continued on for another thirty minutes, passing over a High School football stadium at a little after 9 pm, its lights bathing the field as a football game progressed below him. Shortly after passing the stadium, he noticed another airborne object slightly ahead of him.

He could see the basic outline of the object. And a “blinking light”. He couldn’t, however, see any wings. More curious than unnerved, he would radio to the Hector Airport control tower at 9:07 pm. He would request information on any other aircraft in the area. They would answer that, according to them, his was the only plane in the air.

When the control tower contacted another vehicle, which had passed below Gorman’s plane as he made his way over the football stadium, they would respond that they could also see a glowing object in the same location as Gorman was reporting.

A Definite Thought Behind Its Maneuvers!

Upon hearing this, Gorman would state he was going to close in for a closer look. He immediately put the jet to full power, moving just over 350 miles per hour at full speed. He would make the decision to “cut it off”. Realizing quickly that he would not catch the strange “ball of light” in a direct chase.

At one point, his plane and the strange object were apparently heading for a collision. The glowing craft would pull up and fly over the top of his plane. He would note how when the object would increase its speed, it would become brighter than usual. This is an interesting detail as it is one that is mentioned in other similar UFO encounters.

The chase would continue for twenty minutes, with another similar near-miss in midair. When the object, followed by Gorman went over the airport in Fargo, the control tower operator and several other witnesses could clearly see it. At one stage, flying at 14,000 feet, he would make an attempt to dive on the object, now flying around 3,000 feet below him. However, it would make a sudden and sharp climb and vanish from his sight. He would return to Fargo’s airport at 9:27 pm.

Rather bizarrely, depending on your point of view, the US Air Force would rule in their official investigation that the unknown craft was, in fact, a “lighted weather balloon”. This, despite finding significantly raised levels of radiation around his aircraft.

Gorman would voice his opinion that there was “definite thought behind its maneuvers”. And what’s more, he didn’t believe that “any pilot could withstand” the speeds. Nor the movements of the object and “remain conscious”.

Unless, of course, that craft had technology far in advance of ours. Check out the short video below.

Other “Unofficial” UFO Incidents Of 1948

Of course, there are several more such incidents worthy of note on record. For example, although it took place in October 1947, we have examined previously the apparent crashed UFO in Arizona’s Paradise Valley. The US military did their best to recover the crippled craft. However, such was the size of it that the Dreary Draw Dam was built to cover over any evidence. At least according to the claims.

We have also looked before at the Aztec Incident, an alleged UFO crash in the Aztec Desert of New Mexico, a relative stone’s throw away at a little under 400 miles from the Roswell crash, in March 1948.

Much like many of the other sightings, the craft, and the wreckage of it, was shiny in color. And appeared to be made of a strong but ultralight material. Not only was all of the wreckage removed from the area. But so were, according to the reports, “sixteen alien bodies!”

Several months later in July 1948, again in a similar region of the southern Midwest of America, in Lubbock, Texas, came another alleged UFO chase. One that would result in the “silver disc” crashing into the ground. This incident occurred only several weeks before the Chilles-Whitted crash mentioned above. And, like the alleged crash in the Aztec Desert, it would result in the “recovery of a badly burned body of a non-human entity!”

As intriguing as each of these incidents, official or otherwise, undoubtedly are, an absolute plethora of apparent UFO crashes and mass sightings that would take place throughout the United States as the 1950s unfolded.

Might some, if not all of them share connections to the Mantell case? And the Roswell incident before that?

Cover-Up Claims Over Half A Century Later!

In 2006, 58 years after the incident, apparent new evidence suggesting a cover-up would come to light. Not least a tape-recording of Mantell’s exchange with the control tower. So proving he did indeed state that the “object was metallic and of tremendous size!” Might we be right to assume the notion that this was a matter of dispute was one of Ruppelt’s persuasion?

UFO researcher and member of NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon), Francis Ridge, is just one of many who believes that the half a century old case has been subject to a twisting and cover-up of evidence. And what’s more, it is his belief that what Mantell was chasing was “an object not of this world!”

Although, if we subscribe to the claims, part of the reason for wanting to shut down the Mantell incident so quickly was the amount of respect Mantell commanded from his peers. And indeed the public once they became aware of his war honors and service. This, they feared gave the whole UFO subject “credibility”. Something which “concerned” the military. Ridge would offer:

If you look into the Blue Book records, which are the Air Force records, (they show) it shook a lot of people up!

Furthermore, the notion that Project Skyhook was “highly classified”, so much so that the general public, including military personnel, were not aware of such balloons, is not entirely accurate. Aspects of the program and what data the balloons were actually gathering might very well have been secret and not for public consumption. The program itself, however, was rather well publicized.

Ridge continues that the US military keeping exceptional records for the launch dates of the Skyhook balloons. However, they can not seem to produce records for the date of the Mantell incident.

“My God! I See People In This Thing!”

Ridge would press the point further. He would state that the nearest Skyhook balloon to the incident was in Nashville, Tennessee – over 150 miles away. So far that Mantell simply wouldn’t have been able to see it.

There are also other interesting anomalous snippets of information that could easily slip through cracks of time. Perhaps most notable are the statements of control tower operator, Richard Miller. He was listening to the exchange between Mantell and the Godman control tower as the incident unfolded at the Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois.

He would claim that during the communications, Mantell would clearly state:

My God! I see people in this thing!

Furthermore, the following day at a private military briefing, investigators would state that Mantell’s death was the result of him “pursuing an intelligently controlled unidentified flying object”.

Even more interesting, however, were the events that Miller claims took place later that same evening. Out of the blue, officers with the Air Technical Intelligence Center, who work out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, would arrive at Scott Air Force Base. They would “order all personnel to turn over any material relating to the crash”.

Even stranger, they would state that case was solved and “they had completed the investigation”. Only 24 hours earlier, Miller was a complete skeptic on UFO sightings. And the government’s apparent desire to cover up such incidents. Now, after what he had witnessed with his own eyes, he would ask himself “why the government had gone to all of the trouble” of such a cover-up?

Why, indeed?

Mantell Sign with a superimposed UFO underneath

A plaque for Mantell

Further Holes In The Official Explanation

The Air Force denied that the recording of the exchange between Mantell and the Godman control tower even existed. Perhaps that tells us all we need to know about their real desires to see the truth come out.

There were also other apparent dubious details that upon the further research of UFO investigators would become more than suspicious. For example, the claims of the US Air Force that Mantell had lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen. This, they said, was something that he wouldn’t have been aware of as he was used to flying low-altitude missions.

However, according to UFO researcher, Brad Sparks, Mantell was not “merely” a troop transport pilot. But a bomber pilot who was used to flying missions at over 30,000 feet. For this duty, Mantell would “be familiar with oxygen requirements from his own personal experience”.

The suggestions that Mantell was unfamiliar with the jet in which he crashed in also appears doubtful. Records show that he had over 60 hours air time in the F-51. And what’s more, that particular plane was designed to reach heights of 40,000 feet. This further suggests that Mantell would have been more than aware of oxygen logistics.

Sparks would further note in the ongoing NICAP investigation that the military’s suggested speed with which Mantell was climbing was inaccurate. Sparks would claim that if Mantell was moving at 180 miles per hour when he began his climb, within the four-minute timeframe “he would have only gotten about 12 miles away from Godman Field”.

Indeed, we know that the field where Mantell’s plane came down was 92 miles away.

Orders To Report Any Witnesses, And “If They Discussed It With Anyone!”

We might also look at the lack of an autopsy as a further area of suspicion. While the initial accident file does contain a coroner’s report, no official autopsy appears to have been performed. And while it might appear obvious as to the cause of death, it is widely accepted that Mantell was dead before his plane hit the ground. Had he died from suffocation? It is something that we will likely never know for sure.

Another interesting document to come to light in recent years is a transcription of a telephone conversation between a “Mr. Loedding” (likely Alfred Loedding) from Air Intelligence at Aright Field and Colonel Davis a commanding officer at Lockbourne Air Force Base. Loedding would enquire about a phone call on the day of the Mantell incident between Lockbourne and Godman Air Base.

When Davis replied that he wasn’t aware of such a conversation, Loedding would ask him to “make an investigation”. If anyone had seen anything he was to report back to him. So he could talk to them and “interrogate them”.

Davis would clarify that Loedding wished to speak to anyone who saw “a foreign object in the air”. To this, Loedding would reply “…and whether they discussed it with anyone – particularly Godman Field”.

Perhaps even more interesting is a UFO sighting over Godman Field the very next day on the 8th January of an object that was “hundreds of feet in diameter”. Whether of interest or not, the sighting was at a similar time to the fatal one 24 hours earlier. Beginning just after 1 pm.

Given all of these recent revelations, then, even today over 70 years later, should we in the UFO community continue to research and examine the Mantell incident? Many researchers would appear to think so.

A Solved UFO Case That Isn’t?

In light of recent statements and apparent inconsistencies in the balloon theory, what should we make of the Mantell case?

It would certainly appear there is ample reasons to doubt the officially accepted explanation. The fact is the explanation isn’t sound enough to stand on its own. And there is a blurring of facts with regards to such sightings by the US Air Force at the time. If we accept such claims as Hynek himself and his disillusionment with Project Blue Book, it would fit with the attitude and conduct of other similar cases of the era.

Why was there a need to cover-up such an event? Very likely for the same reasons as Roswell only six months earlier. Not to mention it would require the admission that a serving US Air Force pilot had died. While attempting to intercept a visitor of unknown origin or intention, no less.

Or perhaps, as some researchers and conspiracy theorists suggest, the US military and what would become the apparent “shadow government” of the United States, knew exactly who these strange visitors were. And after all, an admission to one such incident would require admitting to all that might follow. And we now know, that is a number most likely in the tens of thousands over the decades since. That would be a conservative estimate.

We can’t say for certain that the incident that cost Mantell his life was through interaction with an extraterrestrial craft. However, it seems that it certainly wasn’t a result of chasing Venus or a weather balloon.

Check out the video below. It looks at the Mantell Case. And the recent claims that perhaps a successful cover-up has been in place since the incident. At least until recent years.


1 The Mantell Incident, NICAP
2 Two Pilots Saw a UFO. Why Did the Air Force Destroy the Report?, Greg Daugherty, History, August 16th, 2018
3 When a U.S. Fighter Pilot Got into a Dogfight with a UFO, Colin Bertram, History, July 19th, 2018

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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