Mantell UFO Incident Anniversary Special:
Edward J. Ruppelt was the first head of Project Blue Book, an official U.S. Air Force investigation of UFOs. In his 1956 book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt identified three UFO encounters of 1948 as the “classic” encounters that convinced Air Force personnel “that UFOs were real” and energized the UFO phenomenon in the mainstream public consciousness.
As Ruppelt wrote:
“With the Soviets practically eliminated as a UFO source, the idea of interplanetary spaceships was becoming more popular. During 1948 the people in the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) were openly discussing the possibility of interplanetary visitors without others tapping their heads and looking smug. … ‘The Classics’ were three historic reports that were the highlights of 1948. They are called ‘The Classics,’ a name given them by the Project Blue Book staff, because: (1) they are classic examples of how the true facts of a UFO report can be twisted and warped by some writers to prove their point, (2) they are the most highly publicized reports of this early era of the UFO’s, and (3) they ‘proved’ to ATIC’s intelligence specialists that UFO’s were real.”
The three “classic” encounters were: the Mantell UFO incident of January 7 near Franklin, Kentucky; the Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter of July 24 near Montgomery, Alabama; and the Gorman UFO dogfight of October 1 in the skies over Fargo, North Dakota.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Mantell UFO 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 January 7, 1948 while in pursuit of a UFO.
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.” However, later investigation by the U.S. 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.
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.
On January 7, 1948, Godman Field at Fort Knox, Kentucky received a report from the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Maysville, Kentucky. Reports of a westbound circular object, 250 feet (76 m) to 300 feet (91 m) in diameter, were received from Owensboro, Kentucky, and Irvington, Kentucky.
At about 1:45 PM, 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. 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 in level flight.”
Four P-51 Mustangs of C Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron Kentucky Air National Guard already in the air—one piloted by Mantell—were 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 abandoned his efforts. Edward J. 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 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.
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.
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 (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.
Firemen later pulled Mantell’s body from the Mustang’s wreckage. His seat belt was shredded, and his wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 PM, the time of his crash. Meanwhile, by 3:50 PM, the UFO was no longer visible to observers at Godman Field.
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.” 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. 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.” Mantell was the first member of the Kentucky Air National Guard to die in flight. 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.”
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.” An Air Force Major who was interviewed by several reporters following Mantell’s crash “flatly stated that it was Venus.”
In 1952, U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the supervisor of Project Blue Blook, Project Sign’s successor, was ordered to reinvestigate the Mantell incident. Ruppelt spoke with 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. However, by 1952, 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. Ruppelt also noted 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.”
Skyhook balloon explanation
Having rejected the Venus explanation, Ruppelt began to research other explanations for the incident. He was particularly interested in a suggestion by Hynek that Mantell could have misidentified a U.S. 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 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 Mantell’s description of a large metallic object. 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 Blue Book and UFO skeptics revealed that multiple Skyhook balloons had been launched on January 7, 1948 in Clinton County, Ohio, approximately 150 miles (240 km) northeast of Fort Knox. UFO skeptic Philip J. Klass argued that wind currents at the time would have blown the balloons close to the area of the Mantell incident. Additionally, when Ruppelt investigated the case in 1952, he found that at least two observers in separate locations had reported viewing the object Mantell chased through a telescope, and both observers stated that it was a large balloon.
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.
Thomas Mantell biography
Mantell graduated from Male High School in Louisville. In June 1942, Mantell joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, finishing Flight School in June 1943. During World War II, he was assigned to the 440th Troop Carrier Group, which air dropped the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. Mantell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courageous action during the Normandy landings, and an Air Medal with three Oak leaf clusters for heroism. After the war, Mantell returned to Louisville, joining the newly formed Kentucky Air National Guard in February 1947.
Following his death in January 1948, Mantell’s remains were returned to Louisville for burial in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
In 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.
“Chiles-Whitted UFO encounter”
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, they observed a “glowing object” pass by their plane before it appeared to pull up into a cloud and travel out of sight. Later studies by U.S. 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.
In the early morning hours of July 24, 1948, Clarence Chiles, chief pilot, and John Whitted, co-pilot, were flying an Eastern Airlines Douglas DC-3 passenger plane near Montgomery, Alabama at about 5,000 feet altitude. The night sky was clear with “the Moon, four days past full, shining through scattered clouds.”
At about 2:45 AM, Chiles “saw a dull red glow above and ahead of the aircraft.” He told Whitted, “Look, here comes a new Army jet job.” The object closed on their DC-3 in a matter of seconds, and both men later said they saw the object fly past the right side of their plane at a high rate of speed before it pulled “up with a tremendous burst of flame out of its rear and zoomed up into the clouds.” They observed the object for a total of 10 to 15 seconds. Chiles and Whitted stated that the object “looked like a wingless aircraft…it seemed to have two rows of windows through which glowed a very bright light, as brilliant as a magnesium flare.” Both pilots claimed the object was 100 feet long and 25-30 feet in diameter, torpedo-or-cigar shaped, “similar to a B-29 fuselage,” with flames coming out of its tail. Only one of the plane’s passengers, C.L. McKelvie, saw anything unusual. He reported seeing a “bright streak of light” that flashed by his window.
Investigation and explanation
Shortly after landing in Atlanta, Georgia, Chiles and Whitted reported their sighting to the U.S. Air Force. They were interviewed by personnel from Project Sign, the first Air Force research group assigned to investigate UFO sightings. The personnel found that the two pilots did disagree on some details: Chiles claimed to see a lighted cockpit, long boom on the nose of the object, and the center section was transparent. Whitted did not see a cockpit or boom, and instead of the center section being transparent, he claimed to see a series of rectangular windows. Neither pilot had heard any sound, and although some books and articles would later claim the plane had been hit by turbulence from the object, both pilots and the passenger who saw the “streak of light” stated that the plane was not affected at all by the object.
Edward J. Ruppelt would write that “according to the old-timers at ATIC (the Air Technical Intelligence Center), the [Chiles-Whitted] report shook them worse than the Mantell Incident…this was the first time two reliable sources had been really close enough to a UFO to get a good look.” Project Sign’s personnel developed a map of the object’s trajectory which showed that it would have passed over Macon, Georgia. When an Air Force crew chief at Robins Air Force Base near Macon reported seeing “an extremely bright light pass overhead at high speed” on the same night as the Chiles-Whitted incident, it “seemed to confirm the [Chiles-Whitted] sighting,” Ruppelt wrote. According to Ruppelt, as a result of the Chiles-Whitted incident and earlier sightings in 1947 and 1948, Project Sign’s personnel decided to send an “Estimate of the Situation” to Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The Estimate of the Situation “was a rather thick document with a black cover…stamped across the front were the words TOP SECRET.” Project Sign’s conclusion “was that [UFOs] were interplanetary!”
However, Vandenberg rejected the Estimate of the Situation in October 1948, citing that “the report’s evidence was insufficient to support its conclusions.” Additionally, J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer at Ohio State University and a scientific consultant to Project Sign, concluded that Chiles and Whitted had actually seen a very bright meteor. Hynek noted that “the flaming tail and sudden disappearance were consistent with the brief passage of a meteor.” Hynek also stated that a large number of bright meteors had been observed by amateur astronomers on the night of July 23-24. As for the rectangular windows and cockpit that Chiles and Whitted claimed to have seen on the object, Hynek wrote that “It will have to be left to the psychologists to tell us whether the immediate trail of a bright meteor could produce the subjective impression of a ship with lighted windows.” Although a Project Sign officer disagreed with Hynek’s explanation, arguing that “it is obvious that this object was not a meteor” and that the object should remain labeled as unidentified, later researchers supported Hynek’s conclusion. Donald Howard Menzel, an astronomer at Harvard University and a prominent UFO skeptic of that era, noted that July 24 “falls into a period of greatly increased meteor activity, when the Earth is moving through the Aquarid streams…the reports [from amateur astronomers] for the Southeast for [July 24] have particular interest for the Chiles-Whitted case.” On the night of July 24, an observer in Alabama “counted fifteen meteors in one hour’s watching.” Two days after the Chiles-Whitted sighting, a “huge fireball flashed over North Carolina and Tennessee.” Menzel wrote that “when Chiles and Whitted observed the UFO, its appearance and motion were identical with those of many other bright meteors but the pilots, startled by the sudden apparition [of the meteor] misinterpreted what they saw…there can be no doubt that Chiles and Whitted misinterpreted the appearance of an unusually bright meteor, its body glowing to white and blue incandescence…shooting off flaming gases (the ‘exhaust’) and vaporizing from the friction of the atmosphere.”
Menzel also recounted the experience of a pilot in 1959 who described a fiery object very similar to the one experienced by Chiles and Whitted, but which the pilot eventually recognized to be a brilliant meteor. Philip J. Klass, another prominent UFO skeptic, agreed with the meteor explanation, writing that the original Project Sign conclusion that the object was an interplanetary spacecraft was “grossly in error.” Though James E. McDonald, a physicist at the University of Arizona and a prominent ufologist, would interview Chiles and Whitted in the 1960s and conclude that they had not seen a meteor, the U.S. Air Force, based on the analysis of Hynek, Menzel, and others, would, in 1959, label the Chiles-Whitted incident as having been caused by a fireball-type meteor.
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. U.S. Air Force investigator 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.” Nonetheless, in 1949, the U.S. Air Force labeled the Gorman dogfight as being caused by a lighted weather balloon.
Although he was only 25 years old when the incident occurred, George Gorman was a veteran fighter pilot of the Second World War. After the war, he became the manager of a construction company; he also served as a second lieutenant in the North Dakota National Guard. On October 1, 1948, he was participating in a cross-country flight with other National Guard pilots; he was flying a P-51 Mustang. His flight arrived over Fargo at approximately 8:30 PM. Although the other pilots decided to land at Fargo’s Hector Airport, because of the clear, cloudless conditions, Gorman decided to get in some night-flying time and stayed aloft. Around 9:00 PM, he flew over a football stadium where a high-school football game was being held. He noticed a small Piper Cub plane flying some 500 feet below him; otherwise the skies appeared clear.
Shortly after he noticed the Piper Cub, Gorman saw another object to his west. When he looked for the outline of a wing or fuselage, he could see none; this contrasted with the Piper Cub, whose outline was clearly visible. The object appeared to be a blinking light. At 9:07 PM, Gorman contacted the control tower at Hector Airport and asked if it had any air traffic in the area other than his P-51 and the Piper Cub. The tower answered that it did not, and it contacted the Piper Cub pilot, Dr. A.D. Cannon. Cannon and his passenger answered that they could also see a lighted object to the west.
Gorman told the tower that he was going to pursue the object to determine its identity. He moved his Mustang to full power (350 to 400 MPH), but soon realized that the object was going too fast for him to catch it in a straight run. Instead, he tried cutting the object off by turns. He made a right turn and approached the object head-on at 5,000 feet; the object flew over his plane at a distance of about 500 feet. Gorman described the object as a simple “ball of light” about six to eight inches in diameter. He also noted later that when the object increased its speed, it stopped blinking and grew brighter.
After his near-collision, Gorman lost sight of the object; when he saw it again, it appeared to have made a 180-degree turn and was coming at him again. The object then made a sudden vertical climb; Gorman followed the object in his own steep climb. At 14,000 feet, his P-51 stalled; the object was still 2,000 feet above him. Gorman made two further attempts to get closer to the object, with no success. The object seemed to make another head-on pass, but broke off before coming close to the fighter. By this point, the object had moved over Hector Airport; in the control tower, the air traffic controller, L.D. Jensen, viewed the object through binoculars but could see no form or shape around the light. Jensen was joined by Cannon and his passenger from the Piper Cub; they had landed and walked to the control tower to get a better view of the object.
Gorman continued to follow the object until he was approximately 25 miles southwest of Fargo. At 14,000 feet, he observed the light at 11,000 feet; he then dived on the object at full power. However, the object made a vertical climb. Gorman tried to pursue but watched as the object passed out of visual range. At this point, he broke off the chase; it was 9:27 PM. He flew back to Hector Airport.
On October 23, 1948, Gorman gave a sworn account of the incident to investigators. His statement was often reprinted in future years in numerous books and documentaries about UFOs. The statement read:
I am convinced that there was definite thought behind its maneuvers. I am further convinced that the object was governed by the laws of inertia because its acceleration was rapid but not immediate and although it was able to turn fairly tight at considerable speed, it still followed a natural curve. When I attempted to turn with the object I blacked out temporarily due to excessive speed. I am in fairly good physical condition and I do not believe that there are many if any pilots who could withstand the turn and speed effected by the object, and remain conscious. The object was not only able to out turn and out speed my aircraft…but was able to attain a far steeper climb and was able to maintain a constant rate of climb far in excess of my aircraft.
Air Force investigation
Within a few hours, military officers from Project Sign arrived to question Gorman and the other witnesses. Project Sign had been created by the U.S. Air Force in late 1947 to investigate UFO reports. The officers interviewed Gorman, Cannon and his passenger, and the control tower personnel at Hector Airport. The officers also checked Gorman’s P-51 Mustang with a Geiger counter for radiation. They found that his Mustang was measurably more radioactive than other fighters which had not flown for several days; this was taken as evidence that Gorman had flown close to an “atomic-powered” object. The Air Force investigators also ruled out the possibility of the lighted object being “another aircraft, Canadian Vampire jet fighters, or a weather balloon.” Their initial conclusion, writes UFO historian Curtis Peebles, was “that something remarkable had occurred” to Gorman in the skies above Fargo.
However, further investigation by Project Sign personnel soon revealed flaws in the evidence. A plane flying high in the Earth’s atmosphere is less shielded from radiation from space than one at ground level, thus the Geiger-counter readings were considered invalid evidence for stating that the lighted object was atomic-powered. In addition, the Air Weather Service revealed that on October 1, it had released a lighted weather balloon from Fargo at 8:50 PM. By 9:00 PM, the balloon would have been in the area where Gorman and the Piper Cub passengers first saw the lighted object. Project Sign’s investigators also believed that the incredible movements of the object were due to Gorman’s own maneuvers as he chased the light — the object’s maneuvers were an illusion brought about by the movements of Gorman’s fighter. The Project Sign personnel noted that none of the witnesses in the airport control tower reported the remarkable maneuvers described by Gorman. The investigators also believed that, as the weather balloon passed out of sight, Gorman had come to believe that the planet Jupiter was the UFO, and therefore Gorman had been chasing the planet as he flew south of Fargo before giving up and returning to land. By early 1949, the Gorman case was labeled by Project Sign and its successors, Project Grudge and Project Blue Book, as being caused by a lighted weather balloon.
The Gorman dogfight received wide national publicity and helped fuel the wave of UFO reports in the late forties. Although some UFO researchers, such as James E. McDonald, a physicist at the University of Arizona, and retired U.S. Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe, disagreed with the Air Force’s conclusions and continued to regard the case as unsolved, other UFO researchers agreed with Project Sign’s conclusions in the case. As UFO historian Jerome Clark writes, “unlike some Air Force would-be solutions this one seems plausible.”