This story came to me in a small book called Flying Saucers, published by Cowles and United Press International in 1967, and compiled by the editors of such. The book has a few stories I had not heard elsewhere, including this one. Written by Eloise Feola./
Captain Thomas Mantell, Jr., has been enshrined as a sort of martyr by flying saucer believers. He was killed after he closed in on a UFO in an Air Force fighter plane over the frigid skies above Kentucky in January, 1948. Mantell, 25, was an expert pilot. In World War II, he was one of the first to bomb the Cherbourg peninsula in advance of the invasion forces on D-Day. He had won the Distinguisged Flying Cross, awarded for a mission over the Netherlands in which enemy fire cut the rudder and elevator controls of his plane and set the tail sections ablaze. He completed the mission and got his crew and plane to safety. Early in the afternoon of Jan. 7, 1948, Mantell was in command of a group of P-51 fighters being ferried from Marietta AFB, Ga., to Standiford Field near Louisville, Ky. Dozens of persons on the ground in the area of Madisonville, Ky., had been telephoning police to report seeing a circular object hovering overhead and giving off a brilliant red glow. State police alerted Goodman Field, an air base at Fort Know. Fifteen minutes later the UFO was spotted by Goodman Field tower crew which notified the base operations officer, the intelligence officer and, eventually, Col. Guy F. Hix, base commanding officer. Hix contacted Mantell by radio and asked his squadron to investigate. Flying with Mantell were Lt. Robert Hendricks, Lt. Buford Hammond, and Lt. Albert Clements. A short time later, Mantell reported he had spotted the UFO and that he and his planes were in pursuit. Hendricks today is a lieutenant colonel with the Kentucky Air National Guard in charge of wing operations in Louisville. "We were told there was an object up there," Hendricks recalls. "And we were told to go up and take a look. I never saw it. But the others apparently did. And Tom [Mantell] started climbing. I returned to the base because I didn't have any oxygen." Hammond and Clements also gave up the chase but Mantell went on. He reported to the tower that the object seemed to "rest," then pick up a burst of speed, always outdistancing his plane. After half an hour of pursuit, Mantell's voice cut in again: "It's directly ahead of me and moving at about half my speed. I'm closing in now to take a good look. The thing looks metallic and is trememdous in size." That was at 3:15 p.m. It was the last transmission from Mantell. Less than an hour later searchers found his crashed plane. His watch had stopped at 3:18 p.m. Parts of the wreckage were strewn over an area of more than half a mile. Mantell's death brought excited speculation. But some facts were quickly established. There were no bullet wounds. The plane had not burned and was not radioactive. The left wing had broken off. In that year, the United States Navy was conducting a secret operation called Project Skyhook in which it sent up Skyhook balloons to collect information about the atmosphere high above the earth. The balloons expanded in size to 250 feet in length and 100 feet in diameter. They reacher altitudes of more than 70,000 feet and could travel thousands of miles. Their existence very likely was unknown to Mantell. The Air Force says it believes that Mantell saw a Skyhook balloon. In its report on the inverstigation of the incident, the Air Force concludes that Mantell lost consciousness because of lack of oxygen at an altitude of between 25,000 and 30,000 feet. Air Force investigators believe the aircraft continued to climb for a time, then went into a steep dive during which it partially disintegrated. Mantell never regained consciousness. "The UFO was in no way directly responsible for this accident," the report says. "However, it is probable that the excitement caused by the object was responsible for this experienced pilot conducting a high altitude flight without the necessary oxygen equipment." The Air Force does not attempt to explain why Mantell thought the object was "metallic" or how it could move at speeds much faster than his plane, the stop and start up swiftly again. Other scientific observers have said the sheen of a Skyhook balloon could give off a metallic apperance and that a balloon, caught in the tremendous winds at high altitude, could play strange tricks on vision. Mantell's mother still lives in Louisville. "He was a calm, bright young man," she says. "I don't know what happened."/
For more on the Mantell case, check out the UFO Casebook.