The F-51D Mustang came plummeting out of the sky like a sick bird. At the last second it tried to pull out of its fatal dive, but it was too late. Nine-thousand pounds of steel, glass and rubber disintegrated in the air then slammed into the ground. The wings and tail tore off and were thrown thousands of feet from the body of the aircraft. When the smoking fuselage finally came to rest on a farm field in Franklin, Kentucky, Air Force Captain Thomas F. Mantell, a pilot with 2867 hours of flight experience, was dead. But why did he die?

The story starts several hours earlier on January 7th, 1948, at 1:45 P.M.. Calls had been coming in to the Godman Air Force Base in Kentucky from nearby Fort Knox about a UFO. Sargent Quinton Blackwell, chief operator at the Godman control tower, had just spotted the object himself. Later he recalled that it resembled "an ice cream cone topped with red." The tower crew called the operations officer, Captain Gary Carter, and pointed the object out to him. Carter, in turn, called Colonel Guy Hix, the commanding officer.

At 2:20 PM a flight of four F-51D aircraft approached Godman en-route from Marietta AFB to Standiford AFB. The flight, led by Captain Mantell, was requested by the Godman tower to investigate the object. Mantell agreed and started climbing. Two other Mustangs went with him. The fourth, low on fuel, continued on to Standiford.

At 14,000 feet Mantell reported, "The object is directly ahead of me and above me now, moving at about half my speed."

The three planes rose together nearing 22,000 feet. Because the air is so thin at high altitudes, pilots in planes with non-pressurized cabins operating above 14,000 feet are required to use oxygen masks. Without supplementary oxygen a pilot can became delirious and blackout. Two of the Mustangs broke off the pursuit because their oxygen tanks were low. Mantell, apparently believing he was getting enough oxygen, kept going.

Around 3:15 some of the tower crew thought they heard Mantell say, "It appears to be a metallic object or possible reflections of sun from a metallic object, and it is of tremendous size. I'm still climbing, the object is above and ahead of me moving at my speed or faster. I'm trying to close for a better look."

Further messages from the pilot were garbled and shortly afterward all contact was lost. At 3:50PM the Godman tower lost sight of the UFO, too.

At about 5 PM the remains of Mantell's plane was found scattered across a farm (right). The Air Force investigation determined that Mantell had probably lost consciousness,due to lack of oxygen when his plane hit 25,000 feet. The aircraft may have continued to climb till it reached 30,000 feet, its limit, then nose-dived. As it raced toward the ground Mantell may have recovered his senses and tried to pull up, but it was too late. The forces of the dive were too high and the plane came apart while still in the air.

There were rumors that the plane had been shot down by a UFO, or that the Russians had caused the crash, or that the body was missing from the cockpit, or that wreckage was highly radioactive. They were all false.

A mystery did remain. If Mantell had blacked out and crashed chasing something, just what was he chasing? The Air Force suggested several explanations.

First, was that the object was the planet Venus. While Venus is often mistaken for a UFO, it seems unlikely in this case. Another explanation was that the object was a weather balloon. Given Mantell's description, though, a typical weather balloon seems much too small.

Another explanation offered by Professor Donald Menzel was that the object was an optical illusion known as a "sundog." Sundogs, or "parhelion" as they are also called, are the result of sunlight being reflected off ice crystals high in the sky. They can appear as a large, bright object. This theory seems flawed, though, as the object was spotted from several different locations at different directions and the sundog is dependent on the viewer, the ice, and the sun, being in particular positions relative to one another.

Years later a more likely possibility surfaced. During that period the Navy was running a top secret program named "Skyhook." It involved the use of very large balloons at very high altitudes to measure cosmic rays. It has been suggested that Mantell was chasing one of these balloons. Since the Skyhook balloons operated at much higher altitudes (60,000 feet) than the Mustang could obtain, Mantell could never have overtaken it.

Still, it is impossible to prove for sure what Mantell saw. There were reports of a UFO later that same day over Ohio. Too far for a skyhook balloon to have drifted in such a short time.

Copyright Lee Krystek 1998. All Rights Reserved.


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