Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anniversary of the Mantell incident




Today is the anniversary of what was once thought as a striking event in UFO phenomenon.  January 7th, 1948 is the day on which Army pilot Thomas Mantell lost his life in pursuit of a UFO.

I have been reading The Truth About Flying Saucers by Aime Michel.  Though published in the 1950s, Michel does an admirable job of objectively going through significant UFO reports and analyzing them.  Often in the book, Michel attacks the UFO identifications proposed by Donald Menzel, which were oftentimes more ludicrous than the notion of alien visitation.  Michel included an entire section on the Mantell incident.  Sadly, I have misplaced my copy of the book and have chosen instead to use a report on the incident written by Kevin Randle (you can get a PDF version of the source in the "Notes" section of the Wikipedia article on Mantell.)

The incident unfolded as Godman Army Airfield (this was prior to the formal formation of the US Air Force) in Kentucky received a call from the State Police reporting a UFO over the area.  The object was described as saucer shaped and moving at a steady speed.  The information was brought to the base's commander and intelligence officer, Guy F. Hix.  He was unable to identify the object.  Meanwhile, sightings of the UFO kept pouring in from the region.

A flight of F-51 Mustangs was directed to pursue (this fighter aircraft is the same type as the venerable P-51 Mustang from World War II.  After the war, the aircraft was given an "F" designation for "fighter" rather than "P" for "pursuer.")  Capt. Thomas Mantell was the leader of this flight.  He and his wingmen began an enormous climb to 15,000 feet after the object.  Mantell radioed the tower that he had in sight an object that was  "metallic and it is tremendous in size."  One of Mantell's wingmen described the UFO as looking "like an ice cream cone," meaning it was rounded at the top and tapered to a point at the bottom.  A red light at the top furthered the comparison, the "cherry" if you will.

At the time, the military required oxygen gear for any flying over 14,000 feet.  One of the wingmen encountered a breakdown in his oxygen equipment and therefore returned to base.  Other wingmen broke off the chase as the object continued to ascend.  Though his own plane was not outfitted with oxygen equipment, Mantell continued to climb after the UFO.  After half an hour total of pursuit, all radar and radio contact with Mantell was lost.  Fearing the worst, a search immediately commenced for the pilot.

They found him.  His body was inside the cockpit of his F-51 that crashed into a rural region about half a mile outside of Franklin, Kentucky...the town in which Mantell was born, coincidentally enough.

So what are we to make of this?  Was this an early incident of aerial battle between our military and a UFO?  If not, then what was it that Mantell chased to his eventual demise?  Kevin Randall, along with UFO researchers such as Jerome Clark, seem to have it figured out and sadly, I must concur with them.

The object was likely a balloon, more specifically a Skyhook balloon.  These were balloons launched to high altitudes to study meteorology, the atmosphere, and even the Sun and cosmic rays.  Yeah yeah, I know...the old "weather balloon" explanation.  Cliche not withstanding, such balloons were the culprits of many UFO sightings in the early days of the modern UFO era.  When these balloons reached higher altitudes, the change in pressure tended to flatten them out a bit, giving them an almost saucer-like appearance or more specifically, a look akin to an "ice cream cone."  Such balloons also had red beacon lights at their tops.  So the most likely explanation is that Mantell pursued a balloon and pushed himself and his aircraft far beyond the flight envelope to where he passed out from low levels of oxygen.  His plane then went into a power dive and crashed outside of Franklin.

This all makes for a tidy explanation and I agree that it is the most likely one.  It does seem odd to me, however, that Hix, the head of base intelligence, could not identify the object as a Skyhook balloon.  Neither, it would seem, could anyone else.  I'm not saying that this equates to "alien UFO," especially not in light of the evidence.  It's just interesting how even qualified experts can be fooled sometimes.  Yet any way you look at it, it's still a sad story.  Someone lost their life as a result.



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