Fatal 1948 Accident Traced To Erroneous UFO Sighting Report

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As recalled in a story posted on military.com, one of the first American military pilots to respond to a UFO report lost his life while at the controls of his F-51 Mustang piston fighter (changed from P-51 to F-51 after World War II) in January 1948. But it wasn’t advanced alien laser weapons that brought down decorated WWII combat veteran Captain Thomas Mantell, but rather the same hazard that continues to cause aircraft to crash to this day. And the UFO, itself, wasn’t what everyone thought it was, at first.

Mantell led a flight of four Mustangs, scrambled to respond to reports of “a mysterious object” hovering above a farm in Maysville, Kentucky. The four fighters, surplus aircraft assigned to the Kentucky Air National Guard, took off from Godman Army Airfield, located at Fort Knox. Mantell radioed controllers that he had spotted what appeared to be an object that was “metallic” and “tremendous in size,” and that the Mustangs would investigate.

They climbed to 15,000 feet, where the other three pilots stopped since they did not have oxygen on board. Neither did Mantell, but he kept climbing, anyway. Controllers heard no further communications from the aircraft. Local residents saw his Mustang spiral into the ground at high speed. It was later concluded that he had passed out from hypoxia.

The “UFO” turned out to be a secret, high-altitude U.S. Navy atmospheric testing balloon. Mantell would have had no way of knowing this when he took off, or when he chose to pursue the object to dangerously high altitudes.

To cover the secret of the classified balloon, the Air Force told reporters that Mantell died while chasing the planet Venus, despite the fact that the incident occurred in full daylight when Venus would have been visible as just a pinpoint of light in the sky, if at all.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. OK, so the year was 1948. In 2022 our communications between agencies are still NOT that much better. A combat-seasoned pilot who didn’t understand hypoxia even in 1948. All it takes is one or two mistakes and the ultimate price is paid.

  2. Two points:
    1. the Mustangs (F-51s) of the Kentucky Air National Guard were not “surplus.” In the same way, the F-16s, A-10s, B-1s and KC-135’s of today’s Air National Guard can hardly be considered “surplus.” (Some regular USAF units were still equipped with F-51s in 1948, too.)

    2. I have flown out of Godman Army Airfield, and I always thought that the Venus story to be very believable. Venus can appear VERY large and VERY bright in the hours preceding sunset. It also appears in the sky SW of GAAF, the direction the fighters flew. Which, by the way, is inconsistent with the ground observations of the UFO. Maysville, KY, is NE of GAAF. Subsequent sightings were Irvington and Owensboro, KY, which are due west of GAAF. Franklin, KY, where Mantell crashed, is SSW of GAAF. It is also interesting that the surviving pilots did not report seeing a large object, but something small and indistinct. As Venus sinks in the sky, it can appear brighter and larger (just like the moon does) and give the appearance that the pilot is closing on it. (Hypoxia would help in that regard.) Mantell’s last transmission is consistent with that, “The object is directly ahead of me and slightly above, and is now moving at about my speed or better. I am trying to close in for a better look.”

    My own opinion is that what was seen by ground observers over Maysville, Irvington, and Owensboro may have been an experimental balloon. I believe, however, that what the pilots of the 165th Fighter Squadron chased was not the reported UFO. They went in a direction at least 60 degrees off from the ground observations and their observations of the target were inconsistent with reports from the ground. Their observations were, however, consistent with my own experience flying from GAAF when Venus appears in the afternoon sky.

    • More than once, flying from east coast US to points west at night, fellow crew members and I have done double takes on Venus knowing full well that she is very capable of faking us out, especially in the high flight levels. The one thing she has never done to us is reveal herself on TCAS. Great entertainment if nothing else.

    • Christopher: Fair point on “surplus.” I used the word in a more generic sense, and that’s inaccurate.
      And thank you for contributing your first-hand observations.

  3. I was taught that altitude wouldn’t kill you. It was a lack of altitude that would. I guess in this case, altitude was the catalyst. Interesting.

    • Arthur: That could be attributed to WWII-inspired fighter pilot bravado. When Col. Don Blakeslee was briefing the 4th Fighter Group for the “Frantic” Russian shuttle mission, he told them they would not be carrying oxygen (weight savings). “You won’t need it. You’ll be at 15,000 feet. Anyone who needs oxygen at 15,000 feet doesn’t belong in the group.”

      • Mark, chasing Ruskies over Kentucky in 1948 is ludicrous. Not using O2 in a high altitude climb is, well, the outcome is predictable.

  4. Well, for those who remember Project Blue Book, we now have to include something other than weather balloons, swamp gas, and ball lightning to include the planet Venus as the real explanations for UFOs. It would seem that with all the proliferation of cell phones and trail cameras, we would by now have significant databases of evidence of both UFOS and big foot, but we don’t.

    • Before you dismiss the whole UAP\UFO please read the book by Leslie Kean on the matter. Over 700 accounts from all over the globe of unexplained aerial objects experienced by civilian airline and military pilots. A lot more have been explained away by wx balloons, Venus, etc. but there are credible instances that stir the imagination. Blue Book was a terrible cover up the US government did primarily to debunk the true sightings. The motivation was the Cold War: if unexplained aerial things were penetrating our airspace without our knowing it or control it would show our enemies our vulnerability.

      Keep in mind BB is an American thing and these sightings have been recorded world wide by many people.

      The book doesn’t purport that these are from out of our world or that they are manned at all. They’re just taking a scientific approach at the observations and coming to conclusions that on,y the facts support.

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