On January 7, 1948, 25-year-old Captain Thomas F. Mantell, a Kentucky Air National Guard pilot, died when he crashed his P-51 Mustang fighter plane near Franklin, Kentucky, United States, after being sent in pursuit of an unidentified flying object (UFO). Mantell pursued the object in a steep climb and disregarded suggestions to level his altitude. At high altitude, he blacked out from a lack of oxygen; his plane went into a downward spiral and crashed. The incident was among the most publicized of early UFO reports.[1] Later investigation by the United States Air Force's Project Blue Book indicated that Mantell died chasing a Skyhook balloon, which, in 1948, was a top-secret project that he would not have known about.[1][2]

Locations of Fort Knox and Franklin, Kentucky, United States


Three F-51D Mustang of the 165th Fighter Squadron, the unit in which Mantell was serving

On 7 January 1948, Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky, received a report from the Kentucky Highway Patrol of an unusual aerial object near Madisonville which could not be immediately identified.[3][4] Four F-51D Mustangs of C Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron Kentucky Air National Guard, one piloted by Captain Thomas F. Mantell, were told to approach the object. Mantell climbed to 15,000 feet. According to former U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, no one could recall Mantell's description of the object, but "saucer historians have credited him with saying" that the object was "metallic and of tremendous size". Mantell continued to climb to 22,000 feet, but his wingmen did not follow due to lack of sufficient oxygen equipment and tried to contact him to request he discontinue his ascent. Since Mantell's aircraft also lacked the requisite oxygen equipment for high-altitude flight, the Army later determined that once Mantell passed 25,000 feet (7,600 m) he blacked out from lack of oxygen and his plane began spiraling back towards the ground. Witnesses reported Mantell's Mustang in a circling descent. His plane crashed on a farm south of Franklin, on Kentucky's border with Tennessee.[1][3][4][5] Firemen later pulled Mantell's body from the wreckage. His seat belt was shredded and his wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 p.m., the time of his crash.[5]

Press coverage and rumors


The Mantell incident was reported by newspapers around the nation, and received significant press attention. A number of sensational rumors were also circulated about the 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."[6] 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.[5][3][4]

Sensational media featured a variety of unsubstantiated rumors including Mantell describing the object as "metallic", Mantell being wounded by a mysterious "ray", his body being missing from the wreckage, and unexplained tiny holes found in his wrecked aircraft; Kehoe and Ruppelt dismissed these rumors. [7]


A Skyhook balloon is filled aboard the USS Currituck (AV-7) during operation "Churchy".

Venus had been in the same place in the sky that Mantell's UFO was observed, and the crash was initially thought to have been caused by the pilot mistaking the planet for an unidentified object, a conclusion reached by Project Blue Book investigator J. Allen Hynek in 1948. Hynek later retracted the Venus explanation, concluding it 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.[1]

In 1952, Project Blue Book identified the object Mantell pursued as a Skyhook balloon, a top-secret project that he would not have known about at the time. The massive spy balloons rose to 100,000 feet in the air.[3][4] The Army determined that Mantell lost consciousness pursuing one into the atmosphere without oxygen.[4] Classified and likely released by another branch of the armed services,[8] the large craft would have been unknown to Mantell or the observers on the ground.[3][9] A report from Madisonville, Kentucky, identified the object as a balloon after viewing it through a telescope. Dr. Seyfert, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University, observed the object through binoculars drifting south of Nashville, Tennessee. He described it as "a pear-shaped balloon with cables and a basket attached."[6]

While UFOs are culturally associated with the mysterious, they are often later identified, particularly as balloons.[10] Skyhook sightings were behind many UFO reports during the 1940s and 1950s.[11][12] The more famous Roswell Incident and 2023 high-altitude sightings were also later attributed to military balloon projects.[10]

Thomas Mantell biography

Thomas Mantell
Kentucky National Guard image of Mantell
Born(1922-06-30)30 June 1922
Franklin, Kentucky, U.S.
Died7 January 1948(1948-01-07) (aged 25)
near Franklin, Kentucky, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Air Force
Years of service1942–1948
Unit440th Troop Carrier Group
Battles/warsWorld War II (Operation Overlord)
AwardsDistinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal

Captain Thomas Francis Mantell Jr. (30 June 1922 – 7 January 1948) was a United States Air Force officer and a World War II veteran. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courageous action during D-Day, and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters for aerial achievement.[13][14]



Mantell graduated from Male High School in Louisville. On 16 June 1942, he joined the United States Army Air Corps, the preceding organization to the Air Force, finishing Flight School on 30 June 1943.[13] During World War II, he was a C-47 Skytrain pilot assigned to the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group, which air dropped the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy on 6 June 1944.[9]

Mantell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism while piloting a C-47 named Vulture's Delight and towing a glider under heavy anti-aircraft fire.[9]

After the war, Mantell returned to Louisville and joined the newly formed Kentucky Air National Guard on 16 February 1947, becoming a F-51D Mustang pilot in the 165th Fighter Squadron.

Following his death in January 1948, Mantell's remains were sent to Louisville for burial in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.[15] He was survived by his wife Peggy and their sons, Thomas and Terry Mantell.

Captain Thomas F Mantell, Jr. Marker in Franklin, KY about the crash of his aircraft and death in pursuit of a UFO in 1948.

On 29 September 2001, the Simpson County Historical Society unveiled a historical marker in honor of Mantell in his hometown of Franklin. The marker is located at the exit off Interstate 65.[15]



See also



  1. ^ a b c d Ruppelt, Edward J. (1956). "Chapter Three". The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Cambridge, UK: Doubleday Books. pp. 44–45, 50, 56.
  2. ^ Klass, Philip J. (1974). UFOs Explained (hardback ed.). Random House. pp. 35–39. ISBN 0-394-49215-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e Graff, Garrett M. (8 February 2023). "A History of Confusing Stuff in the Sky". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 9 Feb 2023. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e Stilwell, Blake (31 October 2022). "The First Air Force Pilot to Die Chasing a UFO Was Actually Chasing a Secret Balloon". Military.com. Archived from the original on 16 Nov 2023. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  5. ^ a b c Peebles, Curtis (1994). "Chapter 3: The Classics". Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Smithsonian Institution. "The Death of Mantell". p. 18–21. ISBN 1-56098-343-4.
  6. ^ a b Peebles 1994, p. 20
  7. ^ Lucanio, Patrick; Coville, Gary (25 June 2002). Smokin' Rockets: The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television, 1945-1962. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-1233-4.
  8. ^ Cogan, Robert (1998). Critical thinking: step by step. Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America. p. 211. ISBN 9780761810674.
  9. ^ a b c Swopes, Bryan (7 January 2023). "Thomas Francis Mantell Jr". This Day in Aviation. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  10. ^ a b Koren, Marina (3 February 2023). "The Chinese Balloon and the Disappointing Reality of UFOs". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 4 Feb 2023. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  11. ^ Scoles, Sarah (13 November 2023). "Wonder if UFOs are real? The government has been trying to find out, too". Washington Post. Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  12. ^ Gildenberg, B.D. (2004). "The Cold War's Classified Skyhook Program". Skeptical Inquirer. 28 (3).
  13. ^ a b "Kentucky: National Guard History eMuseum. Captain Thomas Francis Mantell Jr". Commonwealth of Kentucky. Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2011-06-03. On Saturday, 29 September 2001, the Simpson County Historical Society unveiled a historical marker in honor of Thomas F. Mantell, Jr.
  14. ^ Berry Craig (9 November 2011). Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The History Press. pp. 40–43. ISBN 978-1-60949-397-4. Retrieved 2012-06-03. The blue and gold plaque stands outside the Simpson County tourist office.
  15. ^ a b "Captain Thomas Francis Mantell Jr". Commonwealth of Kentucky. Archived from the original on 13 July 2012. Retrieved 2023-11-16.

Additional reading


36°40.063′N 86°33.461′W / 36.667717°N 86.557683°W / 36.667717; -86.557683