The Mysterious Case of Captain Mantell


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2:45 PM: Captain Mantell reported an object, “directly ahead and above and move about half my speed. It appears metallic, of tremendous size. It appears like the reflection of sunlight on an airplane canopy.” Moments later, he reported, “the object is going around 360 miles an hour and it is bright and climbing away from me (at 15,000 feet).” He went on to say that he was going 20,000 feet and if he failed to close in on the object he would abandon the chase.

[Radio silence.]


The_Courier_Journal_Sun__Dec_25__1949_ (1)
Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr. (Pope, 1949)


It was a chilly Wednesday afternoon January 7, 1948 when the Kentucky Highway Patrol began receiving calls about an unidentified flying object in the sky. The calls came in from Madisonville in Hopkins County and Owensboro in the Daviess County area. That afternoon, military Sergeant Blackwell witnessed an unidentified flying object from a control tower at Fort Knox; later, Fort Knox base commander Colonel Hix reported seeing a large “white” object through binoculars. The Clinton County, Ohio Army Air Field and the Lockbourne, Ohio Army Air Field also reported an unidentified flying object. The 165th Fighter Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard was told to investigate the object by approaching it. One of the pilots from the Squadron was Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr. Sergeant Blackwell of Fort Knox maintained radio contact with Captain Mantell and the other pilots. One of the air pilots had to return due to a lack of fuel and the remaining pilots followed Captain Mantell in his pursuit of the unidentified flying object. The pilots were at approximately 22,500 feet when they called off their pursuit; however, Captain Mantell continued to climb above 25,000 feet where, due to hypoxia, he lost consciousness (Pope, 1949). Captain Mantell’s plane crashed in Simpson County, Kentucky and no further reports of the unidentified flying object were reported by 4:00 PM.


A U.S. Navy Skyhook Balloon, courtesy of Charles B. Moore. (Crawford, 1994)

According to military records, Captain Mantell’s body was removed by local firefighters and was not disintegrated, burned, or otherwise riddled with unusual wounds. It should also be noted that the wreckage of the plane was not radioactive. Rumors, however, said otherwise. There were unsubstantiated reports that Captain Mantell’s body had a number of bullet wounds, that the wreckage was radioactive, and some reports that his body was actually missing/never recovered. So, what was this unidentified flying object? A number of theories exist along with several official and unofficial investigations. According to a US study, Project Sign, which investigated unidentified flying objects during 1948, initially concluded that the culprit was the planet Venus. A new investigation by Project Blue Book a few years later reported that Venus would’ve been but a pinpoint of light and far too small. The second investigation concluded that it was likely a Skyhook Balloon, a secret military project that Captain Mantell would not have been privy to. A number of newspaper accounts report that Captain Mantell’s plane “exploded” in the air. Mrs. Joe Phillips reported to The Courier-Journal that, “the craft seemed to be having engine trouble as it passed over the house ” (Captain Mantell’s plane crashed on the Phillips farm).  A 14-year-old at a bus stop said the plane “exploded” in the air just as she looked up. 


Captain Mantell’s wife and their oldest son both believe that there was a conspiracy to cover up the incident that Captain Mantell was far too experienced to make such a deadly mistake and that military officials appeared to be evasive. (Crawford, 1994). So was it a cover-up or just a tragic mistake?


Crawford, Byron (1994, October 9). Story of secret balloon doesn’t solve all mysteries in deadly UFO chase. The Courier-Journal, p. B1.

Pope, James, S., Jr. (1949, December 25). Those flying saucers are real; May be from another planet, scientists and engineers say. The Courier-Journal, p. 19.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) 8 January, 1948, p. 1.

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