(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

The pilot who died while chasing a UFO

I recently came across an interesting tidbit and the story behind a historical marker in Franklin, Ky.: The tale of an Air Force captain who crashed and died while chasing a UFO in 1948. Sweetums and I didn’t know about the marker when we were in Franklin a couple of summers ago or we would have stopped for photos. It’s a fascinating story. Here’s an abbreviated version:

On January 7, 1948, Captain Thomas F. Mantell of the Kentucky Air National Guard died when the fighter plane he was flying crashed. Mantell, age 25, was sent to find the identity of an unidentified flying object seen in the sky.

This historical marker in Franklin, Ky., describes Capt. Mantell’s pursuit of the UFO and his subsequent death. (Photo from Mark S. Hilton | Wikimedia Commons)

The round, white object was spotted earlier that day near Madisonville, according to a Kentucky Highway Patrolman who reported the sighting to Godman Army Airfield in Fort Knox. More reports described the object as being as much as 300 feet in diameter.

Among those reporting sightings was Sergeant Quinton Blackwell, who saw the strange object from the control tower at the airfield. Base commander Colonel Guy Hix also reported seeing the object and described it as “very white,” and “about one fourth the size of the full moon … Through binoculars it appeared to have a red border at the bottom … It remained stationary, seemingly, for one and a half hours.”

An F-51D Mustang of the 165th Fighter Squadron, like the one Capt. Mantell was flying. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mantell pursued the UFO and went into a steep climb before his plane suddenly plummeted to the ground and crashed. Investigators said he likely blacked out from lack of oxygen at the high altitude. His is the only recorded death from chasing a UFO. The Air Force later reported the object may have been a Skyhook balloon, a new and top secret project at the time.

The historical marker says:

“Captain Thomas F. Mantell. Born in Franklin, Ky., 30 June 1922. Graduated Male High School, Louisville. Joined army Air Corps, 16 June 1942. Graduated Flight School, 30 June 1943. During WWII, Mantell assigned to 440th Troop Carrier Group, 96th Troop Carrier Squadron, 9th Air Force. Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal w/3 OLCs for heroism. Following the war returned to Louisville. Joined newly organized Kentucky Air National Guard, assigned as Flight Leader, “C” Flight, 165th Fighter Squadron. Kentucky Air National Guard on 16 February 1947. 7 January 1948, while on training flight with three other P-51Ds (Mustang) Mantell was directed by flight tower at Godman Field to pursue an unidentified flying object. While in pursuit of object, died in plane crash near this site. The story of Mantell’s death while chasing UFO made headlines across the country. Intense military investigation of incident became part of Project SIGN later BLUEBOOK, the military’s investigations into UFOs. Much speculation and conjecture has been written about the incident; it is still uncertain what Mantell was pursuing at the time of the crash. Mantell is the first flight casualty of the Kentucky Air National Guard. Buried Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Ky.”

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