The Mantell UFO Incident

Thomas Mantell
Captain Thomas F. Mantell

The Mantell UFO Incident is one of the most significant UFO sightings of all time, mainly because it resulted in the death of a fighter pilot and subsequent change in public attitude towards UFOs.

On January 7th, 1948, Kentucky State Highway Patrol began receiving calls regarding an unidentified object hovering above Maysville, Kentucky. The object was said to be 250 to 300 feet in diameter and heading west. The reports were brought to the attention of military police and eventually Colonel Guy F. Hix of the Godman Army Air Field at Fort Knox.

For nearly an hour and a half, staff at the air field observed the object but were unable to identify it. Witnesses also watched from surrounding areas. Most witnesses described the object as motionless or moving very slowly.

At approximately 2:45 p.m., a flight of four F-51 Mustang fighters flew into the area. Flight leader, Captain Thomas F. Mantell, was asked to investigate the unidentified object. The object was at a much higher altitude so the fighters had to climb. By 22,500 feet, three of the four fighters had abandoned the pursuit due to low fuel or oxygen. Captain Mantell was also instructed to level off but continued to climb regardless.

There is some dispute over exactly which words were spoken over the radio network during the final few moments. Some air field staff claimed Mantell had described the object as "metallic and of tremendous size". Others have quoted him saying "[it's] above me and appears to be moving about half my speed".

Mantell's plane was last seen climbing in altitude. Lacking oxygen equipment, he apparently blacked out and his plane spun out of control, crashing on a farm near Franklin, Kentucky. Mantell was found dead at the scene a couple of hours later. By this time the UFO was no longer visible.

Rumors soon spread about the crash, including claims that the plane had been shot down by a UFO, the plane was full of near-microscopic holes, and mysterious wounds had been found on Captain Mantell. Although there was never any evidence for the mysterious wounds claim, two factors may have helped fuel speculation about the plane's destruction:

  1. The aircraft broke apart before hitting the ground. This is a normal result of an aircraft operating well outside its design parameters, but it is easy to see how witnesses may have misinterpreted the breakup.
  2. The aircraft landed horizontally, rather than nose-first as some people believe should have been the case.

Despite a severe lack of evidence, conspiracy and cover-up theories found a ready audience.


The initial explanation was that the object was Venus, which is known to create a similar type of illusion. However this was later ruled out by astronomers who said that Venus would not have created this effect at the time of the incident.

The final official explanation was that the object was a US Navy Skyhook weather balloon. This is by far the most plausible explanation because:


Following the Mantell incident, public opinions about UFOs inevitably changed. Whereas UFOs had previously been considered light entertainment, the Mantell incident was announced by such alarming headlines as "Flier Dies Chasing A Flying Saucer" (The New York Times). From this point on, UFOs were no longer assumed to be harmless. The UFO phenomena had changed forever.