By John FriedleinFORT KNOX — Sure there’s a UFO, a space beam and a hush-hush government project — but this is mainly a story about timing.
The News Enterprise
The News Enterprise
First, it was 60 years ago today that Capt. Thomas Mantell died while chasing what, at the time, was a UFO.
Second, his close encounter happened six months to the day after a “flying saucer” crashed at a Roswell, N.M., ranch. Americans were gaga over green men.
Third, Mantell and his P-51 Mustang fighter squadron happened to enter the Army post’s airspace at about the same time as the UFO, which reports say looked like a white ice cream cone with a glowing red tip.
The supervisor at Godman Airfield tower that afternoon asked Mantell for an obvious favor: If you’ve got enough fuel, would you mind checking this out for us?
Space travelers aside, the Cold War was getting really chilly and there was no telling what the Soviets were up to. Add to the mix the fact that Mantell, flying for the Kentucky Air National Guard, was a decorated World War II pilot.
He obviously felt the investigation important enough to risk his own life, said Frank John Reid, a historical consultant for the Center for UFO studies in Chicago.
So Mantell set off pretty much alone, pushing his plane far beyond what it was designed to do.
Before he crashed, he managed to describe to those at the tower what appeared to be a “metallic object” of “tremendous size,” which varied in speed between about 180 to more than 300 mph, according to testimony of the airport’s chief operator posted on the Web site of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.
When Mantell had positioned himself directly behind and slightly below the UFO, he uttered his final communication: “I am trying to close in for a better look.”
The chase had drawn him to 20,000 feet or higher. Above 10,000 feet, a pilot in that kind of plane would need supplemental oxygen, said Lt. Col. Tim Moore, a state representative and member of the Kentucky Air National Guard.
Mantell — who didn’t have this resource (a problem that could explain why he thought the object sped up so much) — passed out and his plane plunged to the ground south of Bowling Green.
The incident received a lot of media coverage and myths about it sprouted up. For instance, rumor has it Mantell saw windows on the craft, and his wrecked plane had strange holes as if some sort of laser beam had shot it down.
What happened, exactly, wasn’t made clear until quite a few years after the encounter, Reid said.
Most now agree the object was a balloon. Specifically, Reid believes it was a Skyhook balloon the Navy had launched the day before in Minnesota. Operation Skyhook was a secret initiative to collect atmospheric data and put spy cameras over the Soviet Union, Reid said.
While Reid is quick to give a terrestrial explanation of Mantell’s sighting, he “wobbles” about whether we ever have been visited by an intelligence beyond our own.
Regardless of what Mantell saw, the fact it led to his death darkened our views of UFOs.
“It was a very sobering incident,” Reid said.
It also is a story still repeated by those who venture into the sky — “kind of a unique footnote in the history of the Kentucky Air National Guard,” Master Sgt. Tim Gagnon said.