The deadly outcome of the Mantell UFO Incident

A red flaming cone trailing a gaseous green mist appeared in the sky over Clinton County Air Base between 7:20 and 8:55 p.m. on January 7, 1948. At least, that's what observers told the All Weather Flying Center, a subdivision of the airbase, for their press release. This was the second report of the UFO sighting that day.

Earlier that day in Kentucky, Thomas Francis Mantell, Jr., a twenty-five-year-old member of the Kentucky Air National Guard and World War II veteran, was asked to investigate a report from the Kentucky State Highway Patrol that something was flying over Maysville. When Mantell and his wingmen reached 15,000 feet he described, according to an analysis of the report logged by the National Investigations Committee of Aerial Phenomena, an object that "above me and [appeared] to be moving about half my speed" and was "metallic and it is tremendous in size." They decided to follow it. 

One of the wingmen, Lt. B. A. Hammond, recalled how they failed to take on oxygen even as they continued their ascent: "I felt a little shaky at 15,000 feet because I realized we were supposed to take oxygen at 12,000. By the time I hit 22,000, 1 was seeing double. I pulled alongside Clements and indicated with gestures that I didn't have an oxygen mask. In fact, I circled my finger around my head to show him I was getting woozy. He understood the situation, and we turned back." Mantell stayed course, disregarding the oxygen deprivation.

An Icarus-like plummet

By 3:15 p.m., both radio and visual contact with Mantell had been lost. A search was launched at 5:00 p.m.

In a home 35 miles out from Franklin, Kentucky, a six-and-a-half-year-old William Hamilton saw an object as bright as an arc welder seen in the distance" flying with an F-51 Mustang ascending in pursuit. Mr. and Mrs. Maues, who were at the Cool Springs School and Cool Springs Church respectively, reported seeing a plane in a spiraling descent at about 3:30. At 2000 feet, the plane came apart and crashed 150 yards away from the home of a Mrs. Joe Philips.

Inside, Mantell was dead. His wristwatch had stopped at 3:18 p.m. The explanation given by the Army Air Forces Report of Major Accident was that in the course of following his orders, i.e. to investigate the unusual phenomenon, Mantell suffered from oxygen deprivation: "Since canopy lock was in place after the crash, it is assumed that Captain Mantell made no attempt to abandon the aircraft, and was unconscious at moment of crash or had died from lack of oxygen before aircraft began spiraling dive from about 30000 feet." In the chaos, the UFO had vanished.

The tragedy, as ufology historian David M. Jacobs notes, spurred the public interest to the point of shifting UFO's from a niche hobby to a more mainstream concern: "Now a dramatic new prospect entered thought about UFOs: they might be not only extraterrestrial but potentially hostile as well."