By 1948 a number of people had seen mysterious unidentified flying objects. And while Gordon Cooper had only recently seen the first officially labeled “flying saucer” as the media would later come to call it, the phenomenon at this point finally started to take off in the mainstream press. And so one of the first casualties of the UFO phenomenon happened in the form of the Mantell Incident when the pilot opened fire and engaged an unidentified flying object.
Mantell was flying an F-51 alongside his wing of three others as they headed back to Standiford Air Base on patrol. It was a bright day just after noon, but the police on the ground had been fielding calls all day of a mysterious disc shaped craft that had been in the skies above them for hours. As word reached up the military chain of command, Mantell was called to investigate. Those above Godman Air Force Base had already confirmed visual of the object which they described as a massive disc shaped object with a small light on the underside of the craft, bright silver in color, and heading south. As the wing closed in on Mansville where the object had last been seen, they secured permission to track the object. Climbing to an altitude of 15,000 feet they zeroed in on the craft and began describing it to those on the ground. When Mantell’s wingmen broke off the pursuit he stayed on target and approached it, describing it as being just out of his reach. By the time he reached 30,000 feet no one knows what happened, but his plane was discovered crashed and emitting flames and smoke. The first reports that came out had a shocking bit of information. Mantell’s body was missing from the pilot’s seat even though his seat belt was still attached and his ejection seat had not been used.
Those hearing these first reports said there would have been no known way for Mantell to escape his plane, and the crash was horrific enough that no one could have possibly survived. No signs of anyone walking away from the crash remained. And as they continued to investigate these reports became dissonant and conflicting. Soon the story was changed saying Mantell’s body was found at the crash site right away and the reports to the contrary were nothing more than unfounded rumors. Rumors that would prove to be the exclamation mark to what was already a harrowing story.
It’s hard to think about this sort of thing happening today in some ways, and in others it’s all too easy to imagine a pilot disappearing after chasing an unidentified object. It was the Mantell case that no doubt helped bring about the official investigation into the subject of UFOs, project Blue Book.
Years later a disturbingly similar story would come about when an Australian flight student would disappear while following an unidentified flying object. The two cases had very similar themes to them. Some have said the object Mantell chased might have been a weather balloon, but at the speed he was flying this seems to be a remote possibility. In the end the incident is one of the most troubling mysteries of UFO flight history.