His 2,867 flight hours, much of it in combat, and Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals weren’t enough to avoid a fatal crash near a Franklin, Kentucky farm.
Exactly 75 years later, Capt. Thomas Mantell’s flight that afternoon still remains shrouded in mystery. He died while pursuing a UFO that was seen in the skies over Godman Army Airfield by countless people throughout the region surrounding Fort Knox.
On Jan. 7, 1948, Mantell sat in the cockpit of his F-51D Mustang as flight leader headed north from Marietta Air Force Base in Georgia back to Louisville’s Standiford Field. He and three other pilots from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s Flight C, 165th Fighter Squadron had been participating in a low-altitude navigational training exercise when the request came from Godman Commander Col. Guy Hix to investigate the sightings.
The 25-year-old World War II hero acknowledged the request, and he and two other pilots climbed to 15,000 feet to intercept it. The fourth, a “Lt. Hendricks”, continued on to Standiford Field.
According to a Jan. 6, 2005 article by Turret editor Larry Barnes, several hundred people in Central Kentucky had already witnessed the UFO by 1:15 p.m. on that Wednesday, a day described by some observers as partly cloudy with high-altitude feathery cirrus clouds. That day is recorded by Wunderground.com as also having relatively calm winds, mild temperatures — a high of 49 degrees — zero precipitation, and visibility for at least 10 miles.
“It would have been probably a typical winter day. If they had cirrus clouds in the sky, the visibility would have been great,” said an area weather forecaster. “There was just nothing much else going on weatherwise, so it probably made for a pretty good day.”
News agencies wasted no time turning the crash into front-page news. The big questions on everyone’s minds: What did Mantell encounter, and why did he crash?