Bob Koford inadvertently opened a can of worms with a couple of his comments about the Mantell case. Using much of the Project Blue Book case file, he suggested that the balloon explanation didn’t work because the balloon was only at 20,000 feet and that a witness at Vanderbilt University had been watching it but saw no sign of Thomas Mantell’s F-51. Besides, the information suggested that Mantell hadn’t climbed above 20,000 feet and that he had left his wing men at
15,000 in his attempt to get closer to the UFO.
This didn’t match much of what I remembered about the case and took a look at the Blue Book file. In it, I found documentation that was somewhat at odds with what Koford had written. I found a report written on January 21, 1948, by Captain Lee Merkel of the Kentucky Air National Guard. Merkel, in a section called “Investigation Disclosed,” he wrote:
k. At 18,000 feet, Lt. Clements attempted to pull up close to the flight leader and signal him with hand signals to listen out on Channel B…
m. At 20,000 feet, Lt. Clements advised Captain Mantell that their ETA for Standiford had elapsed…
o. At approximately 20,000 feet, Captain Mantell called the flights attention to an object at 1200 o’clock… (Copied as written).
p. Captain Mantell’s transmission was garbled, but Lt. Clements stated he mentioned something about going to 25,000 feet for 10 minutes.
q. At 22,500 feet, Lt. Clements advised flight leader [Mantell] that he was breaking off to lead other wingman back to Standiford Field.
s. At the time Lt. Clements and Lt. Hammond broke off from the flight (22,500) Captain Mantell was observed climbing directly into the sun.
Those aren’t the only indications of the pilots operating above 14,000 feet without oxygen. In another document which is labeled, “Description of the Accident,” it was noted that “One pilot left the flight as the climb began, the remaining two discontinued the climb at approximately 22000 feet… Captain Mantell was heard to say in ship to ship conversation that he would go to 25000 feet for about ten minutes…”
All that seems straight forward and indicates that the pilots were far above the 14000 foot altitude where regulations required that they go on oxygen. So where did this idea come from that suggested 15000 feet as the altitudes where Clements and Hammond turned back but Mantell continued to climb?
Part of the confusion might be from T/Sgt Quinton A. Blackwell who was in the Godman Tower and who quoted Mantell as saying, at 15000 feet, “Object directly ahead and above me now and moving at about half my speed. It appears metallic and tremendous in size. I’m trying to close in for a better look.”
Captain Gary W. Carter, also in the tower, said that Mantell said that the object was going up and forward as fast as he was and that Mantell said, “…going to 20000 feet and if no closer will abandon chase.”
(I will note hear, apropos of nothing, that Colonel Hix, in the tower said that Mantell said the object was traveling at about half his speed and that Lt. Orner, also in the tower, said he heard Mantell say the same thing. It is also important to note that Blackwell reported that Mantell said, “It appears metallic and tremendous in size.)
Ed Ruppelt, who is often considered the authority on all this, included the Mantell case in his book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Looking at some of what Ruppelt wrote about the case, I begin to wonder if we might have given
Ruppelt too much credit. On
page 48 of the Ace paperback edition, Ruppelt wrote, “Saucer historians have
credited him with saying, “I’ve sighted the thing. It looks metallic and
tremendous in size…” While this sentence seems to suggest that the statement
was invented by UFO researchers, it is found in the official record and Ruppelt
had to know that.
|Capt. Ed Ruppelt|
Ruppelt then wrote that the two wing men had levelled off at 15,000 feet and were trying to communicate with Mantell. Ruppelt wrote:
He [Mantell] had climbed far above them by this time and was out of sight. Since none of them had any oxygen they were worried about Mantell. Their calls were not answered. Mantell never talked to anyone again. The two wing men levelled off at 15,000 feet, made another fruitless effort to call Mantell, and started to come back down. As they passed Godman Tower on their way to their base, one of them said something to the effect that all he had seen was a reflection on his canopy.
Ruppelt never wavers from this 15,000 feet or that Mantell had tried to get to 20,000 feet. He goes on to explain that in the training of pilots and crewmen, they are exposed to the problems of high altitude flying and have “it pounded into to [them], ‘Do not, under any circumstances, go above 15,000 feet without oxygen.’” Ruppelt tells us that no one ever got above 17,000 in the altitude chamber tests in training without experiencing adverse effects from altitude, but experiments made long after this event suggest that many humans will be able to remain conscious at 20,000 feet for about ten minutes. Some are able to stay conscious longer and many not quite so long. If Mantell had said he was going to 25,000 feet and circle for ten minutes before starting to descend, he had no chance. Useful consciousness at that altitude is about three minutes. After he trimmed his aircraft to climb, he passed out and the F-51 continued to climb until it rolled over and began a powered dive that resulted in it breaking up. Mantell did not attempt to stop the dive nor did he attempt to bail out. The canopy latches were all closed.
Interestingly, several others who wrote about the Mantell case such as T. Scott Crain, Jr. in the MUFON Journal, reported on the higher figures mentioning that the wing men broke away before Mantell reached 22,500 feet. Given that an illustration in the article is from the Blue Book files, it is clear that Crain had the same information as the rest of us today.
Here’s the point I find it somewhat disturbing. Ruppelt suggests that they never really climbed above 15,000 feet though the official record suggests otherwise. I’m not sure why Ruppelt did that unless he was attempting to protect the pilots involved and removed the information that they had violated regulations. He does report that Mantell said that he was going to 20,000 feet and then said nothing more. But the documentation available suggests that 25,000 is the proper figure.
The information about the sighting near Vanderbilt, which is in Nashville, doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the Mantell case. Ruppelt does seem to believe the Skyhook balloon explanation and suggested that it was launched from Clinton County. Ohio. Some researchers, looking at the data including winds aloft suggest that the balloon would not have been in the location reported on that day and is ruled out. Others aren’t quite so sure. I will note that winds aloft data is often spotty, wind directions vary radically as altitude is increased and the Skyhook balloons often reached altitudes of 60,000 feet, or some 35,000 feet (nearly seven miles) above Mantell. That might explain Mantell’s comments about the object moving away from him at the speed of his aircraft. It was much higher than he thought, misjudged the size and was fooled by all that.
The real takeaway here, for me, was Ruppelt’s attitude. He seemed to suggest that some of the quotes attributed to Mantell were rumors spread by UFO researchers. Now that we have access to the Blue Book files, we learn that Ruppelt’s comments were misleading because the phrase, “It appears metallic and tremendous in size,” is found in the official documentation.