Friday, June 03, 2016

Mantell, Ruppelt and Blue Book

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
Capt. Ed Ruppelt
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.

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.


Bob Koford said...

I would like to clear something up, a little bit. In the time period when this incident took place, it was standard operating proceedure for pilots to inform Ground Controllers of their every move. We see that all the time in old war movies. I believe that some times these conversations were recorded, in case something happened that later needed reviewing.

Its safe to say, though, that where this incident is concerned, there were no recordings made. But, those at the Ground Control buildings always, through training, placed great importance on knowing what the pilots said, and what they did. It can be stated that just because it was the testimony of the Ground Control individuals, and others present in the tower, as opposed to the wingmen, it should not mean that their testimony is somehow faulty.

In the information that Kevin relates (that is also in the official files) there is no mention of the information as it was told by the tower personnel. Only information was related that seems to suggest higher altitudes involved in the terrible outcome of this tragic incident.

"o. At approximately 20,000 feet, Captain Mantell called the flights attention to an object at 12:00 o'clock. (exhibit 4 and 5)"

That is not what the tower operators and Hix said happened.

Why are these stories conflicting? The earlier testimony of the tower personnel should have been included, if only to compare what was said by each individual.

I could believe that there were extra reasons to make sure that everyone was certain the incident ended the way it did, because of Captain Mantell's faulty logic. This event caused a great stir. Even so, that doesn't mean I would even consider it was because Mantell was somehow shot down by a UFO. But tensions were high, and the fact remained that one of our own lost his life while chasing down an Unidentified Object.

The 15,000 ft. leveling off information came from one of the wingmen. It wasn't made up by Ruppelt, or anyone else for that matter. I think it should be included clearly in the record that these later reports of the testimonies of interviewed wingmen conflict, at least somewhat, with the earlier testimonies. Why that is, I don't know. They should all relate one to another seemlessly.

KRandle said...

Bob -

I didn't bother with much of the tower personnel information because you had covered it yourself... but you overlook the fact they were in a tower, on the ground, and were not in the air with Mantell. You also missed that Merkel was interviewing the pilots with Mantell and there is talk of ship-to-ship communications. These would not have been heard on the ground and in the tower.

I didn't say that Ruppelt made it up. The 15,000 foot figure appears in the Blue Book files, but so does all the other information. It is clear, in one of the documents that they say they're at 15000 but are continuing to climb. Ruppelt ignored that, changing the tone of the event. It is clear from the wing men that they were far above 15,000 feet, and that they broke off at 22,000 while Mantell was going to 25,000. Ruppelt mentioned none of that, information that was available to him.

Bob Koford said...

The Ruppelt question definitely illustrates why I wanted to read through the actual files, myself.

Too many times, relying on others, without knowing exactly where they got their information from, or how they got it, can really lead you astray.

I first began reading your "Roswell" books because you were actually interviewing witnesses, and thus being able to get a physical read on how they responded. I thought that would add weight to their stories, or detract from them...accordingly. In this same way, I admit that I have grown to trust Scott Ramsey in that same way, though it is obvious you have your doubts.

Reading material like yours, plus having access to the files, to read cases for myself, is how I approached the subject. I have had my own sightings, over the years, and that indeed inspired me to find out, but the sightings alone do not really tell you anything, other than something is going on.

It is also why I am so sensitive to the seeming untruthfulness of some of the official responses over the years.

Oh to have been a "fly on the wall" during Ruppelt's tenure.

Bob Koford said...


You should probably not mention me anymore, and I will refrain from commenting, as I appear to be a "thread killer", as they say.


KRandle said...

Bob -

I don't think of you as a "thread killer," but as a researcher looking for the truth. Please do not stop commenting and leaving it to those who seem to have nothing better to do than cause trouble.

Paul Young said...

Was it a usual occurrence for these pilots to not take oxygen with them on a flight? Until I read this, I had always presumed that it would be a given that these fighter pilots would go up with oxygen just in case, for whatever reason, they had to go to high altitudes in order to hunt something down.

KRandle said...

Paul -

This was a ferry flight... moving the aircraft from one location to another with no plans to fly above 10,000 feet. Given that, no one was concerned about the lack of oxygen or oxygen equipment on the flight. It wasn't until the Godman Tower called them asking them to check on the UFO near the airfield that all that changed.

Brian B said...

In this case there's no question Mantel made a mistake going above 20,000 feet without oxygen.

Not certain why an experienced pilot would do this (it has nothing to do with his lack of experience in the F-51D).

Perhaps he simply got overly focused on gaining altitude to get a glimps of the object. I presume he was aware of the saucer reports and wanted to actually get close to one, hence losing focus on his altitude or simply thinking he could tolerate the lack of oxygen for a few minutes.

But as the definition for hypoxia demonstrates (as Kevin stated) he wouldn't stay conscious for long.

In severe hypoxia, or hypoxia of very rapid onset, ataxia, confusion / disorientation / hallucinations / behavioral change, severe headaches / reduced level of consciousness, papilloedema, breathlessness, pallor, tachycardia, and pulmonary hypertension eventually leading to the late signs cyanosis, slow heart rate / cor pulmonale, and low blood pressure followed by death.

I presume he went unconscious and never regained control of his aircraft before it broke up. He may have even suffered a myocardial infarction and died before going into a tail spin.

KRandle said...

Brian -

I believe it has to do with his inexperience in fighter aircraft. During WWII he was a transport pilot and since these aircraft did not fly much above 10,000 feet, he might not have been exposed to the training that those who flew higher altitude aircraft received. In that time frame, the transports were not pressurized. He had just transitioned into fighters and had fewer than 100 hours. That might have contributed to the accident. It is clear that he did not understand the rapid onset of hypoxia nor was he aware of the affects of it.

It is clear from the accident report that he lost consciousness prior to reaching 25,000 feet and that his aircraft was trimmed for climb so that when he passed out, it continued to climb. At around 30,000, the aircraft rolled over and went into a power dive. It began to break up around 19,000 feet and given the evidence in the cockpit, he never regained consciousness.

Brian B said...

Yes Kevin that makes sense. He wasn't trained for higher altitude flight and was still within his training parameters until climbing to higher altitude.

Why didn't the USAF officially report these findings to quell the media reports that suggested some sinister UFO act may have had a hand in his death with this encounter?

KRandle said...

Because Air Force accident investigations are classified as secret. This was done, and is done, to ensure a free flow of critical information. The pilots with Mantell knew they were in violation of the regulations. By classifying the results, it meant that they could speak freely without fear of retribution... and the fiction of 15,000 feet was established in the public arena. Material classified as secret is routinely downgraded after three years unless it is specifically noted that it must be reviewed before downgrade.

The Air Force was also under enormous pressure to solve the case. They couldn't have a pilot killed chasing a flying saucer for the obvious reasons so that any explanation was better than no explanation which is why we have a variety from which to choose.

Bob Koford said...

I hope it will appear obvious to all why I seem to be dragging this on.

Document dated 9 January 1948,


"...About 1445(2:45PM) the flight leader, NG 869(Captain Mantell), reported seeing the object, "ahead and above, I'm still climbing". ..", "...The leader reported at 15,000 ft,. that "the object is directly ahead of and above me now, moving at about half my speed"..."at 15,000 ft., the flight leader reported, "I'm still climbing, the object is above and ahead of me moving at about my speed or faster. I'm trying to close in for a better look. This last contact was at about 15:15"

Now, notice from the official medical report on Mantell:

"AIRCRAFT FLIGHT REPORT - OPERATIONS...Aircraft crashed at Franklin, KY at 15:18 CST 7 January 1948...original form lost in crash Pilot's watch stopped at 15:10 CST establishing time of crash"

I hope that any reader will see for themselves why I doubt this other testimony, supposedly gathered from interviewing the wingmen. Mantell's last transmission was "about 15:15". The officially established time of crash was set at 15:18. Mantell's watch stopped at 15:10, so I would say Blackwell was very close, but off by 5 minutes, which means, according to the actual accident investigation report, Mantell's watch stopped with his last transmission, when he was known to be in a normal, non-confused state of mind, and coincidentally had just finished his sentence about closing in for a better look. This crash occurred two minutes after last transmission. Not from mythological thinking, but from the actual report.

KRandle said...

Bob -

The problem here is that Blackwell was in the tower and the wing men were flying in formation with Mantell. They were communicating on their ship-to-ship frequency which probably wasn't monitored in the tower.

We also have others in the tower whose recollections do not line up with Blackwell as I noted in the original posting. Doesn't mean that Blackwell was lying, but does suggest he was incorrect. The altitudes given by those in aircraft, and the information gathered within hours of the accident, are probably the most correct. Apparently there were no recordings of the communications between Mantell and the tower which would, of course, resolve all of this.

Given that, the higher figures are probably the more accurate figures and all the pilots were in very rarefied air. Clements and Hammond were fortunate to have descended before overcome by hypoxia.

Bob Koford said...


Yes I get that. But the listing from the supposed interviews with the wingmwen ONLY relate the facts in relationship to altitude. There are no "timestamps" included for deeper reference. This does not provide a complete picture. On the other hand, the tower operators, and other witnesses there, reported what they heard (not what they saw) and is recorded via "timestamp". Time is crucial to the story, so it is unfortunate that this other report ignores it.

Also, from the FAA, which I provided in the previous article:

"The term “time of useful consciousness” describes the maximum time the pilot has
to make rational, life-saving decisions and carry them out at
a given altitude without supplemental oxygen."

45,000 feet MSL 9 to 15 seconds
40,000 feet MSL 15 to 20 seconds
35,000 feet MSL 30 to 60 seconds
30,000 feet MSL 1 to 2 minutes
28,000 feet MSL 2½ to 3 minutes
25,000 feet MSL 3 to 5 minutes
22,000 feet MSL 5 to 10 minutes
20,000 feet MSL 30 minutes or more

This chart shows that for the ranges from 20,000 to 25,000 feet, “time of useful consciousness” is 3-5 minutes, to 30 minutes, depending on your view of the actual altitudes reported.


KRandle said...

Bob -

Published in Human Factors & Aviation Medicine, Vol. 47, No. 1, January - February 2000, in "Quick Response by Pilots Remains Key to Surviving Cabin Decompression" by Dr. Stanley R. Mohler, the times of useful consciousness figures differ from yours.

His chart shows...

40,000 15 seconds
35,000 20 seconds
30,000 30 seconds
28,000 1 minute
26,000 2 minutes
24,000 3 minutes
22,000 6 minutes
20,000 10 minutes
15,000 Indefinite

This is the chart that I used in computing the time that Mantell would have remained conscious. I extrapolated the time they used to climb to 22,000 feet, which would have given them, at most 6 minutes, then the time to get to 25,000 feet, so that by the time Mantell had reached that altitude he was already unconscious, having circled for a time at 20,000 feet. He didn't have the three minutes in the chart because that is based on decompression at that altitude and does not account for the time that Mantell was operating about 20,000 feet without oxygen.

No matter which chart you use, Mantell did not have ten minutes to circle at 25,000 feet before he lost consciousness, but since the plane continued to climb beyond 25,000 feet, it means Mantell lost consciousness before reaching that altitude.

Bob Koford said...


I think we covered about every possible angle that could be covered. Thanks for taking the time.


Bob Koford said...

Final Thoughts?

Mantell's Story in Regards to Other Sightings - Part 1

[Note: documents sourced were from Pasting the document's .pdf "title" into the search engine should take you right to them]

It has been established concretely, with the available evidence, that Captain Mantell was killed as a result of poor judgement on his part. After re-reviewing the data, the case seems to be clearly laid out, that he ascended to an altitude which exceeded his limitations, not being equipped with oxygen, nor an oxygen mask. Consequently, he passed out and never recovered consciousness.

That being said, the same robust evidence cannot be claimed for the identification of the unidentified object he had been tasked to locate, and explain. There doesn't exist the same clearly defined information regarding a so-called "skyhook" balloon being the object in question. This is only to say that the same body of evidence that clearly shows why Captain Mantell died does not exist to explain the object he was chasing, which he described as being, "metallic and tremendous in size". Sure, the reasons have been elucidated upon to explain why Mantell would describe a "skyhook" balloon to be metallic and huge, but no actual evidence has ever been produced to finalize the issue.

Why is that?

If the object he was chasing is known to have been this "skyhook" balloon, where is the robust, clearly laid out evidence to support it? Not conjecture...I mean actual evidence for the actual balloon in question.

Bob Koford said...

Mantell and other sightings Part 2

One other fact should be made clear: there is a body of evidence showing, clearly, unidentified and unusual "Celestial" phenomena that had been noted previously to the Mantell incident, as well as after it. Some of the reports, from deemed to be credible sources, had raised the subject to one of high importance. This would help to explain one reason Captain Mantell did what he did.

These other reports are not just the ones generated that day, but many others. For example, on July 7, 1947 a "Report of Unusual Celestial Phenomena" was submitted to the Assistant Chief of Staff, A-2, Headquarters Tactical Air Command, Langley Field, Virginia, regarding sightings made by four credible military witnesses. The incident was witnessed on the evening of 28 June, 1947 and occurred at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama.

[ sourcedoc= MAXW-PBB2-839 ]

"...a light, with a brilliance slightly greater than a star...traveling in an easterly direction at a high rate of speed...", "It traveled in a zig zag course with frequent bursts of speed, much like a water bug as it spurts and stops across the surface of water...changed course 90(degrees) into the south...".

[ sourcedoc= MAXW-PBB4-377 - This report was made near end of 1948, utilizing the follow-on to the F-51]


David Rudiak said...

Ultimately the key question isn't why did Mantell crash, but what was he chasing? I have not studied the Mantell case, but I know Brad Sparks has. He claims the Skyhook balloon, often given as the explanation, was actually ~100 miles away from Mantell at the time, based on actual records. Therefore would it appear large enough and bright enough at that distance to provoke a chase? That's very doubtful, if Sparks is right about the distance.

Further, the Skyhook would have been about ~20 miles high. At 100 miles, it would have appeared only about 11-12 degrees above the horizon. Why would they be climbing to try to get to it? Whatever Mantell and the others saw, it was high overhead, not near the horizon.

Ultimately whether the Skyhook can explain the Mantell case depends on its actual distance from Mantell at the time.

David Rudiak said...

The complete contrarian Mantell report at the NICAP website:

Brad Sparks' summary analysis:

The key points Sparks makes are:

1) The Skyhook ballooon that is normally used as the scapegoat for the sighting and chase was actually 140 miles away at the time. It couldn't have been seen and triggered the chase. (At that distance, the 70 foot Skyhook would have subtended only about .3 minarc, whereas an object at least 10 times that size would barely be discernible and be describable with a shape, such as the smallest letters on an eye chart on the bottom line.) The Skyhook also was NOT classified, as claimed, therefore no reason not disclose it at the time if it was involved.

2) A lot of mathematical nonsense was written about Mantell fanatically going into a steep climb because he was allegedly so obsessed with getting closer. His P-51 could not possibly have climbed as fast as claimed and covered the distance (92 miles) flown to his crash site in the time of the chase. Also his engine would have burned out at maximum power long before he actually crashed. Instead, he had to have been on a gradual climb over a prolonged time period. Sparks believes the AF wrote it up this way to protect the other pilots involved, the wing man in particular who may have wanted to cover his ass for his behavior, such as abandoning Mantell because he was low on fuel rather than maintaining pursuit. They should have had the same amount of fuel.

3) Mantell was a very experienced pilot and had been a high-altitude bomber pilot during WWII, thus very familiar with oxygen systems and the need for oxygen at higher altitudes. Instead the AF claimed he was strictly a low-altitude pilot not as familiar with oxygen systems, which may have contributed to his death.

4) Mantell's plane WAS equipped with oxygen. A crash report stated that the oxygen system was examined and was in working order. Sparks does note that it is possible that Mantell may have run out of oxygen or that his face mask malfunctioned. But it is very unlikely that a very experienced pilot like Mantell would have climbed to higher altitude without using his oxygen, as he was well-trained to do. Sparks thinks this misrepresentation in other reports that Mantell lacked oxygen and ignored safety regulations about climbing to higher altitudes without it was another aspect of portraying him as obsessed with the chase.

5) The wingman did go back up with oxygen and searched the sky near where Mantell crashed. The Skyhook was only 40-50 miles away, yet the wingman did not see it. Sparks asks, if it wasn't spotted at that distance, why would it be spotted at 140 miles distance from Godman when it was much smaller and dimmer?

I found reading through this I was partly wrong in one of my arguments that the UFO was high overhead relative to Mantell, therefore couldn't have been something like a distant Skyhook near the horizon. In fact, the object was low in the sky as seen from Godman and seemed more or less stationary, but shrunk in size during the prolonged pursuit, indicating it was moving directly away from them at roughly Mantell's speed, why Mantell was having trouble closing the gap. It was when he got far from the base (~70 miles) that the object was high overhead (but still couldn't have been the Skyhook, still ~70 miles away, still low in the sky, and little more than a dot without shape even if seen).

KRandle said...

David -

I believe there is too much speculation in some of the analyses, and wonder if someone with a background in military aviation might have been helpful. For example, Mantell was under no obligation to respond to Colonel Hix's order to intercept the UFO. There are several reasons for this. First, Mantel was Air Guard and Hix was active duty. Technically, to order Mantell to intercept, Hix would have to make a request up the chain of command to the National Guard Bureau who would then transmit it back to the Kentucky National Guard giving permission for Mantell to make the attempt. Granted, a cumbersome condition and sometimes superseded by emergency, but there was no emergency here. Besides, this is probably irrelevant.

Second, Mantell, as the flight commander, was in charge of the flight. Hix could request the intercept, but Mantell could refuse based on the safety of his aircraft and his wing men. Although the aircraft was equipped for oxygen, there is no evidence that the system was charged and available because this was a ferry flight. Mantell could have said that he felt the intercept to be unsafe and refused.

Third, the order tacitly required him to violate regulations. He could have said that he couldn't fly above 14,000 feet but that he would go to that altitude. If he was no closer and the object was above him, he would have been within his duties as the flight leader to call it off.

Or, in other words, Mantell had plenty of options available to him and it is clear that given all this, Hix's order was not an order here, but a request. Yes, we have trouble with the various chains of command, the service to which each belonged, and the rules under which everyone was operating.

Clearly Mantell, as the flight commander, had the authority to accept the mission, which he did but the point is that under military rules and regulations he was not required to accept it.

I have seen nothing in the various documents that suggest Mantell had been trained as a high-altitude bomber pilot. His assignment in WWII was as a transport pilot. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during D-Day but the suggestion that he had four Air Medals for valor is probably incorrect. Air Medals were also earned for "meritorious service" while participating in aerial flight (as if there is another kind) which usually meant an accumulation of a number of flight hours in a combat environment that didn't require valor.

Although I can't lay my hands on it at the moment, I have seen some hand-drawn images of what the UFO looked like, and they seem to resemble Skyhook balloons. But, as I say, I don't have the document in my hands so my memory on this might be fuzzy but I do remember thinking that they did look like the balloons.