For more than two weeks, I checked on the Godman Field tragedy. One fact stood out at the start: The death of Mantell had had a profound effect on many in the Air Force. A dozen times I was told:
"I thought the saucers were a joke - until Mantell was killed chasing that thing at Fort Knox."
Many ranking officers who had laughed at the saucer scare stopped scoffing. One of these was General Sory Smith, now Deputy Director of Air Force Public Relations. Later in my investigation, General Smith told me:
"It was the Mantell case that got me. I knew Tommy Mantell very well - also Colonel Hix, the C.O. at Godman. I knew they were both intelligent men -not the kind to be imagining things."
For fifteen months, the Air Force kept a tight-lipped silence. Meantime, rumors began to spread. One report said that Mantell had been shot, his body riddled with bullets; his P-51 also riddled, had simply disintegrated. Another rumor reported Mantell as having been killed by some mysterious force; this same force had also destroyed his fighter. The Air Force, the rumors said, had covered up the truth by telling Mantell's family he had blacked out from lack of oxygen.
Checking the last angle, I found that this was the explanation given to Mantell's mother. Just after his death, she was told by Standiford Field officers that he had flown too high in chasing the strange object.
Shallet, in the Saturday Evening Post articles, descnbed Project "Saucer's" reconstruction of the case. Mantell was said to have climbed up to 25,000 feet, despite his firm decision to end the chase at 20,000, since he carried no oxygen. Around 25,000 feet, Shallett quoted the Air Force investigators, Mantell must have lost consciousness. After this, his pilotless plane climbed on up to some 30,000 feet, then dived. Between 20,000 and 10,000 feet, Shallet suggested, the P-51 began to disintegrate, obviously from excessive speed. The gleaming object that
hypnotized Mantell into this fatal climb was, Shallett said, either the planet Venus or a Navy cosmic-ray research balloon.
The Air Force Project "Saucer" report of April 27, 1949, released just after the first Post article, makes these statements:
"Five minutes after Mantell disappeared from his formation, the two remaining planes returned to Godman. A few minutes later, one resumed the search, covering territory 100 miles to the south as high as 33,000feet, but found nothing.
"Subsequent investigation revealed that Mantell had probably blacked out at 20,000 feet from lack of oxygen and had died of suffocation before the crash.
"The mysterious object which the flyer. chased to his death was first identified as the Planet Venus. However, further probing showed the elevation and azimuth readings of Venus and the object at specified time intervals did not coincide.
"It is still considered 'Unidentified.'"
The Venus explanation, even though now denied, puzzled me. It was plain that the Air Force had seriously considered offering it as the answer, then abandoned it. Apparently someone had got his signals mixed and let Shallett use the discarded answer. And for some unknown reason, the Air Force had found it imperative to deny the Venus story at once.
In these first weeks of checking, I had run onto the Venus explanation in other cases. Several Air Force officers repeated it so quickly that it had the sound of a stock alibi. But in the daytime cases this was almost ridiculous.
I knew of a few instances in World War II when bomber crews and antiaircraft gunners had loosed a few bursts at Venus. But this was mostly at night, when the planet was at peak brilliance. And more than one gunner later admitted firing to relieve long hours of boredom. Since enemy planes did not carry lights, there was no authentic case, to my knowledge, where plane or ground gunners actually believed Venus was an enemy aircraft.
Checking the astronomer's report, I read over the concluding statement:
"It simply could not have been Venus. They must have been desperate even to suggest it in the first place."
Months later, in the secret Project "Saucer" report released December 30,
1949, I found official confirmation of this astronomer's opinions. Since
it has a peculiar bearing on the Mantell case, I am quoting it now:
1. The obvious determination to fit some explanation, no matter how farfetched, to the Mantell sighting.
2. The impossibility that Venus - a tiny point of light, seen only with difficulty - was the tremendous metallic object described by Mantell and seen by Godman Field officers.
With Venus eliminated, I went to work on the balloon theory. Since I had been a balloon pilot before learning to fly planes, this was fairly familiar ground.
Shallett's alternate theory that Mantell had chased a Navy research balloon was widely repeated by readers unfamiliar with balloon operation. Few thought to check the speeds, heights, and distances involved.
Cosmic-ray research balloons are not powered; they are set free to drift with the wind. This particular Navy type is released at a base near Minneapolis. The gas bag is filled with only a small percent of its helium capacity before the take-off.
In a routine flight, the balloon ascends rapidly to a very high altitude - as high as 100,000 feet. By this time the gas bag has swelled to full size, about 100 feet high and 70 feet in diameter. At a set time, a device releases the case of instruments under the balloon. The instruments descend by parachute, and the balloon, rising quickly, explodes from the sudden expansion.
Occasionally a balloon starts leaking, and it then remains relatively low. At first glance, this might seem the answer to the Kentucky sightings. If the balloon were low enough, it would loom up as a large circular object, as seen from directly below. Some witnesses might estimate its diameter as 250 feet or more, instead of its actual 70 feet. But this failure to recognize a balloon would require incredibly poor vision on the part of trained observers, state police, Army M.P.'s, the Godman Field officers, Mantell and his pilots.
Captain Mantell was a wartime pilot, with over three thousand hours in the air. He was trained to identify a distant enemy plane in a split second. His vision was perfect, and so was that of his pilots. In broad daylight,
they could not fail to recognize a balloon during their thirty-minute chase.
Colonel Hix and the other Godman officers watched the object with high-powered glasses for long periods. It is incredible that they would not identify it as a balloon.
Before its appearance over Godman Field, the leaking balloon would have drifted, at a low altitude, over several hundred miles. (A leak large enough to bring it down from high altitude would have caused it to land and be found.) Drifting at a low altitude, it would have been seen by several hundred thousand people, at the very least. Many would have reported it as a balloon. But even if this angle is ignored it still could not possibly have been a balloon at low altitude. The fast flight from Madisonville, the abrupt stop and hour-long hovering at Godman Field, the quick bursts of speed Mantell reported make it impossible. To fly the 90 miles from Madisonville to Fort Knox in 30 minutes, a balloon would require a wind of 180 m.p.h. After traveling at this hurricane speed, it would then have had to come to a dead stop above Godman Field. As the P-61's approached, it would have had to speed up again to 180, then to more than 360 to keep ahead of Mantell.
The three fighter pilots chased the mysterious object for half an hour. (I have several times chased balloons with a plane, overtaking them in seconds.) In a straight chase, Mantell would have been closing in at 36o; the tail wind acting on his fighter would nullify the balloon's forward drift.
But even if you accept these improbable factors, there is one final fact that nullifies the balloon explanation. The strange object had disappeared when Mantell's wingman searched the sky, just after the leader's death. If it had been a balloon held stationary for an hour at a high altitude, and glowing brightly enough to be seen through clouds, it would have remained visible in the same general position. Seen from 33,000 feet, it would have been even brighter, because of the clearer air.
But the mysterious object had completely vanished in
those few minutes. A search covering a hundred miles failed to reveal a trace.
Whether at a high or low altitude, a balloon could not have escaped the pilot's eyes. It would also have continued to be seen at Godman Field and other points, through occasional breaks in the clouds.
I pointed out these facts to one Air Force officer at the Pentagon. Next day he phoned me:
"I figured it out. The timing device went off and the balloon exploded. That's why the pilot didn't see it."
"It's an odd coincidence," I said, "that it exploded in those five minutes after Mantell's last report."
"Even so, it's obviously the answer," he said.
Checking on this angle, I found:
1. No one in the Kentucky area had reported a descending parachute.
2. No cosmic-ray research instrument case or parachute was found in the area.
3. No instruments were returned to the Navy from this region. And all balloons and instruments released at that time were fully accounted for.
Even if it had been a balloon, it would not explain the later January 7th reports - the simultaneous sightings mentioned by Professor Hynek in the Project "Saucer" report. This includes the thing seen at Lockbourne Air Force Base two hours after Mantell's death.
Obviously, the saucer seen flying at 500 m.p.h. over Lockbourne Field could not have been a balloon. Even if there had been several balloons in this area (and there were not, by official record), they could not have covered the courses reported. In some cases, they would have been flying against the wind, at terrific speed.
Then what was the mysterious object? And what killed Mantell?
Both the Air Force and the Post articles speculate that Mantell carelessly let himself black out.
Since some explanation had to be given, this might seem a good answer. But Mantell was known for cool-headed judgment. As a wartime pilot, he was familiar with signs of anoxia (oxygen starvation). That he knew his tolerance for altitude is proved by his firmly declared
intention to abandon the chase at 20,000 feet, since he had no oxygen equipment.
Mantell had his altimeter to warn him. From experience, he would recognize the first vague blurring, narrowing of vision, and other signs of anoxia. Despite this, the "blackout" explanation was accepted as plausible by many Americans.
While investigating the Mantell case, I talked with several pilots and
aeronautical engineers. Several questioned that a P-51 starting a dive from
20,000 feet would have disintegrated so thoroughly.
"It might slip off and spin, or spiral down, and a few have even landed themselves. Also, if the plane started down from twenty thousand, the pilot wouldn't be too far blacked out. The odds are he'd come to when he got into thicker air - admitting he did blur out, which is only an Air Force guess. I don't see why they're so positive Mantell died before he hit the ground - unless they know; something we don't."
One of the pilot group put it more bluntly.
"It looks like a cover-up to me. I think Mantell did just what he said he would - close in on the thing. I think he either collided with it, or more likely they knocked him out of the air. They'd think he was trying to bring them down, barging in like that."
Even if you accept the blackout answer, it still does not explain what Mantell was chasing. It is possible that, excited by the huge, mysterious object, he recklessly climbed beyond the danger level, though such an act was completely at odds with his character.
But the identity of the thing remains -officially - a mystery. If it was some weird experimental craft or a guided missile, then whose was it? Air Force officers had repeatedly told me they had no such device. General Carl Touhy Spaatz, former Air Force chief, had publicly insisted that no such weapon had been developed in his regime. Secretary Symington and General Hoyt Vanden-
berg, present Air Force Chief, had been equally emphatic. Of course, official denials could be expected if it were a top level secret. But if it were a secret device, would it be tested so publicly that thousands would see it?
If it were an Air Force device, then I could see only one answer for the Godman Field incident: The thing was such a closely guarded secret that even Colonel Hix hadn't known. That would mean that most or all Air Force Base C.O.'s were also in ignorance of the secret device.
Could it be a Navy experiment, kept secret from the Air Force?
I did a little checking.
Admiral Calvin Bolster, chief of aeronautics research experimental craft, was an Annapolis classmate of mine. So was Captain Delmer S. Fahrney, head of the Navy guided-missile program. Fahrney was at Point Mugu, missile testing base in California, and I wasn't able to see him. But I knew him as a careful, conscientious officer; I can't believe he would let such a device, piloted or not, hover over an Air Force base with no warning to its C.O.
I saw Admiral Bolster. His denial seemed genuine; unless he'd got to be a dead-pan poker player since our earlier days, I was sure he was telling the truth.
The only other alternate was Russia. It was incredible that they would develop such a device and then expose it to the gaze of U.S. Air Force officers. It could be photographed, its speed and maneuverability checked; it might crash, or antiaircraft fire might bring it down. The secret might be lost in one such test flight.
There was one other explanation: The thing was not intended to be seen; it had got out of control. In this event, the long hovering period at Godman Field was caused by the need for repairs inside the flying saucer, or repairs to remote-control apparatus.
If it were Air Force or Navy, that would explain official concern; even if completely free of negligence, the service responsible would be blamed for Mantell's death. If it were Russian, the Air Force would of course try to conceal the fact for fear of public hysteria.
But if the device was American, it meant that Project
'Saucer" was a cover-up unit. While pretending to investigate, it would actually hush up reports, make false explanations, and safeguard the secret in every possible way. Also, the reported order for Air Force pilots to pursue the disks would have to be a fake. Instead, there would be a secret order telling them to avoid strange objects in the sky.
By the time I finished my check-up, I was sure of one thing: This particular saucer had been real.
I was almost positive of one other point - that the thing had been over 30 miles high during part of its flight. I found that after Mantell's death it was reported simultaneously from Madisonville, Elizabethtown, and Lexington - over a distance of 175 miles. (Professor Hynek's analysis later confirmed this.)
How low it had been while hovering over Godman, and during Mantell's chase, there was no way to determine. But all the evidence pointed to a swift ascent after Mantell's last report.
Had Mantell told Godman Tower more than the Air Force admitted? I went back to the Pentagon and asked for a full transcript of the flight leader's radio messages. I got a quick turn-down. The reports, I was told, were still classified as secret. Requests for pictures of the P-51 wreckage, and for a report on the condition of Mantell's body, also drew a blank. I had heard that some photographs were taken of the Godman Field saucer from outside the tower. But the Air Force denied knowledge of any such pictures.
Puzzling over the riddle, I remembered John Steele, the former Intelligence captain. If by any chance he was a plant, it would be interesting to suggest the various answers and watch his reaction. When I phoned him to suggest luncheon, Steele accepted at once. We met at the Occidental, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Steele was younger than I had expected - not over twenty-five. He was a tall man, with a crew haircut and the build of a football player. Looking at him the first time, I expected a certain breeziness. Instead, he was almost solemn.
"I owe you an apology," he said in a careful voice after
we'd ordered. "You probably know I'm a syndicate writer?"
I wondered if he'd found out Jack Daly was checking on him.
"When you mentioned the Press Club," I said, "I gathered you were in the business."
"I'm afraid you thought I was fishing for a lead." Steele looked at me earnestly. "I'm not working on the story - I'm tied up on other stuff."
"Forget it," I told him.
He seemed anxious to reassure me. "I'd been worried for some time about the saucers. I called you that night on an impulse."
"Glad you did," I said. "I need every tip I can get."
"Did it help you any?"
"Yes, though it still doesn't fit together. But I can tell you this: The saucers are real, or at least one of them."
"The thing Captain Mantell was chasing near Fort Knox, before he died."
"Oh, that one." Steele looked down at the roll he was buttering. "I thought that case was fully explained. Wasn't he chasing a balloon?"
"The Air Force says it's still unidentified." I told him what I had learned, "Apparently you're right - it's either an American or a Soviet missile."
"After what you've told me," said Steele, "I can't believe it's ours. It must be Russian."
"They'd be pretty stupid to test it over here."
"You said it was probably out of control."
"That particular one, maybe. But there have been several hundred seen over here. If they found their controls were haywire, they wouldn't keep testing the things until they'd corrected that."
The waiter came with the soup, and Steele was silent until he left.
"I still can't believe it's our weapon," he said slowly. "They wouldn't have Air Force pilots alerted to chase the things. And I happen to know they do."
"There's something queer about this missile angle," I said. "That saucer was seen at the same time by people a
hundred and seventy-five miles apart. To be that high in the sky, and still look more than two hundred and fifty in diameter, it must have been enormous."
Steele didn't answer for a moment.
"Obviously, that was an illusion," he finally answered. "I'd discount those estimates."
"Even Mantell's? And the Godman Field officers'?"
"Not knowing the thing's height, how could they judge accurately?"
"To be seen at points that far apart, it had to be over thirty miles high," I told him. "It would have to be huge to show up at all."
He shook his head. "I can't believe those reports are right. It must have been sighted at different times."
I let it drop.
"What are you working on now?" Steele asked, after a minute or two.
I said I hadn't decided. Actually, I planned a trip to the coast, to interview pilots who had sighted flying disks.
"What would you do if you found it wasn't a Soviet missile?" said Steele. He sounded almost too casual.
"If security was involved, I'd keep still. But the Air Force and the Navy swear they haven't any such things."
Steele looked at me thoughtfully.
"You know, True might force something into the open that would be better left secret." He smiled ironically. "I realize that sounds peculiar, since I suggested the Russian angle. But if it isn't Russian - though I still think it is - then we have nothing to worry about."
I was almost sure now that he was a plant. During the rest of the luncheon, I tried to draw him out, but Steele was through talking. When we parted, he gave me a sober warning.
"You and True should consider your moral responsibility, no matter what you find. Even if it's not actual security, there may be reasons to keep still."
After he left me, I tried to figure it out. If the Air was back of this, they must not think much of my intelligence. Or else they had been in such a hurry to get on True's investigation that they had no choice but
to use Steele. Of course, it was still possible he was doing this on his own.
Either way, his purpose was obvious. He hoped to have us swallow the Soviet-missile answer. If we did, then we would have to keep still, even though we found absolute proof. Obviously, it would be dangerous to print that story.
Thinking back, I recalled Steele's apparent attempt to dismiss the Mantell case. I was convinced now. The Godman Field affair must hold an important clue that I had overlooked. It might even be the key to the wh6le flying saucer riddle.