In many ways the 1940s were a sort of golden era for UFOs, and ushered in the phenomenon as we know it today, as well as the term "flying saucers." Beginning with the Foo Fighters of World War II, which were strange lights in the sky observed by both sides of the war, from there the phenomenon would really take off. While World War II had its Foo Fighters, most pilot encounters with UFOs were still obscure, and only really started to appear shortly after perhaps the most famous pilot encounter in history, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed to have seen a line of nine shiny fast-moving objects at Mt. Rainier, Washington on June 24, 1947. The sighting would launch the idea of “flying saucers” into the public consciousness, and although there had been UFOs sightings much earlier than this, Arnold’s account was the first one to really hit the mainstream news, and is largely credited with launching the mainstream UFO phenomenon as we know it today. After this there would be a string of similar reports of pilots encountering UFOs throughout the 1940s, and here we will look at a selection of these, ranging from the odd to the harrowing.
On July 16, 1947, just a month after the Arnold encounter, a witness and pilot stationed with the Aircraft Distribution Officer of the Far East Air Materiel Command in Fuchu, Japan had a rather strange sighting. On this occasion he was not actually flying the plane, but rather riding along on a mission to bring a B-17 aircraft to Middletown Air Depot, Pennsylvania in order for it to undergo various modifications to make it into an air rescue craft, mostly equipping it with features for sea rescues. This went through as planned smoothly, and then they made the return trip headed back to Japan, and this is where things would get strange. The witness says that he was at the nose of the craft as they headed out over the area of Promontory Point, Utah, when he observed some strange objects that seemed to be ascending from the Salt Flats. He said of what happened:
At first I thought they were big white birds but they were coming towards our aircraft at such great speed that I became alarmed. However, in just a few moments they veered to the left of our aircraft, but close enough for me to identify them as nine round disks, approximately 40-60 feet in diameter with light blue underbellies. They were in what appeared to be a V formation of three, three, and three. They passed off the left wing of our aircraft in a climbing flight. I immediately made my way to the cockpit to advise the pilot of my sighting. He had not seen them. However, the flight engineer, Technical Sergeant GJH (name withheld), Serial Number AFxxxxxxxx, did see them and confirmed my sighting. We only differed on one thing. He saw them as they were a little lower than our aircraft and he described the top of them as sand colored. I had been in the Philippines Islands and Japan for approximately for 18 months and had not been aware of the UFO excitement in the States at that time. The weather over the sighting area was perfectly clear and there was no way that I could have been mistaken about what I had seen.
He made a report of the odd incident but after that it seems to have just been quietly filed away to be forgotten. In that same year, a Mr. John H. Janssen was flying his private plane from Morristown Airport in New Jersey on the morning of July 10, 1947, when he saw in the sky above him “six, luminous spherical craft with hazy rings around them” apparently flying in a tight formation. He claimed to have managed to take a photo of the objects before they disappeared from sight. Then on July 23, he saw the objects again in the same area as he was flying at an altitude of 6,000 feet. He would say in a report to NICAP of this sighting and the strange events that would play out:
While my eyes played over the horizon, I became aware of a shaft of light that seemed like that of a photographer's flash bulb. It came from aloft, very high up. It was above that position over my plane's nose that flier's call 11 O'clock. At first, I thought it was merely the reflected sun bouncing off the sides of an exceedingly high flying aircraft. I gave it no more thought. But then the engine of my own plane began to perform peculiarly. It coughed and sputtered spasmodically. So I pulled on the carburetor heat and gave it full throttle hoping to thaw any ice that might be accumulating in the carburetor. The engine emitted one final wheezing cough and then quit. Now, the nose of my plane, instead of dropping to a normal glide, remained... rigid... fixed on the horizon, in its normal level flight attitude.
Abruptly, I became aware that my plane was now defying the basic law of gravity. I became frightened and close to panic at so weird a predicament. I saw that the airspeed indicator was at zero! There was now an odd prickling, electric-like sensation coursing through my body. I had an eerie feeling that I was being watched and examined by something that minutely studied my features, my clothing, and my airplane... I flicked a cold bead of perspiration from my eye. Then I saw it! Above and slightly beyond my left wing tip was a strange wraith-like craft, one of the flying objects! Its flanged and protecting rim was dotted on either side with steamer-like portholes. It seemed to radiate a dull metallic hue that conveyed an impression of natural strength, and a super-intelligence not of this planet. It was motionless. Perhaps a quarter of a mile away... beyond, and slightly higher, I could see another (similar) object, seemingly fixed in the sky. I assumed that the second strange ship was but waiting for the one nearest me to complete its examination. Then I had the most unaccountable urge to reach up and snap on the magneto switch. I had turned it off when the engine quit. I switched both magnetos to the on position. Slowly the propeller began to turn... then the engine burst into a steady rhythmic roar. The plane nosed up into a stall, dropped off, picked up airspeed and steadied under control.
It is quite a frightening case, since the object seemed to have had the ability to affect his aircraft, to potentially dangerous effect. One of the most famous, well-publicized, and allegedly deadliest UFO pilot encounters supposedly happened the following year, in January of 1948. It revolves around Kentucky Air National Guard Pilot Captain Thomas F. Mantell, who was an experienced WWII ace pilot and a war hero, being the recipient of awards such as the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal for his brave actions and heroism during the war. In other words, he was no rookie and no nut job, and on January 7, 1948 Mantell was piloting a F-51D Mustang along with three other pilots from the 165th Fighter Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard, in the area of Godman Field, at Fort Knox, Kentucky on a training exercise, when a strange series of events began to unfold.
It started with a report to Godman field from a Kentucky highway patrolman warning that he had seen a large circular object about 300 feet in diameter in the sky near Maysville, Kentucky, after which several other reports came in of people seeing the same thing in the vicinity of Owensboro and Irvington. Shortly after this, at approximately 1:45 PM, a Sgt. Quinton Blackwell at Fort Knox made visual contact with the object along with two other personnel in the tower, and it was described as being “very white” with a red border at the bottom. It was also seen at Clinton County Army Air Field in Ohio, with the witnesses saying it had “the appearance of a flaming red cone trailing a gaseous green mist,” and an observer at Lockbourne Army Air Field in Ohio reported that it had dipped all the way down to the ground, only to suddenly soar to an altitude of 10,000 feet and speed off.
Seeing the object as a potential threat to air traffic in the area and looking to find out exactly what it was, Mantell and the other pilots in the air in the area at the time were ordered to go investigate. One of them had to return to base after he ran low on fuel, but the other three dutifully approached the mysterious object, and Mantell would make visual confirmation, reportedly telling air traffic control that it was “metallic and of tremendous size.” The other pilots would give a slightly different description, saying that they could not exactly make out what it was as it was too indistinct at the time. They advised Mantell to hold off on pursuing it until they could more concretely identify what it was, but the WWII fighter ace ignored this and tore off after it in hot pursuit.
The other two pilots followed him as he gained altitude, but were then forced to abort because one of the pilots had a low oxygen supply and the other had no oxygen mask at all, so they were unable to climb too high. They were forced to break off and head back as Mantell continued to chase the anomalous object, which seemed to be retreating upwards, passing an altitude of 22,500 feet. As he passed this threshold, it seems that Mantell must have blacked out from a lack of oxygen, as his plane was seen to stop its ascent and then begin a spiraling, circular fall towards the earth. The out-of-control descent ended with Mantell’s aircraft careening down to crash into a farm south of Franklin, Kentucky at 3:18 PM, and emergency crews were immediately sent out to the site. The UFO itself then vanished from view and was not seen again.
It wasn’t thought that Mantell could have possibly survived the horrific crash, and this was indeed correct. The pilot was found dead and burned in the wreckage, and there were some odd clues found in that the seatbelt had been shredded and his watch had stopped at exactly the time that the plane had come down. It is uncertain what else was found there, but considering that a UFO had been involved and the story began getting splashed all over the media, rumors would soon begin to fly. Various rumors said such myriad mysterious things as that Mantell’s body had been found unburned and fully intact, that it had been full of bullet holes or alternately tiny burned holes indicative of some unknown laser weapon, or that there had been no body at all, as well as that the entire plane had actually been disintegrated in mid-air, or that the wreckage had been magnetized or radioactive. There was absolutely no evidence for any of this, but the public ate it up and it created an added mystique to it all. One witness who claims to have actually visited the crash site is Captain James F. Duesler, who was one of several military officers at Godman at the time, and would come forward in 1997 to say of what he saw at the site:
The wings and tail section had broken off on impact with the ground, and were a short distance from the plane, he recalled. There was no damage to the surrounding trees and it was obvious that there had been no forward or sideways motion when the plane had come down. It just appeared to have "belly flopped" into the clearing. There was very little damaged to the fuselage, which was in one piece, and no signs of blood whatsoever in the cockpit. "There was no scratching on the body of the fuselage to indicate any forward movement and the propeller blade bore no telltale scratch marks to show it had been rotating at the time of impact, and one blade had been embedded into the ground. The damage pattern was not consistent with an aircraft of this type crashing at high speed into the ground. Because of the large engine in the nose of the plane, it would come down nose first and hit the ground at an angle. Even if it had managed to glide in, it would have cut a swath through the trees and a channel into the ground. None of these signs were present. All indications were that it had just belly-flopped into the clearing. I must admit, I found this very strange.
Theories at the time ran amok that he had been shot down by a top-secret air craft or even a UFO. As far as the military was concerned, it was a classified issue, but many Air Force officials said that they believed that Mantell had died after misidentifying the planet Venus for an unidentified object and then losing oxygen as he got too high in his pursuit of it. However, this hypothesis seems pretty odd, as according to astronomers Venus at the time was not bright enough to be seen, at most as a vague pinpoint of light, let alone mistaken for an enormous metallic craft like that described. The official stance would change when it was found that the Navy had been carrying out a top-secret program called Project Skyhook at the time, which entailed testing the use of special high-altitude meteorological balloons for the purpose of intelligence gathering. The idea was that the balloon could have been mistaken for a mysterious craft, and then foolishly pursued by Mantell. Of course, considering that the official stance is rarely completely trusted by the public, there is of course the idea that he really did chase an alien UFO.
There are a few problems with the balloon theory, such as why such an experienced pilot would not recognize it for what it was, and the fact that the object was also tracked by numerous other trained sources who also did not recognize it as a balloon, and the fact that no one seems to be able to tell if there was even one of those balloons in the area at the time. It also seems to have displayed very non-weather balloon-like behavior with the report of the object dipping down to ground level and shooting up to the sky, as well as displaying amazing acceleration. Whatever it was that Mantell chased or thought he was chasing, it has never really been satisfactorily explained, and nothing really matches all of the details, the experience of the pilot, and the preceding sightings by numerous other observers before the incident. It has gone on to have the distinction of being the first known death of a pilot directly as a result of a UFO, in this case not necessarily an alien craft, but an unidentified object. In the end, it is a weird tale with many unanswered questions, and has become perhaps the most well-known case of a pilot engaging an unidentified flying object.
The year 1948 seems to have been the year for this sort of thing, because another very similar case allegedly occurred in October of that year, this time in the skies over Fargo, North Dakota, in the United States. On October 1, 1948, a veteran fighter pilot of the Second World War by the name of George Gorman was on a cross country flight as a second lieutenant in the North Dakota Air National Guard. On this day he was travelling as a part of a squadron of P-51 Mustangs on a training flight, and they made their scheduled destination of Fargo at 8 PM that evening. While the other pilots landed, Gorman went off to do some night flight practice in the clear weather. After 1 hour of this, at 9 PM Gorman would report that he had seen a bright blinking light that did not seem to have a fuselage or to be a normal airplane in any sense that he could tell. He radioed in the strange object to Fargo’s Hector Airport, and it turned out that no other aircraft was in the area except him and a small Piper Cub that Gorman could see even as he witnessed the mysterious light. It soon became apparent that the Piper Club was also witnessing the anomalous object, and this was enough to make Gorman decide to approach it to see what it was, soon finding that it was moving very rapidly, and it seemed to be evading his attempts to close in on it even as it seemed to taunt him, at one point whizzing by a mere 500 feet away. However, because of this he was able to get a closer visual, and would explain that it was little more than an intensely bright light only perhaps around 8 inches in diameter, and that it got brighter whenever it slowed down. He would say of this encounter:
It was about six to eight inches in diameter, clear white, and completely round without fuzz at the edges [i.e., sharp and clear]. It was blinking on and off. As I approached, however, the light suddenly became steady and pulled into a sharp left bank. I thought it was making a pass at the tower. I dived after it and brought my manifold pressure up to sixty inches but I couldn't catch up with the thing. It started gaining altitude and again made a left bank, I put my F-51 into a sharp turn and tried to cut the light off in its turn. By then we were at about 7,000 feet. Suddenly it made a sharp right turn and we headed straight at each other. Just when we were about to collide, I guess I got scared. I went into a dive and the light passed over my canopy at about 500 feet. Then, it made a left circle about 1,000 feet above, and I gave chase again.
Gorman would proceed to doggedly pursue the object, which climbed and dropped at a rapid pace, sometimes drawing the pilot to such an altitude that his plane stalled, moved with incredible dexterity, circled around him, and on several occasions buzzed by dangerously close. This “dogfight” brought them directly over the Fargo Airport, where it was also clearly witnessed by air traffic control and ground personnel, who also watched as Gorman’s plane chased it right past them to the southwest. One of the air traffic controllers at the time would say of what he saw:
After passing to the east of the airport it seemed to take a northwest heading, The object seemed to be at about 2,000 feet and appeared to be traveling at quite an excessive speed compared to a Piper Cub that was east of the field at the time. No definite outline could be identified. Both objects [the UFO and the Piper Cub] were sighted at the same time. It was an object or a light traveling at a high rate of speed, apparently on a southwest heading. The F-51 [Gorman's plane] was some distance behind and the object was traveling fast enough to increase the spacing between itself and the fighter. The object appeared to be only a round light, perfectly formed, with no fuzzy edges or rays leaving its body. The edges were clear cut. No other shape was observed. The main identifying characteristic was the high rate of speed at which it was apparently traveling.
Gorman would continue his pursuit, managing to get above the object and make a dive on it, after which he claims that it made a sudden vertical maneuver to go shooting past and disappear up into higher altitudes. Unable to get another visual on the object, Gorman gave up and flew back to the airport to land, where he would go on to give a formal account of what happened, saying:
I am convinced that there was definite thought behind its maneuvers. I am further convinced that the object was governed by the laws of inertia because its acceleration was rapid but not immediate and although it was able to turn fairly tight at considerable speed, it still followed a natural curve. When I attempted to turn with the object I blacked out temporarily due to excessive speed. I am in fairly good physical condition and I do not believe that there are many if any pilots who could withstand the turn and speed effected by the object, and remain conscious. The object was not only able to out turn and out speed my aircraft … but was able to attain a far steeper climb and was able to maintain a constant rate of climb far in excess of my aircraft.
Gorman, the pilot of the Piper Cub, and other witnesses to the incident would be intensively questioned by the Air Force and the aircraft involved extensively checked for radiation or magnetism, finding Gorman’s plane to be significantly more radioactive than it should have been. At first the Air Force were forced to concede that “something remarkable had occurred,” but perhaps not surprisingly to the conspiracy minded they soon changed their tune. Their new theory? It was a weather balloon. Not only that, but to make it more bizarre they claimed that not only had Gorman frantically chased this balloon, but that he had then mistaken the planet Venus for the object and chased that as well. Remember, this was a war hero ace pilot we are talking about, so does this really make sense? Whether it does or not, this would be the official explanation and still is. We are still left to ask, does a trained and experienced fighter pilot mistake a balloon and Venus for something zipping around doing circles around him and taunting him? It seems odd. Of course, this has been picked apart within the UFO community, and probably will be a mystery for some time to come.
The following year we have another rather well-known case that supposedly played out on July 24 1948 over Montgomery, Alabama. On this day, Captain Clarence S. Chiles, and co-pilot John B. Whitted were flying an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in routine flight from Houston, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia when things would get bizarre. As they were cruising at an altitude of 5,000 over the city of Montgomery, they suddenly noticed a reddish light that appeared to be headed directly at them. Whatever it was passed them in close proximity and at high speed off their starboard side, and both the pilot and c-pilot could see that the object was cigar-shaped, about the size of a B-29 bomber, and had no wings or tail section. It also had two rows of portholes or windows that were glowing brightly like “burning magnesium,” and they also noticed a bluish glow from the bottom of the craft and some sort of fiery exhaust from its rear section. The object was then seen to make a sharp vertical ascent after the near-collision. Both of the witnesses would later claim that they had felt no turbulence as the massive object had passed and heard no sound, although some passengers would report having felt the plane tremble as the object had passed, as well as a sound “like a rocket.” It is a very unusual case that you can read about in far more detail in my article about it here.
From the 1940s, the notion of flying saucers was fully entrenched in the public imagination, and would from there show no signs of letting up, with some of the more perplexing and believable accounts being from the pilots flying around up there with these things. Reading such accounts, it would seem that we are sharing our airspace with something beyond our understanding and ability to rationalize into the universe we think we know. Over the decades there would be numerous other such accounts, and it all really seems to have truly begun in earnest in the 1940s.
Special thanks to Steve Baxter for his artwork and the cover image.