air pursuit: 1948
Above: A July 6, 1947 wire photo of United Airlines pilot E.J. Smith, who along with his copilot and stewardess had witnessed flying discs while in flight over Idaho.
IN THE EARLY DAYS of "flying disc" reports -- as they were then sometimes called -- vantage point mattered.
Accounts from ground observers often left ample room for a variety of explanations -- light reflected from an aircraft, a high flight of migratory birds, a meteor on a long trajectory, or any number of other conventional events.
But reports from pilots were a different matter entirely.
Since many air crews had served in the recent war, they had wide experience in identifying objects sharing their airspace, and were accustomed to estimating the size, speed, elevation and vertical maneuvers of other things aloft -- lending a special credence to their reports in the eyes of both the public and the military.
And when these same pilots encountered something strange in the sky, their vantage point provided unique opportunities for scrutinizing the form and behavior of the objects -- amplified by the pilots' mobility, allowing them to change direction, altitude and airspeed at will to get a better look.
Or to put it more succinctly: their opportunities for real-time pursuit of potential intruders in American skies.
Above: Opening pages of Kenneth Arnold's personal account published in the debut edition of Fate magazine in spring, 1948.
IT WAS OF COURSE a pilot encounter -- that of Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947 -- which had first ignited nationwide awareness of the possibility of something new in the sky. From the Norman, Oklahoma Transcript, June 26, 1947...
Bug-Eyed Salesman Reports Fast-Flying Mystery Planes
Soon, Arnold's sole account would be joined by other pilots reporting airborne unknowns zipping through the firmament. On July 4, Captain E.J. Smith, along with his copilot and stewardess reported witnessing first a group of five and then later four more flying discs "bigger than aircraft" while piloting a commercial flight over Idaho. The discs were maneuvering at their same altitude, and the total time they were in sight ran from ten to fifteen minutes.
The next day, July 5, Pilot Dan J. Whelan and a passenger reported they had been "scared silly" at the appearance of a 'saucer' while flying 25 miles south of Los Angeles. "The saucer was above us, traveling at what we'd estimate was 450 to 500 miles an hour," Whelan told a reporter. "It was at 7000 feet, about 2000 feet above me. It was not spinning, but looked exactly like a skeet . We checked its direction -- north by northwest -- and we'd say it was 40 to 50 feet in diameter."
The day after that, on July 6, Army Air Corps Major Archie Browning reported that as he was piloting his B-25 at 11,000 feet over Utah he saw from above a 'disc shaped object, very bright, and silvery colored' less than two miles off his left wing. The next day, a story in the Austin, Texas, American reported the account of an air crew on a military plane out of Texas...
In Air, On Ground, They're Everywhere
But in these first, very early days the pilots had no thought of pursuit -- the strangeness of the events allowing for little more than surprise, consternation, and wonderment.
THE FIRST OFFICIAL military pursuit was publicly portrayed as a photographic mission, as from a United Press newswire story as given in the July 7, 1947, edition of the Connellsville, Pennsylvania, Daily Courier:
Army Sends Planes Up in Move to Get "Saucer" Pictures
The choice of aircraft for this 'photographic' mission promised maximum performance: the Douglas A-26 Invader had a speed of 355 miles per hour, and the P-51 Mustang was the premier pursuit plane of the U.S. military, reaching a maximum speed of 487 miles per hour. Left unsaid in the Army announcement was any mention of the airborne firepower carried aloft: both the Invader and the Mustang normally featured six or more .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns.
Nor was there any mention of the procedure to be followed if the planes found an unauthorized intruder into American airspace.
Left: Newspaper photo of Captain Mantell.
ALTHOUGH OTHER PILOTS would sometimes attempt to follow and identify an unknown in the air, there was no known aggressive pursuit incident throughout 1947.
That would change just as the new year arrived.
On January 7, 1948, Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr. was leading a ferry mission of four P-51 Mustangs from Marietta, Georgia back to their home base near Louisville, Kentucky. At the request of Godman Air Force Base, Mantell detoured to pursue and identify an aerial unknown that had resulted in hundreds of calls to the authorities, one which the Base Commander at Godman had in his sight even as the request to Mantell went out.
Mantell was no stranger to danger. His local newspaper, the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal would note...
Mantell was one of the first fliers to cross the Cherbourg Peninsula on D-Day. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for services over Holland. Enemy fire severed the rudder and elevator controls and set fire to the tail sections while the plane was 100 miles from the target. Mantell succeeded in completing his mission and getting plane and crew home safely.
But Mantell's luck would run out on that cold January day. Flying too high without oxygen, Mantell apparently blacked out. One of his last messages was, "It appears metallic object of tremendous size."
The twenty-five year old fighter pilot's plane belly-flopped onto a farm, the object he pursued unto his death still in sight of the Godman Field base commander.
THE NEXT OPPORTUNITY for a pursuit would come that April to members of the 18th fighter group, based in the Philippines.
The 18th had a distinguished history when it came to air pursuits. On December 7, 1941, the planes of the 18th had been caught on the ground at Pearl Harbor. It took the group two years to materially recover from that devastation, and for individual squadrons to re-emerge.
But the members of the 18th got their revenge for the surprise attack in one of the most famous aerial battles of the war.
On April 18, 1943, a top secret long-range fighter intercept mission took off from Guadalcanal with pilots specially selected from various units, including members of the 18th wing. Flying over 425 miles to reach their target, it was a pilot newly transferred from the 18th who claimed the score: the downing of the Japanese Betty carrying Japan's Admiral Yamamoto -- the man who had planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
From that point until the end of the war, the 18th wreaked havoc on Japanese forces from Borneo to Formosa. Following the war, they continued to excel, receiving the first overseas deployment of jet fighters.
But it was in the P-47 Thunderbolt that the 18th -- in the person of 1st Lt. Robert W. Meyers -- had its first reported encounter, while flying over Luzon Island. From the files of Project Sign -- the official U.S. Air Force investigation into the mystery of the flying discs...
On 1st April, at 0955, 1st Lt Meyers was leading a flight of 4 P-47 aircraft of the 67th Fighter Sq, 18th Fighter Group. He was flying a heading of 180° altitude 1500 feet, position 124° 3' East and 12° 52' North, when he sighted an unidentified object approximately three (3) miles east of his position and at an estimated altitude of 1,000 ft, heading 360°.
In the end, it was an intercept that never happened. Not even the P-47's 433 mile per hour airspeed and ability to climb in excess of 3,000 feet per minute could overcome the object's ability to accelerate and disappear in a matter of five seconds on a day with unlimited visibility.
Nor could he alert other planes in the flight he was leading because "his radio was out" (whether that outage was coincidental or seemingly the result of the encounter was not included in the report).
And so left undecided was what the result might have been had the pilot's eight .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns and two armed missiles been brought to bear against an object able to execute 90° left turns.
But the question of comparable performance when a U.S. fighter pilot actually confronted an object able to execute such maneuvers would finally find some answer, five months hence.
Above: Pages from a comic-book version of the "Gorman dogfight" found in the Air Force files on the incident.
FOR THE NEWLY-FORMED Air National Guard, attracting pilots of the caliber of Lieutenant George F. Gorman was an urgent matter of national security.
The end of World War II had brought with it a pressing dilemma for the defense of the United States: with hostilities over, there was neither the need nor the resources to maintain a war-sized military, which had depended on the draft for sixty percent of its forces. Yet the memories and lessons of Pearl Harbor argued equally against lessening military readiness.
Maintaining a reserve of Army ground forces could be done as it had always been, through the system of state National Guard units -- civilians who would train regularly and who could be called up as soldiers in the case of war.
But the recently ended world-wide conflagration had been transformational not just in its nuclear conclusion, but in the primacy of aerial warfare in achieving victory.
Up until 1947, the air forces of the United States had been a part of the Army. Now, the newly formed United States Air Force needed a reserve component of its own.
But beyond that, the new Air Guard was to be not just a reserve force but the primary source of combat-ready air units for the nation, with 72 fighter squadrons and 12 light bomber units, comprising nearly 2,700 aircraft -- leaving the Air Force to focus its efforts on developing its long-range strategic bombing capability.
While for their mission, the Air Guard needed 3,000 combat-ready reserve pilots capable of providing front-line air defense of the nation.
Which is how Lt. Gorman -- who had not only been a fighter pilot during the war but a flight instructor who drilled his charges in fighter tactics -- found himself on the night of October 1, 1948 in an aerial encounter with the unknown.
Lt. Gorman and his squadron were returning to Fargo, North Dakota, from a cross-country flight. The other pilots had already landed, but Gorman decided to log in more flight time.
He flew for another half-hour, first traveling west before returning to Fargo, intending this time to land. He radioed the control tower for landing conditions and air traffic, and was told there was a single other plane in the sky: a Piper Cub.
Then the encounter began. From the investigator's report in the files of Project Sign...
As he flew into the pattern preparatory to landing, what seemed to be the tail light of another airplane passed him from the right. He called the tower immediately and complained that they had misinformed him, that there was a third ship in the air.
At the same time, the Senior Airport Traffic Controller at the tower -- Lloyd D. Jensen -- also spotted the object. From the investigator's report...
Mr. Jensen then stepped to the south window of the tower and at that moment saw the object, approximately 1000 feet from the tower in a north-western direction, passing very fast over the field.
Assistant Controller Manuel E. Johnson joined Jensen, and also spotted Gorman and the light. And as the two controllers watched, Gorman flew towards the object. Gorman himself described the events of the next 27 minutes in a transcribed interview with the primary Air Force investigator, Major Donald Jones, commander of the 178th Fighter Squadron...
Q. How did you happen to first notice the object in question?
During this time, the occupants of the Piper Cub -- Dr. A.E. Canon, an oculist by profession, and a gentleman named Nielsom-- also became witnesses, as recounted in a signed statement gathered during the Air Force investigation...
A gentleman and myself took off from Skye Ranch Flying Field, which is five (5) miles South of Hector Airport, at eight-forty (8:40) P.M. to do a little night flying. We were in a two way radio connection with the tower at Hector Airport. I was doing the flying and Nielsom was using the phones and while circling the Football Field at the A.C. at 1600 feet, the Fargo tower advised us there was a 51 in the air and a few moments later asked who the third plane might be. We had noticed the 51, and when we were over the North side of Hector Field going West, a light seemingly on a plane flared above and to the North moving very swiftly toward the West. At first we thought it was the 51 but we than saw the lights of the 51 higher and more over the field. We landed on runway three (3) and taxied into the Add [sic] building and went up to the tower and listened to the calls from the 51 which seemed to be trying to over-take the plane or lighted object which the [sic] went southward and over the city. The plane was moving very swiftly, much faster than the 51. Tried to get a better view with a pair of binoculars but couldn't follow it well enough...
Months later Gorman would be interviewed by Major Donald Keyhoe, and revealed the following about the Air Force investigation...
They asked about a thousand questions, and I could tell they thought it might be a hoax at first. But that was before they quizzed the others who saw it.
But that's not the only thing that argued against it being a balloon, as related by Captain Ed Ruppelt, former head of the Air Force's Project Blue Book (successor to Project Sign) in his 1956 book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects...
Project Sign investigators rushed to Fargo. They had wired ahead to ground the plane. They wanted to check it over before it flew again. When they arrived, only a matter of hours after the incident, they went over the airplane, from the prop spinner to the rudder trim tab, with a Geiger counter. A chart in the official report shows where every Geiger counter reading was taken. For comparison they took readings on a similar airplane that hadn't been flown for several days. Gorman's airplane was more radioactive.
TWO WEEKS AFTER the 'Gorman dogfight', radar would for the first time enter the picture in the pursuit of a UFO.
Radar had only come into its own during the war in the Battle of Britain, allowing the RAF to defeat the larger and more powerful German Luftwaffe. Forewarned by ground intercept radar of German bombers crossing the English Channel, RAF fighters were vectored to an intercept point well before the bombers reached England.
And saved from the trouble of patrolling, the English were able to concentrate nearly their entire fighter force against each incoming wave.
But the German bombers still needed to be seen by the fighter pilots to be effective, and so the Germans began flying bombing missions at night or in bad weather, when scoring a kill against them would be most difficult.
In response, airborne radar came into its own in the form of the P-61 Black Widow, a long-range, all-weather, day-night interceptor -- and the first aircraft designed to use radar in flight -- allowing pilots to target enemy aircraft in conditions of near-zero visibility, at a top speed of 430 miles per hour.
And it was such a system of both ground and airborne intercept radar that came into play near Fukuoka, Japan on October 15, 1948. A document from the files of Project Sign describes what happened that night (note: 'FEAF' stands for Far East Air Forces):
A cable from FEAF reported that an unidentified aircraft was sighted both visually and by radar by the pilot and radar observer of an F-61 on 15 Oct. 48. The observers think it possible that 6 unidentified aircraft were involved in the interception. The sightings occurred at night; however, there was sufficient moonlight to permit a silhouette to be discerned although no details were observed. No trails of exhaust flames were seen. The speed of this aircraft was reported as much greater than that of the F-61. It also had a high rate of acceleration and could go almost straight up or down out of radar elevation limits. The object seemed cognizant of the whereabouts of the F-61 at all times which might indicate that it carried radar warning equipment.
The sworn statement of the F-61 radar operator read:
I, BARTON HALTER, 2nd Lt, USAF, AO-878470, age 26, do hereby make the following statement.
The pilot also gave his account in a sworn statement:
1. I, OLIVER HEMPHILL Jr., 1st Lt. USAF AO-784156, age 26, do hereby make the following statement: 2. Present Duty: Assistant Operations Officer and night Fighter Pilot, with the 68th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group (AW) APO 75. 3. On the night of 15 October 1948 my radar observer and myself were flying a routine airborne alert mission approximately 50 miles out to sea northwest of Fukuoka, Japan. At approximately 2305 I time we made our first contact with our Airborne Radar Set with a target we assumed to be a F-51. We attempted a practice interception, but the target put on a tremendous burst of speed and dived so fast that we were unable to stay with it. At this point the intercepting aircraft was traveling at approximately 300 mph and descending at 3500 feet per minute. This was a head-on interception. When the target passed under us we executed a chandelle back to our original altitude of approximately 6,000 feet. Our second target was immediately picked up on the scope, and a stern interception was attempted, but the aircraft immediately outdistanced us. At this time we were puzzled by the tremendous bursts of speed exhibited by the supposed F-51s. The third target was spotted visually by myself. I had an excellent silhouette of the target thrown against a very reflective undercast by a full moon. I realized at this time that it did not look like any type aircraft I was familiar with, so I immediately contacted by Ground Control Station and asked for information regarding any aircraft flying in the area. The Ground Control Station informed me there were no other aircraft in the area. I informed them that I had seen and was in contact with them from then on. 4. The fourth target passed directly over my ship from stern to bow at a speed of roughly twice that of my aircraft, 200 mph. I caught just a fleeting glance of the aircraft; just enough to know he had passed me. The fifth and sixth targets were attempted radar interceptions, but their high rate of speed put them immediately out of our range
The entire encounter had lasted a mere 10 minutes or so. But 10 minutes can seem a lifetime when in the presence -- verified 6 times on radar and twice visually -- of a mysterious unknown.
THERE WOULD BE one more military pursuit -- at 10 p.m. on November 18 -- to round out 1948, notable not only for its similarity to the 'Gorman dogfight', but for the incident's location: Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington D.C., and recent home to Strategic Air Command. Aside from the pursuing pilot, witnesses included a pilot in the air, a pilot on the ground, and another airman on the ground.
This time it was in an unarmed plane -- a North American T-6 Texan advanced trainer aircraft, with a top speed of just over 200 miles per hour. A document from the files of Project Sign describes the events:
At approximately 2200 hours Lt. Henry G. Combs (AFRes) sighted an object flying on a 360° pattern from West to East over Andrews AF Base. The object had one continuous glowing white light. Combs thought it was an aircraft with the wing navigation lights turned off or burned out. He then made a pass to check. Object then took evasive action. First contact established at 1700 feet over Andrews AF Base. When object started taking evasive action, Combs switched wing and tail navigation lights off.
Left: Captain Mantell's headstone. He left behind his wife, Margaret, and two children -- Thomas Mantell III and Terry Lee Mantell, as well as his parents and two sisters.
EACH OF THE 1948 pursuit encounters carried the threat of injury or death, and one brave pilot did indeed pay the ultimate price. In the years -- and decades -- to come, there would be more air pursuits, some famous but most little known.
They would nearly always match the performance characteristics of the objects, as well as the strangeness of the experience to those involved.
But the pilots of 1948 -- Captain Mantell, Lt. Meyers, Lt. Gorman, Lt. Hemphill, Lt. Combs and radar man Lt. Halter -- would carry with them the distinction of being the first to aggressively pursue, at considerable personal risk, the strange new phenomenon in the sky.
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