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air pursuit: 1948

E.J. Smith

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.

Fate cover

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

PENDLETON, Ore., June 26 -- (U.P.) -- Residents of Pendleton sought an explanation today for the nine strange "saucer-shaped" planes an amateur pilot claimed he saw flying at an estimated speed of 1,200 miles an hour across southwestern Washington.

The story was told by Kenneth Arnold, flying fire extinguisher salesman from Boise, Ida.

He landed here, slightly bug-eyed, Wednesday and told how he spotted the "extremely shiny nickle-plated aircraft" skimming along at 10,000 feet on Tuesday. Arnold was on a search for a missing Marine corps plane at the time.

"They were shaped like saucers and were so thin I could barely see them," he told Jack Whitman, a local businessman.

"There were nine of them and they were flying in a screwy formation about 25 miles away from me. It wasn't any military formation I ever saw before.

"I figure they were moving about 1,200 miles per hour because I clocked them with a stop watch during the time it took them to fly from Mount Rainer to Mount Adams. That's 42 miles and they made it in one minute 42 seconds -- about 1,205 mph."

Arnold said the strange aircraft were skittering across the southwest slope of Mount Rainier when he first sighted them.

Whitman suggested tactfully, that Arnold had been seeing things but the pilot insisted, "I must believe my eyes."

There was no comment from military authorities on Arnold's story.

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

... Sergeant C.F. Clifton, Bergstrom Field aerial radioman reported seeing one of the flying saucers bound toward San Antonio as his plane was leaving there. Other members of the crew also saw the disc. "I think it was about 18 feet in diameter and looked as though it was made of glass," Sgt. Clifton said. "It was extremely bright and kept flashing." Sgt Clifton said that the crew figured that it must have been flying 1,440 miles an hour because it overtook and passed their plane in such a short time. It was round and was flying at a slightly tilted angle. "The disc seemed to be spinning as it flew," Sgt. Clifton reported. "It blurred radio reception slightly." Lieutenant Charles O. Anderson was piloting the plane which the disc passed about 4:30 p.m. ...

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.


Above: A squadron of P-51 Mustang fighters.

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

by United Press

Army pilots were ready today for another air search for the mysterious "flying saucers" now reported seen in 31 states and parts of Canada as practical jokesters added to the confusion.

Equipped with telescopic cameras, 11 Army planes searched the Pacific northwest Sunday without finding any trace of the flying discs which had been reported over scores of communities the preceding two days.

At Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a Coast Guard plane already in the air was ordered to investigate a silvery disc with a short tail which Gregory Zimmer said he saw shoot across the heavens. The pilot found nothing but empty sky.

The Army "camera patrol" over the Cascade Mountains Sunday included eight P-51 pursuit ships and three A-26 bombers. There was growing belief that the concentrated aerial search would show the saucers to be optical illusions or the work of practical jokesters magnified by aroused imagination. ...

J.U. Watts, Darlington, South Carolina, attorney, said he saw an Army pursuit plane chasing a V-formation of flying saucers at 250 miles an hour 3,000 feet high. However, no pilot reported such a chase.

Meantime authorities were plagued with reports that bordered on the fantastic...

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.

Captain Mantell

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.


Above: A P-47 Thunderbolt in action.

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°.

The object appeared to be a flying wing type aircraft, its shape resembled a half-moon. What appeared to be a dorsal fin was barely perceptible. The span of the object was estimated to be 30 feet, length 20 feet. The object was silver in color.

Upon sighting the object, Lt Meyers immediately started a left turn with the intention of intercepting and to more positively identify the phenomena. While Meyers was making a 240° turn the object made a 90° left turn, then leveled out on a heading of 270°, accelerated rapidly and disappeared from sight in approximately 5 seconds. There was no sound heard, and no exhaust trails were observed. At the time of the sighting visibility was unlimited, scattered cumulus, base 3000 ft, tops 6000 ft.

NOTE: Because of the distance from which the sighting was made no distinguishing features, i.e., power units, landing gear, armament or cockpit were observed.

The interview with Lt Meyers indicated that he is a reliable non-excitable individual who appeared quite positive in his statements. He was the only witness to this incident as he could not contact his wing man since his radio was out. Apparently the maneuvers performed by his 3 wing-men prevented their observation of the object.

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.

Gorman Dogfight

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.

The tower came back with the information that no other aircraft was reported out, that they had just checked with all other air fields in the area.

Lt. Gorman, seeing the tail light run just outside the Piper Cub, pulled up and out towards the moving light in order to identify what he thought to be another aircraft.

He saw the Piper Cub plainly outlined beneath him against the city lights, but saw no outline of anything around the moving light.

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.

Mr. Jensen happened to have, at the particular moment, a pair of binoculars in his hand, and he watched the object as it passed over the field. He was, however, unable to distinguish any shape or form other than what appeared to be the tail light of a very fast moving craft.

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?

A. Flying in circles to the left over the city of Fargo at 270 miles an hour, I noticed a cub circling the Football field on the North end of Fargo. At almost the same time I noticed the object traveling from East to West between the tower at Hector Airport and the Football Field. The time was 2100.

Q. How did the object first look to you?

A. At first observation it appeared to be the rear navigation light on an aircraft except that it had no glare and it was blinking on and off.

Q. What did you then do?

A. My first reaction was to keep it in sight and circle with it. At that time the object was making a circle around the city of Fargo at approximately 1000 feet traveling at the same rate of speed as I. Putting it in the light of the city, myself being above it, I checked it for wings and fuselage but it appeared to have none. I could distinguish the outline of the cub distinctly.

C. Did you have any conversation with the tower regarding the position of any aircraft in the air?

A. Yes.

Q. What was the gist of this conversation and the time it occurred?

A. My first call occurred at 2107 at which time I asked the tower if any other aircraft were in the air besides the cub and myself.

Q. What was the towers [sic] response?

A. They knew of no other local aircraft.

Q. What did you do then?

A. I contacted the tower, gave them my position, the position of the object, and notified the tower that I was peeling off and going to give chase.

Q. How near did you estimate that you got to the object during the chase?

A. The closest time I got to the object was in a head-on pass at which the object passed over me at less than 500 feet.

Q. How large did the object appear when it passed over you?

A. It appeared to me from 6 to 8 inches in diameter.

Q. Can you describe the object?

A. The object was white light with no apparent glare and clear cut edge.

Q. Did the object have any depth?

A. Apparently no.

Q. Could you describe it as merely a ball of light?

A. No, it seemed to be flat.

Q. How long were you able to keep the object in view?

A. Twenty-seven (27) minutes.

Q. Can you describe briefly what occurred during these 27 minutes?

A. After the initial peel off, I realized the speed of the object was too great to catch in a straight chase, so I proceeded to cut it off in turns. At this time my fighter was under full power. My speed varying between 300 and 400. The object circled to the left, I cut back to the right for a head-on pass. The pass was made at apparently [sic] 5000 feet, the object approaching head-on until a collision seemed inevitable. The object veered and passed approximately 500 feet or less over the top above me. I chandeled around, still without the object in sight. The object made a 180 degree turn and initiated a pass at me. This time I watched it approach all the way and as it started to pull up, I pulled up abruptly, trying to ram the object until straight up with me following to apparently [sic] 14,000 feet, I stalled out at 14,000 feet with the object apparently 2000 feet above me circling to the left. We made two circles to the left. The object then pulled out away from me and made another head-on pass. At this time the pass started and the object broke off a large distance from me heading over Hector Airport to the northwest at apparently 11,000 feet. I gave chase circling to the left trying to cut it off until I was 25 miles southeast of Fargo. I was at 14,000, the object at 11,000 when I again gave the aircraft full power and trying to catch it in a diving turn. The object turned around and made another head-on pass. This time, when pulling up, I pulled up also and observed it traveling straight up until I lost it. I then returned to the field and landed.

Q. Did the object at anytime [sic] change it's [sic] appearance?

A. Yes.

Q. In what way?

A. When the object was traveling slow, the light varied in intensity and blinking on and off.

Q. Did the light ever remain steady?

A. Yes.

Q. At what time?

A. When the object increased it's [sic] speed, the light increased in intensity and became steady.

Q. What did you estimate its fastest speed to be?

A. Somewhere above 600 miles per hour.

Q. Did the object appear to be opaque?

A. No.

Q. At any time did the light change color?

A. No.

Q. Did the light also appear the same even in turns?

A. Yes.

Q. Did the light at any time have an elliptical shape?

A. No.

Q. Did you have the impression that the object was controlled?

A. Definitely, there was thought behind the maneuvers.

Q. How was the weather especially the visibility at the time of this engagement?


Q. Were you conscious of the Northern lights?

A. Yes, I had observed them low on the North Eastern horizon through out [sic] my flight.

Q. Are you willing to certify that this is a true and accurate statement to the best of your knowledge?

A. Yes, I so certify to the best of my powers of observation, that every statement herein is true.

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.

At first, they were sure that's what it was (a balloon). You see, there was a weather balloon released here. You know the kind, it has a lighted candle on it. The Project teams said I'd chased after that candle and just imagined the light's maneuvers -- confused it with my own movement, because of the dark.

They had it just about wrapped up, until they talked to George Sanderson. He's the weather observer. He was tracking the balloon with a theodolite, and he showed them his records. The time and altitudes didn't fit, and the wind direction was wrong. The balloon was drifting in the opposite direction. Both the tower men backed him up. So that killed the weather-balloon idea.

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.


Above: A Revell model kit image of a P-61 Black Widow in combat.

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 F-61 interceptor aircraft was visible to ground radar only periodically as it flew in and out of the permanent ground return area in which search was being conducted. The only object picked up by the ground radar was the F-61. Estimated distance between interceptor (F-61) and objects in each sighting is as follows: First picked up at 10 miles and lost at 6,000 feet. Third picked up at 3 miles and lost at 10 miles. Four, five and six: all picked up at 9 miles and lost at 1200 ft. The last three sightings took place during a 10 minute period. In each instance the F-61 detected the object approximately 9 miles ahead, slowly closed to within 12,000 feet when the object would suddenly accelerate speed, dive and disappear from the air borne radarscope. Interceptor attempted to effect a normal pickup by diving after object but in each case was unsuccessful. After six sightings had been lost, the object was not again detected although interceptor continued to search the area until approximately 0130.

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.

My present duties are Radar and Communications Maintenance Officer, and Radar Observer Night Fighter with the 58th fighter Squadron, 347th Fighters Group (AW), APO 75.

On 15 October 1948, my pilot and I started out on a routine mission off the northwest coast of Kyushu. When, at 2305 I, we were approximately 50 miles at 330° from Fukuoka, I picked up an airborne target. It showed up at a range of five miles, dead ahead and slightly below us. We increased our speed to approximately 220 mph and obtained an advantage of 20 mph. The target showed no evasive action at first, and we thought that it was probably one of the fighter aircraft from our home field. As we closed in, I noticed a slight change in azimuth and a rapid closure between us. Shortly thereafter, a matter of seconds, the target gave the indication of diving beneath us. We dived in an attempt to follow the target and before we could get squared away to follow, it had passed beneath us and was gone. I was notified by my pilot that we were diving at a rate of 3500 feet a minute at 300 mph. I had intended to ask the pilot to peel off after it split "S", but it was gone too fast.

The next, or second, interception was from the rear of the target as was the first; however, the target added a burst of speed dead ahead and outdistanced us immediately. On the third interception, my pilot called a visual at 60° portside. By the time I made the pickup it was at 45° port 3000' and 5° below. My pilot made a rapid starboard turn in attempt to head off the target. By the time we got astern of it, it was off again in a burst of speed and disappeared between nine (9) and ten (10 miles.

On the fourth interception, the pilot called to me that we had been passed from above from the rear by our target. I picked up the target as it went off my scope from five to ten miles dead ahead and slightly above. On the fifth and sixth interceptions, the target appeared at 9 plus miles doing approximately 200 mph. We had an advantage of 20 mph making our IAS approximately 200 mph, a safe high speed cruise for F-61 type aircraft. We closed in to 12,000 feet; then, with a burst of speed the target pulled away to the outer limit of my set which is 10 miles for airborne targets. This took approximately 15 to 20 seconds.

In my opinion, we were shown a new type of aircraft by some agency unknown to us...

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

5. The only aircraft I can compare our targets to is the German ME-163. It was not a ME-262 or similar jet. I base this on my combat experience against ME-262's over Germany in 1945. At that time I was a B17 pilot, with the 48th Bomb Group (H) Station 174th, 8th Air Force. My total flying time is 900 hours of which 350 hours is combat time.

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.

T-6 aircraft

Above: From 1943, two North American T-6 Texan aircraft in flight.

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.

Maneuvering his ship so that his exhaust flame would not be noticed in an effort to get the object on his left he proceeded to close in but the object quickly flew up and over his aircraft. Then Combs attempted to maneuver the object between his ship and the light of the moon. This was done by making very tight 360° turns with flaps down while making a steady climb. Object was able to turn inside of Combs' aircraft even under this condition. Another amazing feature was the quick variation of airspeed from 80 MPH to 500 or 600 MPH. Combs remained in contact with the object for some 10 minutes with the object between the lights of Washington, D.C., and his aircraft. He could only see an oblong ball with one light and no wings and no exhaust flame.

Trying to close in again he remained in sight of it up to 6000 feet, then down to 3500 feet to 4000 feet but it always easily evaded him. The object and Combs climbed up to 7500 feet.

Combs pulled back up sharply and came up underneath the object within 300 to 400 feet. He then turned his landing lights on it. It had a very dull gray glow to it and was oblong in shape as mentioned before. Object then performed a very tight curve and headed for the East coast at about 500 to 600 MPH.

Witnesses agree that

(1) Object was highly maneuverable
(2) Seemed aware of the presence of a following aircraft
(3) Capable of almost vertical flight
(4) Was smaller in size that [sic] T-6 type aircraft.

Mantell tail section

Above: Tail section of the wreckage of Captain Mantell's F-51, from Project Blue Book files.

Mantell Headstone

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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The Arrival

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