Pilots and UFOs: Death in the skies

The phrase “unidentified flying objects” suggests that UFOs have an affinity with our terrestrial pilots – both fly and share our airspace. Thus, terrestrial pilots should have seen and reported a goodly proportion of UFO events. And that indeed is the case. There’s been many an interesting close encounter between military, commercial and private pilots. No great news there. However, there have been several UFO incidents that have resulted in the death or disappearance (and presumed death) of the pilot(s) and sometimes crew too. That ratchets up the seriousness ante quite considerably.

UFO sightings by airline pilots (military, civilian, and private) now number in the thousands. Unfortunately, there have been instances of pilots who have died or who have gone missing (presumed dead) while witnessing, pursuing or otherwise involved with some form or other of UFO-related activity. That alone suggests that UFOs are not only a serious business, but also at times a deadly business.

The list of pilot encounters with UFOs is now so extensive that it would take several book length volumes to adequately cover the subject. There is however that deadly subset of those pilot-related encounters. Here are a few of the better known case histories and fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, they are relatively few.

MAURY ISLAND INCIDENT (1947)

This incident is only indirectly related to ‘pilots and UFOs’ insofar as it involves an alleged UFO incident and the death of two military officers piloting a military aircraft, but there was no direct encounter between the UFO and the aircraft. While there is a massive amount of material related to the Maury Island Incident, from conspiracy theories and cover-ups to threats by the Men in Black, to the disappearance of witnesses and evidence (photographs), even something approaching an outright hoax that ended up involving several of the early pioneers in the ‘flying saucer’ business, most of that story isn’t relevant to the deaths of the military officers and is omitted here.

The basic tale revolves around Harold A. Dahl, his son Charles, and a dog. They were all out boating near Maury Island in Puget Sound near Tacoma Washington on or about the 21st of June 1947 (which actually precedes the ‘official’ beginnings of the modern UFO era by a few days). They claimed to have spotted an overhead fleet of what we’d now call (doughnut-shaped) UFOs flying in formation and surrounding another UFO which seemed to be having some sort of difficulty. The object that was in some distress or that was malfunctioning ejected some solid slag-like material which, obeying the laws of gravity, fell earthwards, struck and damaged Dahl’s jointly owned boat, caused some minor injuries to himself and his son, but alas killed the dog. Samples of the ‘slag’ were recovered. Via a roundabout route, two military (Army Air Corps) intelligence officers were ultimately called in to investigate. The two investigating officers, Captain William L. Davidson and Lieutenant Frank M. Brown of Army A-2 Intelligence, arrived and conducted interviews and obtained samples of the ‘slag’ before boarding and piloting their B-25 aircraft, destination Hamilton Field in California. The plane carrying the two investigators and the slag crashed near Kelso, Washington, shortly after leaving Tacoma, killing both men. Two others on board, one an aircrew the other a military ‘hitchhiker’, Sergeant Elmer L. Taft and Technical Sergeant Woodrow D. Matthews survived by parachuting from the airplane after it lost its left wing and the tail section due to a fire in the left engine.

An FBI report into the incident noted that investigators from McChord Field near Tacoma had investigated the wreckage and were convinced there was no sabotage involved. It’s noted that one of the leading USAF UFO investigators, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, chief of Project Blue Book in the early 1950s, wrote in his 1956 book “The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects” that he was convinced that the entire UFO sighting story was a hoax. The initial FBI field report concluded the story was a hoax as well. Regardless whether the incident was true (as some still believe), the cover-up of an advanced, classified but nevertheless terrestrial aerospace craft, or a hoax, the death of Capt. Davidson and Lt. Brown was real enough.

MANTELL INCIDENT (1948)

If there was ever a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then the Mantell Incident qualifies.

On the afternoon of the 7th of January 1948, Godman Army Airfield (at Fort Knox, Kentucky) was notified by the state highway patrol of a strange circular object they could not identify some 250 to 300 feet in diameter that was flying along a westward course. Being conscientious officers, they saw it as their duty to notify the nearest military base – Godman Field.

Military personnel, including the Commanding Officer, spotted the unknown object in question from the airfield’s control tower. It was also witnessed from other Army Airfields (Clinton County Army Air Field and Lockbourne Army Air Field, both in nearby Ohio). Witnesses collectively described the movement of the object ranging from stationary to 500 mph; ranging in altitude from near ground level to 10,000 feet. The lone object appeared to be white, but with a reddish fringe on the bottom.

Unfortunately, a formation of four P-51 Mustangs of the Kentucky Air National Guard just happened to be in the air and in the vicinity – that vicinity being the wrong place; wrong time for one of the pilots, the flight leader, Captain Thomas Mantell, an experienced pilot (over 2000 flying hours) and veteran of World War II. Anyway, the P-51 flight was directed to get up close and personal and determine what this unknown object was.

Not all of the P-51’s were able to comply with that order to the maximum extent possible. One was low on fuel; two others didn’t have an adequate oxygen supply and had more sense than to climb too high though they kept pace with Mantell for as long as they could. Mantell, without an oxygen supply, however, being the flight leader and no doubt an alpha male, threw caution into the wind, boldly went ahead, outdistancing his wingmen when he shouldn’t of. He kept in hot pursuit, stating the object was moving at only half his speed and he was closing in for a better look. He allegedly described the object as metallic and of tremendous size, in contrast to some of his wingmen who described it as small and indistinct.

To make a long story shorter, Capt. Mantell climbed too high, blacked out from lack of oxygen, and the rest, as they say, is history. His plane began spiraling back towards the ground. A witness later reported Mantell’s Mustang in a circling descent. His plane crashed at a farm south of Franklin, Kentucky, on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. Some interested parties have suggested that while Mantell was an experienced pilot, he was rather new to the P-51 Mustang, and that this relative inexperience could have been a factor in the crash. Regardless, Captain Mantell was, as of 3:18 p.m. that date, the late Captain Mantell.

So what was the object that ultimately led to Mantell’s death? Well the first half-hearted explanation was that everyone had sighted, and the P-51’s had chased, the planet Venus! It’s obvious that no plane can climb high enough to get up close and personal with a planet that’s millions of miles away, so if Venus it was, it’s no wonder Mantell failed to close in on it. Desperate in the attempt, he climbed too high and passed out from lack of oxygen, that being the major factor in the resulting crash and his death. So went explanation number one.

Now Venus, depending on where it is in its orbit, can been seen in daylight, if one knows exactly where to look. However, it’s going to be quite faint as a daylight object at the best of times, and 99.999% of people, while quite familiar with Venus as the celestial object called the morning or evening ‘star’, have never seen the planet in broad daylight. I know I haven’t. That all of a sudden so many people, the highway patrol, other civilians, ground based military personnel, Capt. Mantell and his wingmen, zeroed in on Venus is absolutely astounding – too astounding to be credible. In any event, what Venus would look like in the daytime sky, and the description of the object in question, just don’t mesh. Scratch Venus.

The next best option was, at that time, a top secret US Navy Skyhook weather balloon. Why a weather balloon should be top secret is beyond me, but classified it was. The general characteristics of the Skyhook are reasonably consistent with the appearance and movements reported by Mantell and other witnesses, the sticking point being no particular Skyhook balloon could be conclusively identified as being in the area in question during Mantell’s pursuit according to some; facts disputed by the skeptics who said that multiple Skyhooks had been launched that day about 150 miles away. Regardless, if the object was a Skyhook, it’s little wonder nobody could identify it as such seeing as how it was a classified project and object. Of course it wouldn’t have been very politically correct to admit that a secret American military program resulted in the demise of an American military pilot!

The cause of Mantell’s crash remains officially listed as undetermined by the Air Force.

In 1948 flying discs or saucers were still pretty unique and so the first death directly attributed to a flying saucer was Big News and it was widely reported in the press. Unfortunately, some more lurid sections of the press suggested that Mantell had been shot down by the UFO and/or that his body was riddled with holes and/or his P-51 aircraft was found to be radioactive. These reports were false.

In the end, it matters little what the object was – bona-fide hardcore UFO or something more prosaic like Venus or a Skyhook weather balloon – Mantell was just as dead.

KINROSS INCIDENT (1953)

On the 23rd of November, 1953, First Lieutenant Felix Moncla (pilot) and Second Lieutenant Robert L. Wilson (radar operator) were scrambled from Kinross Air Force Base in their United States Air Force (USAF) F-89 Scorpion to investigate the incursion into American air space, just on the American-Canadian border and over Lake Superior of an unknown aircraft that had been detected by Air Defense Command radar at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. At roughly 8000 feet elevation, after being guided by ground radar tracking that was also required for an intercept, an intercept was accomplished. Ground Control tracked the F-89 Scorpion and the unidentified object as two separate blips on their radar screen. The two blips on the radar screen grew closer and closer, until they seemed to merge as one return blip. Assuming that pilot Lt. Moncla had flown either under or over the target, Ground Control thought that moments later, the Scorpion and the object would again appear as two separate blips. There was little actual fear that the two objects had struck one another in collision. To their astonishment, rather, the now single blip disappeared from the radar screen, and then there was no radar return at all. The F-89 apparently merged with the other mystery radar return. Its IFF signal also disappeared after the two returns merged on the radar scope. Attempts were made to contact Lt. Moncla via radio, but this was unsuccessful. A search and rescue operation was quickly mounted, but found not a trace of the plane or the pilots and radar officer.

The USAF reported that Lt. Moncla and Lt. Wilson had crashed and that the ‘unknown’ object was only a misidentified Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aircraft. The official USAF Accident Investigation Report identified the unidentified second aircraft as a RCAF C-47 Dakota VC-912, crossing Northern Lake Superior from west to east at 7,000 feet en route from Winnipeg to Sudbury, Canada, that had traveled off course.

But, on multiple occasions, the RCAF refuted their involvement in the intercept incident, in correspondence with members of the public asking for further details on the alleged encounter.

So, like the Valentich case below, did a bona-fide UFO make off with an aircraft and crew? No trace of the F-89, Lt. Moncla or Lt. Wilson has, to this day, been found despite the alleged ‘crash’ in the official report.

SCHAFFNER INCIDENT (1970)

United States Air Force (USAF) pilot Captain William Schaffner was on an exchange program serving with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in September 1970 at RAF Binbrook. On the 8th of that month an unknown objected was picked up by radar at various locations, and aircraft from various bases in Iceland and Scotland were directed to take off and investigate it. However, the object in question kept playing hide-and-seek, appearing on and off radar scopes as various aircraft approached, thus forcing them to ultimately abandon the chase and return to base.

When it became Capt. Schaffner’s turn to investigate and intercept, piloting a Lightning, the object quit playing games allowing the officer to make visual contact. He spotted and described a dazzling blue conical-shaped object minutes before his plane then disappeared off the radar. It would seem at first glance that his plane and the object merged, the object then moving off at high speed, but that was only apparent as the disappearance of the Lightning aircraft off the radar was because for one reason or another Capt. Schaffner was flying way too low and actually flew directly into the North Sea. And that’s when the real puzzles start.

The aircraft was located (within three weeks) and recovered from the bottom of the North Sea shortly thereafter (within three months) of the incident. The Lightning aircraft was largely intact with minimal damage; no explosion, in fact no signs of any mechanical failure that would have led to the crash. The canopy was in place and closed. Unfortunately, there was no body of Capt. Schaffner within the plane. Capt Schaffner’s body has never been found – and he did not eject from the cockpit into a survival dinghy.

So was the missing pilot snatched by aliens? The Board of Inquiry came to the conclusion Capt Schaffner manually abandoned the aircraft, but because he has not been found, he was presumed to have drowned during or after his escape. But, since the aircraft canopy was in place when the Lightning was lifted out of the sea (and pictures confirm that), how did the pilot exit the craft? So, regardless of what the unknown object was, and some say it was nothing but a slow moving Shackleton maritime reconnaissance aircraft that had lost radio contact with the outside world that Capt. Schaffner was trying to intercept and not a bona-fide UFO at all, you still have a UFO incident and one missing, presumed dead pilot. Of course if aliens did somehow manage to abduct Capt. Schaffner while in the air, that would explain why his now unmanned jet landed in the drink!

VALENTICH INCIDENT (1978)

America, the U.K., so why not Australia? One of many, many highly unexplained UFO cases is the events surrounding Frederick Valentich on 21 October 1978. It’s more a case of where there’s smoke, there’s smoke, but smoke there certainly is, and lots of it.

In a nutshell, on the evening of that date, in perfect weather for night flying, Mr. Valentich piloted a private plane from Melbourne, intended destination, King Island in Bass Strait. He took off only to shortly thereafter radio in repeatedly asking if there was another aircraft in his vicinity. That was a negative according to air traffic control. This ‘aircraft’ ultimately started hovering or orbiting over him. Let’s now call a spade a spade here and state the ‘aircraft’ was a UFO. The UFO was also spotted by several independent witnesses. While radioing in his observations, ultimately acknowledging at the end that the mysterious ‘aircraft’ was not an aircraft, all contact ceased; all communications abruptly ended. Mr. Valentich, plane and all, vanished without trace. An extensive air and sea search failed to find any sign of Mr. Valentich, or his plane. No oil slick, no floating wreckage, no body – nothing, zip, bugger-all. No trace has ever been found of pilot or plane – not then, not since, not ever.

One obvious explanation was that Mr. Valentich staged his own disappearance, although friends and family could offer no reason why he would do so. Of course many people voluntarily disappear themselves for various reasons; many eventually are found, are caught or reappear voluntarily. But keep in mind; it wasn’t just Mr. Valentich who disappeared. One entire aircraft vanished as well, never to be seen again. Surely if Mr. Valentich wanted to ‘drop out’, there were easier and way less conspicuous ways of doing so. If he had deliberately gone walkabout, in these decades since of security cameras and computer facial software recognition technology, it would be hard to remain an unknown walkabout in any populated area.

Was suicide a motive? Again, no wreckage or body was ever found, and who would go to all the bother of reporting a non-existent UFO overhead – a non-existent UFO that happened to be independently reported by others. Anyway, no suicide note was found.

And what of the plane since no wreckage was ever found floating on the surface of Bass Strait; washed up on beaches, or found on the ocean bottom – Bass Strait isn’t that deep.

It’s a mystery, and while it doesn’t prove aliens nicked off with Mr. Valentich and plane, there’s not that much wriggle room.

[divider] The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real-life Sightings


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Interestingly, despite my (and others) asking for a copy of the Valentich ‘accident’ case report in an official capacity related to my employment at the time, the Department of Transport (Air Safety Investigations Branch) refused. To this day, to the best of my knowledge, that report has never been publicly released. A summary report was issued mainly giving the transcript of Valentich’s final conversation with air traffic control with the conclusion being that they could not determine the exact cause into the mishap.

In conclusion, there really is no common high strangeness thread here (though I’d suggest a few of the above incidents are individually in a high strangeness category), just a UFO incident and a dead pilot, sometimes pilot and crew. But that alone is enough to strongly suggest that UFOs are a serious business indeed.

By John Prytz



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