FARGO — It’s almost as though Fargo Forum Sports Editor Eugene Fitzgerald had a tiny crystal ball sitting beside his typewriter in the smoke-filled newsroom that day in the fall of 1948 when he wrote his headline for Oct. 1: “Aerial Display Likely in Bison-Augustana Game Tonight.” Of course, in this case, "aerial display" referred to Fitzgerald’s prediction that the game would feature more passing than rushing.
NDSU won that night 14-6, hardly a show of aerial dominance. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald's headline turned out to be strangely prophetic as there was a pretty spectacular aerial display in the sky that night. It became the subject of a U.S. government investigation, the files of which have only recently been declassified and open for the public to see.
It’s come to be known as the "Gorman dogfight" and is one of the most well-known 20th century UFO stories. It's also one of the most credible, considering the man who claimed to see the flying saucer was an accomplished World War II pilot and at least three other witnesses were experienced aviators.
For years, reports of what happened that night came from the eyewitnesses and Gorman himself. But now that the files have been declassified, more details have emerged. The incident was featured on a History Channel show called Project Blue Book in 2019.
Who was George Gorman?
According to columnist Curt Eriksmoen, who wrote about Gorman in The Forum in 2011, Gorman was born July 7, 1923, to Norbert and Roberta Gorman. He grew up in Fargo, where his father was a Cass County agent. During World War II, Gorman became a B-25 instructor for French aviation students. When the war was over, he returned to Fargo and was employed as the manager of a construction company.
When the North Dakota Air National Guard formed at Fargo's Hector Airport on Jan. 16, 1947, Gorman joined the squadron as a second lieutenant.
What exactly happened Oct. 1, 1948?
Gorman was flying his P-51 Mustang with other guard pilots in the early evening hours of Oct. 1, 1948. Part of their flight path was over the old Dacotah Field where the North Dakota Agricultural College Bison football team played its games. According to North Dakota State University Assistant Athletic Director Ryan Perreault, the field was slightly south of the current Dacotah Field at 1310 17th Ave. N.
"Dacotah Field at that time was located adjacent to Churchill Hall in the center of campus where the Memorial Union and A. Glenn Hill Center now sit," Perreault said.
He said kickoff was 8 p.m. that Friday night.
About a half hour later, most of the pilots flying decided to call it a night, but Gorman wanted to get in more flying time. According to a story in The Fargo Forum dated Oct. 3, 1948, Gorman was flying near Hector Field, about two and a half miles from the football field, when an air traffic controller told him about a small Piper Cub in the area.
He acknowledged the smaller plane about 500 feet below, but a few minutes later, he spotted something else.
He said it was a "flying disk," was round with well-defined edges, brilliantly lit and circling slowly over the city. He asked the tower about the object, and they said they only saw Gorman’s plane and the Piper Cub. This object was not showing up on radar.
Gorman decided to investigate, but as he got closer to the object, it suddenly got brighter and shot away from him. He estimated it was flying around 250 miles an hour, but accelerated to 600 miles an hour. Gorman’s plane could only fly about 400 miles an hour, so he lost the object. But it came back and flew right at him.
"When the object was coming head on, I held my plane pointed right at it," Gorman said. "The object came so close that I involuntarily ducked my head because I thought a crash was inevitable. But the object zoomed over my head."
The "dogfight" lasted 27 minutes — a lifetime for a UFO encounter. The declassified documents include a diagram Gorman drew of what went on in the air that night.
In The History Channel’s Project Blue Book, UFO historian Richard Dolan says the detailed drawing tells us a lot.
“It shows you’ve got an experienced, seasoned World War II fighter pilot who is dealing with a light phenomenon that is clearly outperforming his aircraft,” he said.
Gorman was said to be so shaken after the incident that he had trouble landing the plane. He told The Fargo Forum later, it was "the weirdest experience I've had in my life."
After Gorman told his commanding officer what happened, the incident was referred to Air Force intelligence. Investigators arrived in Fargo on Oct. 4 and interviewed the two air traffic controllers in the tower that night as well as the pilot of the Piper Cub, a local physician. All of them corroborated Gorman’s account.
Gorman wrote in a sworn statement that he was convinced there was "definitive thought" behind the object's maneuvers and that the aircraft could go faster, turn tighter and climb steeper than his aircraft.
Despite what seems to be evidence to the contrary, the Air Force concluded the object was a combination of looking at the planet Jupiter and a weather balloon. According to Eriksmoen, Gorman insisted it wasn’t a weather balloon, but the Air Material Command warned him not to divulge any further information or he would be subject to a court martial.
That might be one reason why Gorman stayed pretty quiet throughout the rest of his military career, which took him to bases in Italy and throughout the U.S. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and died from pancreatic cancer in Texas in the early 1980s at the age of 59.
Did people at the football game see what happened?
According to reports, most of the dogfight action would have been happening before halftime, just north of the field. The National Centers for Environmental Information says visibility in Fargo that evening was 13.1 miles and there was no record of precipitation, so football fans wouldn't have been obstructed by clouds, snow or rain.
If what they saw is what is often reported from UFO sightings from the same distance away, the fans might have seen flashes of light, not unlike heat lightning. They also might have heard the sounds of Gorman's plane and the object.
We're saying "might" because at this point — The Forum hasn't been able to track down any fans or players who were there that night.
A Facebook callout yielded some reminiscing about the teams of the 1940s — the players of which would be at least 90 years old.
Fargo football legend Sid Cichy played for the Bison in 1947, but in 1948 was in the first year of his longtime coaching job with the Shanley High School Deacons. (He would lead the school to 16 state titles from 1948 to 1977). He died in 2006.
Don Babitzke, recently featured in a Jeff Kolpack column, was on the roster in 1949. If you happen to know a player or a young fan who might have been there that night, let us know.
Whatever it was, it might have brought some positive karma to the Bison. That modest 14-6 victory over Augustana that night ended a nine-game losing streak and was the first victory at home in almost two years. (Oct. 25, 1946, was the last home victory). Unfortunately, the good karma didn't last. The Bison ended the year 3-7 and didn't win any games the next year.
What to believe?
Even if more witnesses, from the football game or elsewhere, come forward from that night, it’s not likely any kind of official report would be changed. However, for what it’s worth, an astronomer contracted by the Air Force to study the Gorman incident took Gorman’s side that this was no weather balloon — something his son backs up in Project Blue Book.
Paul Hynek said, “My father loved Air Force pilots because, he said, ‘How can the Air Force deny reports by people that they themselves train?’"
Some kind of alien spacecraft 78% Some kind of military aircraft the government was testing 17% A weather balloon 5%
What do you think George Gorman saw that night?
Thank you for voting!
Some kind of alien spacecraft
Some kind of military aircraft the government was testing
A weather balloon
Other stories by Tracy Briggs: