It’s October 1, 1948, and Lieutenant George Gorman of the North Dakota Air National Guard is piloting his P-51 Mustang through the night sky over Fargo, North Dakota. Gorman’s airborne buddies subsequently peel off, but he instead decides to spend a little more time up in the heavens. So far, so routine – but what’s about to happen will put Gorman on the world’s front pages.
Now flying alone, Gorman spotted something strange in the sky. He thought it might be the light of another plane. In fact, there was another aircraft traveling near Gorman, a Piper Cub light plane. But the control tower at Gorman’s base, Hector Airport, had already informed him about the Piper. And Gorman could see it flying about 500 feet beneath him.
But it wasn’t the Piper that had caught Gorman’s attention. It was something else speeding through the cloudless night sky. And whatever it was had apparently not been picked up on the Hector control tower radar. It had only seen the Piper, so this unidentified aircraft was a mystery. With that in mind, Gorman decided to investigate.
Gorman could see a bright light which was alternately illuminating and then going dark. He began to maneuver his Mustang so as to follow this enigmatic illumination. He managed to get closer to it, but the light kept moving faster than he could change course. Try as he might, Gorman couldn’t keep up, although he managed to track the light for some time.
And Gorman wasn’t alone in spotting this peculiar light in the sky. Indeed, two of those on duty in the Hector Airport control tower, Lloyd Jensen and H.E. Johnson also saw it. The latter would later say that the object was traveling at high speed – but what had the men seen? We’ll come back to that question a little later, but first let’s find out a bit about George Gorman.
George F. Gorman came into the world in July 1923. His parents were Norbert and Roberta and they brought him up in Fargo where his father worked for Cass County. As a young adult, Gorman was a fighter pilot during the Second World War. And later in the conflict, he became an instructor teaching French airmen to fly B-25 Mitchell bombers.
After WWII ended, Gorman took a civilian job with a construction company, working as a manager. But flying was obviously in his blood and when he got the chance he returned to piloting fighter planes. That opportunity came in 1946 with the founding of the North Dakota Air National Guard. Gorman joined the unit, which flew P-51D Mustangs from Hector Airport.
Now, let’s return to that October evening at the Hector airfield. As we’ve seen, Gorman, now 25 years old and holding the rank of second lieutenant, was flying a cross-country mission with others from his squadron. As they descended to land at Hector at around 8:30 p.m., Gorman decided to fly on alone since the weather conditions were favorable.
At around 9:00 p.m., Gorman flew around a floodlit stadium near Hector, preparing to come in for his landing. It was at this point that the control tower radioed through to alert the Mustang pilot that there was a Piper Cub flying near him. Gorman spotted the light aircraft for himself, flying at a distance of about 500 feet from him.
It was at that moment that Gorman saw the strange bright light flying through the night sky. He then called the Hector control tower at 9:07 p.m. to check whether the crew there had any information about another plane in the sky. The men in the tower told him that the Piper was the only other aircraft they had information about. Indeed, there was nothing else as far as they were concerned.
The tower now made contact with the Piper’s pilot, Dr. A.D. Cannon. Both he and his passenger confirmed that they too could see this unexplained light in the sky. Gorman now made the decision to try and take a closer look at this strange phenomenon and flew to within some 1,000 yards of the bright light.
Gorman was later to describe what he saw in a statement to the official investigation conducted by Captain Edward J. Ruppelt. The former wrote in his report to Ruppelt, “It was about six to eight inches in diameter, clear white and completely without fuzz at the edges.” Evidently, his words sound like those of a man who has taken care to remember his observations.
Gorman continued his description of the mysterious light. He explained, “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.” But despite that sudden leftward shift, the pilot kept on the trail on the object, climbing to an altitude of 7,000 feet.
Then as he gained height, Gorman managed to get closer to the bright light. At this point, the object turned sharply again and headed on a course directly at the pilot’s Mustang. He now took evasive action, throwing his plane into a steep dive just before impact could happen. Indeed, it sounds like it was a close call.
Gorman’s dive got him away from the object, which now passed about 500 feet above his cockpit. But then the light executed another sharp turn and headed back at Gorman’s aircraft. It seemed that the object was hell-bent on colliding with the Mustang, but at the last moment it zoomed skywards in a precipitous climb.
Doggedly, Gorman kept tracking the path of the object and now followed it in a steep ascent. In fact, so extreme was the climb that at 14,000 feet, his engine stalled. But now the object disappeared – and the pilot headed back to Hector and landed safely at the airfield. The incident, which became known as the “Gorman dogfight,” had lasted for 27 minutes from start to finish.
As well as submitting a report to Ruppelt, Gorman also gave a sworn statement to his commanding officer after the incident. The History website quoted the pilot’s words in July 2018. In his disposition, he said, “I am convinced that there was definite thought behind its maneuvers.” And he then went on to give more detail.
“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,” Gorman said. Amazingly, his statement continued with an admission that he had lost consciousness for a time.
“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,” Gorman explained. “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.”
Indeed, these precisely judged words do not sound like those of a man gripped a by a delusion. And there were witnesses to back up Gorman’s account of the incident. Johnson and Jensen, the two men working in Hector Airport’s control tower that evening, both saw the light in the sky which the pilot had pursued.
Johnson told the official inquiry that the unidentified object had been “traveling at a high rate of speed… fast enough to increase the spacing between itself and [Gorman’s] fighter.” And Johnson described the strange illumination, saying it was “only a round light, perfectly formed, with no fuzzy edges or rays leaving its body.”
And then there was Cannon, the man we met earlier who was piloting the Piper Cub that had been in the sky at the same time as Gorman’s P-51. The former said that he saw the light traveling “very swiftly, much faster than [Gorman’s] 51.” There were also two others who testified to seeing the unidentified object, both Civil Aeronautics Authority staff.
One factor that investigators had to address was the possibility that Gorman was not a reliable witness, despite the other people who claimed to have seen the object in the sky. Perhaps his wartime experiences had disturbed the balance of his mind. But the general consensus seemed to be that Gorman was reliable.
According to the investigators’ report, Gorman “did not make the impression of being a dreamer. He reads little, and only serious literature. He spends 90 percent of his time hunting and fishing; drinks less than moderately; smokes normally; and does not do drugs. He appears to be a sincere and serious individual who was considerably puzzled by his experience and made no attempt to blow his story up.”
So what on Earth had this enigmatic light been? At that time in 1948 UFOs, flying saucers, alien spaceships – whatever you want to call them – were very much to the fore in the public mind. And Gorman’s experience got blanket media coverage. This served only to stimulate the public imagination, which had already been fired up by two other incidents in 1948.
The first of those had been what became known as the Mantell incident in January that year. Reports had come in to Fort Knox, Kentucky’s Godman Army Airfield of a flying object speeding across the sky. A squadron of four Kentucky National Guard pilots were already in the air nearby, led by Captain Thomas F. Mantell. And like Gorman, the pilot was a 25-year-old Second World War veteran.
And like the Gorman incident, this one involved an unidentified flying object which witnesses on the ground also saw. Tipped off by the Godman control tower, Mantell headed off in pursuit of the strange apparition, accompanied by two of his buddies, all flying F-51D Mustangs. During the chase, Mantell became separated from the other two pilots.
Mantell continued on alone, but it seems he took his aircraft too high into the skies. He then blacked out and the Mustang went into a death spin – and Mantell was killed when his plane crashed into the ground. This story caused a sensation in the media of the day. And it also sparked a series of bizarre rumors which spread like wildfire.
Some said Mantell’s body had been riddled with bullets fired by an alien spacecraft. Alternatively, the pilot had been chasing not a flying saucer but a Soviet projectile of some sort. It was also rumored that his body was radioactive. But the U.S. Air Force investigation into the crash dismissed all of those claims and found that Mantell had almost certainly chased after a U.S. Navy weather balloon.
The second 1948 UFO event happened in July near Montgomery, Alabama. Two civilian pilots, Clarence Chiles and his co-pilot John Whitted, were flying a Douglas DC-3 passenger airliner belonging to Eastern Airlines. Cruising at 5,000 feet through the night sky they saw an illuminated object fly past them before roaring off into clouds with a jet of flame.
The pilots later said the torpedo-like object was around 100 feet in length, had no wings and included rows of windows. The only other witness, a passenger aboard the plane, said he’d seen a flash of light. The USAF investigated the incident in great detail and concluded that the two pilots had almost certainly seen a meteor.
So when the press reported on the object that Gorman had seen, it was the third major sighting of 1948. And there was a ready appetite for news of UFOs in the skies above the United States. Indeed, the Air Force took the sightings seriously enough to have a special unit dedicated to investigating these unexplained incidents involving UFOs.
This secret USAF unit was called Project Sign and it was apparently on the case within hours of Gorman’s experience in the sky over Hector Airport. For their part, agents from Project Sign interviewed all of those who had seen the UFO. They even ran a Geiger counter over Gorman’s plane, where they found higher than normal readings of radioactivity.
The Geiger readings led the investigators to make an initial finding that something out of the ordinary had happened. The radioactivity, they believed, showed that Gorman’s P-51 must have come into close proximity with a nuclear-powered machine. Perhaps there had been aliens hanging around above Fargo.
But further detailed investigations took Operation Sign’s conclusions in a different direction. The Geiger readings from Gorman’s plane had been compared to readings from planes that had been on the ground for some time. But his Mustang had been flying at an altitude where radiation levels were naturally higher just before it was scanned with the Geiger. That discounted the mooted significance of the radioactivity.
Meanwhile, the investigators discovered something else of great significance. It transpired that the Air Weather Service, the agency that provided meteorological information to the Air Force and the U.S. Army, had launched a balloon at Fargo on the very day of the incident. They had released an illuminated balloon into the evening sky. And at 9:00 p.m. it would have been just where Gorman and others saw the bright object in the sky.
And what’s more, the investigators believed they had an explanation for the wild maneuvers that Gorman and the object – or weather balloon – had engaged in. They thought that the whole thing had been entirely illusory, caused by the movements of the high-powered Mustang rather than anything the balloon had done.
Furthermore, the investigators concluded that the balloon had likely left Gorman’s field of vision. After that, Gorman had actually mistaken the planet Jupiter as a flying object and that was what he had latterly been pursuing. Project Sign was firm in its conclusions; the initial object in the sky had been that weather balloon launched by the Air Weather Service.
And a subsequent investigation by Project Grudge, Project Sign’s successor, confirmed this conclusion. So did Captain Ruppelt in his examination of the evidence under the auspices of Project Blue Book. Although Ruppelt did go as far as to call the Gorman dogfight a “classic” in the annals of UFO sightings.
As for George Gorman, he returned to full-time service with the Air Force, eventually retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1969. In public, he remained tight-lipped about his experiences on that October night in 1948 right up until his death in 1982. But according to the Bismarck Tribune he had assured friends that “he was never convinced that he had been dueling with a lighted balloon for 27 minutes.”