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North Dakota's Own Harry Potter


On this date, North Dakotans along with movie-goers across the nation await the arrival of the highly anticipated film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. J.K. Rowling’s magical book series about a school for wizards is so popular that the very name Harry Potter instantly conjures the image of a slender, black-haired wizard with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. So naturally, if you heard a report that Harry Potter flew into Bismarck last night, you might picture the moonlit figure of a black-robed wizard, swooping down into the capitol on his state-of-the-art Firebolt broomstick. It’s a far-fetched story, to be sure, but eighty-one years ago, Harry Potter did soar into Bismarck: only, this Harry Potter was a pilot, and he traveled by airplane. In the spring of 1928, North Dakota pilot, Harry W. Potter, made a triumphant return to the state’s capitol city after a visit to Montana to buy his own state-of-the art flying device: a Ryan airplane built by the same company that developed Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Harry Potter was no wizard, but he did enjoy an illustrious career as a pilot. He was born in Iowa in 1898, but in 1903 his family moved to North Dakota where they raised cattle on the Diamond N Ranch in Morton County. However, Potter was destined to be a pilot not a rancher, and his long aviation career began when he enlisted as a mechanic in the Army Air Corps in 1918. Although he was discharged a year later, Potter continued to work as a mechanic in the Bismarck-Mandan area; and not long after, he bought his first airplane.

Potter became a pilot at a time when civil aviation was just taking off, and few people, aside from WWI pilots, had ever seen an airplane up close. Most of his early piloting days were spent barnstorming, or stunt-flying in biplanes. Pilots like Potter introduced aviation as a form of entertainment, putting on aerial shows full of hair-raising stunts like barrel-rolls, loop-the-loops, wing-walking, and midair plane changes.

Despite his daredevil beginnings, Potter’s aviation interests took a more practical turn when he realized the need for a landing field in Bismarck. Without the proper facilities for plane landings, Bismarck was missing out on many flights that had a natural route over the city. Potter argued that Bismarck should at least have facilities as good as other Northwest cities its size. Potter played a key role in establishing the Bismarck Municipal Airport, and he became the city’s first airport manager in 1937. North Dakota’s own Harry Potter may not have had magical powers, but he was a wizard of a pilot who helped put Bismarck on aerial maps of the Northwest forever.

Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson


Research by Mike Rempfer


The Bismarck Tribune, April 4, 1966.

The Bismarck Tribune, May 22, 1928.

60th Jubilee, 1902-1962, Flasher, North Dakota

Wick, Douglas A. North Dakota Place Names. Fargo: Prairie House, 1989.

The Mandan News, October 1, 1909.

Official Roster of North Dakota Soldiers, Sailors and Marines. Bismarck: Bismarck Tribune Co., 1931.