Sunlight reflecting off the vast Greenland icecap nearly blinded Bert R.J. ‘Fish Hassell and Parker D. Shorty Cramer as they broke out of the cloud layers over the Davis Strait. After a grueling night flying blind in their Stinson Detroiter, they still were 70 miles from the coast. At the first sight of land they began searching for the Sondre Stromfjord landing strip. Their fuel supply was very low. Then, suddenly, they saw the Frederikshab glacier and realized they were far off course. They would have to make a forced landing–but where? The coastal areas were rough and rocky. The glacier, on the southeastern edge of the icecap, was slashed with fissures that could swallow them, airplane and all.
Every gauge registered empty as Hassell turned 60 degrees and headed inland toward the icecap, hoping to find smoother ice. The engine was sputtering and Cramer was tapping out a distress message (which no one received) as the Stinson slid into a smooth, three-point landing. I never made a better landing in my life than that one. We were down on the icecap, Fish later recalled. He let the plane’s J-5 engine continue to tick over to cool down until it spit, coughed and stopped.
Fish had envisioned a much different flight ending in October 1927, when he accepted Barney Thompson’s challenge. Thompson, editor of the Rockford Daily Republic, had suggested that a Rockford-to-Stockholm flight could do for Rockford, Ill., what Charles Lindbergh’s recent flight had done for St. Louis.
Thompson knew that Fish Hassell was the pilot for the job. Hassell had learned to fly from Glenn Curtiss, rival of the Wright brothers, in Hammondsport, N.Y. He had soloed on June 15, 1914, and held flying license No. 20. Hassell had earned his nickname when he dunked his Curtiss flying boat in Lake Michigan. I was holding the ship close to the water when a huge wave broke under me, kissed my tail section and forced my nose into the lake, he recalled. The next thing I saw was more Lake Michigan herring than the local fishermen at Waukegan ever knew there was in the lake.
Luckily, the overseer of Robert McCormick’s lake-front estate saw the plane hit the water. He scrambled into a rowboat and hurried to Hassell’s rescue. When the boat reached him, Hassell was too cold and exhausted to climb aboard, so he was towed to shore. A crowd of onlookers greeted Hassell and his savior when they reached the beach. What’s this guy’s name? one of them asked. Anyone who can stay in the water that long must be a fish, another replied. He was Fish ever after.
Hassell trained many World War I flying aces at Hammondsport. After the war, he went barnstorming in a surplus Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, flying out of cow pastures, selling rides to awe-struck farm lads, delivering Society Brand men’s suits and even bombing newspapers directly onto readers’ doorsteps. He was among the early airmail pilots who helped lay the foundation for modern airlines.
The Rockford Daily Republic announced that the flight to Stockholm would take place in May 1928 and would be financed by a group of Swedish-Americans from Chicago. Hassell’s route would roughly follow the path of the 11th-century Norwegian explorer Leif Ericson, going from Labrador to Greenland, Iceland and Scandanavia. The route had two advantages over Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing the preceding year. First, despite misconceptions fostered by flat maps, it was much shorter than a straight line across the Atlantic, following the shoulders of the globe rather than its fat belly. Second, land-based fuel stops and communications stations could be built along the route, the importance of which had been impressed on Hassell during his airmail experience. The route later came to be called the Great Circle Route, and it is the flight path routinely used by commercial flights to this day.
Hassell chose to fly the dependable Stinson Detroiter, a plane that had proved itself as a hauler of mail and freight. It was a high-wing monoplane, 32 feet long, with a 45-foot-10-inch wingspan, and room for six people. Its single engine was a 9-cylinder, air-cooled static radial J5A-B, a Wright Whirlwind that could develop 200 horsepower at 1,800 revolutions per minute.
Hassell’s friend Eddie Stinson built the Detroiter to Hassell’s specifications, adding an extra-large oil reservoir and installing a cabin fuel tank to raise the aircraft’s capacity to 700 gallons. The newspaper sponsored a contest to name the plane, and A.B. Johnson won $15 for proposing The Greater Rockford. The plane’s blue-and-yellow paint scheme reflected the colors of the Swedish flag.
Hassell chose as his co-pilot Parker Shorty Cramer, who had also learned to fly in Hammondsport and held pilot license No. 4. A former barnstormer from western Pennsylvania, Cramer was employed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). Hassell knew that Cramer was a highly experienced pilot, and he also hoped Cramer’s connection with the CAA would help to forestall potential government objections to the flight. Hassell chose Elmer Etes from Stillman Valley, Ill., as their mechanic.
While Stinson was building The Greater Rockford, Hassell organized his ground support. He changed his plans from a nonstop flight to add a fuel stop in Greenland. Knowing that William Hobbs of the University of Michigan was planning his third expedition to Greenland in the summer of 1928, Hassell contacted Hobbs and asked him to prepare and stock a landing strip near his expedition’s base on the Sondre Stromfjord. Hobbs agreed to the plan.
Originally, Hassell, Cramer and Etes had all planned to ride in the plane, but when the radio gear turned out to be unexpectedly heavy, they changed their plans. A disappointed Etes traveled by ship to assist Hobbs. As it happened, that change of plans was more fortunate than anyone could have known.
Finally, The Greater Rockford was ready. An excited crowd of spectators gathered at Rockford’s Machesney Airport early in the morning of July 26, 1928. Airport owner Fred Machesney had lengthened and scraped the sod runway in special preparation for the event. A cheer went up as Hassell and Cramer roared down the runway to take off. The pair faced a journey of more than 4,000 miles in a plane with a cruising speed of 100 miles per hour and a maximum altitude capability of 14,000 feet. They barely made it over the Rock River, which bounded the west side of the airport, before crashing into a cornfield.
Undaunted, Hassell sent the plane back to Stinson, who made repairs in record time. Hassell also added another fuel stop to his plan so they could take off with a lighter load. On August 16, Hassell and Cramer gritted their teeth and gave it another try. They took off in grand style and headed due north out of Rockford to Cochrane, Ontario, where they refueled. On August 18 they headed for their next fuel stop in Greenland, 1,600 miles away. Hobbs had radioed that they could expect good weather once they passed the coast of Greenland. But if he was wrong, how would they find the tiny landing strip he had carved out of a mountainside?
As it turned out, they couldn’t. Even with good weather, they ended up stranded on the icecap, miles short of their goal. Before the flight, they had given little thought to survival gear. Now they took stock. They had a Very pistol, a hunting rifle and some cartridges, a hunting knife, matches, a wad of old weather reports to use as tinder, a Greenland chart and one tin cup. Their food supply consisted of 10 pounds of pemmican. They put on their boots and parkas–they had no gloves or mittens–and prepared to start walking west toward the coastal mountains and the Sondre Stromfjord. Hassell kicked and cursed at the radio as they departed. If we hadn’t had that blankety-blank radio, we’d have had enough fuel to reach the fjord, he stormed. And then he carefully locked both doors on the plane. They expected to reach the fjord in a couple of days, return with fuel, and take off to resume their journey once more.
Hassell had once met the great arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, who had told him, If you have to walk, walk downwind. The air on the icecap flows like invisible water out to sea. With the wind at your back you’ll travel the shortest distance to the coast. That advice, the pemmican and Cramer’s parka saved their lives. Fish’s parka was wool, but Cramer’s was made of caribou skin with a wolverine fringe, a gift from arctic flying expert Ben Eielson. Shorty shared it with Fish as they huddled together for warmth and tried to sleep during the short arctic summer nights.
Their Greenland chart told the fliers that they had seriously underestimated the distance to the fjord. They trudged along for days and days. The ice, though a mile deep, was alive and moving, quaking and cracking. Many times a day they had to skirt around deep crevasses. The distant mountains never seemed to get any closer. On the sixth day they left the glacier behind and entered the tundra, where at least they could make a fire of dead moss and warm their hands. Cramer developed a high fever, but he gamely struggled on. Shorty Cramer was a truly brave man whose spirit helped keep both of us going throughout that terrible ordeal, Hassell later remembered.
On the 11th day they reached the mountains. They figured they had another 50 miles to go. Reaching the summit, they found they faced another hazard–icy rivers in each valley. They took off their clothes and tried to hold the rifle, their clothes and the pemmican out of the water while swimming one-handed across the many rivers. Their clothes got wet and never dried out. On the 13th day they reached the flats, only to find quicksand. Cramer stumbled into it, and Hassell was barely able to extricate him by extending the rifle to him and pulling mightily.
Finally they reached the edge of a large body of water. It was saltwater, and they figured it must be the Sondre Stromfjord. But where was Hobbs’ camp? The fjord had hundreds of miles of shoreline, and there were whitecaps on the icy gray water. Suddenly, swarms of mosquitoes attacked in force, getting into their eyes, ears, mouths and noses. To combat the stinging pests they used the last of their scrap paper to light a fire of scrub trees. Soon it was a roaring blaze.
Meanwhile, at his camp, Hobbs and his men scanned the sky and listened to their radio with increasing anxiety. The New York Times‘ radio station had been querying Hobbs twice a day about the missing fliers. After two weeks Hobbs was certain they were lost, and he started to prepare to return home. But then an Eskimo fishing party put in at Hobbs’ camp and reported, White man’s smoke across the fjord. Hobbs snorted and called it Greenlander’s imagination. But when Elmer Etes heard the report, he and Duncan Stewart, another member of Hobbs’ expedition, scrambled into a little boat with a tiny outboard motor and headed across the wind-swept fjord.
Cramer and Hassell were by then in the lowest of spirits. They had seen the Eskimo umiak and thought help was coming, but their hope turned to despair when it disappeared in the distance. They thought it might be just another of the visual hallucinations they were experiencing. Although tantalizingly close to their goal, they simply had no more strength to go on. Then, suddenly, they heard the unmistakable sound of a two-cycle engine, a sound that seemed sweeter than any heavenly chorus. They staggered to the highest clump of sand and beheld the little boat headed toward them. They were saved!
The rescuers brought canned peaches, prune-filled pemmican and coffee. After gorging themselves, the two fliers wanted to board the boat, but Etes prudently recommended they wait for the winds to die down before attempting the return trip to the camp, lest high waves swamp the overloaded little craft. It was dark before they ventured across the icy fjord and approached the camp. Etes used his flashlight to send a signal ashore, where Ralph Belknap of Hobbs’ expedition was waiting for the message, Hassell and Cramer safe in boat with us. Before Hassell stepped on land, word that they were safe was already on its way. Their rescue story made the front page of The New York Times the next morning, and the Times people phoned the Rockford Morning Star to alert Hassell’s family.
That night, after feasting on hot soup and caribou steak, the men had their first good sleep in two weeks. Hassell said a little prayer before dozing off: Thank you, God, for this day and for hearing the prayers I sent you each night from the glacier and the mountains, when I thought we were alone and forgotten there.
Hassell, Cramer and Etes had to abandon hope of recovering The Greater Rockford at that point in order to join the Hobbs expedition as it prepared to depart for home on September 3. All hands helped load the expedition’s tons of equipment–radios, generators, meteorological instruments, typewriters, files, supplies and rations–onto the sloop Nakuak, which the Greenland government had provided for Hobbs’ use. Nakuak, whose name means Sinking Rock, was to take the party south along the coast to Godthaab, Greenland’s capital, with a stop at Sukkertoppen.
Halfway to Sukkertoppen, the men, snug in their sleeping bags in the hold, suddenly awoke to a great grinding, crunching noise. Nakuak had hit a reef at six knots and was sinking fast. The captain headed for shore and managed to wedge the boat between two boulders. Then he sent a crewman, an expert at handling a kayak, through the rising winds and waves to Kangaamiut for help. Meanwhile, everyone aboard Nakuak quickly unloaded the tons of scientific equipment from the foundering vessel onto the beach.
By the time the rescue vessel, Nipisak, arrived three days later, Nakuak had sunk. Not long after they began the 120-mile sea voyage to Godthaab, Nipisak‘s engine threatened to quit, and it took the crew four hours to repair it. The captain took to the open sea at night, and it seemed to Hassell that he employed the most haphazard navigation. Hassell worried all night that the ship was doomed, and he was astounded when they actually entered Godthaab Harbor just before dawn.
Hassell and Cramer were the toast of Greenland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. They made their way aboard various ships to New York, where Mayor Jimmy Walker welcomed them with a ticker-tape parade. In Washington, D.C., they met President Calvin Coolidge and President-elect Herbert Hoover. On their return to Rockford they were royally welcomed and entertained by the community.
When all the shouting died down, however, Hassell was left with many debts from the flight. During the Great Depression he worked for several aircraft companies. Eventually, he became director of aircraft sales and engineering for Rockford Screw Products, a firm that supplied fasteners to airplane manufacturers.
When the United States entered World War II, Hassell was called into the U.S. Army Air Forces, serving as commander of bases in Labrador and Greenland, where he was gratified to see the fleets of military planes en route to Europe following the Great Circle Route. At that time he finally paid the last of his debts.
One day in 1944, an excited Army reconnaissance pilot burst into Hassell’s office at Goose Bay Air Base. I’ve got to use your darkroom, he said. We’ve just taken a picture of something unbelievable on the Greenland icecap. It’s an old airplane, lying upside down!
So would you be if you’d been out there for 16 years, Hassell replied. That’s my old airplane, 5408, The Greater Rockford.
Newsman Bob Considine witnessed the incident. I’d like a copy of that picture, Fish, he told Hassell. Hell, no! roared Hassell. Do you think I want my friends to think I landed her on her back? Considine wrote a story on the discovery, and Ernest Gann, who flew cargo ships through Goose Bay during World War II, mentioned it in one of his aviation novels, Island in the Sky.
In 1947, Fish went to Keflavik, Iceland, as a civilian, hired by American Airlines to upgrade the former Meeks Air Base to accommodate the Douglas C-54s participating in the Berlin Airlift. When Fish was in his late 50s, Colonel Bernt Balchen, the well-known Arctic aviator, requested that he oversee the construction of the huge air base at Thule, Greenland.
After he returned from Thule in March 1954, Hassell was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told he had only two years to live. I was viewing life most dismally, Hassell later recalled, when G.C. Finlayson of the Foundation Company of Canada called me to say his company had the contract to build the eastern sector of the DEW line, the Distant Early Warning radar fence, across the far north, and he wanted me to join him. Hassell eagerly joined the DEW line construction project, and he was there in 1957 when it was turned over to the civilian operator, Federal Electric of Canada. Then he drove home to Rockford.
Hassel was 74 in 1967 when Robert Carlin, an airline pilot and a famous aviation artist, came to visit him. Carlin wanted to talk to Fish about painting a picture of The Greater Rockford. Whatever became of the old Stinson? he asked.
Hassell’s daughter, Mary Hassell Lyons, laughed as she recalled the scene. ‘Oh, it’s still up there on the icecap,’ Pop said, and Bob jumped right out of his chair. ‘Let’s bring the plane back,’ Bob insisted. ‘It’s been tried before, but the plans never worked,’ said Pop. ‘The Air Force won’t do it because they don’t want it said that they are spending taxpayers’ money on somebody’s personal plane.’
But Carlin was determined to go ahead with the project. He plunged into the rescue effort, and with the help of many people, notably King Frederik IX of Denmark, The Greater Rockford was lifted off the icecap by a Greenlandair Sikorsky helicopter on September 11, 1968. Among those present were Hassell’s son Vic and Cramer’s brother Bill. Growing up, my sons John, Vic and Pete lived with this dream of mine, to someday get that plane off the ice! Hassell remembered.
In June 1969 the plane came back to The Greater Rockford Airport aboard an ancient Curtiss C-46, to be met by Fish Hassell, Elmer Etes, Fred Machesney, Bill Cramer and perhaps a few others who had seen her take off 41 years earlier. But before landing at Greater Rockford, pilot Tex Cauble touched down on the grass runway of Machesney Airport in tribute, then poured the coal to the C-46 and zoomed back into the sky.
The Greater Rockford was put on display in the Colonial Village Shopping Mall and was written up in Flying and other magazines. Some of the recovery costs were recouped by sales of prints of Carlin’s painting of the plane and by sales of a memorial booklet compiled and written by Thomas Reay of the Rockford newspapers. After that, the old Stinson spent some lonely years sitting in a hangar at Machesney Airport. But when word got out that the airport was slated to be turned into a shopping center, Hassell sent The Greater Rockford to the SST Aviation Museum in Kissimmee, Fla.
As for Fish Hassell, he outlived his doctors’ prediction by 20 years. He celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Rosalie, in 1973 and died at 81 on September 12, 1974. At his burial he was given full military rites, and a missing man formation was flown overhead by his friends. He died believing his beloved old Stinson was in good hands.
But then reports reached Rockford that the SST Museum had not even started the promised restoration of the plane and was, in fact, on the verge of bankruptcy. Rockford businessman Dean Olson III, along with his father and brother, Rob McCarthy and Mary Hassell Lyons, organized yet another rescue and brought the plane back home again in 1978.
The plane was restored over the next 10 years. It was a tortuous process. No one had any blueprints to follow. Rob McCarthy searched through the files of the Federal Aviation Authority until he found the blueprints for the Stinson Detroiter. The prints could not be copied by machine, so he painstakingly copied them all by hand, using a light table.
The aviation department of Rock Valley College pitched in to help, restoring the 44 wing ribs that had been lost to the arctic winds. Each rib took 25 man-hours to complete. They also restored the engine and applied fabric to the wings. But in order to have the plane ready in time for its dedication at the Rockford Museum Center on June 26, 1988, a private contractor, Aerocraft, Inc. of Naperville, Ill., was engaged to finish the restoration.
Since then, The Greater Rockford has had a permanent home, thanks to Hassell’s friends Harold J. Carlson and his late wife, Gerda, who donated the Colonel Bert R.J. Hassell Aviation Wing of the Rockford Museum Center expressly for its display. The Rockford community and aviation buffs everywhere owe thanks to Mary Hassell Lyons, who has been the moving force behind every effort to preserve this plane that symbolizes her father’s adventurous spirit. In 1997 Colonel Bert Fish Hassell was inducted into the Military Aviation Hall of Fame of Illinois.
This article was written by Gail S. Ravitts and originally published in the September 2000 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!