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Bert Hassell & The Greater Rockford

Bert Hassell in 1928

In the early day’s people were fascinated with flying machines, with their ability to soar with the birds in the sky and one such person was a young man named Bert Hassell of Rockford, son of Seventh Street businessman E. Hassell. Bert Hassell took flying lessons at the urging of one of the earliest aircraft builders, Glenn H. Curtiss. Hassell took to the skies in Hammondsport, New York in June 1914 on his first solo flight; he would later receive his pilot’s license, license number 20. On April 10, 1915 Hassell purchased a Curtiss hydroplane from Harold F. McCormick who was also a pioneer in aviation, and decided to fly solo over Lake Michigan close to Lake Forest, Illinois. As he was flying he got too close to the water and turbulent air forced the entire plane into the lake one and a half miles offshore. The gardener of Cyrus McCormick's lakefront estate witnessing the plane going into the water jumped into a nearby canoe and quickly hurried to Hassell’s rescue. When the boat reached Hassell, he was cold and exhausted from hanging onto the plane for an hour and a half but was rescued from drowning. In the meantime, a crowd had gathered along the shore to watch the action, and upon reaching the shore one of the onlookers inquired "What's this guy's name?” Someone else replied that anyone that can stay in the cold water that long and survive must be a fish. After this incident, he would forever be known as Bert “Fish” Hassle, or just “Fish” Hassell. Bert “Fish” Hassell went on to become the head instructor of the Curtiss Aviation School in Hammondsport and later a lieutenant in the Army during World War 1 where he trained many flying aces. Following the war, he would purchase a surplus Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane and would fly out of farm fields to go barnstorming. Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots performed tricks devised to impress people with the skill of pilots and the sturdiness of the planes; they would also sell rides to the awe-struck people. Hassell also earned money by using his plane to deliver men’s suits and dropping newspapers directly onto reader’s doorsteps from the air; he also was one of the early airmail pilots who helped influence the foundation for today’s modern airlines.

The Greater Rockford on a test flight over Rockford

On May 22, 1919 a prize of $25,000 was offered by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the young ambitious pilots to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa in a heavier-than-air craft. The Orteig prize as it was known spurred considerable investment and public interest in aviation but at a cost, six men died in three separate crashes, and another three were injured in a fourth crash. One problem was the unreliability of the liquid-cooled engines of that time. In the mid 1920’s when air-cooled, radial engines of greater dependability became available, competition for the prize increased immensely. Charles Lindbergh flying the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ solo nonstop flight from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France, flew the distance of nearly 3,600 statute miles in a single-engine, one seat, Ryan monoplane winning the Orteig prize. He became the country’s new folk hero and was greeted upon his return by President Calvin Coolidge and given a ticker tape parade through Manhattan.

The Greater Rockford on display at the Rockford Airport

Barney Thompson who was the editor of the Rockford Daily Republic in 1927 suggested in his newspaper column that a Rockford to Stockholm flight, flown by Hassell, could do for Rockford what Lindbergh's flight did for St. Louis. Hassell accepted Thompson’s offer and financers were lined up. The flight pattern would differ from Lindberg’s in that it would follow a shorter, northern route of the globe going from Labrador to Greenland, Iceland and Scandinavia. The route had two advantages over Lindbergh's, it was much shorter than a straight line across the Atlantic Ocean and allowed for the building of land-based fuel stops and communication stations, whose importance had been impressed on Hassell during his airmail days. Hassell chose the dependable Stinson Detroiter for his flight, a high-wing monoplane, thirty two feet long, with a forty five-foot ten-inch wing-span and had room for six people. Its single engine was a J5A-B, a Wright "Whirlwind," which was a nine cylinder air cooled static radial that could develop 200 horsepower at 1,800 RPM. Hassell's friend, Eddie Stinson, built the Detroiter to Hassell's specifications, adding an extra-large oil reservoir and a fuel tank the size of a small piano. The Rockford Daily Republic sponsored a contest to name the plane, over 200 names were submitted, and on May 4, 1928 A. B. Johnson who resided at 915 South Third Street was declared the winner of the $15 prize for the name he submitted, the "Greater Rockford."

The Greater Rockford before take-off on July 26, 1928

The plane was painted blue and yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag since the Rockford-Sweden connection was so strong. Hassell chose as his co-pilot Parker "Shorty" Cramer, an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and a former barnstormer from Clarion, Pennsylvania while A. Elmer Etes, from Stillman Valley, Illinois was his mechanic. While the "Greater Rockford" was being built, Hassell had time to organize his ground support. He had changed his plans from a non-stop flight to include a fuel stop in Greenland. Hassell contacted Dr. William Hobbs, an experienced Greenland explorer and who himself was planning a University of Michigan expedition to Greenland, agreed to prepare and stock a landing strip near his expedition's base at Mt. Evans, Greenland. Originally, Hassell, Cramer and Etes planned to ride in the plane together, but unexpectedly heavy gear made that impossible. A disappointed Etes was sent ahead by ship to assist Hobbs. Finally the "Greater Rockford" was ready for the journey.

Hassell, his wife and children before take-off to Stockholm

Early on the morning of July 26, 1928, Fish Hassell and Shorty Cramer took off from a specially lengthened sod runway at Rockford Airport, (later named Machesney Airport), with a large cheering crowd of spectators in attendance, along with Hassell’s wife and three children. They faced a journey of more than 4,000 miles in a plane with a cruising speed of 100 mph and a maximum altitude capability of 14,000 feet. On takeoff they barely made it across the Rock River and immediately crashed in a cornfield. That crash was blamed on an overload of fuel, but later calculations indicate the fuel load to be appropriate. Blame was later found to be a tail full of souvenirs being sent on the journey to Sweden. Although heartbroken over the crash, Hassell was not one bit discouraged, after all most of the unsuccessful Orteig prize seekers had crashed on takeoff, and no wonder with planes crammed full of fuel and the majority of runways short and unpaved, remember this was the early days of aviation. Hassell sent the plane back to Stinson who made extensive repairs in record time.

Hassell and Cramer going over their maps before the attempted flight to Stockholm

The Greater Rockford before Hassell and Cramer's second attempt of their Stockholm flight

Hassell and Cramer attempted a second flight to Stockholm, Sweden on August 16, 1928, and this time met with success, taking off from the Rockford Airport, circling over the field until the big plane had reached an altitude of about 1,000 feet when it was nosed northeastward toward Cochrane, Ontario, Canada on the first leg of their proposed flight to Stockholm, Sweden.  After they flew the 800 miles from Rockford to Cochrane, which they accomplished in seven hours, they landed to rest, refuel and tune-up the big plane and planned on leaving the following morning on the second leg on the journey. However heavy rain fell during the night and continued into the following afternoon on August 17 postponing the 1,600 mile flight to Mount Evans, Greenland until the following day.

Hassell and Cramer and their plane taking off for Cochrane, Ontario, Canada from the Rockford Airport.

On the morning on August 18, Hassell, Cramer and their plane, the Greater Rockford made an easy take off from the temporary runway at Cochrane just after 1 p. m. Eastern Standard Time for their 1,600-mile trip to Mount Evans, Greenland. There they will rest and prepare for their next hop to Iceland, and from there continue on the final leg of the journey arriving at Stockholm. Their route to Greenland lies over the northern Canadian wilderness, inhabited by a few trappers and fishermen. The two co-pilots of the Greater Rockford only depended upon contact with humanity upon the frail impulses of a radio set carried in their plane. The radio sending set was intended to hurl its pre-determined delicate dots and dashes only some 750 miles, but through the afternoon and early evening, to a point more than 1200 miles from Rockford its brief messages of progress and location came across Canadian wilds, down over the northern borders of this country, and were received and interpreted by listening operators at KFLV radio station Rockford and at the Burgess Battery Company in Madison, Wisconsin.

Aviators and their plane at Cochrane, Ontario, Canada before take-off to Greenland

A map showing where radio contact ground crews and the airplane were lost along the planned route to Stockholm.

Artist Bob Carlin's conception of how the Greater Rockford looked as it was forced to land on the Greenland icecap.

Meanwhile in Greenland at the Mount Evans observatory the weather and landing conditions had been perfect and visibility was good, the crew kept a keen-eye out for Hassell with binoculars. The people at the temporary landing station marked the runway out with lanterns for Hassell’s arrival, and watched the western sky until their eyes were strained to the limit. It was soon apparent that Hassell would not arrive that night, and they were relieved from their vigils and then huddled about brush fires and behind rocks to shelter them from the chill easterly wind off the ice cap until night wore away. At 4 in the morning the field was again fairly light and they once again sent up a balloon to examine the wind aloft. All conditions were excellent Light surface breezes were blowing from the east off the ice cap and would make landing easy, with strong winds from the south and southwest that would be in Hassell’s favor while flying. By 6 o'clock in the morning (4 o'clock Eastern Standard Time), they believed the plane might make its appearance at any moment. By mid-morning they began to have doubts about Hassell making it. By now they feared the worst, that engine trouble had developed and the plane had been forced down, or that Hassell had lost his way. Sick at heart, the main party left the landing field and toiled over the eight miles of rough mountain trail to Mt. Evans, while a field operator, radio operator and photographer stayed behind to maintain connections with Mt. Evans. At this point an important experiment in the history of aviation appears to have failed. Hassell and his companion had probably become sacrifices as pioneers on the forward march of civilization. Though they have failed, others will certainly be found to again make this attempt and eventually success will follow.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter Marion

No word was heard from the lost flyers, so a land search was organized by Professor Hobbs while the United States Coast Guard cutter Marion, which was in the area doing research on icebergs in western Greenland, and the Danish vessel Island Falk also took up the search along the route the airmen were expected to take over water. After an extensive search by the two ships they reported to headquarters that they had been unable to find any trace of the missing plane or the pilots after searching in the region in which the plane was last reported. They had cruised the area from which the last signal was received from Bert Hassell and Parker Cramer, and had gone fifty miles farther along the plane's projected course. They cutters had listened for signals from the plane during their search in addition to calling the Greater Rockford at two hour intervals to no avail. Many people had not given up hope that the fliers had landed somewhere, while others feared the worst that the flyer's went down in the icy waters and that they would not survive long.

Hassell and Cramer immediately following their rescue from their close call with death on the Greenland ice cap.

On September 3, 1928 word was received from Professor Hobbs at the University of Michigan observatory at Mount Evans that Bert Hassell and Parker “Shorty” Cramer, crew of the America to Sweden plane the Greater Rockford are at the observatory safe and in good condition. The two fliers had been forced down in Greenland because of dwindling fuel supplies about 100 miles from Mt. Evans. As the pilot later told the press "We landed safely on century old ice with about two inches of hoar frost on it, it remained surprisingly intact. We put on heavy boots, parka, took a rifle and some pemmican (concentrated reindeer meat) and started to walk to our base. Fourteen days later, when most of the World had given up hope of finding the two men alive, Eskimo scouts saw their smoke signals and led them to safety. Professor Hobbs, head of the Greenland exploration expedition and the Greenland base of the Greater Rockford's expedition, supplied the half-starved pair with soup and caribou steak and radioed the news of their rescue to The New York Times. Hobbs described the ice crevasse along the fjord where they landed as "a wild and unexplored area with practically no human, inhabitants."

When the news of the fliers being alive and unharmed reached Rockford over the radio, throngs of people flocked to the streets and made their way downtown by foot or in long caravans of autos with horns blaring, factory whistles were sounded and people celebrated the news with cheers while the newspapers were deluged with phone calls about the news. The flyers would depart by boat - the USS Frederik VIII to the United States on October 5, 1928 and reached the port of New York City on October 15 where they were greeted by Hassell's wife and sons, President Coolidge, incoming President Herbert Hoover, New York Mayor James Walker and Rockford Mayor Bert Allen among others and the fliers also held court for the world press. The now famous aviators would return to Rockford on October 19, 1928 to much fanfare. Cramer tried the Arctic route again with Oliver Paquette in 1931, their flight disappeared at sea. Hassell wanted to go back, retrieve his airplane and try again but support for such a costly recovery was lacking. Eventually all of the hoopla would die down and Hassell decided to stay at home in Rockford. Hassell was left with many debts from his flight to Sweden. 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, but not for long. During World War II Hassell would return to Labrador and Greenland as U. S. Air Force commander of bases serving as stepping off points for bombers and transports taking the Great Circle Route to Europe which Hassell pioneered.

One day in 1944, an excited Army Reconnaissance pilot burst into Hassell's airbase office at Goose Bay, Labrador. "I've got to use your darkroom," he said. "We've just taken a picture of something unbelievable on the Greenland ice cap. It's an old airplane, lying upside down." Hassell looked at the pilot and replied, "So would you be, if you'd been out there for 16 years, that's my old airplane, the Greater Rockford" Newsman Bob Considine witnessed the incident. I’d like a copy of that picture, Fish, he told Hassell. No - Hassell replied, do you think I want my friends to think I landed the plane on its back? Considine wrote a story on the discovery of the airplane, 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. Back in civilian life Hassell would go to Keflavik, Iceland in 1947 to upgrade the former Meeks Air Base to accommodate larger aircraft taking part in the Berlin Airlift. When Hassell was in his late 50s, he oversaw the construction of the huge air base at Thule, Greenland. He returned to Rockford in 1954. In 1955 he went to Canada to help build the eastern portion of the distant early warning system and once again returned to Rockford in 1957.

A recovery crew arrives at Hassell's plane in Greenland in 1968

In 1968 Robert Carlin of Houston, Texas, a former Rockford resident and a district manager for National Airlines went to see Hassell about painting a picture of The Greater Rockford because of his hobby of painting pictures of old airplanes. During that conversation, Carlin found out that the plane still existed on the ice cap and he asked Hassell if he minded if he attempted recovery of the vintage aircraft belonging to Hassell and Hassell said he did not mind at all. That started the recovery process of the Greater Rockford airplane that Hassell and Cramer flew forty years ago, and which endured years of neglect on the Greenland ice cap. Carlin was particularly interested in is the J-5 engine as it was the same kind of engine as in the Spirit of St Louis and was a real collector's item. The plane had not been lost really, all these years, its location was known, it had been photographed many times and others had actually gone out to the craft and because of this, most of its contents had long since been transported back, so there were no priceless souvenirs in it now.

Vic Hassell and Bill Cramer examine the Greater Rockford on the Greenland icecap.

Carlin began contacting Hassell's friends in the Air Force and in Greenland. One of those persons interested in the plane's recovery was the skipper of the Danish coast guard cutter HDMS Ingolf. It just so happened that at that time King Frederik IX of Denmark and his wife, Princess Ingrid of Sweden, were touring Greenland aboard the vessel, the ship's captain told the king about the old airplane on the ice cap and convinced him to assist with the planes rescue. The king authorized a helicopter to fly to the Greater Rockford and retrieve instruments and personal property and declared the plane to be Hassell's exclusive property and not subject to salvage by anyone else. Carlin said the wings and tail of the Stinson S84 will have to be rebuilt, but said photographs indicate the original fuselage might be put in shape. Many others would become involved in retrieving the old plane, what started out with a cast of one, wound up with a cast of a hundred. Carlin credited Gordon Langhorn, manager of Scandinavian Airlines at Sondrestrom with being his chief helper on the project.

Recovery crewmen turn the Stinson upright, preparing for helicopter pick-up.

Arctic winds had up-ended the Greater Rockford and were tearing away her linen fabric covering, shattering her delicate spruce ribs and strewing them across the frozen ice cap but on September 11, 1968 a crew sent to retrieve the plane removed its wings, then turned it over on its wheels, then it was lifted ever so gently and flown off the ice cap in a Sikorsky helicopter sling that started the old Stinson on her journey home, it was taken to Sondrestrom Air Base in Greenland to prepare it for its long journey to Rockford, among those aboard the helicopter were Hassell's son Vic and Cramer's brother William, a Federal Aviation Agency official from Cleveland.

Vic Hassell and Bill Cramer examine craft as it awaits helicopter pick-up.

Helicopter lifting the Greater Rockford off the Greenland icecap

Temporary storage space was obtained in a hangar at the planes namesake Greater Rockford Airport and the plane was transported from Sondrestrom Air Base to Rockford, the plane was transported to the United States in a large C-46 cargo plane and arrived in Rockford on May 14, 1969. Before the huge cargo plane landed at Greater Rockford Airport, it briefly touched down at Machesney Airport to complete the trip the old plane started. Bert Hassell and his wife were at the airport as were perhaps some of the same people who saw her leave 41 years earlier along with a whole new generation of admirers.

The plane was later displayed in the Colonial Village Mall, in a setting suggesting the polar ice cap painted by artist Tom Heflin. After the exhibit the Greater Rockford airplane would then spend a few lonesome years in a hangar at Machesney Airport waiting for restoration, but when Fred Machesney began to deal with J.C. Penney for the purchase of his airport for the construction of a shopping mall, another home had to be found for the plane.

Rockford Register Star photo

An aircraft museum in Kissimmee, Florida that housed the mock-up of the Boeing Super Sonic Transport, the SST Aviation Museum, as it was called, made an offer of $1,800 to Hassell to immediately move and display the plane at the museum. Hassell agreed and sent the Greater Rockford there by truck believing his beloved old Stinson was in good hands. Bert “Fish” Hassell would pass away on September 12, 1974 at the age of 81 from complications of a stroke that he suffered on August 29. Shortly afterward news 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. Once again another rescue mission had to be organized to save the Greater Rockford from possible involvement in bankruptcy proceedings. A group of Rockford businessmen stepped forward, among them Dean Olson II, president of D. J. Stewart, his brother, Jim, and father, Dean, and came up with a plan to bring the plane back home including a provision for repayment of the $1,800 the museum originally paid for the plane. The team from Rockford would travel to the SST Museum on April 13, 1976 by plane while a truck from Miller Transport Company headed to Florida at the same time. Within thirty six hours the Greater Rockford was in a forty foot truck homeward bound while the instruments of the plane were transported by plane for what everyone hoped would be the final time. The 1978 Rockford city sticker commemorated the 50th anniversary flight of the Greater Rockford flight.

Discussions took place with the Midway Village and Museum Center about constructing an exhibition hall to house Hassell’s 1928 Stinson Detroiter which they agreed to build. Over the next ten years the Aviation Technology Department at Rock Valley College undertook the restoration and painstakingly restored the plane with as many original materials as possible, while some lost to the elements had to be made from scratch. They would restore the engine, the wing ribs lost to the artic winds were made by hand and when finished applied fabric to the wings, but time was running out for them to have the old plane ready for the dedication of the new museum wing so a private contractor, Aerocraft, Incorporated of Naperville, Illinois was hired to finish the restoration of the plane. The plane and the new aviation wing at Midway Village and Museum Center in Rockford was dedicated on June 26, 1988 where it would find a permanent home, 60 years after Hassell’s famous flight where it remains to this day.

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