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Bootlegging & colorful aviation career Bert R.J. Hassell’s included barnstorming, bootlegging during Prohibition and battling for survival after a forced landing on a Greenland ice cap. The Greater Rockford, which Bert R. J. Hassell By Gordon G. Beld JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2009 | 15, Midway Vilage Museu Cater n 1916, Bert RJ. Hassell, who had flown in the Grand Rapids a «rs piloting Curtiss biplanes, was persuaded by busi- nessmen Fred Pantlind and Jewell Clark to join theie flying boat venture on the shore of Reeds Lake. The Grand Rapids Press reported in June that the towering circle swing at Ramona Park had disappeared. In its place was a building where the “aeroplanes” and other equip- -a two years earlier with barnstorm- ment of a new school of aviation were housed, In his autobiography, Viking with Wings, Hassel later referred to the project as “a proposed flying school and factory.” He and wo others, Bud Morris and Tony Stadimann, were (© be ground-school and flight in- structors, and the group was in the process of rebuilding a Benoist flying boat that Morris had purchased. That work began ina nearby garage and was completed the hanger at Ramona Park, Bet Kenyon of Grand Rapids, who had been taught to fly by Hassell, rebuilt the engine of the plane. When it was ready to fly, Hassell and Kenyon moved the craft down a ramp and into the lake for a test flight, T was at the controls,” Hassell recalled, “and Kenyon was standing beside the engine to adjust the two carburetors, We began to gather speed and I thought we were about to become airbome when a cylinder suddenly broke loose. Then a piston went through the engine head. 1 chopped the throttle and cut the switch quickly, but Kenyon and I nevertheless got a hot-water shower from the radiator coolant.” By the time its manufacturer repaired the engine, local enthusiasm about aviation cooled and the flying schoo! began to lose stuclents. When the plane was finally ready to fly, Hassell took off from Reeds Lake and soared over Grand Rapids for thirty-five minutes “to demonstrate we had an aisplane that really would fly.” He soon left the project, but later said he learned that “the flying boat had 16 | MichicaN HistoRY been smashed! without a single club member ever having completed an instruction flight off Reeds Lake. Crashes were frequent in those early days of flying and Hassell had his share. One resulted in the nickname by which he was better known for the rest of his life. In early 1915, Hassell had learned of a good deal on a Cuntiss flying boat owned by Harold McCormick, chair- man of International Harvester, and went to Lake Forest, Illinois, to check it out. Though frosty March winds were whipping up waves on Lake Michigan, he took the plane ‘out for a trial and—to impress those on shore with his precision flying skill—leveled off just four or five feet above the lake. A large wave hit the tail section and the plane was forced into the water at ninety miles per hour Knocked unconscious for a moment, Hassell came 10 and discovered he was under water with a rudder wire twisted around one of his legs. After several attempts, he managed to free himself. But he was quite far from shore. "Swimming in Lake Michigan in March is like a dip in liquid ice,” he later noted. A gardener at MeCormick’s estate tied two eanoes together and paddled out to Has- sell, who grabbed the edge of the canoe and was towed to shore where someone exclaimed, “Anyone who can swim in that water must be a fish." From then, Hassell had Fish, new nickname- Hassell bought the flying boat and used it that summer to taxi commuters from Hyde Park to Grant Park near the Loop in Chicago, That fall, he put the plane into winter storage at Muskegon and went to Hammondlsport, New York, to work as an instructor at the Cuniss Flying School. When the weather turned colder, the students and trainers moved to Newport News, Virginia In Virginia, Hassell was one of five pilots with flying boat experience invited to go to nearby Norfolk Naval Station to accept commissions in the U.S. Navy's aviation branch. Instead, he decided to attend the wedding in Bal- timore of one of his former students, Earl Spencer. AS a result of too much prenuptial celebrating he and the best man missed the ‘wedding. (The bride was Wallis Warfield who, after later divorcing Spencer, married Emest Simpson and then Edward VII, who abdicated the British throne to marry her.) Hassell returned (o Virginia the next day to find the other four pilots in naval uniforms, ‘wearing lieutenant’s bars and extremely ert “Fish” Hassell went to the Stinson Air plane Company in Northville, Michigan, and made arrangements with Eddie Stinson to have a plane built to his specifications. The plane was a Stinson $M-1 Detroiter that he named The Greater Rockford. amused that he had not ev made it to the wedding. Hav- ing forfeited the opportunity tc come naval officer in order o attend the wedding, then missing the wedding ‘cause he was drunk, Hassell left Norfolk: and accepted a position at a new Curtiss ‘at Miami Beach, Two years later, after joining the 4 Aero Squadron asa civilian flight instructor at Rantou signed from the $700 job and enlisted in the US. linois, Hassell re Army as a private, earnin thiy dollars a month, ally, he became a second lieu: tenant and continued as an instructor until resigning from active duty in 1919. That year, he was back in Michigan as chief pilot of Roseswift Airplane Com- pany. In this job, he flew passengers ancl light height benween Grand Rapids and Tonia, and offered weekend airplane sides at Grand Rapids and small towns in west Michigan. When Roseswift folded a year wi later, Hassell delivered Society Brand suits by plane from a Chicag tomers within a fifiy-mile radius, The novel delivery system generated consider able publicity as newspapers announced scheduled times of arrival and crowds turned out, especially at sinaller towns where aigplanes seen, When the novelty wore off, Hassell Kkend air shows in Chicago and sold rides to many of those who attended the events, In the years that followed, Hassell flew air mail and 1 School of Aviation in ve exhibitions and then joined the staff of the Lis Nebraska, A school in name only, i€ rides at fairgrounds and, occasionally, made charter flights. The real money-making aspect of the business was bootlegging alcoholic beverages from Canada to slake the thirst of drinkers south of the border. When the school’s owners jons ended. Hassell then went east where he flew a six- nsed lawmen were closing in, opera passenger flying boat converted for use as a booze tanker. The ilict freight was picked up at night from ships on the Atlantic Ocean and flown to shove led. Hassell then Those flights also became risky and soon ¢ Bert's wifo, Rosalie, sons Vie ‘and John and mother Elise Has- sell, shared Bert's excitement at the arrival of The Greater Rock- ford from the Stinson factory (above). Hassell and his copilot, Parker Cramer (right) set out on July 26, 1928, from Rockford intentions to reach Stock- holm, Sweden. icy Vile Mec Contr returned to Chicago where he connected with a Wabash Avenue speakeasy and flew whiskey from Ontario to the Windy City During the 1920s, Hassell dreamed of pioneering a commercial air route acsoss the North Atlantic betw Notth America and Europe—the route now most used t0 link the two continents, While serving as a seserve officer in the US. Army Air Corps, he wrote a 1923 report on the pros and cons of flying across the Arctic. His repo also pointed out the possibilty of eventual the United States from the north, In the kite 1920s, Hassell decided to fly from his Illinois hometown, Rockford, to Sweden, the country of his an. cestors. He took a bus to the headquarters of the Stinson Airplane Company in Northville, Michigan, and made arrangements with Eddie Stinson to have a plane built 10 his specifications. The plane was a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter sanuagy /FEBRUARY 2009 | 17 that he named The Greater Rockford. Before returning 10 Illinois, Hassell contacted Professor Willian Hobbs of the University of Michigan, who was planning a 1928 expedi- tion to Greenland, Hassell asked Hobbs to clear a landing strip and make arrangements for refueling at the profes- sor's Greenland base of operations. _ ith co-pilot Parker Cramer, Hassell took off from Rockford on July 26, 1928, but crashed in a comfield moments after becoming air- Dome. Repairs were made and Hassell and Cramer tied ‘again on August 16, After a refueling stop at Cochrane, Ontario, they headed for Greenland, As they neared thei destination, however, they nin into adiverse weather and their fuel gauges reacl empty. Unable to locate Hobbs's landing strip, Hassell landed on the ice cap, Though his landing was perfect, the situation was perilous, They were far from their target, had no gloves and their emergency food supply was only ten pounds of pemmican. Starting out on foot, they expected to reach Hobbs's base in a couple of days and return to the plane with fuel to continue their flight. They trudged across the ice for six days before reaching tundra. They struggled through ‘mountains and icy rivers wearing wet clothes that never dried. They encountered quicksand, which Cramer fell into, and then swarms of mosquitoes. After wo weeks, Hobbs was sure the fliers had perished. But when Eski- ‘mos reported seeing smoke, two members of the expedi- tion crew set out actoss the ford in a litle boat with an outboard motor, located the fies and brought them to Hobbs's camp, On September 3, Haskell and Cramer left the base aboard the sloop Nakuak with Hobbs and his crew and equipment and headed for Greenland’s capital, Near the ‘midpoint of the journey the ship struck a reef. Personnel and gear were removed safely, but the Nakua sank. Eventually, the pilots made it back to New York where they were welcomed with a ticker tape parade, From there, they went to Washington, DC, where Hassell met President Calvin Coolidge and the future President Her- ber Hoover during a vist to the White House Hassell became a salesman for Stinson soon afer re turing to the United States. Bur disheartened by the company’s merger with the Cord Corporation just after the 1929 stock marker crash ancl Fale Stinson’s death in a plane crash at Chicago in January 1932, Hassell left Stinson. He worked briefly for a Cleveland aisplane man- ufacturer before going back to Rockford, where he mace and sold popcorn and ice cream bats, However, Hassell could not he kept out of th retumed to aviation in 1935 when he joined the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation at New Castle, Delaware. A few years later, he was back in Ilinois selling airplane fasten ers made by the Rockford Serew Products Company. His first order—from the Ford Motor Company for fasteners used in manufacturing B-24 bombers being built at Willow Run—was for more than $750,000 In January 1942, just weeks alter the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War I Hassell was called back to active duty in the U.S. Army Air Comps as colonel. He was ordered to establish a base in Greenland for moving men and planes to the British Isles. Later, he was appointed commanding oficer of the Air Transport Command base at Goose Bay Labrador. In addition to his routine duties, he bent rules and regulations to permit construction of chapel (using proceeds from slot machines in officers’ clubs to cover part of the cost) ancl surreptitiously brought hogs «0 Goose Bay on a C-47 transport plane and set up a pig farm to provide fresh meat for his men. Hassell’ biggest surprise at Goose Bay came in 1944 when the crew of an army survey plane came to his office with a pho- tograph they had taken of an old airplane lying upside down on the ice in Greenland. ‘The tal assembly had been torn off, appar- ently by the same winds that overturned the aircraft. Iwas Hassell’s The Greater Rockford. War correspondent Bob Gonsi- dine asked Hassell for a copy of the picture to use with a report on the commander and air. He Hassell and Cramer made an emergency landing on a remote icecap in Greenland. The two (shown at loft in hoavy coats with local Greenlanders) spent two weeks traversing tundra, mountains, iy rivers and quicksand before being rescued. the Goose Bay operation. “Hell, no," was the reply, "You think I want to have one of those lugs I used to fly with say that Fish landed the ship on its back?” Two years after the end of the ‘war, Hassell went (0 Toeland for American Airlines as vice p dent in charge of Meeks Field, a refueling stop for supply planes during the Berlin Airlift. Then, shortly after the Korean War began in 1950, he was involved with the Flying Tigers Line in supplying United Nations troops. ‘That ended when he was called back to active duty by the US. Air Force to build a new base at ‘Thule, Greenland, on the route between Soviet bomber bases and the United States. Before that project was completed, Hassell was ordered to begin development of another Arctic base—this one in nomthern Norway. His final air force assignment was reactivation of bases in England), That job ended when he turned sixty and had t0 retire from military service, 1 1955 the Foundation Com- pany of Canada asked Hassell to seme as assistant project ‘manager for construction of the astern portion of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a system of radar stations for detection of Soviet bombers during the Cold War. Though doctors had given him only two years to live because of prostate cancer, he spent more than two years on the project before leaving the Aretic for the last time. Aviation artist Robert Carli proposed to Hassell in the late 1960s that an attempt be made to recover The Greater Rockford, sill encased in Greenland ice forty years after it landed there. Carlin led an effort to stimulate support for the venture, and Has- sell’s son Vie participated in the recovery effort, He called his father on September 10, 1968, and reported that the old Stinson was in a hanger, awaiting shipment to the US. On June 17, 1969, a C-46 transport landed at the ait port in Rockford with the Stinson Detroiter aboard, ed to the SST Aviation Exhibit also a native of Rockford, ‘The plane was dona Center at Kissimmee, Florida, which hac! as its principal The Greater Rockford sat ex- posed to winds, ico and snow for forty years in Greenland (above). In 1968, Hassell’s son, Vie (lef); aviation artist Robert Carlin (not pictured); and Parker Cramer's brother, Bill Cramer, (at left with hat) led @ recovery effort to bring the plane back to the United States, Tiloay Vago moscom Cone Feature the mockup of the Boeing Supersonic Transport, development of which had been blocked by Congres- sional action. The museum agreed to rebuild The Greater Rockford for display, but no effort was made in Florida to restore the plane, When the first buildings of a museum complex in Rockford opened in 1974, Hassell decided it should come back to Illinois. However, he died on Sep tember 12, 1974, without that happening. In 1975 a local department store offered to bring it back as its contribu- lion Rockford’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, Today, The Greater Rockford, looking just like it did when it took off eighty years ago, is on display at Mid- way Village Museum Center in Rockford, Illinois, ml Gordon Beld, who lives in Holland, Michigan, is a regu lar contibutor to Michigan History magazine, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2008 | 19