Bert R. J. Hassell Collection

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Bert “Fish” Hassell was born on October 4th, 1893 in Marinette, Wisconsin. He attended Rutgers University for a while, studying for the ministry. Before he graduated, though, he gave up on a career in the church and left school. Sometime later, while working for the Cole Automobile Company as a car jockey he met Glenn H. Curtiss, an aviation builder and a competitor of the Wright brothers. Curtiss convinced him to take flying lessons and begin a career in aviation. Hassell moved to Hammondsport, N.Y. where Curtiss taught him to fly. On June 15, 1914 Hassell received his pilot’s license after a solo flight.

In New York, Hassell flew exhibitions, barnstormed, did stunt flying, and sold rides around New York. He eventually moved to Michigan, where he pioneered the first instance of delivering daily newspapers by air. It was in Michigan that he also acquired his nickname, "fish," after he crashed a plane in Lake Michigan. A man on shore saw the wreck and quickly rowed out to rescue him. Hassell, however, was too exhausted to climb into the boat so he was towed to shore. When asked his name by a group of onlookers someone responded that to stay so long in the water he must have been a fish. The nickname stuck.

Hassell became the head instructor of the Curtiss Aviation School just before World War I. When the United States entered the war he was named second lieutenant in the army signal corps. Shortly after, he was transferred to McCook field and became a test pilot for Curtiss planes in addition to his work as an instructor. Once out of the army, he used his aviation skills to work for the post office while continuing barnstorming and stunt flying.

In 1928 Hassell set out to test his idea of flying the Great Circle route, beginning in the northern Midwest and ending in either England or the Scandinavian Peninsula. He and his co-pilot Parker "Shorty" Cramer eventually decided to test this route by flying from Rockford, Illinois to Sweden, with a stop for fuel at the Sondre Stromfjord airport in Greenland. Hassell’s friend, Eddie Stinson, built him a plane capable of carrying 700 gallons of fuel in order to complete the flight. Elmer Etes, another aviator, was chosen to be the mechanic. Though the initial flight failed shortly after take-off, The Greater Rockford was airborne for over 24 hours on Hassell and Cramer’s second attempt.

High winds blew The Greater Rockford off course over Greenland, and Hassell was forced to land on the ice cap when the plane ran out of fuel. Unharmed, they walked for two weeks across the ice to meet up with their camp. An Inuit fishing party found them just as the camp, believeing the pilots to be lost, was about to leave. Hassell and Cramer received an enthusiastic welcome upon their return to the United States.

In 1941, Hassell returned to the military, and was placed in charge of bases on the Great Circle Route and served as a member of the U.S. Support Group in England. Though he was forced to retire in 1954, he immediately began working on the Distant Early Warning System, which became the best security system in the United States throughout the 1950s.

In 1967 Hassell was visited by aviation artist Robert Carlin, who was curious about the whereabouts of The Greater Rockford. On hearing that the plane was still in fair condition, Carlin set out to recover it from the ice cap and bring it back to Rockford, Illinois. With the help of Greenlandair, the Aircraft Leasing Corporation, and King Frederik IX of Denmark, the plane was airlifted back to Machesney airport in Rockford on June 17, 1969.

The Greater Rockford was put on display in the Colonial Village Shopping Mall in Rockford before being stored in a hangar at Machesney airport. The plane took over a decade to be restored before being placed on permanent display in 1988 at the Midway Village Museum in Rockford. Hassell's daughter, Mary Hassell Lyons, played a major role in ensuring The Greater Rockford's restoration and permanent display, as well as the publication of her father's autobiography, Fish Hassell, a Viking with Wings: An Autobiography, published in 1987.

Bert "Fish" Hassell died on September 12, 1974 at the age of 81, and was buried with military honors.


Permission to publish material from this collection in any form, current or future, must be obtained from the Special Collections and Archives Division, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas.