Susan C. Duxbury
October 24, 1999
Seeking an Air Mail Route to Europe:
The Dream of Parker "Shorty,' Cramer
A Paper given at the Conference of Aviation History Writers
St. Louis, MO
Dateline London, September 16, 1931. "The wreckage of the diesel motored airplane in
which Parker D. Cramer, American pilot and his Canadian navigator Oliver Pacquette,
were lost while attempting to establish an airmail route across the Arctic was picked up
at sea today. The wreckage was found by the British steam trawler Lord Trent at a
point just east of the Shetland Islands, between the north coast of Scotland and the east
coast of Norway. Markings on the plane definitely identified it as that in which Cramer
and Pacquette had been lost." The instrument board clock had stopped at 1:30 A M.
Six months later, on March 20, 1932, The New York Times reported that a Dutch trawler
pounding along through the North Atlantic stopped long enough to fish a package out of
the sea. It was found to contain papers belonging to Parker D. Cramer. Among these
papers were a letter to Cramer from his mother, a letter by Oliver Pacquette to his
mother and father. Cramer's pilots license, the airplane and radio licenses, medical and
health affidavits for the pilots and a permit for this flight across the Atlantic. The
package was wrapped in oil skin and buoyed up by empty thermos bottles and the
gyroscope from the instrument panel of the planes cockpit. The physical remains
marked the end to the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Parker Cramer.
Born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1896, Cramer early on developed a love and curiosity for
the infant aviation industry. He was seven years old when the Wright Brothers made
their historic flight. At the age of fifteen he built his own glider which he flew from the
hills of Bradford, Pennsylvania. In 1918 as a senior in high school,
he wrote his senior thesis on the progress of aviation speculating on its commercial
value in the future. It was titled; "The Advance of Aviation."
Out of high school, Parker went immediately to work for Curtiss Airplane and Motor
Company in Hammondsport, New York as a mechanic. It was here he learned to fly.
He entered the army in 1917 and was assigned as an instructor pilot at Kelly Field in
San Antonio, Texas and then as a test pilot at Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois.
At the close of the war he tried barnstorming and ran the airport at Clarion,
Pennsylvania where he also opened a flying service in partnership with his younger
brother Bill, and where he taught flying. He was then recruited as one of the first
inspectors with the newly formed aeronautics branch of the Department of Commerce.
Parker "Shorty" Cramer began his quest for a commercial route to Europe in 1928 when
he joined Bert "Fish" Hassell in an attempt to fly from Rockford, Illinois to Stockholm,
Sweden; with stops at Cochrane, Ontario, Mt. Evans on Søndre Strømfjord on the west
coast of Greenland, and Reykjavik, Iceland. The plane they selected for the flight was a
Stinson "Detroiter" with a 200 horsepower Wright "Whirlwind" engine. The plane was
named The Greater Rockford for Hassell's hometown where the flight was financed by
public subscription. Parker's younger brother, Bill (my father) signed on to the team as
a mechanic where he assembled supplies and equipment, researched weather and
geographic data and tested the plane and its components.
The University of Michigan had a research station at Mount Evans in Greenland where
they studied the weather conditions effected by the immense ice cap which covered the
island. Hassell had been put in touch with Professor William Hobbs, the director of the
research station, through Bill Naylor, chief engineer of the Stinson Airplane Company.
Besides offering a wealth of information about weather and wind conditions in
Greenland, Hobbs offered to transport gasoline and oil for the flight to Greenland on his
trip out. Moreover, he suggested that Hassell send along a mechanic with the research
party to locate a suitable landing site. For this task, Hassell chose Elmer Etes a long
and trusted friend and mechanic. Under the direction of Etes, the research team would
identify the site, smooth out the strip and mark the crude runway. This was the first
landing strip for an airplane built in Greenland and today it remains at the foot of a
10,000 foot runway which served some of the most sophisticated aircraft during the
Cold War period as part of the Air Force Long Range air defense under NORAD. Today
intercontinental commercial jets land daily at Søndre Strømfjord.
As an aside, last year while in Greenland on a research trip I had a marvelous chat with
the base manager for Greenland air who had recently been given clearance to land on
the 1928 air strip laid out for The Greater Rockford. His landing was the first official
landing of an aircraft on this primitive runway. It was a thrill for both of us to make the
historical connection after seventy years.
The appointed day for the take-off to Stockholm dawned on July 26, 1928 without a
breath of air stirring, the morning was bathed in an early oppressive heat and a gauzy
morning haze. Hassell and Cramer arrived at Machesney field in Rockford to crowds of
thousands who had come out to witness this historic flight take-off. On the day of their
first take-off, the flight plan called for a non-stop flight to Greenland which occasioned
the plane to be loaded with 700 gallons of fuel.
With no uplifting breeze to help the sluggishly heavy plane to rise, the flight came to an
inauspicious end five miles away in a farmers corn field. Fortunately for Fish and
Shorty, the plane did not become a blazing inferno, which could easily have consumed
The next three weeks were a bustle of activity as the plane was returned to the Stinson
factory for repairs and Bill Cramer was dispatched to Cochrane, Ontario to lead the
community to build a landing site for the Greater Rockford. A refueling stop had been
added to the itinerary to lighten the take-off load of fuel.
At 6:42 Central Standard Time on August 16, 1928 with great fanfare and improved
success, the Greater Rockford lifted-off from Machesney Airfield. Seven hours later, at
2:40 p.m. Eastern Standard time she put down at Cochrane, Ontario. The flight from
Rockford had been routine. But, bad weather kept the pair in Cochran for an extra day.
On August 18th at 1:12 p.m. the Greater Rockford was airborne once again, destination
Mount Evans, Greenland; its route over 1600 miles of northeastern Canadian
wilderness and Davis Straight which separated Canada from Greenland. Over Cape
Chidley, Labrador the weather took a turn for the worse and the winds shifted around to
the north blowing the plane off its course. Instead of making land-fall in the vicinity of
Søndre Strømfjord, they entered Greenland 300 miles to the south. The weather over
Greenland had cleared and because they had studied their maps with great care before
taking off, they realized their position and turned north. Their fuel was running low and
they knew they would not make it to Mount Evans so they headed inland over the ice
cap where they would be able to make a smooth landing on the ice rather on the
impossible mountainous coast lands. After having been in the air for more than 24
hours, about 60 miles southeast of the Mount Evan's research station, The Greater
Rockford with Fish Hassell at the controls made a perfect landing on the ice. Thinking
they were but a two day hike from Mount Evans, Hassell and Cramer provisioned
themselves with a riffle, some pemmican, matches, and what warm clothes they had.
Cramer locked the plane and banked it with snow and the pair started out across the ice
to the north. Two weeks later,on September 3, 1928, The New York Times, which had
exclusive rights to the story of The Greater Rockford, led with the headline "Hassell and
Cramer Rescued in Greenland; fliers wandered two weeks over icy wastes; smoke
signals seen, saved by Hobbs expedition." Enduring long stretches of hiking around
gapping crevasses, climbing mountains, swimming across cold streams, dealing with
quick sand or glacier silt and the ubiquitous mosquitoes, the pair arrived at the banks of
Søndre Strømfjord. Across the fjord to the west and to the north was Mount Evans.
Having no way to cross the fjord, cold and tired the two started a fire for warmth and to
keep the mosquitoes at bay. Further they hoped the smoke from their fire would be
seen at Mount Evans. Eskimo caribou hunters traveling by boat along the banks of the
fjord saw the smoke and immediately crossed to Mount Evans where they reported the
sighting to the researchers. A boat was loaded with food and warm blankets under the
direction of Elmer Etes and crossed the fjord to where the pair was huddled next to the
fire. By flashlight word was sent back to the researcher's camp and instantly radioed to
The New York Times that the pilots were safe. Had the pair arrived at the edge of the
fjord two days later they would have faced an unimaginable fate. The final ship to leave
Greenland for the year was scheduled to pick up the Michigan team on September 5th
Fortunately, Hassell and Cramer were onboard when the ship pulled out of the harbor.
The Greater Rockford remained on the Greenland Ice cap for forty years, buffeted by
high winds and covered with snow much of the time, its fabric torn from its hull and the
tail dislodged and blown about fifty feet away. The summer of 1968 was a warm one on
the ice cap and many planes buried in snowy graves became apparent that summer.
One of those was the Greater Rockford. With the support of the Danish Government,
Scandinavian Air Lines, Greenland air and the United States Air Force, the decision was
made to recover the plane from the ice. Bill Cramer, nearing retirement after a thirty-six
year career with the Federal Aviation Agency, was invited to take part in the recovery.
Bert Hassell was also invited to Greenland, but because of failing health was unable to
participate. He sent his son, Vic, to represent him when the plane was lifted off the ice.
On September 10, 1968 a Sikorsky helicopter was dispatched to the location where the
Stinson lay. The mission was to recover the Stinson from the ice. With great caution
against the enormous cracks and gapping crevasses that wove their way across the ice,
the crew of the helicopter unbolted the tiny plane's wings, strapping them securely to the
bare bones of the fuselage. A steel bridle was attached to the airplane and fastened
solidly by hook to the Sikorsky helicopter. The load carefully balanced, the helicopter
lifted the tiny craft gently from the ice. Airborne again after forty years, the Stinson took
one complete turn and set a course for Søndre Strømfjord air base. On returning to the
base, Captain Solbakken of the Sikorsky made a final entry into the logbook of the
Greater Rockford He wrote: "Ice Cap to Søndrestrom, 55 miles, 59 minutes." For Bill
Cramer it was indeed a most emotional experience. He had been the one to fuel the
Greater Rockfordford the night before she took off from Illinois and had been the last to
shake the hands of Fish and his own brother Shorty some forty years earlier.
The plane has since been restored and resides in a museum in Rockford, Illinois.
The next year, Parker Cramer once again embarked on his mission to prove that an
Arctic route was a viable commercial endeavor. He approached Colonel Robert R.
McCormick the iconoclastic owner of The Chicago Tribune about his northern route to
Europe. The Colonel, himself an avid fan of aviation who owned his own fleet of
aircraft, agreed to sponsor a flight from Chicago to Berlin, providing a plane and his own
pilot for the mission. The decision had been made to use an amphibian rather than a
land-based plane for the flight because of all the water in the northern latitudes that
would supply unending landing sites should they be necessary. The plane, a Sikorsky
S-3 8 amphibian was given the name 'Untin Bowler. As the story goes, McCormick had
asked a London hatter for a cork derby to wear while riding to the hounds. The answer
was that the item he sought was a 'Untin' bowler, so if you fall off the 'orse you won't 'urt
your head. (Capeoletti, p. 43.)
With Robert Gast at the controls, Parker Cramer manning the radios and accompanied
by Robert Wood, the Tribune's aviation editor, the 'Untin Bowler slipped down ramp and
into Lake Michigan on July 3, 1929 to the cheers from the crowds that gathered to see
them off. After a short stop in Milwaukee to pay homage at the statue of Leif Erickkson,
the plane headed to Sault Ste. Marie where they cleared customs around 1:40 p.m.
The first day of flying ended after 600 miles at 7:40 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at Remi
Lake in Canada. At 6:00 a.m. on July 4th the S-38 left Remi lake, crossing over Rupert
House on James Bay where it put down at 8:05 and refueled before taking off for Great
Whale farther north along the shore of Hudson's Bay. As they flew north Cramer's radio
reports to the Tribune Tower grew more fragmentary. One of the few of Cramer's
messages of the day stated: "Landing 9:50 Great Whale. Weather bad." July 5 and 6th
saw the 'Untin Bowler grounded at the settlement of Great Whale a captive of bad
weather. On July 7th, the day they were due to have arrived in Berlin, Gast, with
continuing poor weather, risked the flight to Port Burwell. Bad weather once again
altered the flight plan and the S-38 was forced to land and take refuge in a narrow
channel near an island in Ungava Bay. It was not until July 9th, six days out from
Chicago, at 7:10 A.M. that the plane put down at Amittoq Inlet near Port Burwell. The
next five days were a battle between the crew of the 'Untin Bowler and the ice flows
brought in with the incoming tide. The plane was bashed against the rocks by the force
of the ice, and sustained damage to its pontoons and rudder as well as a hole in its hull
above the water line. The determined crew worked diligently to make repairs in a
machine shop at Port Burwell, hoping they could continue on. Then on the evening of
July 14 the solid ice to which the plane had been fastened broke away and carried the
plane out to sea where it sank.
The location of the 'Untin Bowler has been identified by the underwater archeologist
Peter Capeoletti who dreams of raising the S-38 as the only existing example of that
Besides his efforts at flying the Atlantic, Parker Cramer, in the spring of 1929 made a
flight from New York to Nome, Alaska and then on to Siberia and returned. For this
flight he used a Cessna with a 110 horsepower Warner engine. Upon returning from
Port Burwell after the sinking of the 'Untin Bowler Cramer was recruited to serve as
chief pilot for the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic expedition of 1929. For this expedition Sir
Hubert Wilkins acquired two Lockheed Vega planes with 400 horsepower Pratt &
Whitney engines. They flew over 6000 miles, discovered and mapped more than 1500
miles of new coast line, fourteen new islands and many uncharted mountains and
With the crash of the stock market in 1929 money for aviation exploration dried up and
finding someone to back his effort to establish a commercial route to Europe became a
frustrating mission for Parker Cramer. Finally, in 1931 he teamed up with Trans-
American Airlines, a small regional airline that had big dreams of establishing a
European route by way of the Arctic. This was a secret mission with no advance
publicity and rather than giving the airplanes names, they were labeled Survey plane
#1, 2, and 3. The plan was to send out three planes at regular intervals testing the
reliability of the proposed route. Parker Cramer would fly the first. He would be
accompanied by Oliver Pacquette, a Canadian, as his radio operator. The plane was a
Bellanca on pontoons with a Packard Diesel engine. The Explorers Club of New York
authorized Cramer to carry its flag with him on the mission. All three flights would start
from Detroit with Copenhagen as their final destination. When the first plane, flown by
Cramer, had crossed Greenland, the second plane would takeoff; and likewise the third
after the second had cleared Greenland. On the 28th of July, 1931 Cramer and
Pacquette took off from Detroit to Cochrane, Ontario. On July 29th they flew to Rupert
House on James Bay and on the 30th to Great Whale on Hudson's Bay. July 31 they
flew from Great Whale to Wakeham Bay on Hudson's Strait and on August 1 to
Pangnirtung on Baffin Land. On August 2nd they arrived at Holstenborg on the west
coast of Greenland, just to the northwest of the abandoned research camp of the
University of Michigan.
On August 3rd Cramer and Pacquette flew from Holstenborg on the west coast of
Greenland to Angmagsalik on the east coast of Greenland, accomplishing the first ever
crossing of the ice cap by an airplane. The 7th saw them in Reykjavik, Iceland where
they refueled and flew on to Thorshaven in the Faroe Islands. Between Reykjavik and
Thorshaven the Ballanca experienced engine trouble and Cramer was forced to set her
down in the open sea. After he made the necessary repairs, they were able to execute
a take-off on the open water and proceeded on to Thorshaven. August 8th they flew to
Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. On August 9, 1931 at 10:00 A.M. local time, they took
off for Copenhagen. At noon a radio message was received in Copenhagen, sent by
Oliver Pacquette. He advised that they had sighted the Norwegian coast in the vicinity
of Stavanger and estimated their landing in Copenhagen at about 4:30 p.m. local time.
A crowd of thousands had gathered there to greet the plane from Detroit, but it never
arrived. The noon radio message was the last confirmed word from Cramer and
Pacquette. There were several possible sightings and some few weak radio messages,
but no official, verifiable communication. What happened to them is speculation. Some
have blamed the weather, others conjecture that they attempted to swim to an island.
However at a conference at Dayton, Ohio last year, over dinner I talked with Richard
Smith, former historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C. He
postulates that they received poor quality gasoline along the way which had forced them
down between Iceland and the Faroes and likely forced them down off the coast of
Norway. This is a plausible theory. We know that they made a successful landing on
the open sea because of the condition of the plane when it was found. The pontoons,
struts and instruments were in fine shape. We know that they knew they were not going
to survive the experience for they took the time to leave behind a bundle of personal
mementos to perhaps be found.
What is the legacy left by the short life of Parker Cramer? I do not feel ready to make
that judgment yet. But, according to Peter Capeoletti, Cramer, almost singlehandedly,
sought to build his air bridge north of the bad weather. He envisioned a route that
would traverse above 55 degrees north, above the worst climatic and weather
conditions in the Northern Hemisphere. As Cramer himself said: "The proposed route is
north of the dangerous fog and storm area of the North Atlantic [and] by crossing
Greenland at two different levels it will be possible to come in with a tail wind at high
levels and go out at lower levels with a tail wind." This information he had received from
the University of Michigan researchers. Likely the Sikorsky S-38 was the plane with the
most chance of success for this route. But, as Cramer knew, and understood, the
aircraft was only one aspect of an air operation.
Just providing caches of fuel and oil along the way would not make a success of the
route, it required an infrastructure to support the plan. It would take Pan Am until 1937
before they began trial flights with the long-range, four engine Sikorsky S-42 and it
would take World War II to build the air fields which would support transcontinental
flight. Each day thousands of passengers and tons of cargo are flown in commercial
jets over this route attesting to the foresighted ideas of Cramer, Hassell and the others.
They envisioned such a commercial route without the benefit of navigational equipment,
sophisticated radios and radar, large airports and the substantial jets that make today's
intercontinental travel so safe and reliable. They were pioneers of intrepid character.