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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 them. 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 aircraft. 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 glaciers. 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.
"The Dream of Parker Cramer"