WARROAD - As a bush pilot carrying freight, passengers and mail from Warroad to Minnesota’s Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods - the northernmost point of the Lower 48 - Don Hanson made the 90-mile round-trip flight hundreds of times during a flying career that lasted more than 40 years.

He also made quite an impression on those who knew him.

Known for his trademark stogie, Hanson, died March 12 in the Warroad Senior Living Center. He was 98.

“When we were growing up, we always said ‘If you smell cigar smoke in the air, you knew you were in good hands,’ ” said Rick McKeever, 65, Angle Inlet, who grew up on Flag Island of Lake of the Woods and flew with Hanson on numerous occasions. “He was an old-fashioned pilot who knew what he was doing and knew his limitations, and that’s why he got to be so old.”

Inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002, Hanson was a bomber pilot in World War II and spent 1.5 years in a Nazi prison camp after his B24 Liberator got engine trouble over the North Sea in 1943.

The plane had taken enemy fire and crashed in Nazi-occupied territory by Amsterdam.

‘The cows flew like chickens’

As the story goes, Hanson’s B24, nicknamed the “Bad Penny,” landed in a cow pasture.

“I made a dead-stick landing, and the cows flew like chickens when we collided,” he recalled in a September 1988 Minneapolis Star Tribune story.

Hanson returned to Warroad after World War II and starting his flying service.

Dale Telle, 83, of Warroad, a longtime friend and Lake of the Woods fishing guide, recalled the time Hanson’s navigator on that ill-fated World War II flight made a trip to northern Minnesota to visit.

Hanson asked the navigator if he wanted to ride along on a flight from Warroad to the Angle.

“He said, ‘Geez, I don’t know if I want to,’ ” Telle said, recalling the navigator’s answer. “He said, ‘The last time I flew with you, I didn’t get home for two years.’ ”

Another time in the 1960s, Hanson was carrying a woman, her 4-year-old son and a load of mail from the Angle to Warroad when his Piper Super Cruiser floatplane began bucking.

Those were the days when the Northwest Angle was only accessible by airplane, boat or winter logging roads.

In a July 2003 story in the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, Hanson said his only option was to put the plane down in the middle of a swamp, where he discovered a spark plug had come loose and was hanging from a wire.

That was an easy fix, but Hanson still had to get the airplane out of the tight confines of the swamp. He carried the mail to higher ground, and the woman and her son began walking the 7½ miles back to the Angle.

Thanks to a sudden gust of wind, Hanson recalled, he was able to get the plane airborne again.

“The good Lord was with me there,” Hanson said. “I took off, bounced across some hummocks of swamp grass and flew back to the Angle. The sharp breeze helped me out to beat heck. I’d never have gotten the plane out of there, otherwise.”

Hanson and another Northwest Angle resident later slogged through the swamp to retrieve the mail he’d left behind.

To this day, McKeever said, the swamp is called “Hanson’s Bog.”

“He put that airplane back together and flew it out of that swamp,” McKeever said. “It was quite remarkable.”

‘Top-notch guy’

Hanson sold his flying service in 1973 to Julian “Fuzz” LePage but worked as the new owner’s chief pilot until 1986. He continued hauling mail to the Angle, making the 65-mile drive by road - at least half of it gravel - from Warroad until retiring in June 2003 at age 86.

Telle, whose resort business was next to the flying service, said Hanson was a good friend and a good fisherman.

“He had a real good sense of humor - just a top-notch guy,” Telle said. “He did a lot of business. He was flying every day.”

McKeever said the longtime pilot and mail carrier was a crucial link between civilization and the Northwest Angle, which is bordered on three sides by Canada - especially before the area became accessible by road in the 1970s.

“He was the lifeline for medical emergencies, and he always found - no matter the time of year - if there was an emergency, he found something to fly and come and help,” McKeever said.

Don Hanson was born Sept. 15, 1916, in Moranville Township near Warroad. He is survived by sister Jeanne Batchelder, Auburn, Calif.; daughter Jan Hanson, Woodbury, Minn.; sons Jon (Cathy) Hanson, Louisville, Colo., and Michael (Sharon) Hanson, Woodbury; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Fernanda; parents John and Ruth Hanson; brothers Gordon and Carroll Hanson, Warroad; and sisters Dorothy Arola, Thelma Jensen and Lucille Swaine all of California.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. April 11 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Warroad.

Newsletter signup for email alerts