Retired Brig. Gen. Greg Haase commanded the Minnesota National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from 2007 until 2013.

But when he took on the job of compiling the unit's comprehensive history to mark the 100th anniversary of a squadron in the 133rd becoming the first federally recognized Air National Guard unit in the nation, Haase was floored by the stories.

"It's all about the binding of aviation to the community," Haase said of the early days of the original 109th Observation Squadron, a direct ancestor of the 109th Airlift Squadron at the 133rd Airlift Wing. "But they sure did a lot of crazy stuff back then."

Like when the unit, in a demonstration at the State Fairgrounds, shot down a hydrogen-filled blimp shaped like a sausage — "this flaming ball of fabric falling down into the infield of the grandstand," Haase said.

Or when a "wing walker" dropped a baseball from a plane hovering 700 feet in the air, the ball likely reaching terminal velocity by the time it hit the ground.

But Haase's favorite story stems from the outfit's formation.

It was shortly before noon on Sept. 26, 1920, when three members of the 34th Infantry Division — Gen. Walter Rhinow, Lt. Col. William C. Garis and Capt. Ray S. Miller — took off from Curtiss Field off Snelling Avenue in an open-air Curtiss Oriole biplane. It was a bit of a publicity stunt: a seven-day, 1,600-mile flight to Washington, D.C., to lobby the national Militia Bureau to form a flying squadron.

The gambit worked. The division became the nation's first federally recognized Air National Guard unit on Jan. 17, 1921, 100 years ago Sunday.

"What they did in the early days helped cement what aviation would mean to all of us: 'An airplane, that's the place to be!' " Haase said. "It took a group of people willing to go sell what aviation was."

The 133rd Airlift Wing is planning centennial celebrations this summer that could be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: a "Century in the Sky Celebration" at the Mall of America in June, and an air expo and open house at the 133rd Airlift Wing in July.

Haase is also finishing a historical exhibit that will be displayed in Concourse C at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from June through December.

Haase's aviation career spanned decades. He loved the rush of flying the T-38 Talon supersonic jet. He loved the challenge of piloting the hulking C-130 Hercules aircraft, which the 133rd Airlift Wing operates, at low levels but high speeds.

But he's still in awe when he talks about the 133rd's aviator predecessors who laid the groundwork for today's aviation world.

In the squadron's earliest days came one of its most daring missions. A Cook County commissioner took his boat on Lake Superior in January and got lost. The governor tasked Miller and a National Guard co-pilot to attempt to locate him. For 10 days, the two flew circles around Lake Superior in an open-air cockpit in subzero temperatures. Once, they were running low on gas and landed on a frozen lake near Two Harbors. They knocked on the door of a cabin. A trapper answered and helped them get gas. Their engine was too cold to start, so the men heated up rocks at the trapper's cabin and placed them on the motor until it was warm enough to start.

They never found the missing man.

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647