To say that Don Hanson loved flying would be an understatement. Hanson didn’t just fly the plane, he was part of it.
From piloting bombers during World War II to planes with floats and skis in remote parts of northern Minnesota, Hanson spent a career in the air.
The Warroad native was 98 when he died last month.
“He wasn’t the first, but he was one of the first bush pilots in Minnesota,” said son Jon, a retired airline pilot. “For years before there were roads to the Northwest Angle [on Lake of the Woods], he was everything. When someone had an accident or was having a child he was the air ambulance service.”
But Hanson, whose birth name was John, almost didn’t make it back home after he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was stationed in England to fly bombing runs over German-held territory during the war.
On his third mission, Hanson’s B-24 Liberator was shot down on a flight over Bremen, Germany. Hanson managed to crash land the bomber in a farm field in the Netherlands where he and the crew were captured by German soldiers. For the next 18 months Hanson was a prisoner at Stalag Luft 1 until the camp was liberated by allies in 1945. Hanson was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his wartime exploits.
“He didn’t talk about it very much,” said Jon Hanson. “He told us little kids that he just went fishing during the day and went back to the camp at night. That was obviously fictitious but he’d tell us that so we wouldn’t think things were really bad.”
Years later, when someone unwittingly asked Hanson if he liked German food, he answered, “No, not really.”
Hanson was discharged in 1945 at the rank of first lieutenant and returned home to Warroad where he set up a flying service that also included crop dusting as well as charter services for outdoorsmen.
Hanson also started hauling mail for the U.S. Postal Service by air, boat and snowmobile to that isolated part of Minnesota that is surrounded on three sides by Canada. It was the northernmost mail route in the Lower 48 states. He flew it for 57 years.
“It was a lot of fun for me, in a way,” Hanson told the Star Tribune when he retired as a mail carrier in 2003 at the age of 87. “There were no roads. You either went up by boat or you flew up.”
“Dad was a cautious pilot. He never took risks. Everything was calculated. That’s why he had such a long career,” said Jon Hanson.
Hanson was honored by the postal service in 2001 for 50 years of public service. He was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002.
Daughter Jan Hanson said her father was resilient.
“My father led by example. When it came time for us to choose a profession, it wasn’t about money, it was about doing something you loved,” she said. “Dad worked hard but he always found time to enjoy life — and he shared that with us.”
Hanson was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Fernanda, who died in 2013.
He is survived by sister Jeanne Batchelder of Auburn, Calif., daughter Jan Hanson of Woodbury, sons Jon of Louisville, Colo., and Michael of Woodbury, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.