Hans Wilhelm Berg was born on June 10, 1931, to Wilhelm and Maria Berg in the Free City of Danzig, a Baltic Sea port that is now Gdańsk, Poland. The family—Hans was the oldest of four kids—soon moved to Schneidemühl, Germany, where they ran a stationery shop. Membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory, and Hans joined the paramilitary group (which by 1940 numbered eight million) at age nine. He “hated marching, so he got into flying,” says daughter Susan. Banned from building powered planes after the First World War, Germany had focused on gliders, which use rising air to propel flight. For Hans, soaring was freedom. Says son John, “He was totally alone in his element.”
By early 1945, Russian forces were approaching Hans’s town. One afternoon, he climbed to the top of a church and saw their tanks, painted white to blend in with the snow. Once home, he “went hysterical,” says Susan. The next morning, Schneidemühl was evacuated. (It soon became Piła, Poland.) With his mother and siblings—his father had been drafted in 1942—Hans travelled west by train, settling in Ulm, Germany. After the war, jobs were scarce, but Hans, then 14, found an apprenticeship at a bakery in another town. While he revelled in creating a product, he said disparagingly that “by noon, it would be all gone,” says daughter Barbara. A few years later, he returned to Ulm, and learned cabinetmaking instead.
Weekends were devoted to gliding—at the time a gruelling sport. To launch, a pack of people would push the glider uphill, and then run down, towing it with a bungee cord. Flights lasted mere minutes; pilots learned to constantly plan landings. And Hans always kept an air sickness bag in the cockpit. Still, his devotion was unwavering. He rode his bike to nearby soaring clubs and picked up odd jobs “just so he could do some flying,” says son Robert.
In 1951, Hans met Elisabeth Hanich at the dance hall. She was “looking for a man who didn’t drink,” and she saw Hans as “a nice and honest guy,” more interested in gliding than partying. War had “turned him off of any kind of violence,” says son Charlie, and he wanted to leave Germany. He chose Canada, where there was no draft. Elisabeth agreed; in 1953, they married, and immigrated to Windsor, Ont., where she had a friend.
Hans got a job as a welder at Chrysler, but “didn’t like the work ethic,” says Charlie. He struck out on his own as a cabinetmaker, and moved the family, which grew to include five children, to nearby LaSalle. Word of his immaculate handiwork spread. However, as a subcontractor, he “was never good at collecting money,” says Charlie, and switched to home construction, where he didn’t have to wait on builders for payment. Before the family settled in their own home, they shifted from one half-finished house to the next—despite the rough edges. When the plywood floors gave the kids splinters, Elisabeth simply applied varnish.
Though Hans was a loyal husband, he “never wanted to sit around with the family,” says Barbara. He believed in his role as the breadwinner; free time was for flying. The first in town with a personal glider, in the early ’60s, he was a founding member of the Windsor Gliding Club. Along with fellow German gliders, his uncanny ability to detect pockets of rising air was dubbed the “Old German Index.” As technology advanced, it wasn’t uncommon for Hans, who was first out and last in, to be airborne for six hours. Regardless of the conditions, he found lifts where no one else could. Says pilot John Harte, “Hans resided in the pantheon of the gods.”
As in his workshop, he insisted on proper technique on the gliding field. “You knew dad would never crash,” says Barbara. When a pilot was injured at the Windsor Gliding Club in the late ’90s, Hans blamed himself for not being there. Soon after, the club folded, and he joined the Sandhill Soaring Club in Michigan. An uncompromising craftsman, Hans built his basement to accommodate gliders, and towed one to Florida with him each year. When he talked about flying, he was uncharacteristically effusive. “His eyes lit up,” says John Harte. “His hands became gliders.” Initially, Hans balked at “playing the grandfather,” says Susan, but when her son David was born in 1979, “he was the first one to the door.” By 2006, he had nine grandchildren, and, says Barbara, “really did put family first.”
On Tuesday, May 12, Hans drove to Sandhill. It was the start of the season, and members had to complete a series of three test flights, which he did with ease. At about 3 p.m., Hans was walking back to the hangar, chatting with the chief. In mid-sentence, he collapsed. Hans died on the airfield. He was 77.