From the archives: Journey to Wichita

Editor’s note: One of the first articles published on Air Facts when we relaunched in 2011 was by Rob Buck, an accomplished pilot and son of the legendary airline captain Bob Buck. Osmosis Aviation was Rob’s delightful trip down memory lane, telling the story of a flight to Wichita with his father when he was a young boy. Here, we share the other side of the story: Bob Buck’s account of this same flight, as told in the pages of Air Facts in the April 1958 edition. Compare the stories and you will find a first person account of how aviation can change the father-son relationship.

From time to time I take leave of a Connie and fly what I still call a private airplane. But it’s been a long time since I flew one for a distance of much over two hundred miles. The other day, though, I took Rob, my eight year old son, and flew from Linden N. J. to Wichita and back.

The last private airplane I flew between New York and Wichita was a Lambert Monocoupe. For you young folks, that was a two-place high-wing monoplane, ninety horsepower. It was blind ahead, had a tail skid, liked to ground loop, flew beautifully in the air, had almost six hours’ fuel, and cruised just under 100 miles per hour. Mine was equipped with instruments―it had a turn and bank!

Air Facts magazine, 1958

This article originally appeared in the April 1958 edition of Air Facts magazine.

We did not get loose from New York until about two in the afternoon. The weather was clear and a northwest wind was blowing about thirty knots. We packed a lot of luggage, a picnic kit, a fist full of maps and radio aid charts, climbed into 182LC and off we went.

I’d looked at the weather and we were lucky to have a big high sitting with its center near Indianapolis. The sequences were all clear as far as St. Louis. I had a little disturbing thought about Wichita being on the backside of a high. That generally means warm air will start running up the backside and cause weather, but that would be tomorrow and this was today.

You don’t forget, really. Before the war and before I had started flying the international routes, I’d flown DC-2’s and 3’s to Pittsburgh and the west. Today, when we leveled off at 4000 feet, it seemed the airplane automatically took the right heading and little New Jersey towns were sliding under us in correct sequence. We crossed the Delaware near New Hope, then flew by Quakertown, Pennsylvania. I remembered there was a race track near town, and sure enough it’s still there. Pottstown went by on the left, then Reading and soon we flew down the valley to Lebanon and Hershey. Harrisburg came up and I hadn’t gotten out a map.

Over Harrisburg it seemed a good idea to file a VFR flight plan. I fired up the Simplexer, Harrisburg took all the data, and that was that.

What a Boon

Radio is a real comfort, especially the ability to listen to weather broadcasts even if they don’t always start on time at 15 or 45, or if the operators hem and haw, or talk too fast, or put the mike in their back pocket when they broadcast. To get the weather and know it’s doing something you want or don’t want so you can plan alternate action makes me think of 25 years ago as the era of surprises. Then you took off, ground away, and when you ran into weather it was all a surprise because you never knew it was changing until it happened.

This day it was nothing, but it seemed appropriate to use the Omni and ADF for practice. I started to look up some frequencies and found out what progress is. In those old days you had a map with a course drawn on it, and that took care of the papers. The map sat on your lap and you kept one finger along the course line and kept tabs on your progress.

Since Rob had been trying his hand at flying from time to time and could keep the heading within 10 degrees or so and the altitude within a reasonable range, I decided to use him.

“You fly it, Rob, while I look at this chart.”

“I don’t feel like flyin’ now.”

“Well, fly anyway. You be co-pilot.”

“Oh, all right.”

And little hands took the wheel.

“Hold it on 270.” The number had just gone by the lubber line and Rob banked to get it back. He banked the wrong way.

“No, Rob, the other way. Look, when the number you want is on the left side of that line you turn right. Yes, I know it’s backwards, but that’s the way it is.” An eight year old surprises you sometimes.

While he made swoops at the heading and altitude I fiddled with the charts and got the necessary stations tuned in. This entire matter became more annoying, and I wondered how people got along in weather when various items came up such as Airways clearing you via a different route, or asking for an estimate over some point you never heard of and have to look up. This trip again made me appreciate what a good co-pilot really means. How do the men in the light twins get along without help?

Rob gradually got better as we went along and finally could hold a heading within 5° and altitude within 200 feet, and that gave dear old Dad time to do things.

RON

Bob and Rob Buck

Father and son shared a 182, and both became airline captains.

Incredible as it seemed, only a little over three hours had gone by and we were passing Newark, Ohio. I called Columbus tower. I remembered that we used to check over Pataskala and got a kick doing it now. They cleared us in on that big east-west runway. As I was coming in, about 100 feet off the ground, I discovered that an enthusiastic eight year old can be distracting. He was bug-eyed at all the airplanes and was expounding in yelps and hollers about, “Lookit, there’s some Sabres, and two Neptunes, and there’s a Thunderjet! Look Pop, look at ‘em!”

Well, we got down and I had a little talk with him about distractions at the wrong time. We taxied over to Foster Lane’s service center. I remember when that was a few Taylorcrafts and a Waco or two. Now there were more airplanes around than our Air Force had before World War II. Lots of Cessnas, Pipers, and Beeches of all varieties. Just a mob of airplanes.

A pleasant fellow directed us in and very politely helped us get the airplane bedded down and gassed. The modern ground service is a big improvement. They seem to know as much about the airplane as you do, probably more.

Foster Lane’s people arranged motel reservations, too. It all seemed so simple to go only ten minutes to a good motel and be set for the night. These are a great boon to flying, but somehow they seem to do away with the identity of a place and made the United States have a disappointing machine-like sameness, because a motel is a motel, be it in Columbus, St. Louis, Albuquerque or Seattle. Half the fun of going somewhere is to see the differences, the new things or the old that make a city or area what it is. You enjoy the background, traditions and individual tableau.

Came the Dawn

The next morning my eight year old alarm clock was up and in motion at 6 A.M.! There’s no use fighting it, so you get up too. As with all airmen you look out the window and up. The sky was getting a little pink with a few stars left over from the decorations of the night. It was clear. But what about the rest of the way? Another modern gadget, a transistor radio, provided the answer. Santa Claus Collins had caused me to be the owner of a Motorola Weatherama which has 200 to 400 kilocycles as well as rock ‘n roll. I caught a 6:15 broadcast and all was well through Indianapolis. This is a trinket par excellence that saves much phoning and disappointments listening to the Weather Bureau’s busy signals. On this little junket we successfully completed only one phone call despite many attempts. The traffic is too much for the facilities.

At the airport Weather Bureau a close look showed a stratus deck which started near Indianapolis and covered the area clear to Wichita. It was warm air creeping up from the south on the back of that high. I was assured that it was only a stratus deck with no weather. The bases ran two to three thousand feet and the visibilities were good. Out St. Louis way it was warm, about 40 degrees, but east of there the temperatures were below freezing. I thought about going on top because the tops were only supposed to be five or six thousand, but since it was so good underneath and I wanted to show Rob the country I decided to VFR it down low.

Weather’s Where You Find It

The flight was uneventful. It was clear at first, then around Indianapolis a deck moved in, but there was lots of room under it and good visibility. After passing Indianapolis it seem to take a long time to get to Terre Haute, and checking ground speed I found we had a 50 knot head wind at 2000 feet! This was a little disturbing because it seemed with that much wind there must be more to the weather than just a little warm air moving in.

But we went on happily for twenty minutes more and then I suddenly sat up straighter because something was hitting the windshield. I knew it had to be warmer aloft since it was above freezing at St. Louis and the flow was overrunning from that direction. That logically meant the precipitation was rain, but I knew it was freezing down under the clouds where we were, and that meant the rain would freeze. It did.

It was drizzle and I figured it was only the juice from the bottom of the clouds and not something from a big weather system. I kept going because it was spotty and intermittent. Then it became steady and looking around the airplane I could see it sticking on struts, windshield corners and the leading edge of the wing, about an eighth of an inch thick. I seriously thought about my lack of de-icing equipment and it was evident the time to do something had arrived.

It’s always been a good rule to do something about ice when it starts and not later. I did the maneuver―a 180. I was thinking of going back to Terre Haute, getting a clearance and then going on top. But a conversation overhead on 126.7 settled that idea. A fellow asked Vandalia for clearance out of 9000 feet because of moderate ice! We landed at Terre Haute. It wasn’t a loss because Rob saw an F-86 take off and land and that set him up for the day. And after we got back to Terre Haute another 182 and an Apache landed. They’d been St. Louis bound too and had turned around.

St. Louis now was up to 48 degrees and it was evident that patience would find its reward as the warm air crept toward the east. We sat down to some hot dogs, milkshakes and a certain amount of exploring in the building and just squirming around. The sequences never did report freezing drizzle, although a number of PIREPS did.

It wasn’t until around three P.M. that Terre Haute got above freezing and we took off. The ceilings stayed above 2500 and St. Louis was 3000 broken and was balmy when we got there. I think the previous freezing drizzle was from a little trough between the cold air of the high to the east and the warmer air from the south coming in over that cold air.

There was more excitement from the co-pilot when we got to St. Louis and he saw all the Voodoo’s parked at McDonnell’s. Landing at a big airport like St. Louis made me conscious of the tricycle gear, the ease of landing and taxiing with lots of forward visibility. Taxiing is no longer a zigzag battle to see ahead, but is more like driving an automobile. The modern gear has done a lot for the airplane.

I stopped by the Weather Bureau and talked it over. All expected a CAVU day tomorrow. We bedded down in an even fancier motel than at Columbus.

Missouri Waltz

1958 Skylane

The 1958 Skylane was a fine traveling machine for the Bucks.

Tomorrow was CAVU, at least as far as Kansas City. We delayed getting out of St. Louis because I had to show Rob where the Monocoupe was made and tell him a few things about the field when Lindbergh was there.

The radio worked like a charm all the way and there wasn’t any problem with the towers at any of the fields. I noticed you occasionally have to wait if a couple of airliners are around. They are heard first. I haven’t decided if it’s because their transmitters are more powerful or if it’s favoritism, but be that as it may, if a fellow waits for a break and then says what he has to say precisely, without hesitation and not too fast, he gets heard.

We VFR’d out and headed for Kansas City hoping that Wichita, which was 100 feet in fog, would come up and give us a chance to get in. It didn’t and we landed at Kansas City to wait it out. It was only 10 in the morning.

We went up to the Weather Bureau and the man seemed so busy filling out forms he didn’t have much time for us. I thumbed through all those do-it-yourself sequences and forecasts and found that Wichita was supposed to improve and go to 2000 broken about 3 P.M. I wish those do-it-yourself weather desks would give you something that’s a better picture of what the enroute weather will be like. It’s all written in a sort of gobbledygook that may assist the man sending it out on a teleprinter, but it’s not very clear to the pilot. What you would like to know, simply, is the top, the bottom and what it’s going to do.

We hung around Kansas City until about 1 o’clock. The time was mostly spent showing Rob through an old cargo DC-4 which fascinated him. It still smelled of the monkeys we’d carried in it from India about six years ago.

At 1 o’clock Wichita was 300 feet. That meant it was coming up and maybe when we got there it would be okay. Emporia was 1000 feet broken, up from 300 feet. Pilot reports put the tops at 2500 feet and Kansas City was forecast to stay clear. Away we went again VFR.

GCA

It was CAVU almost to Wichita. I kept listening to the weather broadcasts and finally when we were about 20 miles north and in the clear, Wichita reported 600 feet. I did a circle, called Approach Control and asked them if I could make an instrument approach. I told them where I was and that I was holding in the clear.

“What kind of approach do you wish to make?” he asked.

“What kind are you selling today?” I answered, not to be funny, but when a place has more than one type they are all usually making a particular one to a certain runway on a specific day.

“At which field do you plan to land?” I was asked.

“Cessna.”

“Standby. I’ll see if McConnell can give you a GCA. You can break off when you see Cessna.”

I stood by and made about four circles over a ranch house which intrigued Rob because he could see some white-faced cattle down there.

In a little time I was transferred to another frequency and GCA took over. There wasn’t anything to it. The Air Force was vectoring me in for a south landing at McConnell. The approach path goes right over Cessna. We did a few turns for identification and away we went. In a few minutes we were flying on top of the clouds and then we descended into them at about 2800 feet. It’s quite different from a big airplane. The man on the ground says, “Steer right 2 degrees to 180,” and all you do is tap the rudder and before you think about it the two degree change has been made. You don’t move a Connie around like that. The little airplane makes it pretty easy and I was a little proud of the job I was doing because GCA would say, “On course, holding glide path nicely.”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Rob, with some pride.

“Yeah,” said that little offspring of mine, shrugging his shoulders, “but it’s your job!” A real crusher.

At 600 feet I saw the ground and in a second broke out and there were a flock of Cessnas sitting on the ground and a little asphalt runway that said 17R. It must be the place so I shut her off and we landed. I thanked the GCA, told him we were on the ground and that was that.

Rob said, “Man, I never thought we’d make it.”

“Why not?” I asked him.

“I heard that man say we were a mile and a half from the airport and I couldn’t see anything and we were still up high. I never thought we’d get down in time!”

Handsome As They Come

At Cessna we went through the factory and enjoyed the neat, efficient plant where so much is going on. Over at Customer Delivery we met the new 182LC, a brand new Skylane, all yellow, black and cream. With a very fond farewell to the old 18LC we changed various pieces of gear and then went to town for the night.

Motorola Weatherama

The Motorola Weatherama – a handy bit of technology in 1958.

The next morning it was zero-zero. Our little Motorola said it was clear at Kansas City. It seemed obvious that this stuff would clear off so we just waited. About 10 o’clock the fog looked a little lighter and we decided to go out to the airport.

At Cessna’s delivery building they have a teletype and the sequences showed that we had about 400 feet, with better weather north and east. Columbia was clear and so was St. Louis.

This time I wasn’t going to be harassed in the cockpit by a bunch of charts and confusion. There’s a convenient table, wall maps, protractors and the rest, so I sat down and made a flight plan, and got all the charts set up in order. By the time that was done we had 700 feet so I called ATC on the phone and asked for an instrument climb-out to VFR on top and then gave them a DVFR straight to St. Louis and Indianapolis, our first intended stop. They accepted it and we rolled out the new machine.

I had read the manual the night before, but I took an extra look around prior to starting to be certain where things were. It looked good. The instrument panel is a nice black, important and efficient looking. The radios are simple to work and easy to understand―two transmitters, an omni, an ADF and an extra low frequency receiver. There’s extra fuel, oxygen, instruments and a very interesting looking package called the Tactair, an automatic pilot. I also discovered a neat side pocket to my left that can hold maps, computers and the rest. This seems a small matter, but how very useful it is!

Radar Departure

After starting and checking out the engine and radios, I called approach control, but they switched me back to McConnell for clearance because I’d be near their landing pattern when I took off. McConnell was very nice, cleared us to take off and climb on 90 degrees until on top, then report. Off we went and at 1000 feet entered the stuff. At 2000 feet above ground we were up in the sunlight with that white blanket stretched out under us. I reported on top, switched back to approach control and headed east.

The airplane seemed smooth and the quiet rumble up front spoke of reserve power. I got to 5000 feet, leveled off and trimmed her up. Cessna has a neat computer that gives the proper settings for various powers and the resultant fuel consumption; charts show the airspeed. I picked a low power because we weren’t in a hurry and I thought it would be good to baby the new engine. With the big manifold pressure gauge and the king size tachometer you can set things very precisely. The airspeed came out just as the chart said it would. That was refreshing.

Tactair Autopilot!

It wasn’t long before I had the Tactair in operation. This was it, living luxury! It holds a heading beautifully and also altitude. If you do want to go up or down a gentle twist of a knob will do it. Rob soon learned to run that and kept altitude for me, although it didn’t require much attention at all.

Being basically lazy, like most pilots, I don’t think I flew 30 minutes on the entire trip back. Old friend Tactair did all that manual labor. And what a help! Now we could do some real first-class navigating, and computers, protractors and dividers were out and working.

We passed near Emporia and were on a beeline for St. Louis. We were still on top and frankly, although I was certain there was some ceiling under the stuff, I felt a little squeamish―spoiled again by lots of engines. And you can’t help wondering, against better judgment and logic, if maybe the fog hasn’t thickened and spread. It should not and you know it will not, but your logic can get emotional sometimes in the air. But why worry? Pick up the mike, call Butler radio and ask them. Yes, Butler was clear, St. Louis, too. In 45 minutes we flew past the edge of the low cloud deck, the earth reappeared and we felt a little foolish for having worried.

We were moving, too, making 160 knots. It was a dream flight. A steady rhythm ahead, the autopilot doing the work, sky clear and a tail wind. We got out our sandwiches, pushed the chairs back and had a sociable lunch with everything but a hostess.

After lunch we studied the charts and I tried to interest Rob in map reading. He made serious and accurate attempts, but he was more interested in watching other airplanes and did see a lot of them. Those needle-like eyes can pick ‘em out faster and further than Pop. Years ago to see one airplane a day was an event. Today it’s ten or so in a few hours. Not close, but out there just the same.

With the autopilot we could take our time checking speeds, turning radios, making estimates. We hit St. Louis right on our ETA and kept going. We had climbed to 7000 feet and the check points rolled by at a pace that kept boredom out and interest high. It had been only three hours from Wichita when I turned the little knob on the Tactair for Down and started a 300 foot per minute descent toward Indianapolis. About a thousand feet off the ground I took over and condescended to fly by that old-fashioned hand method.

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon and they were out in droves at Indianapolis. It’s a busy place and we sandwiched in between airliners and various private airplanes. We were just 3 hours and 25 minutes en route. The crowning point of Rob’s day was to meet Roscoe Turner and see his old racer that hangs from Roscoe’s hangar ceiling.

Another motel, an hour or so of TV and we were asleep. The next day promised to be fair.

It Really Goes

It was, too. We were off and away early. A quick climb to 7000 feet and I put her on autopilot. With the airplane on autopilot you can use two hands to trim up the power settings and mixture and do a very exact job. The operation becomes more efficient.

The tail wind of yesterday was still with us. A little more at first, and we made 180 knots to Pittsburgh. It seemed only minutes and the mountains passed under us in an impersonal way. Radio guided us although it was clear and we didn’t need it. Listening to a few broadcasts showed the east coast clear.

There isn’t much you could talk about on our trip home and I guess that’s the best testimonial to twenty years of progress in private flying. Here is an airplane, comfortable, quiet and with excellent vision. It is loaded with equipment with which you can talk to the ground and get information of all types and keep a busy but tranquil mind. The airspeed has reached the happy state where a head wind doesn’t hurt much and a tail wind makes it wonderful. We have an automatic pilot to do the work so the pilot can pay better attention to his job, which is planning and thinking. There is gasoline so you can go far and not be hampered with stops; only one from Wichita. All these things are the big story in themselves.

And Tomorrow?

ADS-B weather on ForeFlight

Would the iPad meet Buck’s need as a “miniature radar?”

What more is needed? First, I think, weather radar. The terror of a thunderstorm is real and a thunderstorm can be disastrous. Weather radar can keep you out of them. As electronic techniques improve it seems logical that a miniature radar will be practical even for the single engine airplane.

Then deicing equipment, for the prop and windshield at least. With the prop and windshield clean you can do pretty well. If the wings get protection they should be heated, but with present climb performance and speed the wing deicers become less important. I’d rather see the antennas and things that stick out get deiced than the wing.

From time to time there has been talk about increasing the reliability of single engines. We have dual ignition. Why not dual fuel systems and dual oil systems? These are the main things that fail and duplicating them would improve reliability.

Something should be done, too, to provide for two electrical power sources if you really want to fly weather. The idea of having everything hung on that one generator is a little scary.

While we’re talking let’s not forget the importance of oxygen because this will keep you out of serious enroute weather. I know now that enroute weather was my problem back in the DC-3 days―the constant fiddling to get between layers, or out of an icing layer; the turbulence and thunderstorms you flew through because you were down in stuff where you couldn’t see. Most of this went out with pressurization and the ability to fly above 14,000 feet.

I’ll bet an automatic pilot will almost become a standard piece of equipment. It’s needed now and if you add equipment it will be needed more.

This is all pretty dreamy, but in 1932 when I had the Monocoupe, if someone had described an equipped Cessna Skylane of today I would have thought he was off his reason.

And back in our Skylane, we were just about 3 hours from Indianapolis when I started descending for Linden. Fifty miles out I called on Unicom and told them to phone my house and get the car started out. We descended with high airspeed and high spirits and landed 3 hours and 30 minutes after leaving Indianapolis.

Our little visit back to a part of flying we love was tremendously rewarding. We’re certain we’ll be a better airline pilot because of it, and we hope, too, not to stay away so long again.

3 Comments

  1. Keith Bumsted says:

    This article is testimony to the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same! The fundamental aspects of flying in light aircraft are timeless regardless of the equipment that is added to the platform. Thanks.

  2. Believe I have read just about everything Bob Buck has written since the ’40s. A wonderfully gifted writer with immense understanding & sensitivity of every aspect of
    flight. Eager to meet Bob, in 1986 I invited him to be our honored guest @ The Aero Club of N.E. 2nd Basin Harbor Club Fly In, Vergennes, Vermont. He accepted with his wife Jean, and they attended several of the following 17 year’s events…..as did son Rob.
    What a treat it was to finally meet my mentor. A delightful person.

  3. James Macklin says:

    Every pilot, the 0 hour student or the 20,000 hour ATP should get every edition of Buck’s wonderful book, WEATHER FLYING. Flying is all about seeing and visibility. Weather is all about water and how long it has been somewhere and at what temperature.
    The telling of a flight in “the old days” when almost every place was uncontrolled airspace [now Class G]all the way to 14,500 feet MSL. Airways could be seen in all their glory, not just a thin line drawn on a chart.
    You had a moving map IF you visualized it from combining the outside world indicator, an ADF, maybe a 4 course range with -./.- audio course guidance. VOR was the new technology, only military and airlines had DME.
    You could also land at Lambert Field and taxi to Gate 28 and walk right in an open door and cross the carpet to your airline connection.
    A dollar was still worth about 60 cents, not the 1 penny it is now. A Beech Bonanza was less than $40,000, not 3/4 million nearly worthless dollars.