21 min read

Editor’s note: Bob Buck was one of Air Facts’ most popular writers in the 1950s and 60s, beloved for his first-hand accounts of the changing airline world. Whether it was a Lockheed Constellation or a Boeing 707, Buck took readers along for an incredible ride. In our latest trip through the Air Facts archives, we fly from Los Angeles to London via the polar route, as told from the left seat of a Connie. 

In the cool California morning, made grey by the persistent early morning stratus overcast, I walked toward the hangar and my eventual destination of the dispatch and weather offices. I was getting ready to take out Flight 770.

I was thinking about flying between Los Angeles and Albuquerque as a brand new copilot, twenty-one years ago. It was amusing to reflect that if I had made a prophecy then, out loud, that someday I’d be Captain of a nonstop scheduled flight from Los Angeles to London they would have run me off to the booby hatch. But here I was flying it.

Up in the office the crew was milling about getting flight plan information together, laying out the complex charts that cover our spider web airways, organizing the various necessary forms. We collected in the weather office with the dispatcher.

December 1958 Air Facts cover

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

The flight had been tentatively set up during the night by a conference between dispatchers on both coasts and our weather offices in Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York. It looked like a nonstop with a flight plan of 17 hours 32 minutes. This would give a fuel reserve over London of 3000 pounds, a little over an hour. This doesn’t sound like much, but there are lots of places along the way to land and get fuel if necessary. I could also go to a long range cruise that would take an hour longer, but get there with more fuel. A lot can happen in 17 hours and the fuel at destination, at this state, was just fight planning information.

The track that had been set up was northeast out of Los Angeles to Winnipeg, Canada, then over lower Hudson Bay, Goose Bay, Labrador, across the ocean to Shannon, and then London. I studied this tract superimposed on the 500 millibar chart.

The 500 millibar chart which shows the winds near 19000 feet indicated a strong flow of west winds, a tight gradient with the isobars jammed in together. This wind was up on the northern part of the track from North Dakota east. Between Los Angeles and North Dakota the winds were lazy. The trick was to get up north without much expenditure of fuel and effort, in order to get at those strong westerlies. You don’t do this just as you’d like to. You wish you could take off and head straight out, beeline. But you cannot; you have to pretzel around the little corners of the airways and make wasteful twists and turns. Actually the track would be over Long Beach, then Ontario, California, then V8 to Las Vegas, then V1529 all the way to Pembina, North Dakota.

After studying the track beyond Winnipeg I thought it was layed out too far north. When you get up in those higher latitudes you have to watch carefully that you don’t get north of the westerlies―too far north and you are in easterlies. Any weather text book shows the earth’s classical wind circulation with the westerlies extending up to about 60 degrees north and then easterlies above that. The dividing line isn’t exact but varies with weather situations, seasons and cold air outbreaks. A slug of cold air, sucked down by some vigorous low, will move this boundary south. Sometimes the dividing line gets close to tracks you want to fly and a strong tail wind can turn into a light one, or even head wind if you get too far north.

I thought the track planned was flirting a little too closely with the dividing line for the present conditions so I decided to cut the track further south, only a matter of 120 miles from the one planned. This pulled us down from 53 degrees north & 80 degrees west to 51 degrees at 80 degrees west. Then studying the upper air further along our route, I felt strongly that the maximum wind would be roughly along the 50th parallel, over northern Newfoundland and on the great circle track across the ocean. I wanted to fly that way, but there is a big danger area set aside in the region northwest of Newfoundland, just where I wanted to go, so I couldn’t. I had to plan a track from 51 degrees north to 80 degrees west to Goose Bay and on over. I hate danger areas, cockeyed airways and all the things that take away the freeness of straight flight, but I guess you have to give in to the times.

With this revision, the navigators―two of them, because it’s a long flight―and copilots made out the flight plan. It came out to 17 hours 04 minutes. A little saving on paper and we hadn’t even started. But one thing you learn―there can be a big difference between that flight plan and what actually happens. The art of forecasting winds is a long way from perfect and, too, weather can change a lot over the 17-hour period of the flight.

LA to London

17 hours to London in a Connie – a long trip that requires serious planning, and no iPads.

Altitudes are a problem out of Los Angeles. You’d like to stay low for a while and save fuel by not climbing with the big load, but the mountains are there and the temperature is high and that makes density altitude higher than the indicated. We planned it for 11000 feet to Dickinson, North Dakota and 19000 after that. This was based on a little luck because I could only go 11000 on a visual basis; if the weather became instruments I’d have to get much higher on some portions of the airways. The weather, along airways, was supposed to be clear up to Dickinson, then a trough, or weak front, until about 80 degrees west, then clear to 300 miles off the Labrador coast where there was a front to go through; from there on nothing until England, where a long north-south front was moving along. Shannon was forecast to be showery with multiple cloud decks starting at 300 feet. London was forecast showery too with decks much like Shannon.

It may sound a little peculiar to start 5700 miles for a place that will be something around 300 feet. Actually that sort of forecast for Shannon and London is a comfortable one. With a front and associated low in the area of the British Isles you don’t worry much about getting in. There’ll be wind and it may rain and be a little wild, but the ceiling will stay within workable limits and the visibility will be pretty good. I was a little shocked with myself when I thought about the weather over there and sort of visualized how it would look, as you do, and realized I felt more at home and familiar with the weather in England than I did in California.

Finally we are in the airplane, on the runway, all lined up and ready to go. The grey overcast is still there, but being California we’ll be on top before long. The tower says to let her go and I shove the throttles and we begin to move. Sometimes I think this moment is the greatest of flight. There’s so much complexity in these times that flying has lost most of its freedom. The check list tells you something needs to be done, the tower says to taxi here or there, and airways say climb only this high or go this way. A cloud comes along and you are caught in a VFR-IFR problem with all the regulatory implications…it’s a life of restrictions, of narrow boundaries you must remain within or you’ll have troubles either legal or mechanical. But that moment the tower says to go ahead―that is your moment of freedom. The runway is yours, only yours; the check list is finished and all the items are done and set properly. You have at last arrived at the moment of flying as you love it―you can go ahead and only your own skill and judgment makes the difference.

The big jetstream passes V1 and I begin to rotate and get the nose up toward the sky. She breaks away from the earth. The gear starts up and the little soggy moment of transition passes and firm air, flowing swiftly over the long graceful wing, gives us support and strength to climb. It’s a routine takeoff, but somewhere inside me stirs a feeling of elation. I cannot allow the import of our journey ahead, the audacity of man’s challenge to time and distance, to go unnoticed. I cannot be blasé about all this. It is an exciting moment, a moment when you are glad to be an airline pilot and never want to be anything else.

Now we climb straight ahead until 1000 feet, then a left turn to 165 degrees as directed―we are to intersect 186 degrees on the LAX beacon, then proceed to Bonita intersection. This is all a little annoying. There’s 5700 miles to go and I don’t want to waste time screwing around west of Los Angeles.

TWA Constellation

A gracious way to fly halfway around the world.

Then we are cleared further to Long Beach, cross Red 65 not under 9000 feet. Hell, I can’t make 9000 feet by Red 65. In that case, says the controller, climb in the Bonita pattern to 9000 feet. Hell again. I don’t want to sit out over the Pacific Ocean making circles, climbing slowly in a bank with the load―I want to head east for London! I’m burning precious gasoline. I’m using up time. Then we break out on top, out in the warm bright sunshine. The sky is blue and the air very clear. I can see the distant mountains to the east.

“I can climb VFR on top.” I’m okayed for that and at last we wheel and head east. The traffic I was being held for, an Air Force Convair, goes by over me and I see him plainly.

We pass Ontario climbing and reach 11000 feet before Fontana intersection. Now it’s clear and we pass the mountains near Lake Arrowhead. Everything is in good shape and the hostess has brought the first of many cups of coffee. We’re off to London Town and glad to shake loose from the complexity of a crowded terminal area.

Past Las Vegas and Morman Mesa, then Milford, Utah. Next is Myton and now a rub; ATC says I have to climb because the minimum reception altitude is 21000 feet! This I don’t want to do at all. The weather is very clear so we proceed VFR.

We’ve had a pleasing southwest wind and are now actually six minutes ahead of our flight plan, even with the messing around Los Angeles.

Back in the cabin lunch is being served and I stop on a trip through to chat with passengers who are eating a magnificent dinner with champagne and all the fancy things you’d eat at the Caprice in London. They seem very matter of fact about the whole journey and I mentally note that if one of them complains about the steak being too rare or too well done I’ll have trouble being polite.

All this time we’ve worked ATC centers direct on VHF with a few small gaps when we relayed through other flights. We kept in touch even though we were VFR since we planned to go back to IFR and wanted ATC to keep track of us. By using high frequency we’ve talked with our company and given progress reports. We also have requested a new wind forecast from Winnipeg to London.

Connie interior picture

Passengers “are eating a magnificent dinner with champagne and all the fancy things you’d eat at the Caprice in London.”

At Dickinson we were back under control although it was still CAVU. Some high clouds were forming and it was part of the weather they had predicted. Our airplane was light now and the temperature lower so I asked for 19000 feet. In a little bit we were cleared up. Our climb was fast and effortless and we reached 19000, levelled off and got going. Now, up there and set, I had the feeling we were really on our way. The airways flying was just VOR hopping with a lot of annoying fiddling around to stay legal, and safe, of course, and still trying to accomplish the job as you’d like to. That part was a series of compromises. But up at 19000 feet, approaching the Canadian border, we were heading out where you still have a little room left to breathe in.

We went south of Winnipeg and Canadian airways were very kind and helpful in giving us the routing I wanted across their G-1 airway. At Sioux Lookout, Ontario we left all airways―and we were twelve minutes ahead of flight plan.

Now I had the big green chart out that covers eastern North America, the North Atlantic and a big piece of Europe. On it I plotted our flight plan. At each 10 degrees of longitude I marked the flight plan estimate for that point and the fuel we expected to have on board. Then, as each point is passed, you see what you are doing compared with the flight plan.

The weather hadn’t been much and we just flew through snow for about an hour. A company meteorologist was deadheading and was anxious to see the weather inside, but we disappointed him because there wasn’t anything but some dry snow.

It became dark while we were in the snow. Then the snow slowly petered out. Although it was still snowing when you looked ahead, you could look up and dimly see the brighter stars. This is the way snow ends―it gradually fades away as you fly out of the weather. The stars get brighter and brighter and finally you can see the smaller stars and it’s difficult to tell if it’s snowing or not. You turn on the nose light and if there’s any snow you’ll see the sparkling crystals in the light. You are interested in these crystals because they sometimes get in the fuel flow control and make the engines run a little irregularly. It’s a surprise to think you are in clear air and then suddenly have the engines act up. You check things and soon discover you are in ice crystals. I have a little trick on that score, that’s amusing to me. I look for the Big Dipper and then the middle star in the handle―it’s called Mizar. Right over Mizar there’s a tiny little second star. The Arabs call these two the horse and rider. If I look at Mizar and then can see the little star above it there are not many ice crystals in the air, but if the little star is difficult to see, even though I see Mizar plainly, there probably are some ice crystals. All this isn’t very important, but it’s the kind of things you fool with on those long nights.

We got a good fix over 51 degrees north & 80 degrees west. Flight plan had estimated us there at 0211Z time with 30730 pounds of fuel remaining. Actually we were there at 0202 with 31280 pounds, nine minutes ahead and 550 pounds of fuel to the good. It wasn’t much, but it was on the good side.

We were working Gander on high frequency and they gave us new wind forecasts for the rest of the route. They looked a little better than the flight plan winds. London and Shannon still forecast about the same, Goose Bay was wide open if we wanted to duck in there.

I decided to sleep a little while. The bunk felt good. More than the couple of hours sleep, I think you enjoy getting your clothes off and stretching way, way out and relaxing your body. I slept about two hours.

Constellation cockpit

The cockpit of the Connie is full, and everyone has a job.

The bunk is right next to the navigator’s desk so when you get up you can look over his charts and work. I buttoned up my shirt as I studied the chart. Everything looked good. We’d picked up some more time and were estimating Goose Bay in about 15 minutes. Our flight plan called for 0439 over Goose and we now estimated 0420. Our fuel was going to be about 1000 pounds more than flight plan.

I got up front and stood between the two copilots. The cockpit was dark with only the dim glow of the red lights. Up ahead I could see the lights of Goose Bay sparkling through the clear northern night, the only lights for hundreds of miles. We were going to make our 0420 estimate.

The fellows gave me some sheets of paper on which they’d copied the weather. They had been picking up the Shannon weather broadcast on 5559 kcs. Shannon had 800 feet, a strong wind and good visibility; London was 200 scattered, 800 broken, 2500 overcast. The forecasts for both places were on the upswing. Dublin was about the same and Prestwick, Scotland too. We’d have almost two hours of fuel at London and, of course, we could drop into Shannon, which was an hour before London, if need be. There wasn’t any point landing at Goose Bay. “Let ‘er go,” I remarked and went on back in the sleepy cabin to stir up some coffee and a breakfast roll.

The hostesses were awake and looking pretty cute for 4:30 in the morning. We chit chatted while I had my coffee and sweet roll. The passengers seemed all asleep as I went back up forward.

Gene Ford, one of the copilots, went back to bed and I got in my seat, put on the ear phones and settled down to listening to the North Atlantic at night.

All the airlines work the same network of radio so it’s a great big party line. It’s as international as the United Nations and as busy as Times Square at rush hour, and listening in you can hear a lot of interesting things.

The first thing I picked up was a Trans Canada flight giving a position report at 20 degrees west, only 400 miles or so from Ireland. What I wanted to hear was his wind report. I could hardly believe it―280 degrees at 102 knots! London could hardly believe it either and asked for a repeat. It was the same. That made me feel real good; we’d probably pick up even more time.

Then I heard others. Air France, just south of weather ship Charlie, had 260 degrees at 80 knots, and we were only expecting 50 knots. Things looked real cheery.

This party line is useful and hearing what’s going on is often a big help. Sometimes you get an indication that things aren’t so good ahead and it saves considerable time in making a change in plans.

I knew it was time for the navigator to take a fix and I wanted the pleasure of seeing that ground speed increase I knew must be there. I went back to his table as he plotted.

You get used to the celestial plots and before he puts them down, just by looking at the intercepts, you get a rough idea. I was disturbed because they looked slow. He plotted them out, measured the distance from the last fix―we only had a thirty-six knot tail wind.

“Vince,” I said, “that’s a lousy fix―it must be.”

“No, it was a good one. The airplane was very steady.”

“How about taking another speed line.”

“If you want it.”

“Yes, please.”

So he shot two more stars and they came out slow too. I was disappointed―not worried, but disappointed. We had been twenty-two minutes ahead and now we were only thirteen ahead. We were still on the western side of the ocean and I cussed the danger area; if we’d been able to go through there we’d have had better winds. I had secretly been entertaining the hope we might have a chance at the record time of 16 hours 14 minutes, but this little slowdown had knocked that. We had flown through some snow in the last hour and it looked as though we’d gone right through the center of the low and caught slack winds. The charts hadn’t shown any effects of this low as high as our 19000 feet, but some of it was up there and we had caught it. I was certain we’d eventually get into the hairy winds, but I regretted losing that time.

Forty minutes later we passed weather ship Charlie and we were picking up. Charlie gave us a reported wind of 260 degrees at 75 knots at our level. We should be rolling.

We were, and our next fix, at 30 degrees west, had us nineteen minutes and 1000 pounds of fuel ahead again. At 20 degrees west we were really screaming and making 380 knots―which translated into miles is about 436 each and every hour! We were twenty-two minutes ahead and 1210 pounds of fuel in our pocket. When this happens we kiddingly refer to it as, “making gasoline.”

The weather was beautiful with broken clouds below. It was daylight and through breaks I could see the ocean and it was wild with white foam all over. As we approached the Irish coast I could see the backside of the weather that was over Shannon and London. There was a higher deck above us and then various layers at different levels above and below, all the way down.

We passed Shannon twenty-five minutes ahead and gasoline to burn. London was broadcasting 800 broken, 2500 broken, 10 miles in rain showers. We were on top and not quite as fast because the wind had gone southwest and we were crabbing to stay on the airways. But we were still going and half an hour past Shannon we requested descent clearance.

Over Bristol they said we could come on down and we pulled the cork and slipped through the cloud decks. Our radar didn’t show any turbulence so we could keep up our speed.

Airways got to rushing us and we were scrambling to keep even with the altitude changes London radar gave us. At 4000 feet, still in clouds, radar said we were starting our downwind leg for runway 28 left. That meant we were abeam the airport. I looked at the clock and it was 1105Z time, or 16 hours 36 minutes out of Los Angeles―only 22 minutes from the record at that. I still got unhappy when I thought of that danger area.

We had everything in order and there was nothing to do but follow the heading information and get on down. Landing, like taking off, is another moment of freedom left to us. Everything is done and the runway is yours again and only you can do that which has to be done.

At 1500 feet we broke out, just north of the Thames, not far from downtown. It was London, with its wet look, the rows of houses, the little gardens behind them, the old, the good, a look you like. Up ahead the runway was easily visible and the bright approach lights looked superfluous in the good visibility―they don’t when it’s bad, make no mistake. The wet green earth came closer, the objects on the ground becoming more personal as you descend and an automobile is close enough to recognize its make. You pass low over a road, a house, a tree―the runway threshold flashes by and in a moment you are on the ground.

We taxi in, park the brakes and shut down the faithful engines. After getting papers together, collecting hats and coats and flight kits, we get off the airplane. Shiny red British faces say a crisp, bright, “Good morning, Captain.” Her Majesty’s customs man asks if we have cigarettes, liquor or anything to declare. Assured we haven’t we are free to go. All the people on the ground act as though it were just another flight that might have come from Paris or Frankfurt. Somehow I cannot help feeling that at least a remark should be made by someone about the flight; after all it’s quite a trip from Los Angeles. Heck, we’ve flown 5720 miles! Why, I can remember clearly when the world’s distance record was 700 miles less than that!

But nothing is said, everyone goes busily about his own tasks. It’s just the arrival of another scheduled flight. It’s a little sad really, but that’s progress. That’s the way we want it…I suppose.

Bob Buck
8 replies
  1. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Thank you for publishing this great article. I am sure I will re read it several times.

    Capt. Buck’s memoir, North Star Over My Shoulder, should be on your reading list. It is one of my favorites and in my mind ranks right up there with Gann’s.

    A great pilot who I am so glad he wrote about his experiences.

  2. Secundius
    Secundius says:

    Ahhhh. This brings back old memories, Long-Duration flights of 16-hours, or more. Being able to see the ground you might be crashing into. Food that you could actually eat off a plate and with Silverware too. No salted peanuts out of a bag, no and deed. And actually being able to bore the hell out of the passenger next to you, what joy, what fine memories. And all those screaming and crying kids!!! Memories, memories. Ohhhhhh, the joy of long-distance flying at 250-mph, and constantly trying to keep your ears clear, so you can actually hear something. And ALL THE BOOZE YOU COULD WANT, or the keep you quiet.

  3. Martin Gerhard
    Martin Gerhard says:

    Captain Buck’s book “North Star Over My Shoulder” was a great read. I had the pleasure of getting to hear similar stories first hand from my father in law, Captain Charles Hoesel, also a TWA Pilot of the same era. What a great time to be in the airline business, when long distance travel was still considered something special. I have flown across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans countless times as well on the Boeing 777 as a Copilot and also tend to look at this feat in wonder, even though we do it routinely and with great accuracy using GPS. There is still a sense of accomplishment after
    ” greasing her on ” in Frankfurt or Paris eight hours after take off and having flown all night, but I am envious of the true pioneers who did it in complex piston aircraft, with rudimentary navigation equipment. They worked hard in perfecting this navigational science and paved the way for us modern aviators. God bless the old Pilots of the 1930’s and 40’s!

  4. Steve Hoesel, II
    Steve Hoesel, II says:

    Ever since reading Bob Buck’s, “North Star over my left shoulder”, I seem to always look up and gaze at our “little” friend who countless times has guided airman racing to catch the early morning sunrise. Maybe not so much for primary navigational purposes anymore, but perhaps triggers a memory or the imagination of what Buck describes. Now, charts and maps are all contained in an electronic box smaller than one Jepp binder. Flight plans are extremely accurate with wind and fuel burn data. We can no longer stroll the cabin and chat with our customers. It could be described as down-right boring! And then you look up at it. I’m mesmerized; I can hear the hum of the 4 props pulling the beautiful, graceful beauty thru the air; the smell of oil that’s permanently a part of her; is no. 3 a little out of sync? Then the radio pops with a frequency change and I snap back and gaze at the PFD and ND… all is as it was. The controller’s voice is groggy… where was I?? Oh yeah, there’s “my” star. I imagine what it was like. I’ve seen lots of pictures, heard many stories. Grandpa was Buck’s assistant, NYC, Atlantic Division. What a time. Of course it wasn’t always cupcakes, a candle and kiss from Ingrid Birgman, (true story: Paris-LAX Grandpa’s 50th with a knock on the cockpit door), those airman defined the job, that we who consider it a passion, cling to. For some, it’s a little more than a desk and a cubical with a nice view. But for the rest of us, well, keep an eye on the star. It’s a great job, and an amazing privilege. I’m proud to bore holes in the sky in the contrails of those before me.

  5. jim northcutt
    jim northcutt says:

    What fine article. I was excited To read it. It was as though I was a crew member myself. I have flown this route many times, but not on connie. My flights were all in tubines and lacked thrill and romance that comes with that.
    Great read Capt. Buck

  6. Mike Stirewalt
    Mike Stirewalt says:

    I sure love reading anything by Robert Buck. As others have mentioned, his last book “North Star Over my Shoulder” is on the short short list of essential reading for anyone with an interest in aviation.

  7. Johannes Bols
    Johannes Bols says:

    I read this from beginning to end with the same thrill I read Sherlock Holmes when I was 11, in 1970. I grew up 1962 – 1972 in Hicksville, New Yawk, Long Island. Directly North was final to JFK. I think I must have traded JP6 for my blood somewhere along the line.

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