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Thu, May 24, 2007

Gone West: Renowned Aviation Author Robert N. Buck

Teenage Flier, Airline Pilot, "Weather Flying" Author Was 93

It is with sadness Aero-News recently learned Robert N. Buck, 93, died April 14 in a Berlin, VT hospital of complications from a fall. The former Trans World Airlines pilot and aviation author set flying records as a teenager in the 1930s and flew severe-weather research missions during World War II.

Buck began his stellar aviation career as a 15-year-old glider pilot in New Jersey in 1929. The longtime AOPA Air Safety Foundation Board of Visitors member flew until he was 88.

"He remembered staring out of the window in ninth grade and dreaming about flying; it was just the love of his life," daughter Ferris Buck said.

She said her father instructed her and her brother Rob, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, to never hold a formal "celebration of life" for him after his death.

"So we had a party for him at his house Sunday," she said. "At the end of the party, some of the local pilots did a fly-by, and one young man did incredible stunts over the house.

"A retired pilot friend of mine said, 'Whenever I saw your father, I was awestruck because he was one of the real aviators, and we just came later,'" she added.

Buck was born in on Jan. 29, 1914, in Elizabethport, NJ and grew up in Westfield. When he was 15, he and a fellow high school student built and flew their own glider, which was towed by a Model A Ford at a local grass airstrip.

In April 1930, the 16-year-old Buck earned his private pilot's license and set a 15,000-foot junior altitude record three months later.

On September 29, 1930 -- reportedly equipped with six chocolate bars and a canteen -- Buck climbed into a Pitcairn Mailwing at Newark Airport and took off for Los Angeles making an attempt at the junior transcontinental airspeed record, which he did by an hour and eight minutes.

According to an Associated Press account, the seven-stop flight lasted 28 hours and 33 minutes. Buck set another junior record on his return trip to Newark: 23 hours and 47 minutes, according to his log book.

He told the story of his early days as a pilot in his first book, "Burning Up the Sky," published in 1931 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. The press dubbed him "The Schoolboy Pilot." 

Buck's long list of records also included a flight from Newark to Havana in 1931 in 14 hours and 47 minutes, according to the family. He and his parents later met with President Herbert Hoover at the White House, where Buck presented Hoover with a foot-long Cuban cigar.

Buck also established a Newark-to-Mexico City junior record in 1932 of 24 hours and nine minutes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Then, in 1936, at the age of 22, Buck established a nonstop long-distance record in a straight flight from Burbank to Columbus, OH. The next year, he joined TWA (then Transcontinental and Western Air) as a co-pilot rising to captain three years later.

"When I was a young captain -- and I looked young -- some lady said to the hostess, 'Is that the co-pilot?' And she said, "No, that's the captain.' And she got off the airplane at Pittsburgh," Buck recalled in a 2002 interview with National Public Radio.

He also flew as a civilian pilot for the Air Transport Command during World War II flying personnel and material to the African and European theaters.

When TWA was awarded an Army Air Forces project to research weather during the war, Buck served as the project's pilot and manager, flying a B-17 from Alaska to Brazil to investigate radio interference from static caused by precipitation, including rain and snow, according to the Times.

"I was able to put my nose in any kind of weather I wanted to fly through," he said in the National Public Radio interview. "We'd sit around, waiting until the weather was bad and then go fly through it."

As a result, he became one of the few civilians to be awarded the Air Medal for his weather research.

Buck was named TWA's superintendent of flying (chief pilot to us) in 1945 and was command captain in the delivery of the carrier's first Lockheed Constellation, the modern pressurized, four-engine, high-speed transport of its time.

Buck, who served on weather and air safety committees for what later became NASA, won the Air Line Pilots Assn. Air Safety Award in 1963. He also served on the FAA's Supersonic Transport Committee.

He flew a DC-3 with actor Tyrone Power on a 20th Century Fox publicity trip through South America, Africa and Europe. Power, who had been a Marine C-46 Transport pilot during the war, did a majority of the flying and became a close friend of Buck.

In 1965, he made a round-the-world trip that covered both poles flying a Boeing 707 in shifts with several other pilots.  In 1970, he inaugurated TWA's New York-to-London and New York-to-Paris 747 service.

He was forced into retirement from TWA at the requisite age of 60 in 1974 but continued to fly general aviation aircraft, including sailplanes.

Buck's 1970 book "Weather Flying," is considered a must-read for pilots. He also wrote "Flying Know-How," "The Art of Flying," "The Pilot's Burden: Flying Safely and the Roots of Pilot Error" and "North Star Over My Shoulder," his 2002 memoir.

"Bob Buck was indeed captain to a whole generation of pilots," said Dr. Ian Blair Fries, a fellow Air Safety Foundation Board of Visitors member. "His 'Weather Flying' began as a giveaway brochure for an aviation insurance company and grew into the best commentary we have on flying and weather. His thoughtful proposal to the novice on how to tackle easy weather situations first still provides the best way to assess the difficulty of any IFR flight. We who have known him have been honored and will miss his sage advice."

Buck was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Jean, in 2004, but he continued to live independently, his daughter said.

"The night before he fell down, he made dinner for my husband and me -- beef brisket and homemade pumpkin pie," she said. "He did all his own mowing and cooking. He really was a remarkable man."

Robert N. Buck has gone west. For most, the skies there are clear... but we imagine Buck was greeted by some stormy weather. And he wouldn't have had it any other way.

FMI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Buck_(aviator)

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