'North Star Over My Shoulder'

May 1, 2002

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Many of us don't remember the golden age of the airlines, before peanuts sufficed as meals, when passengers could be trusted with real cutlery and napkins rather than plastic and paper. In those halcyon days, legroom was included in the price of a ticket rather than considered a marketing gimmick, and flight crews and passengers actually enjoyed each other's company. Capt. Robert Buck remembers, though. His pilot certificate dates to 1930, and after a few record-setting flights and some long solo cross-country trips, he joined Transcontinental and Western Air at age 23 with 1,300 hours. That was the predecessor to one of the great names in the airline business that we knew as TWA.

North Star Over My Shoulder, Buck's new book, chronicles a special time in the development of the country, the air transportation system, the evolution of the airplane, and the can-do spirit that World War II brought to the United States. Many pilots will know Buck from one of his other books, Weather Flying, which has become a classic for anyone looking to comprehend weather. In North Star, we learn what it's like to go from being a junior first officer in the Douglas DC-2 era to the most senior captain of the line on a Boeing 747.

While the book is a great read for general audiences, it has special meaning to pilots, and there is regular reference to decision making and the safety of flight. In the opening chapter, Buck describes a 747 flight across the North Atlantic, a place he came to know well with literally hundreds of crossings during more than 30 years with TWA. He and the meteorologist are discussing the weather and turbulence: "He isn't thinking of it [the weather] the way I do, picturing the airplane jouncing.... To slow to turbulence penetration speed, being a little apprehensive in the dark night, and hoping it doesn't get real nasty. Much in flying carries such concern; I've got this under control, I can handle it, but I don't want it to get much worse." Every pilot can relate to that.

The book reminds us that the world of commercial aviation was once a gentler place where flight attendants were all registered nurses and were referred to as hostesses. One thing that has changed for the better (mostly) was the necessity for new copilots to suck up to the captain. On one of his first airline flights, Buck was paired with the vice president of flight operations. As they strapped into the seats the captain said, "I understand you're just out of school so I'll handle everything. Don't touch a damn thing unless I tell you—and then explain what you're gonna do before you do it." This was before the days of crew resource management, or CRM. New hires still have some trepidation in working with grumpy old captains, but management has come to realize that both pilots are 1p front to work as a team—or at least as a benevolent dictatorship.

The venerable and beloved Douglas DC-3 had marginal performance with an engine out and could become a handful in a stall. When Buck upgraded to captain he checked out a new copilot who mishandled a steep turn, getting too slow and spinning the aircraft. They quickly recovered but upon return to base, the maintenance crew had a long night. Seems that on training flights, the "honey bucket," as the toilet was called, was supposed to be removed in the event of some enthusiastic maneuvering. While in the spin, the aircraft went slightly negative and gravity worked its magic on the contents of the bucket, distributing it liberally throughout the lavatory and aft cabin. The maintenance team greatly regretted the omission of removing the bucket before that flight.

During a summer stint as a relief copilot in Los Angeles, Buck developed his appreciation for weather. He was drawn to the "beauty and mystery of the weather map." Weather became more than an abstraction because the entire United States was becoming the workplace for aviators. You could be in Los Angeles one day enjoying the sun and then fighting blustery cold winds with heavy snow in Chicago the next evening. There is a profound quote that every pilot should take to heart: "The weather is always in motion—and man, trying to outguess these great and capricious forces, finds the task difficult, the science still inexact, and the forecast frequently in error simply because that is the way it is. When a pilot learns that he cannot always count on what the weather will do, and is prepared to accept and deal with it as a fact of flying life, then that pilot has matured and become wise in ways that create a high standard of safety."

Much of the book centers on weather encounters and the foibles of old aircraft. "We carried rubber ponchos in our DC-2 flight kit and when we encountered rain we spread the poncho over our laps to keep from getting soaked.... Snow could seep through the windshield joints—enough so that an inch or more would build up on the inside, which gives you an idea of the temperature in the cockpit." How many of us have flown in light aircraft where the rain dripped through the door seals?

There are few pilots who gathered more icing experience than Buck. Freezing rain was as bad in the 1930s as it is today, especially for piston-powered aircraft. Buck recounts the story of a friend who got caught in ice in a DC-2 only 12 miles from Chicago's Midway Airport and decided to go for it instead of climbing or turning around, a decision many of us would have made. The deicing boots did practically nothing and the aircraft began to lose altitude. The DC-2 landed at full power with a strong sink rate, just barely making the field. A hammer was needed to break the ice from the passenger door before it could be opened.

In 1943, the Army began looking for someone to do weather research in a B-17. Buck was selected, along with a special crew, to go look for bad weather. Their first assignment was to fly in snow, rain, and thunderstorms to study precipitation static. During the days of low-frequency communication and navigation radios, P-static could cause an electrical charge to build up on the aircraft, then bleed off through a radio antenna, creating static noise or "hash" and blocking the signals. Many aircraft were lost because pilots couldn't navigate in instrument conditions.

Two Kind Words, as the B-17 came to be called (there's a story behind that, too), flew from Barrow, Alaska, down to the Panama Canal, and around the world looking for the kind of weather that most pilots were looking to avoid. VHF radios solved much of the P-static problem, but one item that Buck's team tested flies on most IFR aircraft today. The static wicks that grace the trailing edges of the wings and tails of general aviation aircraft are a legacy of that research.

There is a segment of the book devoted to the personalities of Hollywood, and since Howard Hughes was a major stockholder in TWA, Buck spent a fair amount of time working with and assisting Hughes' friends and business acquaintances in aeronautical matters. There are vignettes about Hughes, Tyrone Power, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jackie Kennedy, and many others.

The Douglas C-54 and the Lockheed Constellation came into service in the mid-1940s and early 1950s. While the pressurization on the Constellation was a blessing, the Wright turbo-compound engines were not. Horrendously complex and rather temperamental, an engine often had to be shut down, so the arrival of the Boeing 707 was a major step forward in terms of mechanical reliability and flight envelope.

In jets, Buck describes by-the-numbers management and computer savvy as the way it should be done. He adds, "I hope this works just fine, but I also hope that when an unexpected or unpredicted emergency suddenly arises, the pilot up front has some of the old stuff stored away and available in his brainpan." It is prophetic that these concerns were voiced early in the jet age. General aviation pilots face similar challenges as we become more computer-reliant.

Buck's first jet transport flight was with the legendary Tex Johnson, test pilot for Boeing on the Dash 80 (a slightly smaller 707 prototype). The jet was slow on the runway but came into its own once airborne with "no vibration, no underhanded trembling of the structure, no harsh constant deep quivering, no, all was smooth.... 'We're doin' about 600 miles an hour,' Tex matter-of-factly said. (That's about 280 mph faster than a Connie.)"

Many things changed with the arrival of jets. Airliners now routinely flew in the stratosphere and the jet stream made a big difference. Clear air turbulence could cause significant problems. Fuel burn was a big deal as the jets used much more and drank heavily down low. Air traffic congestion became an issue since low-level holding after a transatlantic flight might be measured in minutes before the flight needed to divert to a solid alternate. New procedures had to be developed and proven. Once again, Buck was on the leading edge.

Early in World War II, airline pilots and their aircraft were pressed into service to help the war effort. Flying the north and south Atlantic were new experiences for most pilots; the weather was frequently unknown and often terrible. The aircraft were marginally equipped for the job and navigation was tough. Long before GPS, VOR, or even ADF there was the four-course range. It was complex and sometimes misleading. And, as bad as it was, it wasn't even available over the tremendous expanses of ocean that were now being crossed. Pilots reverted to something even further in the past, celestial navigation. Used by sailors for centuries, celestial navigation is the art of using spherical trigonometry and using time to solve for longitude. In a range-limited aircraft, the ability to determine one's position from the planets and stars could make the difference between sitting at the officer's club and sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

Buck, when he wasn't in military service over the Atlantic, was flying TWA's mainline routes in the Midwest and decided that he'd better learn how to make star shots. A clear view of the sky was needed and the domestic DC-3s didn't have an astrodome to make the sights. But there was a skylight back in the toilet, so on domestic night flights, Buck would make his way aft, past quizzical passengers with sextant, notebook, and watch in hand to retire into the lavatory. Standing on the pot, with the tail of the aircraft swishing back and forth, he learned the art. "I had to learn the stars' locations and names; the bright ones first, Arcturus, Vega, Sirius, Rigel, and Betelgeuse in Orion, and the less brilliant Polaris, the navigator's friend because it's perched almost directly over the North Pole. The North Star over one's left should mean you're headed east; over the right shoulder, you're going west.... Whenever I go out on a clear night, I look up at it and silently salute an old friend. Whoever created the universe and put Polaris over the North Pole did a big favor to those who traverse the sea and sky."

North Star Over My Shoulder is a big favor to those of us who may wonder what it was like back in the beginning and would like to gain a pilot's perspective on the history of modern and not-so-modern flight.

North Star Over My Shoulder, published by Simon and Schuster, New York, is available at most major bookstores.