Pilot retracing ‘Flight of Passage’ journey

Same Cub author, brother flew 48 years ago

June 25, 2014

April and Chris Nesin with their restored Cub.

Chris Nesin and his wife, April, are flying across the United States in a restored Piper Cub. What makes their journey unique is that the 1949 Piper PA-11 is the same airplane that was flown across the country in 1966 by teenagers Kern and Rinker Buck. Later, Rinker Buck penned the book Flight of Passage, a memoir based on their trip.

So 48 years later, the Nesins are flying N4971H from the East Coast to the West Coast, retracing the Bucks’ route. After a visit to the Sentimental Journey Fly-In in Lock Haven, Pa., they flew 180 nautical miles east-northeast to Candlelight Farms Airport in New Milford, Conn.—where they met, and flew with, both of the Bucks.

“There was lots of flying, both literal and hangar,” Chris Nesin said. “[And] both of the Buck brothers were impressed with the rebuild—and how it flew.” They also were appreciative of the trip that began when the Nesins left Connecticut on June 22, he added. They plan to arrive in Riverside, Calif., July 2.

Rinker Buck doesn’t consider Flight of Passage an aviation book. “I consider it a memoir in the truer sense. It’s about life,” he told AOPA during an interview for an August 2013 article in Flight Training. An interview Buck’s publisher conducted offers additional information on the brothers’ flight in 1966.

The Nesins’ journey also is helping raise awareness for the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer, an organization working to restore the spirit of children and families dealing with the effects of pediatric cancer. April Nesin works there as a clinical psychologist. Chris Nesin, who learned to fly in college, works as a Cessna Citation Sovereign pilot.

Rinker and Kern Buck reenact the famous photo from the book.

Although they will use different beginning and ending airports, they’re tracing the Bucks’ route as closely as they can. However, they’re not replicating that five-day schedule. “They actually did it in four days—they spent an extra day in El Paso,” Nesin said. “They flew eight hours a day, but they were also 15 and 17.” He flew the Cub a solid six hours to Lock Haven last week, and “that was about three hours too much,” he laughed. They plan to fly three to four hours per day, about 250 miles. “That actually gets us there in eight days, but I’m planning to stop for weather a couple of days.”

Their current location is available from a flight tracker on the SuperCub.org website, which also has the planned route, videos, and blogs from both Chris and April Nesin.

One difference between this trip and the Bucks’ 48 years ago is the need for a communications radio. “Safety-wise, we were taught to use the radio more than they were,” Nesin observed. “Personally I like the ability to go into a towered airport, so I keep a handheld radio and an antenna.” He said the Bucks flew into the tower-controlled El Paso airport using light-gun signals. “I don’t think they flew into any other airports that were towered then.”

After they reach the west coast, the Nesins plan to fly north at least as far as San Francisco. “I really want to fly the California coast. I fly corporate so I’ve seen it from a couple miles up. I want to see it from Cub level.” Nesin hasn’t planned the return flight yet, although he may stage the airplane near Oshkosh. “It will be at Oshkosh either way,” he added.

He bought his first Cub in 2000. “I got hooked on them with a friend who gave me the book Flight of Passage,” explained Nesin, who flew all over the East Coast in that Cub. “I looked at going to the West Coast, but the 65-horse [engine] wouldn’t do it.” He started looking for another airplane in the spring of 2011 and that October, he received an email that the Flight of Passage airplane was for sale. He called to find someone from Michigan had bought the airplane—and two other Cubs. But that buyer backed out and Nesin was able to purchase N4971H.

Restoration took two-and-a-half years. “So many people have come out to help on this project, because they wanted to be involved,” he said—generosity that helped to lower his cost for the restoration. The Nesins did a lot of the cleaning. “We saved almost all of the wing parts, but it was a lot of work. It may just be the romantic in me, but I felt like I was losing history every time I replaced a part.” Some key parts were replaced; for example, he upgraded to new Univair wing struts.

On the first flights, oil consumption was worrying Nesin. “There was a lot of oil on the bottom of the airplane, but the rings finally seated and that fixed itself,” he said. He traced a vibration issue to the propeller, which was solved—temporarily—when he borrowed one from another Cub owner for the trip.

“My wonderful, crazy 73-year-old mother will be driving a camper along the entire route. She’ll be carrying some extra screws and nuts,” he added. “She’ll also be carrying our bags. And my dog Lenny, who loves to fly, but can’t go with me. She’s been the unsung hero.”

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.