This interview first appeared in the March 1992 issue of IFR MAGAZINE and appears by permission of Belvoir Publications.
As much as we might like to carp about the occasional circuitous routing or ground delay, this much is certain: The U.S. air traffic system is arguably the best in the world. What's less certain is how it got that way. How did we advance from the tenuous airmail routes of the early 1930s to the sophisticated IFR system that we take for granted today? Whose idea was it, anyway?
Obviously, no one person can claim all the credit; it was and continues to be a collective effort. Still, a few names stand out and among them, one stands foremost: Captain Elrey Borge Jeppesen, who died in late November at the age of 89. (This interview first appeared in the March 1992 issue of IFR.)
Captain Jepp is instantly recognizable as the founder of Jeppesen
& Co. but even among pilots, he is less well known for his
pioneering work in inventing the actual procedures his charts
depict. As did many of his generation, Jepp became hooked on flying
at a young age, after paying $5 for a ride in Jenny in 1921. He
bought his first airplane a $500 Jenny in 1927 and went
barnstorming through the western states. When his travels took
him to Dallas, Jepp took a job with Fairchild, doing aerial survey
work in Louisiana and eventually in Mexico. Later, he signed on
with a Portland airmail operator for his first tour as a mail
pilot. He was never sure if his Fairchild experience piqued his
interest in chartmaking but by 1930, Jepp had begun to compile
detailed notes on the airmail routes he was flying, including
fixes along the way and airport diagrams. These notes became
the basis for his famous "little black book" and represented
the prototypes for what have become modern instrument approaches.
Jepp and his wife, Nadine, operated the growing chart business from various basements around the country, while Jepp continued his flying career with United Air Lines, the successor to Boeing Air Transport, an early mail and passenger line.
Jeppesen & Co. established itself (and it remains) the dominant commercial maker of aeronautical charts. Jepp flew the line with United until 1954 and ran the business full time until 1961, when he sold the company to Times Mirror Co.
Jepp and Nadine settled in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colorado. On December 17th, 1991 First Flight Day, appropriately enough Captain Jepp graciously invited us for a visit. We spent a fascinating afternoon in his office discussing the early days of instrument flying.
By the late 1920s, you'd done quite a bit of barnstorming and flown with Tex Rankin's Flying Circus out of Portland and that led to a job doing aerial photography for Fairchild. How did you start flying the mail?
Well, after Fairchild, I'd flown for Varney out of Portland. That was in April 1930. After that, I went with Boeing Air Transport but I didn't fly much. They hadn't any work in those days, just no openings. There was only one or two airplanes going everyday between Oakland and Chicago and that was the trans-continental in those days. That was all single-engine airplanes, the Boeing 40-Bs. And they had an experimental Tri-Motor Boeing they were playing with.When the Depression came along, I went back with Fairchild up in St. Paul, flying a run over to Duluth and Eau Claire. Fairchild wanted me to go back to New York and I said no, I'm going to Cheyenne and try to get my airmail job back. And I got hired on.
With the airmail contracts, there must have been a lot of pressure to fly, no matter what the weather.
Well, there was. You didn't have very much in the way of weather reporting. They had a few farmers around some of the towns and they'd spot for us and maybe call the sheriff's department with a report. I remember up near Laramie, they stationed a crew about 50 or 60 miles north of the airport to catch cold fronts coming down into Cheyenne. That worked pretty well. Most of time, we didn't know what to expect.
Whether to go or not was pretty much up to the pilot. If you didn't get the mail through, you might get canned. If you got it through in conditions that were a little too hard, why, you might get yourself knocked off. I know back in the early days, some of the post office people used to say we had to fly, no matter what. One of the pilots, Ham Lee, wouldn't go, so they fired him. They picked the next pilot and told him to go and the fellow said if Ham won't go, I'm not gonna go. I guess if we hadn't straightened it out, they'd have fired us all.
At that time about 1930 there weren't any navaids, other than the lighted airway beacons. Were you able to fly the 40-B on instruments?
I did a little of it. But I'd say 80 percent of the pilots didn't fly any instruments at all. You weren't really equipped to fly instruments. The 40-B had a turn and bank, a compass and an altimeter and that's about it. At first, there was no electrical system. The gyro (turn and bank) was a vacuum-driven deal with that thing sticking out the side of the airplane. It would ice up and wouldn't do you a damn bit of good.
Then you'd get a little ice on the wings and those wires would start to vibrate and they'd pop just like a rifle. It kind of shook you up a little bit. The Tri-Motor Boeing was a little better. It had a horizon in it but you couldn't rely on it.
You couldn't use it for a straight-ahead climb. You'd bring the nose up and this thing would only hold the pitch for three or four minutes and then it would sink down. Can you imagine trying to fly instruments with something like that?
Flying in IMC was possible. But there must have been no way to navigate, other than dead reckoning?
That's about right. Sometimes you could get on top of a low overcast or a fogged-in condition and fly over that. If you got stuck on top, you'd better find a hole or find someplace you could let down.
Down in Mexico, with Fairchild, I used to fly on instruments between Mexico City and Tampico. I didn't have to worry about the letdown because I had the whole Gulf to shoot at. I'd just fly over the inland until I was pretty certain I was over the flat area or the water. If I was over the water, I'd come back and run a landfall, then up the coast to Tampico.
How about the Rockies, where you did most of your flying? It must have been doubly difficult to navigate near high terrain.
Actually, I think weather flying was a little easier over the mountains than it was over there in Cleveland or New York. Out here, you've got all the mountains and valleys and you could usually find a place to get down. Over there, as I understand it, everything would get fogged in for miles. Of course, I never flew out east.
Fellows going into Portland, for instance, they'd line up with Mount St. Helen's and Mount Hood poking up through the clouds and sort of spiral down. But you had to have pretty good ceilings to do that.
When did you begin to realize that commercial aviation would have to be built around instrument flying?
I'm not sure I ever really did realize it. You know at the time I started, I was just a kid. These older guys had been flying for eight or ten years. I didn't really think much about a system or publishing it. I really did it just to save my own hide.
I remember making notes and trying to remember as much as I could by getting it down in writing so I could rehearse it. Then I'd have it some day when I really needed it. It's hard to believe now, but back then, we didn't have much to go on at all. You'd come chugging along there at night...there aren't any lights to speak of around the airport, except for a beacon...you hoped.
The fact that I was so young helped some, I guess. One day they'd send me in this direction and one day another. Maybe the next day, somebody would get hurt or killed or something. That happened a lot, you know. Well, they'd say send Jepp over there and let him fly the route instead of sending a family man. All he's got is a suitcase. And that's about right, too, that's all I had.
Is it true that some of the veteran pilots weren't enthusiastic about IFR flying?
Looking back, it's hard to believe, but a lot of pilots, a lot of the old timers never did adapt to IFR. I remember once, after the Tri-Motor Boeing came in, this was about 1930, the government decided we had to have a radio license. So they picked us up in a Tri-Motor and we all went to San Francisco to get a radio license. We had eight or nine pilots on that Boeing, from Cheyenne and Salt Lake. We landed in Sacramento, trying to get to Reno. We would fly up the hills, down the canyons, all around, looking for holes. Finally, we got back on the ground in Sacramento about 5 o'clock.
Well, the fellows got to drinking a little and I casually mentioned that one of these days, we were going to be able to fly through that weather or fly up over it. Old Ray Little, God, he got mad. He started poking me in the chest with two fingers and he says, "I know every rock, every river and every pebble on that mountain between here and Reno," he says, "and I tell you, we'll never do that." I finally snuck away. But Ray called the chief pilot and said, "You better watch that Jeppesen. He's got some strange ideas about flying."
But not everyone was like that. Some of the old timers turned out to be pretty fair instrument pilots. They went on to fly the Boeing 247 and the DC-3.
When did radio navigation become practical for IFR?
They were putting in the radio beams, the old four-legged radio ranges, as early as 1930, I think. The stations were kind of spotted across the country, not really what you could call an airway system, nothing at all like you have now.
But they weren't using them. They had no procedures for them, no charts, just nothing at all. In fact, they never even published the frequencies for quite a long while. You couldn't even find out where the legs ran. I guess the government didn't want us fooling around with them.
But you did anyway?
Oh, yes. I used to take the chief pilot's airplane, the 40-B that he checked everybody out in, and go over to work letdown procedures. We had dug some of the frequencies out of the Department of Commerce by then. Anyway, I'd fly over to Laramie or Rock Springs and various places trying to figure out how you could use the ranges to get down under a ceiling of maybe 500 or 600 feet. I'd do it in visual conditions, of course, and then I'd write it all down so I'd have it for a bad night.
I probably worked out most of the procedures between Chicago and Oakland that way, between 1932 or 1933. Lots of other fellows, the younger ones, were trying to do the same thing. And they would pass the information on to me.
Did you work things out on the fly or did you have some government topo charts to work from?
I never did see any government charts in those days. We didn't have much of anything, really. Rand McNally wasn't making aeronautical charts. Guys going cross country kind of felt their way along the highways or maybe a river or railroad. You were really on your own.
So for the letdowns, I'd do most of it visually. I'd go out and fly a five or ten mile circle and take a look. Then I'd figure that the logical way to do it was to come in on this beam or that beam, get the cone of silence and then turn ten degrees this way or thirty that way. Then I'd figure 30 seconds later or a minute, you'd have to pull up if you didn't see the airport.
How about elevations and distances and all the other technical detail that goes into plates and charts?
Even then, the survey information wasn't very good. You'd be surprised. There was one peak out east of Salt Lake, they had no elevation on it. It's about 9200 feet, but they had no elevation.
Later on, during the war, when the Japanese were moving into the Aleutian Islands, they locked us updown here in the bank building and had us make instrument charts for Alaska. Some of those mountains had seven elevations for the same one and they'd vary two or three thousand feet. I'd just take the highest one and put a plus or minus on it, which meant the elevation was uncertain.
The best information I got was from the engineering department at the Union Pacific in Omaha. But a lot of it, why, I'd just go out and get myself. I'd maybe drive or fly out there and try to get an elevation at the base and an estimate for the top. Some of them I climbed up with an altimeter, which seemed like a pretty antiquated way of doing it, but it was all I had. I'd get a lot from pilots, too. I used to send these things out [a form with courses, elevations, distances, etc.]. The pilot could sketch in the information then we'd have to go back and survey it.
What sort of minimums did you have on those early approaches and how did you determine them?
Oh, if you got a good clear signal, you could go down to 200 feet. Maybe a little lower. But we really didn't have minimums the way you do now. It was really up to the pilot. The procedures weren't standard then.
You mean everyone would fly an approach differently?
Yes, that's right. You see, in 1930 and 1931, we had no air traffic control of any kind. We did have radios so we could call down to the dispatcher and tell him where we were and maybe that we were starting our procedure at Salt Lake, but that was it.
In fact, that's an interesting point. When I first started selling the Airway Manual, every airline had their own procedures. United, Western, American, and so on. I'd go down and see the chief pilot and he'd say "Jepp, what can you do for me?" And I'd explain the Airway Manual. Then he'd say something like "Well, if I want to change the altitude of this procedure turn or some such, I can just call in the office girl there and have her do it and make a bunch of mimeograph copies for the pilots."
So what I did was to set up a tailored service and a standard service. I could see that it was going to become standard some day, with all of the traffic we were getting. But when I came to sell you a manual, I'd tailor it just the way you wanted it. Before long, the letdowns were standard and I didn't have to do as much tailoring.
Your early manuals show approaches built on the low-frequency ranges. What was it like to fly them?
We did pretty well with it but at the time it was kind of an uncertain thing. You'd listen for an A on one side of the course and N on the other, then a more or less constant tone between.
Pretty soon, it'd just fade out for a little while and you'd pick it up on the other side and you'd know you had gone over the station, through the cone of silence. Lots of times, though, you couldn't hear much because of snow static and so forth. Ice, too.
One night I lost most of my antennas down there in the Laramie Valley. They iced up and broke off. I didn't hear anything at all until all the way past Elko. I just climbed up to 14,000 feet. I came out three or four miles north of the airway, past Elko. By then, the clouds were breaking up and I could just start to pick up the lights.
Even in the DC-3, we still had to dead reckon. For instance, you'd come out of Cheyenne and you'd cross this beam and you'd take your time and when you'd cross the next beam, it'd give you some idea of the kind of wind you were bucking, headwind or tailwind.
There was no other way to tell how far out on the range leg you were and that could get confusing. I remember the east leg of the Salt Lake range, you'd fly north and south across it and get 20 or 25 on-course signals because the thing would bounce around between those peaks.
Even when you knew where you were on the approach, it wasn't easy. You had to be careful around those mountains.
The manager there at Salt Lake had a phone put in at the far corner of the field to get way from all the noise, then he'd listen for you and give you a position report. "Yeah, I hear you, Jepp, over to the northwest, blurp your engine." At least then you knew you were past the mountains so you'd go back to the range station and work a letdown.
At the time, were you the only one making charts or were there others, too?
Oh, there must have been seven or eight fellows trying to get into the business. They never really got anywhere with it. I've got one of them around here somewhere by a fellow who was a dispatcher at Braniff. He was under a handicap, because he was doing it from the ground. I was doing it from the cockpit.
I never could understand why none of the big companies like Rand McNally got into it. I guess they were making so much money in the road map business they couldn't see aviation coming.
I know I was told that every time Rand McNally checked up on me, they thought I was going broke. I guess I had them fooled. I think they thought the government was going to take it over. The government eventually did start making charts but not until about 1938, I think.
Your first published charts were in these small binders, about the size of the original black book?
Yes. I had been talking to United Airlines and they wanted the manuals so I printed up 50 procedures and letthem have those. I just kept enlarging it from there. I had the whole United States charted like this when the war broke out. Eventually...must have been before the war, we went to the larger size plates that you have now. Fred Kelly at Western wanted the thing in the small size so it would fit in a coat pocket. He paid the printing bill. But they were too small to read so we went back to the larger size.
When Nadine and I got married in 1936, we ran the chart business out of the basement at Salt Lake. At that time, getting the charts out on time wasn't easy. I'd go see a printer and he'd say "Well, I can get that out in ten days." Of course, I needed it in two hours.
I didn't know anything about printing but I learned quick. Learned about paper, too. Grain, crackle, burst, that sort of thing. Over the years, we've done a lot of things that you wouldn't think would make a difference.
During the war, I had to go see Forrestal (Secretary of the Navy) to get a barrel of titanium so the paper would be opaque enough to print on both sides without showing through.
Look at this binder, with seven rings. It had to have seven because the paper's so light it would rip too easy with fewer rings. Then we put the lock booster on the rings so the binder wouldn't open up and spill everything all over the cockpit. Then we figured out that putting round corners on the plates would keep them from getting dog-eared after a month or two. Little things like that really made a difference, I think.
Looking back on those early procedures and plates, would you have changed anything if you had all to do over again?
I've wondered about that a lot. If you just woke up and you'd never seen nor heard of an airway system, what would the charts look like? The one I built had the frequency at the top, with the letdown in the middle, and the pull-up down here, then the minimums below that. It hasn't changed in 50-some years. I think it worked out pretty good.