Bob Buck

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Robert L. Buck was born January 29, 1914, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. At age 15 -- inspired by Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight -- he and a friend built a glider and Bob taught himself to fly -- sort of. His first flight in the glider ended shortly after takeoff when he mushed into the ground from 50 feet. He refreshed his knowledge of lift and airspeed, they fixed the glider, Bob flew it the next day and began a 72-year career as an aviator.

When he turned 16 he took lessons in a Kinner-powered Fleet, earned Dept. of Commerce license #13,478, and broke it in by setting a coast-to-coast record of 23 hours 47 minutes flying time that same year. At age 23 he began flying for TWA, became chief pilot in 1945 and flew until his retirement at age 60 in 1974. He took delivery of TWA's first Constellation in 1945, and in 1970 flew TWA's first 747 revenue flight -- Flight 800 from New York City to Paris. When TWA and the U.S. Air Force teamed up to study severe weather, Bob piloted "Two Kind Words" -- a B-17G stripped of ammo and fortified for weather penetration -- and a P-61 Black Widow, intentionally flying through cold fronts and thunderstorms all over the world. President Truman awarded him a civilian Air Medal for that work.

At age 88, Bob still flies a 172 that he and his son own, and has come full-circle, applying his lifetime of learning about weather and aerodynamics where his interest began -- gliders.

Bob began writing at age 17, a book he calls "lousy." His 1970 book "Weather Flying" -- the definitive book on that subject -- is in its fourth edition and still sells about seven copies a day. Next month, Simon & Schuster will publish Bob's seventh book, North Star Over My Shoulder -- A Flying Life. If you've read this far, you've probably got the fire, too, and North Star's 72 years of aviation wisdom and experience is a must-read for anybody so inflamed.

Here's what Bob has to say about heroes:

My heroes are the unknown, unheralded airline pilots who flew their years without incident or accident, making decisions, stopping potential disasters before they happened, flying all night to see dawn through scratchy, tired eyes; fighting bad weather in all seasons from ice to thunderstorms; away from home and family at least half of every month. You see him, and now her, walking through the airline terminals wheeling their black brain bags and overnight cases, unnoticed except for the uniform. They will retire and disappear into the world of senior citizens. They have taken thousands of people safely from one place to another, across continents and oceans, but few know them or bestow on them the laurels they deserve -- these are my heroes.

In your new book you talk about "the fire: a burning desire to know everything there is about flying." When did you realize you had it?

It really started with seeing that first model airplane fly -- I wanted to know more -- what it was about, how it worked and so on. It has never ended, that desire to know. I suppose, at first, it's curiosity, then on top of curiosity it becomes a need because one feels that the more one knows the better a pilot -- more than that -- perhaps a contributor to the constant search for safety, reliability and better performance.

  Age 16 in a PA-6 Pitcairn Mailwing he named Yankee Clipper (long before Pan Am started using the name). Buck set a coast to coast record of 23 hours 47 minutes flying time.

Do you still have it?

Yes indeed, and I grab anything I see that I don't know about, or is published, spoken of or whatever. This is largely in the technical area. My interest in the politics of aviation has become very cynical after years of exposure and work in DCA and the various agencies. But the technical is always fascinating. I am, however, a firm believer in ICAO and feel it is necessary and does a good job considering the interrelationship of 188 nations. Perhaps some of this is because I live near its headquarters in Montreal and have worked on various panels with ICAO -- the change of airspace was one of them. But going there I have met some fine people who understand things. I visit fairly often.

I also find myself rereading old stuff to make certain I understand it -- aerodynamics, for example. My glider flying and fooling with high performance gliders has made me a semi-nut on boundary layer.

There's always the desire to know about weather and I study it constantly both in books and looking out the window -- and flying gliders which makes one very weather conscious. Yesterday our sky was covered by the most breathtaking display of lenticular clouds. I know about our waves as we fly them in gliders, but this was something special. We fly gliders in waves until late fall, but then it gets too cold -- no heat in gliders. But I look up in winter and see lenticulars and other evidence of super waves; well, why better in winter? I think about that, have theories and read stuff that might apply. It's fascinating.

My son, a Delta 767 Captain, has the same fire and we constantly swap information. He still builds and flies model airplanes, as his 11-year-old son does. Yes, the fire, whatever it is, never seems to go out -- or even dim.

Did you ever feel that passionate about another endeavor?

Well I admit this with some trepidation, but I'm a student of golf and have been since age 12. Not the country club stuff, but the real game as the Scots play it. I have other interests: history, languages and a deep interest in the Near East problems -- probably because I flew there a lot on the line. I'm currently delving into French aviation history. They were very clever people and did some wonderful things. I'm a student of art, but limited by lack of any talent except admiration. I'm also intensely interested in the relationship between flying and the computer and how we interrelate the human and the computer.

Let's talk about that. Is the industry designing and programming FMS systems to take maximum advantage of both the pilot and the computer?

First I believe any good pilot has a certain skepticism.  If he or she isn't a skeptic, they are headed for trouble. This seems especially true with the computer -- and when I say computer I include FMS, autopilot and all. Being skeptical means a pilot refers to raw data to be certain the FMS etc., is doing its thing correctly. This is not always easy because as the computer develops it makes raw data more difficult to see, find and use.

A case in point is the Airbus at Strasbourg that descended into a mountain because they had set the autopilot on 3,000 fpm descent rather than 3 degrees -- my information may be suspect because I've never read the final report and have obtained most of my information by scrutinizing the press. Why didn't the pilots look at the vertical speed indicator and see they were descending 3,000 fpm? The answer, in a way, points up my thesis: Look at the needle of the vertical speed indicator on an Airbus, it's almost hidden. Plus that it changes color with rate: green if 2,000 fpm or less, changing to amber (sort of) if over 2,000 fpm. I've seen enough pilots stare at a red flag and ignore it to believe color change can be relied on.

Number two is that somewhere the pilots missed learning to be skeptical. Which worries me with the new and younger pilot who has grown up on computers and never learned the skeptical part of flying. So what's needed? The systems designers should make the system so that raw data is visible and easily obtainable. Second, pilot training should include skepticism awareness; which should reflect on situation awareness. Being skeptical means one never believes a single input -- it's always necessary to check if that one thing is right. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.

Another area that bothers me goes to Airbus -- maybe the others too, wherein they build in -- via electronics -- the autopilot so it restricts certain things: stall, over-bank etc. I'm thinking of the AA that lost its tail and the talk going around is that quick rudder reversal did it. Well if the electronics can be programmed to prevent stall, over-speed, over-bank and whatever, why wasn't this philosophy carried on to the rudder control? I flew the Boeing 747-400 simulator and after the session I was asked how I liked it? My first response, "Why did you hide the vertical speed needle?" I'll always call it a rate-of-climb. The point is that there are a couple of things that will reveal, in quick glance, how the airplane is doing in space; if the directional gyro isn't moving, and the vertical speed sets on zero, there's nothing wrong. But I always have liked a "rate-of-climb" situated so it will catch my eye if it goes off zero -- and then I know to look around and see what's wrong. So what we need is some basic principles in display design and all the other electronic stuff so a pilot will quickly see the situation isn't what it should be, and we must be certain pilots are trained about skepticism.

Some airlines are doing things by procedure to help these matters -- son Rob, going into Guatemala City with its high terrain close by keeps raw data on the approach under the watchful eye of one pilot -- a Delta procedure. I'm sure others are doing this too, but we must be certain, and make it easy. So our efforts for the future are to pull together these things of design and training. How it's done will keep us all busy.

  retirement flight; January 28, 1974

You mention an "ingrained dislike of people who submit to fear." Can you give me an example or two of fears that you overcame -- and maybe offer an antidote for checkride-itis?

Of course we all have moments of fear, but I think one should be able to get above it and not allow it to affect performance. We have to think above the fear and I'm impatient with people who cannot do that. What the hell, we're all going to die, so why worry about it too much. I don't mean by that being irresponsible. This is tough to explain.

A question I'm often asked is what my biggest scare was and I honestly must answer, "I never had any." Worried, yes -- gas low, weather going sour, that sort of thing -- but it didn't scare me. In the same area people ask what my worst emergency was, and my answer to that is that I didn't have any. The answer to this is being prepared, thinking in advance what one would do under certain circumstances. Our airline procedures, emergency check lists, drills in simulators, are a development of that sort of thinking. The unexpected, the thing we never prepared for, will be helped by our thinking and analyzing what we'd do to analyze something unusual, find its root cause -- not always successful -- figuring where do we look first.

The key to getting over checkride-itis is to fly to please yourself and forget the check pilot. Often people worry so much about what the check pilot may be thinking about them, they forget to fly. Know the procedures and necessary things, then fly as though you were flying solo.

In the chapter on co-pilots you talk about your transition from a nervous new boy to a crewmember. And you also talk about captains who bid co-pilot tending to be a little too bossy from the right seat. What's the ideal mindset for a co-pilot?

First the co-pilot should be a quiet type -- not a chatterbox -- and should keep away from cussing out the company, telling long stories about their kids or their past unless asked. He should know the job and follow procedures so the Captain knows what to expect. The co-pilot shouldn't be afraid to make a suggestion, but should do it as subtly as possible. If a dangerous situation arises, he shouldn't be bashful, and should take over if need be -- but this is far-fetched and rarely happens. A good co-pilot is a good psychologist.

I speak in the book of O. B. Smith who was my all-time favorite. He became a Captain and flew to retirement. He was a big guy who won medals weight lifting. He died not long after retirement, which proves that weight lifting isn't connected with longevity.

And what's the ideal mindset for the captain?

The captain must try to set an example for the rest of the crew, attempt to instill confidence in them because they think you know what you are doing. The captain should be thoughtful toward the crew making them feel wanted and necessary, be polite and friendly, but still giving the impression you are captain and a cut above in experience. How one does this is a story itself. Example is one thing, asking crew members for their opinions is another. Too are many ways to mention.

What should be the three top priorities of a chief pilot for a major airline?

Certainly safety is first. ALPA's motto is "Schedule with Safety." TWA's priorities -- repeated and drilled into people -- were safety first, passenger comfort second, and schedule third. Chief pilots aren't what they once were. Company structure has put things such as VP Flight Operations who makes many decisions of procedure and training. Unfortunately this job is restricted by the bean counters in the top office who are reluctant to do anything -- or get anything -- that costs.

The job of chief pilot is vastly different on different airlines dictated by their size and importance. I imagine at smaller carriers the chief pilot does fret about training, morale and equipment. But the bigger the airline the less high responsibility, and the chief pilot settles into discipline action, handling gripes, and stuff that falls in the chicken shit category. There is a division of responsibility for operational requirements -- training, new equipment, morale, etc. -- that I feel is of concern. It was one way when pilots ran things, but dramatic changes occurred when bean counters took over. Of course I'm not in there doing or experiencing the modern airline so in some sense I don't know what I'm talking about.


How did you deal with scheduling?

When the chief pilot's office was charged with the job of setting schedules, ALPA was always in the act, and often fighting among themselves for best runs. This always made it difficult for the chief pilot and the people he or she had making up the patterns. During one heated period of schedule assigning I just told the ALPA representative if they were so smart, they could set the schedules. I walked away and let them have at it. It didn't take long before they reached stalemate and turned it back to my office. Today computers make up schedules -- and economics plays a big part.

When you were chief pilot you decided to fly a Saturday night route to stay in touch. I think you stopped short of recommending that to other chief pilots, but would you like to?

I think many chief pilots today do fly the line periodically to see what's going on, and they want to keep their hand in because these executive jobs have a way of changing things and the guy may find himself back on the line as a pilot because of a whim in a higher office -- so he or she wants to keep current and qualified.

Mergers seem inevitable. What's the fair way to deal with seniority?

There's no fair way to deal with seniority in mergers or takeovers.

I know you and Paul Soderlind shared a loathing for NIH [not invented here] syndrome, especially in regard to Paul's TP system. What's the antidote for NIH?

It will never be cured.

Paul was the most brilliant technical airman of our time, and certainly the top in how to develop and use the proper procedures to make a safe airline. He was a fun guy, too.

Paul's not in the book, and neither are your friends Leighton Collins and Wolfgang Langeweische? Would you like to talk about them here?

Langeweische had that Teutonic mind of detail and analysis and could really dissect things, like flying. To top it he was an excellent writer -- he came from an old publishing firm in Germany. He was one of aviation's major stepping stones.

Leighton Collins created Air Facts, the first honest magazine, that showed us all the problems of safe flight, and the joys available in flying. In his magazine, aside from spelling and heavy grammar errors, he never changed a word of copy no matter how amateurish the author. Leighton launched me into aviation writing, and he launched Langeweische also. He was an important guy.

You said you've become a semi-nut on boundary layer. How did that happen?

My boundary layer education started at Princeton when they had a variable-stability Navion they had me fly and consult about. That year son Rob was in high school and they hired him as a lab assistant. We had a Cessna 140 on a strip a mile from our house and he commuted in that. That was great experience, especially his chances to fly in the Navion.

One of the flying professors, Dave Ellis, a brilliant guy, gave me von Karman's 1954 book Aerodynamics, and that started it. If one could get one now it's worth the trouble, it's the foundation. Then I read various books that touched on the subject and I have a close friend who was chief aerodynamicist at NASA, Ames. He lives in Los Altos and we email and I ask him questions and get good answers.

Is your interest theoretical or can you apply it while you're flying?

My interest is theoretical and any knowledge applied mostly to gliders to reduce drag. My Los Altos friend, Bill Harper, is off on spanwise flow especially as it applies to swept-wing aircraft, and then gets into the upset area, and we theorize about it a lot. I read anything I see -- that I can understand -- in journals and books. Drag is what I aim toward most, although this spanwise flow is very interesting.

Do you think about boundary layer when you're about to knock a three-wood into a stiff breeze?

Boundary layer hasn't done anything for hitting a three-wood -- when I'm into a head wind I take out my trusty one-iron.

How's your game?

Right now the course is covered with two feet of snow -- they cross-country ski on it. Our golf season runs from May 15 to October 15. We do have good weather years that stretches it out. Last year, for example, we played into November.

  L to R: Stormchasers Bill Foley, Barney Dowd, and Bob Buck with their P-61 Black Widow

Speaking of weather, why do you conclude that the thunderstorms in the U.S. Midwest are the worst in the world?

While the storms are tough in the Kansas City area, they are not confined to it. Just north of the Gulf -- around Alabama -- they breed wild ones and lots of tornadoes. It's all part of the unique topography of the USA with warm Gulf air, loaded with moisture, that can crawl northward and connect with cold air from the north. There's interplay here that causes lows to form, but I don't want to get into that.

Another important point is that the land slopes up from sea level near the Gulf shores to about 1,400 feet at Wichita, and over 3,000 at Amarillo. That lifting helps set things off. As an aside, this can cause widespread fog in winter, spring and fall. Any lifting causes weather with the right wind and air mass -- and mountains should always be studied carefully as incubators of weather.

There are probably other areas in the world that breed violent weather, but nothing can top the U.S. Midwest from the Gulf almost to the Canadian border. The Kansas City, Wichita, Amarillo area has the toughest storms I've ever seen around the world. But storms, if set off for any reason, with the right air mass can be violent enough so where you are isn't important -- my thunderstorm over Montelimar, France is a good example. Sometimes flow from the Mediterranean north toward France can be pretty bad, but not like our Midwest.

Do you use the internet for weather research?

I use ADDS. I expect there are others that are better around, but I don't know them. I wish someone would do a good article on this listing everything out there with pluses and minuses.

How many copies of Weather Flying have been sold?

Last real count of Weather Flying was 130,000 copies, but it's probably closer to 140,000 now. I'm not sure. It still sells -- 1,190 copies in the last six months. It is in its fourth edition. I think, but not sure, that Stick and Rudder is the only aviation book that's sold more, and it should -- that's a real bible.

When did you begin writing?

I started writing as a kid, and did a book about my transcontinental flight when I was 17 for Putnam -- they called it Burning Up the Sky, and it was lousy.

Which books and writers influenced you?

The man that really fired me up was Hemingway -- The Sun Also Rises. I've read widely, Proust era, and many of his contemporaries.

What do you like to read now?

I read only nonfiction and it depends on what's on the remainder table at the book store in Montpelier, Vermont. Stuff from books about the Arabs, currently The Arab World by Halim Barakat. At the moment, The Secret of the Seine, about the owner of a houseboat. A heavy one I got hooked on is Reflections on the Revolution in France, by Edmund Burke, written around 1790. I read stuff about the French aviation pioneers, much of it in a wonderful French publication, ICARE. I've read St. Exupery's Night Flight in French, but it was work. The tables around the house have books all over them. I'm into Camus at the moment.

I try to learn from each reading, but my major influence was an old-timer editor at Reader's Digest for whom I did 12 pieces. He was Charlie W. Ferguson, discovered by Mencken, and knew the language and how to use it -- we're not talking Reader's Digest style. One other was Alexandria Dorszynski a great editor I met at Macmillan. She helped me with The Pilot's Burden. Tragically, she died at an early age.

Have you written non-aviation books or articles?

No, I haven't written non aviation stuff although I've often thought of it, but I'm a firm believer in working with something you know.

Order North Star Over My Shoulder -- A Flying Life from

Thanks to Kitty Werner for help with Bob's pictures.