Flight of Passage, by Rinker Buck, is a 1997 account of a 1966 trip that the author took with his brother Kern. The boys, age 15 and 17 at the time, were hailed as the youngest pilots ever to fly cross-country. They flew from New Jersey to California in one of the least capable airplanes of the day, an 85 horsepower two-seat Piper Cub with a cruising speed of about 75 mph. The first portion of the book is an interesting account of the boys learning to fly from their father, a larger-than-life former barnstormer and aerobatic T-6 pilot, while sharing a house and their parents with 9 additional siblings (11 kids total in an Irish-Catholic family).
The boys pay $300 for the Cub ($2,270 in 2015 dollars; a similar airplane would sell for $25-30,000 today), trailer it home, and spend the winter re-covering and otherwise sprucing it up (unclear what the legality of this was back then; today they would need to have been working under the supervision of an FAA-certificated A&P mechanic (probably the rules were the same back then but Buck glosses over who might have been supervising their work; perhaps the father)). The plane had no electrical system and therefore no radios, no navigational equipment, no lights for after-sunset operation, and no intercom for front-to-back communication. Without radios they had to avoid the biggest airports and, presumably, make advance phone calls whenever preparing to land at a towered airport (but mostly they went to uncontrolled fields, then as now in the majority).
According to the FAA’s online airmen registry, Charles Rinker Buck earned his Private pilot’s certificate in 1979 and never earned an instrument rating, Commercial or Instructor certificate. Nonetheless he is able to explain the aeronautical aspects of the trip fairly well. There are a few technical errors that the CFI in me feels compelled to point out. Buck asserts that landing a light airplane in a crosswind stronger than the manufacturer’s “demonstrated crosswind component” is illegal, but this is not true. Max demonstrated is simply what the manufacturer happened to demonstrate when the airplane was being certified. It might be the case that the airplane has sufficient additional rudder authority to be operated in a stronger crosswind and the FAA leaves the ultimate decision up to the pilot (more from AOPA). More substantively, Buck describes a North American continent that requires climbing to approximately 11,000′ to cross. In fact, as ferry pilots of feeble Robinson R22 helicopters know well, if one follows Interstate 10 the country can be crossed without climbing any higher than 5,000′ (and even the I-80 route requires a climb only to about 10,000′ to clear all of the passes comfortably). The Guadalupe Pass, which Buck describes as having crossed at 11,600′, was crossed just this month by a Robinson R22 pilot who said that he never went above 7,000′.
The boys added a huge amount of challenge to their trip by (a) rushing, and (b) ignoring the most important principles of mountain flying. Instead of waiting an extra day or two for clear dry weather in which to depart New Jersey or Indiana, the boys plunge ahead into low clouds, strong headwinds, and turbulence that literally shakes some parts of their plane apart. Instead of waiting an extra day in Carlsbad, New Mexico before going through the Rocky Mountains to get to El Paso, Texas, the boys cross during the worst heat and turbulence of a summer afternoon. (In my opinion the most important rules for crossing mountains in a light aircraft are the following: (1) pick a low altitude route so that airplane performance is at a maximum, (2) wait a few days if necessary for calm winds so that one does not get caught in strong downdrafts on the lee side of the mountains, (3) cross in the early morning so that temperature is at a minimum (maximizes air density and therefore airplane performance), (4) cross in the early morning when winds are typically at a minimum. By following these rules I have crossed quite a few mountain ranges in low-performance aircraft (albeit not quite as low as a Piper Cub!) without facing any real challenges or surprises.)
Americans, and therefore news media, didn’t have as strong an appetite for bad/depressing news in those days. In fact, according to Buck, the country was hungry for news about wholesome heroes. Therefore the trip turned into something of a media sensation despite the fact that the boys hadn’t planned it that way. Reporters were never interested in any technical aspects of the trip, nor what had transpired in the plane, but rather how the boys “felt.”
Despite the wholesome nature of the country, the U.S. Border Patrol was apparently on high alert in 1966. A swarm of government vehicles and armed agents surrounded the Piper Cub at a small airport in Arizona, wanting to take apart the airplane, which they believed had arrived in the middle of the night from Mexico. The boys’ fuel receipt and the testimony of the airport manager and local pilots did not convince the Federal agents to back off, at least at first. (See AOPA for what it is like today.)
Students of economics will appreciate that the budget for the entire trip was $300 (food, lodging when sleeping under the wing was impractical, gas for the Cub, etc.). That’s $2,270 in 2015 dollars. If the Cub were burning five gallons per hour and achieved an average ground speed against the typical west-to-east headwind of 60 miles per hour, that’s about 50 hours of flying times 5 gallons = 250 gallons of fuel to be purchased. If we assume $5/gallon as a typical small airport price, that’s $1250 for fuel and therefore it does seem as though the boy’s trip could be replicated for somewhere in the same cost neighborhood.
Pilots will appreciate this book, especially the audiobook version read by the author. A pilot today with a smartphone has a much easier time navigating than did these kids. Buck was the primary navigator for the journey and anyone who ever went through Private training will appreciate the challenge that he faced in keeping track of their position, especially when scud-running. Due to the family dynamics aspects and Buck’s writing, I would also recommend this book to non-pilots.