Book review: Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage

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.

Highly recommended.


7 thoughts on “Book review: Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage

  1. Izzie,

    Maybe that’s the difference between the post-WWII generation/age 17 and 2015/mature adult. At 17/1955 I would jump overboard with an anchor and potentially entangling line in 75 feet of water, descend 35 feet or so to confirm we were over a desirable reef, jettison the anchor, return to the surface and don scuba gear for the “real” dive. All to save a few cubic feet of compressed air because we only had one bottle each and no precise navigation.

    I can’t conceive of doing it again, but I did it for a whole summer. We also took 12- and 14-foot plywood outboards all over a large bay and inshore Gulf of Mexico from age 10 or so, rowing/paddling/wading home if necessary, no radio or cell phone. The old Cub sounds about right on the risk spectrum for 17-year-olds in those days.

  2. Don, At that age, I was certainly familiar with “beater” cars/trucks – the kind you could buy for $300 or even less. Of course, these cars had no seat belts, airbags were undreamed of and hard metal dash boards. Even on a dry day, their balding bias ply tires did not have much traction. And whether they would start or run on any given occasion was far from certain. But at least you could just coast to the side of the road when you stalled out or the tire blew. Being up in the air in a flying jalopy is a whole different dimension of unsafe.

  3. Izzie: Their $300 Cub circa 1966 offered probably pretty close to the safety you’d get in a similar $250,000 factory-new airplane today ( will sell you the same design, albeit with a larger engine than what the boys had). Considering that they were scud-running, an attitude indicator (“artificial horizon”) would have been nice insurance, rather than the turn-and-back gyro that they did have. Modern navigation equipment would have been a big help, though the back-seat Rinker apparently did an excellent job with paper charts. A radio to contact Air Traffic Control wouldn’t have made their trip safer. ATC has many virtues but they can’t fly the airplane for you.

  4. If a $300 airplane (today’s $20,000 airplane) is just as safe as a $200,000 airplane, why would anyone buy the $200,000 airplane?

  5. Izzie: Why does anyone buy a new light aircraft? To a first approximation, nobody does! Wikipedia says that 43,000 Cessna 172s were built and 20,000 Piper Cubs were built. A total of 788 piston-engined certified aircraft (airplanes? I don’t think that Robinsons are included) were built in the U.S. in 2014, including the latest and greatest version of the 172 (see ). With no innovation in the airframe or powerplant it is tough to sell new aircraft. People who are in love with electronics will buy the latest in order to have a glass cockpit, which is tough to retrofit.

    Most of the money spent on new aircraft is spent on new designs. So people don’t spend money to buy a 2015 Cessna 172 when a 1965 Cessna 172 can be fitted with an overhauled engine and prop and operated more or less with the same utility and reliability. But on the other hand they do spend money on an Embraer Phenom 300, which has a different airframe and engine design compared to jets of 2005 or 1975 or whatever.

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