Recommended Reading: Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage

By Scott Spangler on September 5th, 2022

Published in 1997, Rinker Buck let the memories of his cross-country flight from New Jersey to California in a 1946 Piper PA-11 age for 30 years before sharing them in Flight of Passage. Like a fine single-malt whisky, time has refined the raw spirit of the 1966 cross-country flight the 15-year-old Rinker made with his 17-year-old brother and new private pilot, Kernahan. The brothers stripped the family Cub to its skeleton and rebuilt and recovered it the winter before they flew it from New Jersey to California and back.

Nuance and perspective are the rewards earned through the passage of time, and they are essential ingredients of beneficial reflection of a life already lived. Living in the moment is a fulfilling experience, and in aviation, it is a crucial component of safety. But it does little for appreciation of any flight of passage, especially as they are transpiring in what one might consider the white lightning of life. Over time, details subsumed by more pressing events will surface and become more relevant when viewed through the context of time and subsequent experience.

Nostalgia is another ester of time, especially for pilots of a certain age, those who started flying before the GPS era. The Buck boys traversed the nation in a Cub sans electrical system or radio. Rinker was the navigator. With a shopping bag full of aeronautical charts, he found the way to San Diego using pilotage and, across the trackless desert, dead reckoning. The anxiety resulting from the unpredictable accuracy of flying a course measured with time, speed, and distance, was succinctly clear in Rinker’s writing. And it really made me want to go flying.

Every pilot has flights that live in memory for one reason or another. As a student, I was apprehensive of pilotage and dead reckoning because I’m more comfortable with words than numbers. And then, on June 3, 1976, I made a short 1.4-hour cross-country flight from California’s Long Beach Airport (LGB) to Whiteman Airport (WHP) in Pacoima in the northeastern quadrant of the San Fernando Valley using these fundamental navigation skills. I made the flight on clenched cheeks, but when the landmarks led me to Whiteman, and I arrived within minutes of my estimation, taking a step up in self-confidence was my reward.

Since then, pilotage was my preferred form of navigation when VFR. My memory is filled with flights around the Midwest. Most of them were not unlike the Bucks’s flight of passage because I only turned on radios when I had to communicate with ATC. And that’s the great thing about aviation, appropriate to the airspace requirements, pilots can decide how they will interface with technology. Maybe this is why backcountry flying has become so popular, and why new airplanes designed for this realm, like Van’s RV-15, have been overwhelmed by this community of aviators.

Unfortunately, pilots today cannot relive one nostalgic aspect of aviation. When the Bucks flew west in 1966, red 80-octane avgas (do you remember that?) was 39 cents a gallon, Rinker writes. Their 85-hp Cub had a 10-gallon wing tank in addition to the 12-gallon fuselage tank, so it cost them $8.58 to top it off, which is, give or take some cents depending on where you live, what a single gallon of 100LL will cost pilots today. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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