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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why I Go to Oshkosh

It’s personality, not flying skills

At that age I didn’t understand, either, that my father was imparting to me something far beyond flying and navigation skills. Ruddering a compass course or properly identifying a small town from the air are not, after all, that complicated. He was giving me something infinitely more valuable: self-confidence. And it was the best kind of self-confidence—a deeply entrenched but skeptical belief in myself that came from repeating the same steps over and over. Yes, I could hold a course well, but I never trusted that completely and was always compulsively checking my progress against a landmark below.

A few summers later, in 1966, my older brother came up with the harebrained scheme of flying our 85-horse Cub, with no radio aboard, from New Jersey to Los Angeles. He was convinced that he couldn’t accomplish this unlikely feat without me riding the rear seat as navigator. So, on the July 4th weekend that year, at the ages of 15 and 17, we actually set out on this crazy venture, fighting thunderstorms across Pennsylvania, vicious turbulence across Texas and then pushing our rickety PA-11 to almost 12,000 feet over the Rockies.

I didn’t appreciate that accomplishment—or what an extraordinary gift my father had given me—until nearly a quarter century later, when I finally sat down to write a memoir about that flight. The exercise of explaining to general readers how we had navigated coast to coast with only maps and a wobbly compass forced me to confront who I was and how my father had prepared me for that flight.

Precision-flexibility. I was dogmatic about following compass courses across the Midwest, for example, until I saw that the Wabash River in western Indiana would take us directly to the Ohio, the Ohio to the Mississippi, and from there we could follow the old Missouri-Pacific lines across Arkansas. My west-by-southwest course across desolate Texas could be cross-checked every 30 miles by the oil fields and dry gulches marked on the sectional. Between Pittsburgh and El Paso, a distance of more than 1,600 miles, we did not see a major city or airport, but we were never off our course by more than three or four miles.

Believe in yourself, and then obsessively check that sectional. Be confident, but also respect self-doubt. That’s what my father taught me and that’s what got us to L.A.

I think of this when I stroll Whitman Field during the last week of July. The tribal meeting of aviators every summer is filled with parents and grandparents escorting their charges around, exploring the booths, attending seminars, watching aerobatics. Maybe, like me as a boy, that lad or daughter arrived in Oshkosh after a prolonged navigation lesson from the home field.

But, in the end, it’s not the flying skills or the aviation lore that matter the most. A quarter century from now, that adult child will recall most vividly your gift of personality, so don’t stint on that.

Rinker Buck, a licensed pilot since 1968, is a writer for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut and the author of several books, including Flight of Passage, the story of Buck’s 1966 flight from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub.


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