Every other summer or so, as I fly north with friends over the lush immensity of southern Wisconsin, find Ripon and then push along the railroad tracks, a sensation of satisfaction and memory overtakes me as the skyline of Lake Winnebago fills the windshield. I realize then that I don’t fly into Oshkosh just for the usual reasons—the air shows, strolling the avionics bazaars, enjoying the epic storytelling of Rod Machado. To me Oshkosh is a celebration of personality and spirit.
I grew up in the air in the days before GPS and glass cockpits, and my father, a former World War II Air Corps instructor, was an exacting taskmaster. The little Cubs and cranky North Americans that we banged around in during the early 1960s generally didn’t have decent radios, and even if they did, we rarely turned them on. My father’s idea of navigation was straight contact flying—maintaining a compass course and then always knowing where we were over the ground by scrupulous map-reading. He loved nothing more than making us practice Dutch rolls while maintaining a flawless course from our home strip in New Jersey to, say, Coatesville, Pa., or Culpeper, Va.
In those days, sectional charts were more detailed than they are today. Every quarry, golf course and worthless little dog track between New Jersey and Maryland was marked on the charts, presenting my father with endless opportunities to torture me. In rough air, while executing the sleep-inducing Dutch rolls, I was expected to be exactly over the drag strip near Blairstown, or the water-treatment plant south of Trenton, and then to correct for wind drift so we hit our destination airport just right.
I was a dreamy, lazy kid, and didn’t think the age of 12 or 14 was the time to enforce such strict standards of discipline. But I worked hard to please my father, if only to get the flight over with as soon as possible. By the time we arrived in the pattern somewhere, the Cub stick was slippery with my sweat. I burned with annoyance at my father, but I was also proud about navigating well to the correct field.
But precision wasn’t everything, and my father was always throwing in additional mental challenges. If a river or a high-voltage line presented itself just under our strut, and it was going our way, I was expected to exercise flexibility and follow those advantages of terrain. Airport runways below us, my father taught me, always pointed to a major landmark ahead. And there were many trips during which we could fly “lake to lake” without the necessity of maintaining a precise compass course.
Precision, but flexibility. I was already completely whacked in the head by the normal pressures of adolescence, but I was supposed to divine the difference.
“Son,” my father would yell above the roar of the Continental engine, “Why are you maintaining a compass course when the Pennsylvania Turnpike takes you right to the airport?”
“Well, I don’t know, Dad. You said to be precise.”
“If I told you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that?”
So I learned to consult the map and the landmarks ahead with a little more imagination, realizing that the Pennsylvania Turnpike did, in fact, point straight to the desired airport 60 miles ahead. Where the road deviated south for a while, I could maintain my course and keep the blacktop in sight off my left wingtip, then pick it back up again. The four-lane bridge over the Susquehanna was my cross-check. It pointed us on exactly the right heading. Precision, flexibility, right on into the long grass strip at Carlisle.
At the time, I had no inkling what all of this was doing for me. Most of the time, I just wanted to get each flight over with as soon as possible and then return, at the end of our flying weekends on Sunday evening, to my preferred adolescent obsessions—sports and the opposite sex.
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.