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North Star

North Star Over My Shoulder

(Bob Buck)

Bob Buck was an airline pilot when TWA was still T&WA (Transcontinental and Western Air) and its flagship the 21-seat Douglas DC-3. A flight to Los Angeles required a day and a night, fueling stops at St. Louis, Kansas City, and Albuquerque, and three crew changes. "This was the big time, the best of its day," Buck recalls. "We never realized we'd be flying oceans one day, covering the world; our dream was simply to be a senior captain and to live in L.A. and fly to Albuquerque!"

California in the 1930s was "a land of orange trees, open country, unlimited visibility," where a new arrival could take "a deep breath of air perfumed by orange blossoms and perhaps a trace of eucalyptus--it was heady in those days." Buck writes with equal joy about the rest of the airline experience, except for the early Douglas aircraft. They may be hallowed now, but they were tough, uncomfortable birds to fly, with marginal single-engine performance and a worrisome stall--and the cockpit windows leaked, in the DC-2 especially. (Please direct your letters of outrage to Capt. Robert N. Buck, Fayston, Vermont.)

Forty years later, Buck made his last flight for TWA, non-stop from Paris to New York with upwards of 400 seats. By this time, trans-Atlantic flight was so fast and ordinary that delays on the ground could very nearly equal hours in the air.

Between times, Buck pioneered international routes under conditions so primitive that he used a sextant little different from those of sailing-ship days. And he became one of the world's leading practitioners of weather research. All of this is wonderfully well related, as anyone who has read his classic Weather Flying would expect.

On the other hand, I didn't need to know that the emperor of Ethiopia gave Tyrone Power "a beautiful and impressive gold cigarette case, engraved and adorned with jewels," later stolen from the actor's apartment, or that Buck scored fifth-row seats to Call Me Madam after chatting up Irving Berlin on a London-New York flight. But his brushes with the rich and famous are a small part of a book otherwise filled with earthy poetry and useful wisdom. Add it to your shelf.

(First published in Air&Space/Smithsonian)

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