Flight of Passage

A True Story


By Rinker Buck

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Writer Rinker Buck looks back more than 30 years to a summer when he and his brother, at ages 15 and 17 respectively, became the youngest duo to fly across America, from New Jersey to California. Having grown up in an aviation family, the two boys bought an old Piper Cub, restored it themselves, and set out on the grand journey. Buck is a great storyteller, and once you get airborne with the boys you find yourself absorbed in a story of adventure and family drama. And Flight of Passage is also an affecting look back to the summer of 1966, when the times seemed much less cynical and adventures much more enjoyable.


Praise for Flight of Passage

"A terrific book . . . Huckleberry Finn meets The Spirit of St Louis . . ."

—Henry Kisor, The Chicago Sun-Times

"It was the giddy, crazy adventure of a lifetime . . . The boys . . . squeaked through a Pennsylvania storm, had a run-in with redneck crop dusters, inadvertently spent a night in a roadside brothel and barely made it over the Rockies. [flight of Passage] is part memoir, part tribute to the cocksure restlessness of a couple of teenagers."

—Hubert B. Herring, The New York Times

"[Flight of Passage] is an adventure full of fraternal jealousy, . . . boneheaded hubris, and unbridled fun and freedom."

—Douglas Bailey, The Boston Globe

"This is more than a flying adventure—it is also a warm, affectionate account of an unusual family, with characters presented as if they were created by a master novelist."

—Jack Elliot, The Newark Star-Ledger

"Lovers of adventure stories . . . will be exhilarated by this loosely told, very American memoir."

—Sophia Sackville-West, The London Sunday Times

"Rinker Buck is a virtuoso storyteller in a very American vein."

—Phillip Lopate, author of The Art of the Personal Essay

". . . colorful, exhilarating, heart-stirring . . . The journeys of miles and spirits that led to these resolutions Rinker recounts with such verve and love that Flight of Passage bids fair to become a coming-of-age classic."

A.L.A. Booklist



We were just two boys, seventeen and fifteen, flying to California in an airplane built before either of us was born. Later that summer a reporter for the Associated Press would make us briefly famous by writing that we were the youngest aviators ever to fly America coast to coast, but it wasn't records or fame we were after. What we were really doing was proving ourselves to my father.

It seems inconceivable today that we could have been Tom Buck's sons and not flown to California as soon as we were able. My father was a dreamer, a magnificent dreamer, and what he dreamed about most was flying. Aviation was the most important thing in his life not simply because of its adventuresome aspects, though he was too starry-eyed to discount that. He was moved instead by the symbolism of flight.

In 1933, at the age of seventeen, my father had put the disappointments of a Depression upbringing in Pennsylvania behind him by running away from home to join a flying circus. He spent his teenage years barnstorming around the country as an air-show performer and ferry pilot—a romantic, carefree escape that sent him on his way. By the age of twenty-one he had already quit the barnstorming life and established himself in New York, beginning a highly successful career in magazine publishing that helped tide his family through the hard times and then supported the enormous brood of children he fathered after World War II. For the rest of his life, however, he was self-conscious about being a high school dropout without a college degree. His vagabond years, when he was a dashing young pilot with little more to his name than a grease-stained change of khakis, some maps, and a parachute, were in fact his education and loomed large in memory, defining his triumph over economic hardship and girding his self-image.

His nostalgia for those years grew with age, and raising sons brought it out. On the long winter nights while we were growing up in the 1950s, my older brother Kern and I used to sit up with my father before the glowing Franklin stove in our farmhouse in New Jersey, helping him ward off his chronic insomnia, hangar-flying until almost midnight. We listened raptly to his endless tales of pushing out past the Ozarks and the Mississippi and into Oklahoma and east Texas, crisscrossing the great western plains in a succession of open-cockpit Fairchilds and Pitcairn Mailwings.

That barnstorming blarney was a wonderful thing for a father to share with his sons, fraught as it was with the oily grit and hell-for-leather gumption of early aviation. There were perilous Appalachian ice storms and desperate landings by moonlight at remote Alabama strips. My father's storytelling technique was deeply emotive and physical. He was a big, theatrical man, standing six feet and four inches, with immense table-top shoulders and a broad chest that heaved in and out like an organ bellows as he spoke. While he talked in front of the fire he would sway back and forth in his rocker, kicking out his legs at imaginary rudder pedals or jabbing his arm over with the "stick" for a crosswind landing, rotating a four-point arc between his legs for a snap roll or Immelman turn. Sometimes his voice broke into a falsetto pitch. "The field was short boys, way too short." In the hiss of the fire we could hear the flying wires wail.

Behind my father as he spoke, on the paneled wall of his library, hung framed photographs of his flying career—faded, silver-tinted images of the young British airmen he had trained in Canada for the Battle of Britain, the row upon row of sprightly yellow Stearman trainers at Love Field in Texas, where he was an aerobatics instructor with the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. One of our favorite pictures was a black-and-white news photo taken on Easter Sunday morning, 1942. In it, my father was taxiing a rickety KR-31 biplane past a waving, smiling crowd in front of Philadelphia City Hall, escorted by motorcycle cops on each wingtip. He had landed the open-cockpit ship in downtown Philadelphia as a publicity stunt for the wartime scrap drive, and the admonition SCRAP IT! was painted in large white script on the side of the plane.

I would later learn that not all of my father's stories were true. But it is a mistake to rate yarners like my father according to orthodox standards of truth. Boys are not particularly in need of that, and we could see for ourselves that my father existed in a realm beyond all need for proof. On sunny weekend days in the spring and summer, my father rose early, called for my brother and me to wheel his big, black BMW motorcycle up to the side door, and then he roared out of our driveway for the airport. There, he strapped on a parachute, pulled on his flight helmet and growled off the strip in the loudest airplane in general aviation, a military-surplus fighter plane named the AT-6 Texan. Sometimes he flew off for the air-shows and warmed up the gathering crowds by buzzing in at tree-top level and barrel-rolling over their heads, other days he dive-bombed our soccer games and swim meets. As boys, my brother and I loved nothing more than to lay prone on the soft grass along the airport flight-line, squinting up into the sun as my father stunted over the field. The big, sexy Texan made a hellacious racket in the sky, wailing and howling like a cigarette boat every time my father looped or rolled, all six hundred horses blurt-blurting and coughing and farting out through the stack. My father liked to practice aerobatics open-cockpit style, with the glass canopy over his head thrown wide open. When he rolled upside-down, the stray maps and runaway corn cob pipes collected among the floorboards dropped down and sprayed out past the tail in a black nimbus of dust.

My father's vagabond years in the 1930s, when he was a dashing young pilot barnstorming around the country, loomed large in memory and girded his self-image.

My father was in his late-forties by then and he had eleven children. But age and family responsibilities did not deter him from flying the way he liked, just as he had not been deterred as a younger man by a spectacular air wreck. In 1946, he had spun in from 2,000 feet and crashed into remote woods outside Wilmington, Delaware. His passenger was killed and my father's left leg, crushed on impact by the hissing engine, had to be amputated three years later. The artificial leg he wore gave him a noticeable limp, and he was frequently disabled by excruciating phantom pains. But he refused to regard this as a handicap or to heed the doctors who advised him to lead a quieter life. His missing limb gave him a kind of Ahab mystique, and he considered it expressive of his unconventional style. Indeed, he was the kind of man who prospered by turning glaring liabilities into stunning assets. In 1949, the year before I was born, he joined the nascent Alcoholics Anonymous organization to stop drinking, and soon after the witty, discursive "testimonials" he delivered made him a star performer on the AA lecture circuit. A virtual unknown in the late-1950s when he became interested in politics, by 1960 he was serving as state cochairman for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. He enjoyed the attention and acclaim these accomplishments brought him, even craved it, and his life was structured to receive as much of it as possible. Joseph Heller, the writer, worked with my father at McCall's in the late 1950s, and later based a character in one of his novels on Tom Buck. "He was a self-made man," Heller wrote, "and unable to hide it."

My father always made it clear that he expected Kern and me, his two oldest boys, to be just as successful and known. Unfortunately, children rarely respond according to plan. As a boy, my older brother was private and shy, self-conscious about being small for his age. Kern was the classic oldest son of a strong, iron-willed father, secretly afraid that he couldn't live up to the model, and thus quite skittish and sensitive to criticism. Even his appearance suggested vulnerability. He had feathery auburn hair with red highlights, broad cheeks and trusting brown eyes that opened wide with disappointment when he was hurt. He mostly excelled at things that required a lot of solitude and a minimum of social contact, math and science, and his best friend was a science nerd and ham-radio freak who lived in the village nearby, Louie DeChiaro.

Kern and Louie spent long afternoons up in Kern's room in the attic working on old radios, howling with excitement and jumping up and down on the floor whenever they rigged up a receiver powerful enough to "drag down Chicago." Their science projects—balsawood oil derricks that pumped "real crude," mock-up Mercury space capsules, boxes of electrified rocks that somehow lit up forty-watt lightbulbs—won top prizes every year at the grammar school science fair. Kern never developed a competitive instinct for sports and he was painfully bashful around girls. When he reached high school and decided that it was finally time for him to try a date, my sister Macky picked out the shyest girl in her class, scripted an entire phone conversation with her on a yellow legal pad, then held it up for Kern while he nervously dialed the number.

On Easter Sunday morning, 1942, my father landed his open-cockpit ship in front of Philadelphia City Hall as a publicity stunt for the wartime scrap drive.

Nobody ever accused me of winning the school science fair. I had watched my older brother play the role of diffident recluse and was determined to be exactly the opposite. I was the extrovert who was popular and did well in school, starred in the class play, and became captain of our undefeated soccer team. These achievements of mine were not based on merit, but instead on criminal behavior. I was popular because I was the class cutup, expert in such delicate and locally prized work as the cherry-bomb demolition of the school principal's mailbox, or the upgrading of the baseball coach's jockstrap with an invisible but medically effective layer of Atomic Balm. With me, trouble arrived in waves. During the spring that I was in the seventh grade, a neighbor caught me making out in the woods with a beautiful sixth-grader and reported this fact to my mother. A few nights later my friends and I found an old jalopy in the woods up on Tea Mountain, rolled it onto a bridle path and careened down the hill, coming to a halt after a head-on collision with a tree on the lawn of best-selling writer Sterling North. The famous author himself, clutching a martini and nude except for a pair of silk boxer shorts, came outside and cursed us hysterically before he called the cops. The week after that my homeroom teacher, Blair Holley, threatened to have me expelled for stuffing a dead rat into Betsey DeChiaro's book bag. My spring campaign of mischief brilliantly coalesced during the last week of school in June, when I ran for president of the student council and got elected by a landslide margin.

My brother was miserable about this. He was shattered by the injustice of the world. He had behaved himself and followed all the rules and nobody seemed to notice whether or not he was even alive. I broke every rule and got all of the attention. He was terrified that I was either going to end up in prison, or become the President of the United States, outrageous behavior in a kid brother. More than anything in the world he longed for a quieter, understated younger brother who melted into the background and didn't upstage him all the time. I longed for a more outgoing, assertive older brother who could socially pave my way in school and act as a foil against my father. Meanwhile, I was mortified by the brother I had. Even the way Kern and Louie dressed—plaid shirts, clashing plaid dork shorts, black socks, and black hightops—drove me insane with embarrassment.

Everyone did their best to encourage Kern. One day, coming in from school and infuriated by some stunt I had pulled off, he complained to my mother about me. My mother was petite and very pretty, quintessentially Irish, and so youthful no one could believe that she had delivered eleven children. Like a lot of mothers at the time, even the Protestant ones, she was a devotee of the Rose Kennedy school of childrearing. The small things, such as how you dressed and whether or not you were polite to priests, mattered, and children could be pushed toward greatness by modeling themselves on someone who was unquestionably successful.

"Well, Kern," my mother said. "Maybe you should try being more like your brother. Rinker likes people, he works hard in school, and he never gets cavities."

My mother did a splendid job raising eleven children, but it was the wrong thing to say. Kern never got over it. A few years ago, when I was undergoing painful root-canal work, Kern called nearly every night to ask after me and flooded me with get-well cards. I've never seen him so solicitous about my welfare. And he was cheerful about it too, almost jubilant.

"Listen Rink, don't let this thing get you down," he said to me, as I lay moaning in bed, gingerly holding the phone up to my ear. "Eventually, everybody gets tooth decay."

A lot of my problems with my brother began to change for the better in the early 1960s, when we entered our teens and my father started teaching us to fly. Flying seemed to be a divine remedy for us. From the moment my father strapped him into the pilot's seat of a rented Piper Tri-Pacer for his first flying lesson, it was obvious that Kern was a born pilot. The self-confidence and poise that he lacked on the ground miraculously blossomed in the air, as if it had been held in reserve for this. Kern was naturally graceful and coordinated at the controls, and what he couldn't learn by just handling a plane he picked up by memorizing all twenty-eight chapters of The Student Pilot's Handbook. My father, though a very patient, gentle instructor, enforced exacting standards, insisting that we learn to fly by the old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants method, with lots of emergency landing practice, spin-training, and aerobatics. My brother effortlessly mastered it all.

Most remarkable, at least to me, Kern was absolutely fearless in the air. Nothing rattled him. One cold, rainy November afternoon in 1962, when Kern was fourteen, he and my father were swinging in for a landing in the Texan when the engine sputtered and quit on the downwind leg. The Texan weighed almost two tons, and when you lost an engine in that plane all you had left was a flying manhole cover. Raking over the wings, they dove for the runway and landed "short" in an orchard. Rumbling and creaking like a D day tank, the big stubby fighter tossed aside several large apple trees, two fence lines, some farm implements and a chicken coop and then sleighed down through a cornfield before nosing over on the edge of the runway. Sliding down a crumpled wing together, my father and Kern landed in the mud and stood there cheerfully analyzing the wreckage. A throng of pilots and mechanics raced down to the crash site, and everybody was amazed by my brother's aplomb. "Hey guys, check this out!" Kern beamed. "How about the fact that we made it to the runway?"

My own progress in the air was less satisfying. Except for navigation, which I enjoyed and worked hard at, I was less graceful than my brother as a pilot and, worse, afraid most of the time. The unfamiliar physical sensations and bizarre optical effects of holding the nose of a plane level on the horizon, while simultaneously banking the wing below the horizon for a turn, were too much for me. In turbulence I shivered all over with spasms and broke out into a cold sweat, and I was terrified of stalls and spins. My father found it hard to hide his disgust.

"Ah shit, Rinker," he would moan from his instructor's seat in the rear of the plane. "Do you call that a 360-degree turn? Your brother can do this. Try it again."

When I still couldn't get it right my father would call forward his favorite instructional ode. "Son, an airplane is just like a woman. Treat her gently, but firmly." This was mystifying to me. By then I did have some experience with women, teenage women, and while my father's advice worked wonders with them out in the woods, it wasn't worth a damn inside an airplane. As soon as I rolled into the next 360-degree turn, the nose plunged right back through the horizon, so I yanked back harder on the stick. "Son, please, gently but firmly!" When my father screamed that at me for the tenth time in a single flight lesson, I wished we were back on the ground and had decided as a family to take up golf.

Eventually my father decided that I was still too young, slacked off on my lessons, and concentrated instead on my brother. I was relieved to be off the hook and, in one important respect, mediocrity never felt so good. Finally, indisputably, my older brother was better than me at something. I was actually proud of him now, even envious of his prowess in the air. Sitting in the back of the four-seat Beechcrafts and Cessnas we rented on weekends to fly off somewhere together, I loved the way Kern adroitly ran through his checklist, started the engine, and then managed a whole flight alone while my father sat with his arms crossed in the instructor's seat. At the end of our long flying days together, I would suddenly realize that I was happy to be around Kern now, merely because he was happy, a refreshingly new sensation for me. Kern was euphoric about his success as a pilot and his entire psychology became wrapped up in aviation. At last he could concentrate on what he liked in himself and forget about what he detested in me.

Best of all, my father was a lot more relaxed about both of us. Nothing bothered him now that he had a son who was a crack pilot. We were blissfully happy for the next four years, and all summer we spent weekend after weekend flying off the ramshackle grass strip a few miles from our home. In the fall, we picked up a burnt-out Taylorcraft or Aeronca trainer, disassembled it and towed it home behind our Jeep, and then spent the cold months inside our barn contentedly rebuilding our "winter plane."

Kern progressed as a pilot in the style that my father adored. In August 1964, he turned sixteen, the legal age for first solo. It would not be enough for the firstborn son of Tom Buck to merely circuit the field once in a nondescript Cessna trainer, the usual first-solo drill. Instead, he and my father concocted a multiple event. On his sixteenth birthday, they decided, Kern would solo four separate airplanes four times, for a total of sixteen hops around the strip. It was the kind of preposterous stunt that my father was known for, and Kern went right up and did it. Round and round the grass field, in plane after plane, my brother monotonously droned. My father had done his usual competent job of turning out a large crowd of family and friends to witness the event. But it was a sweltering hot day and everybody watching at the airport soon felt lazy and bored—sixteen consecutive arrivals and departures by a teenager in a light plane being about as entertaining as sixteen arrivals and departures by a crow. When Kern got to the last plane, which was a turd-brown Ercoupe, even my father had had enough. Stepping over to the shady side of the hangar, he lay down on the grass, removed his wooden leg, and took a nap.

To my father, an event wasn't an event until it was also a headline, and that too was arranged. That night my father called an old friend of his, Jack Elliott, the aviation writer for the The Newark Star Ledger, and we all sat around my father's library listening to Kern describe his sixteen solos to Jack. The story ran the following week in Jack's regular Sunday column, "Wings Over Jersey." The piece appeared under the headline SOLOS 16 TIMES AT AGE 16, and it was illustrated with a three-column picture of my brother sitting at the controls of the family's battered Piper Cub. Kern was still quite adolescent and small for his age and didn't look much past fourteen. But his innocent Leave It to Beaver good looks only made the accomplishment seem brighter. Jack was an experienced newspaperman who knew how to take material gathered over the phone and gussy it up so that readers felt they were receiving an eyewitness account. "Kern took her up and brought her down again like it was something he'd been doing all his life and could do with one hand tied behind his back," Jack wrote of my brother's first hop. "Then he did it again."

Kern had trouble adjusting to his new status as the young star of the strip. One fall day shortly after he soloed, we were all out at the airport together, but it was a very windy afternoon and none of the instructors were allowing their students to fly. But my father considered the conditions a good challenge for Kern and told him to go up and practice his takeoffs and landings. Kern circuited the field for an hour or so, expertly crabbing into the wind and planting the wheels down without a bump as he did his "touch and gos."

He didn't look a day past fourteen, but Kern's innocent Leave It to Beaver good looks only made the accomplishment seem brighter.

As my brother circuited the field, another student pilot who we liked a lot, Nick Stone, stood by the gas pumps and watched. Every time Kern touched down Nick would say, "Jesus, what a landing. Perfect."

Then my brother would come around again and Nick would say, "Jesus, what a landing."

I got so sick of hearing Nick say "Jesus, what a landing" that I started to pray that my brother would botch a couple, just for the record. He didn't have to dig in a wingtip and seriously damage the plane, just touch down at an angle in the brisk crosswind and skid sideways hard enough to blow a tire, or let the drift push him over into the patch of gopher holes that lined the runway over by the windsock. Maybe he could even manage to hit the windsock. It would be good for Nick's ego—hell, it would be great for mine—to see Kern screw the pooch, just once.

But no, this was my brother. Every landing was perfect.

After he made his last landing, Kern coasted the plane to a stop on the gas ramp, shut down and hopped out.

More out of admiration than envy, Nick said to him, "Jesus, what a landing. Kern you're good. You're just so damned good."

When we got home that night, Kern was upset about it.

"Rink, this just isn't fair," he said. "Did you hear what Nick said to me?"

"Yeah. I heard what he said."

"Well, it isn't fair. To be good at something, you're supposed to work at it. But flying's easy for me. I don't even have to think about it."

I couldn't understand my brother. He never overlooked an opportunity to question himself. Suddenly I felt terribly guilty about him, and guilty about all of the things that I thought I could do better than he could, and I decided right then and there that I would turn over a new leaf and become a better brother for him. It was my job to build him up, compliment him, make him feel better about himself.

"Kern," I said, "You're being an asshole. What's work got to do with it? You're a good pilot, a great pilot! If you've got it, flaunt it."

"Okay Rink," he said. "Look, I'm going to make an agreement with myself that it's okay for me to be good at flying. I'm not going to feel guilty about this, no matter how good I get. And then you know what?"

"No, what?"

"I'm going to stick to it."

You can begin to appreciate my problems. I spent a great deal of time then cursing my fate and wondering how I ended up with a brother like this.

In August 1965, on his seventeenth birthday, Kern effortlessly passed the flying test for his private pilot's license, and by that fall he had almost one hundred hours of logged time. Kern was also quite methodical and organized, the sort of boy who had his "career" all planned out at an age when most boys were merely planning their first date. He was determined to have his commercial pilot's license before he left for college in 1966. This was vital, he thought. We were all aware that my parents, though reasonably well off, turned out children at fantastic production rates, and they could never afford to put us all through college. Kern planned to "fly his way through school" as a charter pilot and flight instructor. To qualify for the commercial flight test, Kern needed an additional one hundred hours in his logbook, mostly of cross-country flying time.

That was the practical side of my brother. But Kern also had a brooding, dreamy side, the Irish in him, I guess. And he had inherited from my father a desperation to prove himself, but he was still too young to know what to do with his ambition. But it was there. Now that he was good at something, aviation, there had to be something more he could do, a way to apply it and stand out. Nobody should be able to forget that he was a great flyer.

He was obsessed about it. One night, shortly after he passed his private pilot's test, I found him upstairs in his room glumly pacing back and forth across the floor.

"Rink, you want to hear something pathetic? I mean, really pathetic?"


"Rink, I'm seventeen years old, and I haven't done a thing with my life yet. Not a thing!"

Damn. Here we go again. There had to be something I could say to cheer him up.


On Sale
Mar 5, 2013
Page Count
368 pages
Hachette Books

Rinker Buck

About the Author

Rinker Buck began his career as a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle in western Massachusetts. He then worked for New York, Life, and Adweek magazines, and his articles and columns have appeared in numerous national magazines and newspapers. Flight of Passage is his first book. He and his wife, Amelia de Neergaard, live with their two daughters in Cornwall, Connecticut.

Learn more about this author