It is rare to find one person whose life embodies the history of an industry the way Bob Buck's life encompasses the history of commercial aviation in America. Buck first flew in the 1920s, inspired by the exploits of Charles Lindbergh. In 1930, at age sixteen, he flew solo from coast to coast, breaking the junior transcontinental speed record. In 1936 he flew nonstop from Burbank, California, to Columbus, Ohio, in a 90-horsepower Monocoupe to establish a world distance record for light airplanes. He joined Transcontinental and Western Air (T&WA) as a copilot in 1937; when he retired thirty-seven years later, he had made more than 2,000 Atlantic crossings -- and his role had progressed from such tasks as retracting a DC-2's landing gear with a cockpit-based hand pump to command of a wide-body 747.
Buck's experiences go back to a time when flying was something glamorous. He flew with and learned from some true pioneers of aviation -- the courageous pilots who created the airmail service during flying's infancy. At the behest of his employer Howard Hughes, Buck spent three months flying with Tyrone Power on a trip to South America, Africa, and Europe. He flew the New York-Paris-Cairo route in the days when flight plans called for lengthy stopovers, and enjoyed all that those romantic places had to offer. He took part in a flight that circled the globe sideways (from pole to pole). He advised TWA's president on the shift to jet planes; a world expert on weather and flight, Buck used a B-17G to chase thunderstorms worldwide as part of a TWA-Air Force research project during World War II, for which he was awarded the Air Medal (as a civilian) by President Truman.
In North Star over My Shoulder, Bob Buck tells of a life spent up and over the clouds, and of the wonderful places and marvelous people who have been a part of that life. He captures the feel, taste, and smell of flying's greatest era -- how the people lived, what they did and felt, and what it was really like to be a part of the world as it grew smaller and smaller. He relates stories from his innumerable visits to Paris, the city he loves more than any other -- echoing Gertrude Stein's view that "America is my country, and Paris is my home town" -- and from his trips to the Middle East, including flights to Israel before and after it became a state. A terrific storyteller and a fascinating man, Bob Buck has turned his well-lived life into a delightful memoir for anyone who remembers when there really was something special in the air.
What's not to love about flying For all the numbing routine, constant danger and bad food, Buck can't find much to complain about. He's been flying since the 1920s and still today, at age 87, takes the occasional glider for a spin. His autobiography is a thumbnail history of the air transport industry, which he's been a part of practically since its inception. The book skips most of Buck's personal life and focuses on airplanes. Buck relates his wide-eyed first flying experience at 16 with an enthusiasm normally relegated to the pages of romance novels. He quickly became a copilot and eventually a pilot for nascent Missouri airline TWA. His descriptions of these early flights in bare-bones vehicles have a white-knuckle intensity, especially when the weather turns bad (one passage tells of the few options pilots had when dealing with ice forming on their windshields: opening a small window at 10,000 feet and scraping it off with a putty knife was one of them). During WWII, Buck flew a special weather-research B-17 around the world and after the war became one of the airline's most senior pilots. In the course of his life, he flies over most of the known world and meets fellow air aficionados Tyrone Power and Howard Hughes. Buck writes in an appealing, no-nonsense manner that only occasionally becomes labored the literary equivalent of one too many friendly punches in the shoulder but this is an exciting memoir from an endearingly obsessed man who has been just about everywhere and can't wait to tell how he got there, and in what kind of plane and at what altitude. (Apr. 11) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
December 20, 2004
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Excerpt from North Star over My Shoulder by Bob Buck
It was late fall, with the brilliant colors already turning dull. The leaves of the large chestnut close by our old stone house lay on the ground, curled and brown and brittle. The sky was overcast, but without definition -- no way to identify the clouds, it was simply gray and dreary.
I looked back as I turned the car from the dirt road onto the two-lane blacktop, and waved to my wife, Jean, who was watching me go; she waved back, and after that I only looked ahead.
I felt that emptiness and sadness I always faced when leaving home and family, the nagging feeling of not having had the time for all the important things to do or say.
The country road soon reached the Delaware River; after that the roads grew bigger, and the occasional auto became many as others slid into the flow. Finally the route became the steady nose-to-tail stream of highway leading to New York City and its disheartening surroundings. As home dropped back behind me and the airport loomed, the sad feeling retreated to a quiet place in the mind's back storage, while my primary thoughts turned to the evening's task.
This night I'd fly a Boeing 747 from New York across the Atlantic to Paris, as I did four or five times a month, hauling people, mail, and cargo -- a pleasant task despite the problems that weather, crew, and airplane might toss my way. Whenever I drove to an airport the same thoughts occupied my mind, mostly about emergencies and what I would do if one occurred.
The act of flying an airplane is a daily chore and I'd long since become proficient at it, the repeated reactions and movements automatic, but emergencies almost never happen so there's no rehearsal for them except for a few hours twice a year in a simulator. And that doesn't cover all of them -- ditching the plane in mid-Atlantic, for example. So you review these things, playing mental games of how to cope if the improbable should come true, and the time spent driving to the airport gives you a good opportunity to do it.