By MARGALIT FOX
Published: May 20, 2007
Robert N. Buck, a distinguished pilot who in the 1930s crossed the continent at record speed, flew a light plane higher than anyone had done before and photographed ancient ruins of the Yucatán from the air for the first time — all by the age of 20 — died on April 14 in Berlin, Vt. He was 93 and had continued to fly gliders into his late 80s.
Robert N. Buck in 1930 before the start of a flight to Los Angeles in an attempt to break the junior cross-country record. He was 16.
Mr. Buck, a resident of North Fayston, Vt., died of complications of a fall, his son, Robert O. Buck, said last week. News of the death was not made public outside Vermont until this month.
A retired chief pilot of T.W.A., Mr. Buck was also a respected aviation writer. He was a particular authority on the weather, and the bumpy place where it meets aviation. During World War II, he performed research on hazardous weather of all kinds by flying gamely into it and recording what he saw, heard and felt.
His book “Weather Flying,” published in 1970 and now in its fourth edition, is considered required reading for pilots. Mr. Buck’s other books include a memoir, “North Star Over My Shoulder,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.
Long before all this, Mr. Buck was nationally known as a flying prodigy, going aloft in one-seaters, dressed in leather helmet and goggles, without even a radio to assist him. He pored over maps, steered by the stars and telephoned his parents after every flight.
In April 1930, at 16, Mr. Buck became the youngest licensed pilot in the United States. Later that year, flying from Newark to Los Angeles, he broke the junior transcontinental airspeed record. On the return trip, just for sport, he broke it again. At 17, he wrote a book about it, “Burning Up the Sky,” published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1931.
By the time he was 18, Mr. Buck had set 14 junior aviation records. These included the junior altitude record for light planes, which he broke in July 1930 by ascending to 15,000 feet. (In 1936, Mr. Buck, flying with a cousin, would set a world distance record for light planes, flying nonstop from Burbank, Calif., to Columbus, Ohio — 1,986 miles — in a Lambert Monocoupe.)
Red-haired and apple-cheeked, the young Mr. Buck was known in the papers as “the Schoolboy Pilot.” They chronicled his every exploit, including what he carried in his plane (a Bible and a package of sandwiches made by his mother) and his life on the ground (“he likes polo, hunting, riding and milk drinking,” The New York Telegram reported in 1931).
Robert Nietzel Buck was born on Jan. 29, 1914, in Elizabethport, N.J., and reared in Westfield, N.J. At 15, fired up by the well-publicized exploits of Charles A. Lindbergh, he and a friend built a glider, which Bob took to the skies before crashing from an altitude of 50 feet. He began lessons in a real plane on his 16th birthday, after his parents made certain that the Westfield airport had no looming telegraph wires nearby.
On Sept. 29, 1930, Bob Buck set out to break the junior speed record for a coast-to-coast flight, which stood at 29 hours, 40 minutes. Armed with six chocolate bars and a canteen of water, he pedaled his bicycle to the airport in Newark. He did not have a driver’s license.
Climbing into his open biplane, a Pitcairn Mailwing, he took off from Newark’s cinder runway. After half a dozen stops for fuel and repairs, he landed in Los Angeles, in record time, on Oct. 4. (The historical accounts of Mr. Buck’s total time in the air vary, but it was 28 hours, give or take.) On the return trip, aided by tailwinds, he shaved the time down to 23 hours, 47 minutes.
Mr. Buck’s other speed records included a round trip to Havana, which he made in 13 hours, 5 minutes, in 1931. On arriving, he was greeted by adoring crowds and presented with a 12-inch cigar, which he later gave, as instructed, to President Herbert Hoover.
In late 1933 and early 1934, on assignment for the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Buck and a friend, Robert Nixon, 19, spent three months roaming the Mexican jungle by air, photographing lost Mayan cities of the Yucatán. They were the youngest aerial explorers ever, the newspapers reported.
Mr. Buck joined T.W.A. (then Transcontinental and Western Air) in 1937 as a co-pilot. He became a pilot in 1940 and in 1945 was named chief pilot, an administrative job. But he chafed behind a desk and was soon back in the cockpit.
During the war, Mr. Buck, working on a joint project of T.W.A. and the Army, went “looking for trouble,” as he often said afterward, piloting a B-17 into snow, hail and thunderstorms all over the globe.
“I was able to put my nose in any kind of weather I wanted to fly through,” he told National Public Radio in 2002. “We’d sit around, waiting until the weather was bad and then go fly through it.” The worst weather in the world, Mr. Buck found, was in the largely open stretch between New York and Kansas City, Mo.
For his research, Mr. Buck was awarded the Air Medal, one of only a few civilians to receive it, in 1946.
Mr. Buck is survived by his son, Robert Orion, of Waterbury Center, Vt. (A retired pilot for Delta Air Lines, the younger Mr. Buck was named, after some marital negotiation, for his father’s love of celestial navigation. His father’s first choice had been Betelgeuse, a star in Orion.) Also surviving are a daughter, Ferris Buck, of North Fayston; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Buck’s wife, the former Jean Pearsall, died in 2004. They were married, not without incident, in 1938. On the appointed day, as the bride-to-be and assembled guests waited in New Jersey, Mr. Buck found himself stuck in Kansas City, a passenger on a plane grounded by fog.
The wedding took place two days later. The groom took the train.
Source: The New York Times; May 20, 2007