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Article: Flight of Passage

aviation history

Flight of Passage

I remember the first time I saw an airplane up close. It was a Beechcraft 35 V-Tail Bonanza, and it was probably around 1954 or so.

My father had taken us to the Monroe County, MI county fair, it was approaching evening, and I remember a rotating red light catching my eye. As we got closer I could see that it was a small airplane sitting up on a rotating tilted platform.

I stood there staring at this airplane, and a nice man came over and invited me to climb up on the platform with him and sit in the front left seat of the airplane, the pilot's seat.

So, of course, I did!

A Beechcraft 35 V-Tail Bonanza like the one I saw at the Monroe County Fair.

I decided right then and there that I would learn how to fly. It was many years later, but I did finally become a pilot. It's what young men of my generation wanted to do.

Over the years I have owned a number of Piper aircraft, including a Piper Navajo Chieftan, three Piper Cherokee airplanes, and I purchased a Yellow J-3 Piper Cub for my wife.

We loved to fly that airplane, and it was the most fun of all the airplanes either my wife or I ever flew!

My wife, Betty Alicia, and I standing by her J-3 Cub she owned and we flew.

The Piper Cub was born when an ex-Army officer by the name of William T. Piper left the Army after he returned from serving in the Spanish-American War and in World War I. Not a pilot, just a plain old ground pounder.

But Piper was a very shrewd man and was a business man and investor in the oil industry. 

In  1929 he invested $ 400. in the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation which was led by Clarence Gilber Taylor, aircraft designer and aviation entreprenuer.

The Taylor Aircraft Company facility in Bradford, PA.

A year later the company wound up bankrupt, and Piper purchased the company for $ 761.00 and kept Clarence Gilbert Taylor on as president of the company while Piper reorganized the company and renamed it the Piper Aircraft Company.

Originally Clarence G. Taylor designed and sold his high-wing monoplane called the "Chummy" which was priced at $ 4,000., but Piper was convinced it was too high priced and had the company create another, less expensive, line of aircraft.

The Arrowing A-2 Chummy designed and sold by the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Company.

Piper had Walter Jamoneau, who built the Taylor and Piper J-2 designs and ultimately designed the Piper J-3 Cub.

The first Piper J-3 Cub was built in 1937 and became a trainer and sport airplane which was used in the U.S. government sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program.

When production ended in 1947 the Piper Aircraft Company had built 19,888 Piper Cubs, many of which are still flying to this day.

Specifications of the Piper J-3 Cub

  • Wingspan: 35 feet, 3 inches;
  • Length: 22 feet, 5 inches;
  • Height: 6 feet, 8 inches;
  • Empty Weight: 680 pounds;
  • Gross Weight: 1,220 pounds;
  • Top Speed: 80 miles per hour;
  • Engine: Continental A-65, 65 horsepower.

The aircraft fuselage is steel tube construction and covered with fabric.

Thomas F. Buck  

Thomas F. Buck was a flying legend, barnstorming his way across the country demonstrating his flying skills. 

By World War II Thomas Buck had become a flight instructor teaching pilots in Great Britain to fly for the Battle of Britain.

After the war Tom Buck lost a leg in an aircraft accident; however, that did not deter his determination to continue to fly. He continued to fly in airshows around the country despite the loss of one leg in a big AT-6 Texan warbird.

A North American AT-6 Texan World War II aircraft like the one flown by Tom Buck.

Thomas Buck became a publisher after the war working in the advertising department of Life and Red Book magazines, later as the assistant publisher for Look magazine and advertising director for McCall's magazine.

Thomas Buck and his wife, Mary Kernahan, raised five daughters and six sons.

Two of his sons were named Kernahan and Rinker.

On April 11, 1975, Thomas Buck passed away at the age of 62.

Kernahan ("Kern") Buck and Rinker ("Rink") Buck

As one might imagine, if your father is an avid pilot, barnstormer, and World War II veteran pilot, some of the boys are going to want to take up flying.

Kern Buck had that urge in the early 60's when he was in high school.

Father Buck early on required his oldest sons to learn how to repair and maintain his airplanes.

He also taught the boys the basic flight manuevers before they could drive a car, and insisted they learn everything they could about airplanes and flying.

On his 16th birthday Kernahan soloed 16 times in four separate airplanes!

In 1965 Tom Buck allowed the boys to purchase a tattered old 1946 Piper Cub Special (PA-11) with a 90 hp Continental engine. They purchased the airplane for $ 300.00.

A pair of PA-11 Piper J-3 Cub Specials in flight.

PA-11 Piper Cub Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Capacity: 1 passenger and 470 pounds;
  • Length: 22 feet 4 inches;
  • Wingspan: 35 feet 2 inches;
  • Height: 6 feet 8 inches;
  • Wing Area: 178.5 square feet;
  • Empty weight: 750 pounds;
  • Gross weight: 1,220 pounds;
  • Fuel capacity: 12 US gallons;
  • Powerplant: Continental C90-8 90 horsepower engine;
  • Propeller: 2-blade Sensenich fixed-pitch wooden propeller, 6 foot in diameter.


  • Maximum speed: 112 mph;
  • Cruise speed: 100 mph;
  • Stall speed: 40 mph;
  • Range: 350 miles;
  • Service ceiling: 16,000 feet

Kernahan came up with the idea of repairing the airplane and flying it from their home in Basking Ridge, NJ to California.

Rinker got caught up in his brother's enthusiasm and agreed to go with him. Rinker knew that his older brother was an optimist, but Rink recognzed he was rebellious, with a rotten attitude toward authority, and was constantly at odds with his father.

However, Rink thought that the two of them getting away from home might just be the ticket to the attitude adjustment he felt he needed.

Tom Buck agreed to allow them to put the PA-11 in flying condition and then plan their trip to California.

Now, what father would let 17 and 15 year old sons fly an old J-3 PA-11 Piper Cub Special across the United States and back by themselves?

Tom must have had a lot of confidence in these two whippersnappers!

Over the next 6 months they stripped down the old Cub of her fabric, sanded the rust off of the metal tubular frame, recovered the frame with new fabric, replaced a few parts, and got the old gal ready for flight.

Kern sitting in the open frame of the Cub.

The boys, however, had to earn their own money to buy and fix up the airplane.

They did this by used an old Willy's jeep the family owned with a snow plow blade and hitch on it. They earned $ 600 in a month of snowplowing which, in turn, paid off the purchase and parts for the Cub.

How many kids today would work that hard? I hope a lot, and that more are on the way!

Flight of Passage 

By the end of May the brothers had the airplane ready, and the two of them figured they would need another $ 300. for fuel, meals, and motel rooms (only for rainy nights). Otherwise, sleeping bags under the wings of the Cub.

So, Rinker took a job exercising horses, and Kern found work at a grocery store. 

It was decided Rinker would be the navigator, and Kern the PIC (Pilot In Command.)

By the end of of June they had $ 326., which they considered a comfortable margin over budget for the flight.

But, the Cub did not have a radio, and the Rocky Mountains loomed across the Western frontier.

So, Father Buck brought in a friend of his, a corporate pilot, warned the boys that crossing the Rockys would be very dangerous. After reviewing their maps it was decided they would take the Southern route through the Guadalupe Pass east of El Paso, Texas.

The Guadalupe Pass, East of El Paso, Texas.

The Butterfield Overland Mail route traveled over the Guadalupe Pass at 5,534 feet above sea level, with peaks reaching 8,751 feet.

Rinker said that he had always admired the early air mail carriers and therefore was keen to go through the pass because his father had never been able to do the trip himself.

Finally, Rink thought, I can beat my father at doing something! Kern and Rink would fly through the same narrow opening through the great continental wall, just like the Pitcairn Mailwings and Fairchilds did so many years ago.

Their father gave them each a watch and a pair of aviator sunglasses, and on after Kern test flew the Cub, they were ready to go on the Fourth of July.

They set out from the family's grass airstrip and turned westward towards Indiana. It was a difficult trip with low clouds, poor visibility, and turbulence.

They flew IFR (I Follow Railroads) making a stop for gas in Carlisle, PA. Learing of ominous storms ahead on their route, they diverted south and landed at Washington, PA instead of Pittsburgh.

Rink said for the first hour and a half he detested his brother Kern, hated his father Tom Buck for letting them make this trip, his knees and shins aching from the pounding of the stick and turbulence.

But, Kern successfully landed the Cub in a rainstorm after successfully crossing the Allegheny Mountains. Later in the afternoon they departed for Indiana making a stop in Columbus, Ohio for fuel, landing after dark at a crop duster field in East Richmond, Indiana.

Exhausted, the boys crawled into their sleeping bags under the wings of the Cub and fell fast asleep.

The second day they flew southwest into strong headwinds and low skie to a crop duster field in Brinkley, Arkansas, after gas stops at Indianapolis and Blytheville, Arkansas. 

The duster pilots were rather unfriendly, so the boys spent the night in a motel.

The next day they rose early and departed as soon as possible for Texas.

The cockpit of a PA-11 Piper Cub airplane.

Rink discovered a whole new world of open spaces, wide horizons, and beautiful light that made them feel free, perpetually united with a sky that stretched before them seemingly without end.

Kernahan and Rinker Buck route in 1966 in Piper PA-11 Cub N4971H.

They flew next to Albany, Texas where they spent the night in a motel. Some of the older pilots had warned them not to fly across the Texas desert in mid-day, and they learned why when they landed at Albany.

Their legs and knees had been battered by the movement of the control stick in the heavy turbulence of the heat rising from the floor of the desert.

The next day they flew the long incline from Albany, Texas at 2,000 feet to Wink, Texas at 4,000 feet, following a stop in Sweetwater, Texas for fuel.

On the approach to land at Wink Kern found the elevator unresponsive resulting in a hard landing. A friendly mechanic (all aircraft mechanics are friendly) discovered they had a broken elevator spring, and it just so happened that he had one on hand.

[Side note: Our son Chad is an excellent and experienced aircraft mechanic on airplanes at the Detroit Metro Airport in Michigan.]

The mechanic also told the boys that they were the subject of nationwide radio newscasts as the youngest aviators to ever attempt a coast to coast flight.

They next planned on a stop in Carlsbad, New Mexico before challenging the Guadalupe Pass. Enroute, however, the Cub's engine began to shake violently.

The boys feared they would have to make an emergency landing, but somehow Kern was able to continue their flight to Carlsbad, New Mexico, fearing all the while that their trip was coming to an end.

[Side Note: In 1961 I was based at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas where I learned to fly and received my Private Pilot's license.

On April 9th, 1961 I flew a Cessna 172 with three of my fellow Air Force friends from San Angelo to Carlsbad, New Mexico and back.

We visited the Carlsbad Caverns and then returned to San Angelo. It took 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there, and an hour and forty minutes to get back.

There was a lot of turbulence!]

They leaped from the airplane and found that a cowling gasket had failed, and that the banging and noise came from the metal fittings repeatedly striking the landing gear and belly of the Cub.

Once again a crusty old crop duster came to their aid and replaced the gasket and patched the fabric holes for them. He also checked the engine, adjusted the mixture and timing of the engine for the climb over the pass, and painted the patches that he had made with white paint.

He was, again, an aircraft mechanic, and we all know now what they are like!

He refused any compensation, and they launched in mid-afternoon towards El Paso,Texas.

The turbulence, wind, and thin air threatened hypoxia for the boys as they climbed steadly upward until the full-throttled Cub reached 11,600 feet and the immense V pass laid straight ahead of them.

The Cub struggled along at that altitude at nearly the stall speed of the Cub, but Kern was determined and forged steadily ahead. 

In the back seat Rink looked at the towering mountains on either side of them and realized there was no way to turn back. He was scared!

After crossing the pass they began the long descent into El Paso some 70 miles away.

They landed at the general aviation airport in El Paso and were met by a bevy of reporters, television crews, and reporters shouting questions and taking pictures.

The reporters asked them where they were going next, and Kern told them Tucson and then Yuma, Arizona.

Good old Dad arranged for an interview for them  over at the El Paso International Airport the next day. Tom Buck called the tower at the international airport and told them a no-radio Piper Cub would be landing there and asked permission for them to land using a signal lamp gun. 

The signal lamp has a focused bight beam capable of emitting three different colors: red, white, and green. The colors could be emitted steady or flashing, and each mode meant something different.

A steady green light meant cleared to land, but a blinking green light meant standby or cleared to taxi.

Kern entered the landing pattern and was looking for other traffic while Rink was to look for the green light beam. 

Rink spotted the green light but it was blinking and not knowing the difference told Kern he saw the green light.

Just then a large cargo aircraft passed close over their heads and had to do a go around for another approach and landing.

Kern was furious at his brother, and knew trouble lay ahead with the FAA.

However, the tower supervisor took no action but did have to file a report to FAA headquarters in Washington, DC, where Kern would have to answer to when he returned home.

The boys had their television interview and the next day departed at daybreak for Deming, New Mexico and Tuscon, Arizona for gas, then on to Yuma.

In the morning the boys returned to the Cub only to find a couple of Border Patrol officers demanding they strip the airplane for inspection.

Kern remembered his dad telling him that in such cases to use his head and talk his way out of this situation. So, Kern demanded to see their search warrant, and the Border Patrol agent in charge not knowing whether he had one or not, backed off.

By now a small crowd had gathered to inteview the boys and one of the reporters shouted out to the agents that if they made the boys remove the Cub's seats, floorboards, engine covers, and open the inspection plates, that it would make an interesting story in his newspaper.

Rink recalls the Border Patrol agents got into their truck, flashed their lights and spun gravel and dust all over the airport as they hightailed out of sight.

The last flight of the first leg of the round-trip was from Yuma, AZ to Brown Field in San Diego, CA, the longest and easist they made. They refueled among a throng of reporters, then departed for their final destination at San Juan Capistrano Airport, California.

Once again they were met by a horde of reporters after contending with helicopters and movie cameras hanging out of the windows.

On the third pass at the small airport they landed, once again met by a large crowd of reporters and well wishers who just wanted to see these two young teenagers who had completed such a dangerous flight.

The brothers breathed a sigh of relief and were pleased that they had completed their Flight of Passage.

Rinker became a well-respected journalist, and 31 years later in 1997 he wrote his first book, "Flight of Passage."

The cover of the book "Flight of Passage" which you can find on Amazon.

It has almost 1,500 reviews with an average of 4.6 stars.

In the meantime, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you Hersch!

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here!

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