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North Star Over My Shoulder (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by C.V. Glines
By Bob Buck
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005

Airline pilot Bob Buck translates a lifetime of flying into a memorable read.

I was the editor of AIRPLANE PILOT magazine, on my way home from a press junket to Europe and sitting in the cockpit jump seat of a Boeing 747. Behind us in those preterrorist days was a planeload of passengers traveling from Paris' Orly Field to New York's JFK Airport. It was a cold, crystal-clear night, and we were flying over southern Greenland, with the aurora borealis flashing its eerie fireworks across the northern sky. Polaris, the bright star that sits over the North Pole, was high to our right. It was one of those unforgettable sights that are difficult to translate into words. Can anyone really describe it?

Captain Bob Buck can. He is one of those rare airline pilots who can tell us plainly what it's like to experience nature's beauty and its wrath and be responsible for transporting thousands of passengers during a lifetime of flying. The title of his book North Star Over My Shoulder (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005, $15) refers to that same North Star he saw often as he made so many ocean-spanning flights. He writes, "Whoever created the universe and put Polaris over the North Pole did a big favor for those who traverse the sea and sky."

Buck's life story provides memorable accounts of the unusual succession of people and places that he has met because of his piloting. He began flying at age 15, with an unsuccessful flight in a glider he helped to build. Although that craft represented his first crackup, he was hooked. He earned his private license in 1930 and progressed through the years, flying in light aircraft, then advancing to aircraft with higher horsepower and speed. At age 16, he flew an open-cockpit Pitcairn Mailwing solo coast-to-coast. It took five days, 23 hours, 47 minutes flying time, then a record for a light aircraft. This was followed by flights to Cuba and Mexico City.

Buck was the 148th pilot hired by Transcontinental and Western Air (later TWA) after he had logged 1,300 hours in lightplanes. He began flying as a co-pilot in Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s. He describes a DC-2 trip from Indianapolis to St. Louis with a frozen heating system one winter night: "God, it was cold. We sat with coats, hats, and gloves on, plus blankets over our shoulders. The passengers were buried beneath blankets, and the hostess–coat, hat, boots, and blanket wrapped around her–tried to serve coffee. It began OK, but the 30-below air inexorably, cruelly crawled and crept in–to your feet, through the weave of the blankets and coats, into the leather gloves, through the walls; Arctic cold is like that. It was numbing and the passengers, though none said a word, looked grim, and their eyes revealed second thoughts about their enthusiastic willingness to go."

Many World War II pilots will certainly recall their own experiences flying the C-47, the DC-3's military version. They were noted for their leaking cockpits, failing heaters, nerve-wracking radio static and ice on the windshields, plus the advisability of landing on the main wheels instead of trying to make three-point landings, especially in crosswinds. Some airline pilots, although civilians, were pressed into service during WWII with the Army Air Forces Air Transport Command, and Buck was one of them. His first flight was in February 1943 in a four-engine Douglas C-54 over the South Atlantic to Cairo. He then made his first North Atlantic flight to Prestwick, Scotland, followed by a trip from there to Marrakech, Morocco, via a course off the coasts of France and Portugal. He flew these transatlantic trips for seven months and relates his experiences fighting a pilot's worst enemy–the weather.

The rest of Buck's WWII experience deviated from that of other airline pilots. He flew a Boeing B-17 bomber chasing thunderstorms between Point Barrow and the Aleutians in Alaska to the Panama Canal Zone, and as far west as Midway Atoll. The hundreds of hours he spent seeking the worst weather that could be found were for precipitation static research.

One of Buck's unusual postwar assignments with TWA was to fly Tyrone Power, the movie actor, to South America, Africa and Europe in a plush former C-47. The request had come from Howard Hughes, principal owner of the airline. The result was Buck's first inside look at Hollywood and a sincere friendship that lasted until Power died of a heart attack in 1958.

Buck's life returned to normal as he flew the line and checked out in Lockheed Constellations, Boeing 707s and eventually 747s. He takes the reader through these transitions and also provides a rare look at the operations' shortcomings and improvements as the airline expanded. His seniority and experience in weather led to his appointment as chief pilot and to service on government committees on meteorology and flight safety.

Buck, forced to retire at age 60 as are all airline pilots, says he was fortunate to have been part of aviation's growth at a time that cannot be experienced again, adding: "Now my days of flying live only in reverie when I dream of the quiet, dimly lit cockpit of a 747, high over the North Atlantic, swiftly cutting across the sky creating a precise contrail in the moonlight, headed east to Paris, with my old friend, the North Star, over my shoulder."



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