August 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 4 
Historical Perspective

The early adventures of Captain Jepp


Elrey Jeppesen stands with the Boeing Monomail.In 1921, the Pacific Northwest was just beginning to grow. Timber went on trains and built towns. At the tiny Vancouver, Wash., airport, 14-year-old Elrey Borge Jeppesen made his first flight in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.”

“It was magical for me. You felt like a bird, part of the airplane,” Jeppesen told an Aviation News reporter in 1988. “I remember when he cut the motor off to glide me down. I could hear the wires screaming and I could see the outline of all the ribs and spars when he turned into the sun, and, I thought, this is for me.”

Jeppesen saved the money he made delivering newspapers and groceries and hung around the airport working at odd jobs. He took flying lessons and soloed after flying for only two hours and 15 minutes. In his last year of high school, he bought his own Jenny for $500 and flew off with Tex Rankin’s Flying Circus, working as a ticket taker, a prop turner, a wing walker and an aerial acrobat.

“At the time I had been accepted at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and was all set to enter their aeronautical engineering program—but the Jenny won my heart,” Jeppesen recalled in 1984.

Jeppesen barnstormed all the way to Dallas, where he found a job ferrying an airplane to New Orleans, filled in for a photo pilot and started work flying for Fairchild Aerial Surveys. He learned how to fly a “strip” pattern for photography. By 22, he was taking photographers over the Mexican jungles in a de Havilland DH-4 “Liberty” boxcar biplane.

The onset of the Great Depression limited his flying hours. So in 1930 he joined Boeing Air Transport (BAT, later United Air Lines) as an airmail pilot flying the Model 40B between Salt Lake City and Cheyenne, Wyo. In those days, pilots didn’t have anything in the way of charts, except for Rand McNally road maps. They flew anywhere from 50 to 300 feet above the ground, guiding mostly on terrain features and dead reckoning and following railroad tracks in bad weather. There was no radio or air traffic control.

Two pages from Elrey Jeppesen’s Little Black Book“It was rough flying over those mountains. You’d fly from one emergency field to the next. Lots of times you’d sit there until the storm passed by and then go on,” Jeppesen later recalled.

“Out of the 18 pilots flying the Cheyenne-Oakland (Calif.) hitch, four were killed in the line of duty during the winter of 1930—a dear price to pay for pioneering,” he added. “That’s when I wised up.”

He said he didn’t begin drawing airfield charts to make money, but more so “to preserve myself for old age and to help fellow pilots.” Their collective objective, he said, was “to stay alive so we could build an air transportation system worthy of the name so that the bankers would continue to look on us favorably.”

So Jeppesen took photographs and “climbed the mountains and smokestacks,” he later told a reporter. And that’s how the manual got started. “I just started writing it all down. I drove all the way from Chicago to Oakland and checked out emergency fields and the obstructions around them, different ways to get in, how far they were from the railway track and the highway,” he recalled.

Jeppesen’s “Little Black Book” changed aviation history. At first he just gave copies to his friends. Soon the demand became so great he started to sell them. When low-frequency radio beacons became available in 1931, Jeppesen updated his black book to show pilots how to follow radio beacons, and added mileage reference charts and terrain elevation profiles.

In 1934, BAT became part of United Air Lines, and Jeppesen made headlines for another kind of rescue. While piloting a United Air Lines Boeing 247 over Illinois at dawn, Jeppesen spotted a burning barn and sheds. He kept circling the farmhouse until he woke up its sleeping occupants. Noted newscaster Walter Winchell heard about Jeppesen’s actions and sent him a bouquet of orchids as a reward. Jeppesen gave the flowers to his United flight attendant, Nadine Liscomb, whom he married two years later.

Elrey Jeppesen with the Boeing 80AHis chart business grew, and Captain “Jepp,” assisted by Nadine, kept it going. He retired from United in 1954. In 1961, he sold the company to Times Mirror but remained as chairman. In 1974, Sanderson Films, a developer of training systems and pilot supplies that purchased by Times Mirror in 1968, was merged with Jeppesen. Jeppesen died in 1996, and Boeing bought Jeppesen Sanderson Inc. four years later.

The spirit of “Captain Jepp” had come home. In 1984, he wrote: “Sometimes when I stand on our patio and watch the sun sink behind the Rockies, my mind wanders back to the old airmail days, and I think of those great guys pushing the mail through any kind of weather. What great days. Boeing gave us a beautiful airplane. The sky was ours.

“I have such a warm feeling of, well, attachment for the Boeing people. I still feel like I’m a part of them. I guess when you are part of an organization like that for a while, especially when each day brings a new experience, you never lose that feeling.”


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