Bob Buck – "The Right Stuff"

Posted 01/05/04

By Walt Gunn

With the permission of the author, the following is excerpted from "A Life Aloft from DC-3 to 747" (Wings Publications, 1988), the memoirs of retired TWA pilot Walt Gunn.

At age 16, he broke the junior transcontinental speed record during a solo flight across the United States. During World War II, he earned the Air Medal for flying severe-weather research missions in a specially designed B-17 and P-61 Black Widow. He was named Chief Pilot of TWA at the age of 37, and amassed 37 years of airline experience in everything from a DC-2 to a Boeing 747, with more than 2,000 trans-Atlantic flights.

Captain Robert N. Buck’s accomplishments are legendary … Certainly, I’ll treasure forever my initial contact with Bob Buck. It came when I received a congratulatory phone call from him soon after I was upgraded to captain. "Never doubted you’d make it," he snapped. "All the best. Welcome aboard!" His personable warmth was often buttressed with a wry sense of humor. That he would take the time, as a Chief Pilot of an airline in the midst of rapid expansion, to pad the ego of a junior pilot revealed much about the man.

Besides congratulating me, he asked if I would accept a training position instructing new co-pilots on the DC-3. Buck’s assurance that I might have something to offer TWA’s "new hires" made the offer impossible to refuse. With only two years of airline experience as a co-pilot, I questioned even my own qualifications for the job, but his confidence in me allayed all apprehension. The assignment provided the significant advantage of allowing me to hone my DC-3 skills. This was excellent experience for the time when I would be flying regular schedules. Every flight instructor will confirm that you learn the most about flying when teaching others. Bob Buck knew it. I learned it.

After a year as instructor pilot, I returned to line schedules, and had little contact with Bob until I transferred to international flights out of New York. He returned to active line flying as a supervisor, joyously leaving his administrative desk job. Buck’s leadership and management skills are impeccable, but his rightful place (not to mention his heart) was still in the cockpit.

At that time, Bob Buck could write the book (and later did) on cockpit leadership, command and management. His balance of concern for people and concern for the mission is a model for today’s cockpit resource management (CRM) training programs. I can attest to his exceptional leadership skills from two vantage points, namely when I received a line check from him, and later while serving with him on Flight Operations staff in New York during the hectic, pre-jet era.

My first cockpit experience with Buck was on an international Super-G Connie flight. I flew the leg from New York to Frankfurt. Bob chose to fly the return portion out of Frankfurt. Little did I know what challenges lay ahead during this check flight.

At full gross load on takeoff, just after calling for "gear up," our concentration on airspeed, climb attitude and traffic was broken by the deafening fire-warning bell and a brilliant red light on the eye-level glare shield. The increasing and ear-splitting noise would alert even a comatose crew.

The control tower confirmed that smoke was coming from the No. 3 engine. If Tom Mix and Ken Maynard had been crew members, they might have preferred derring-do heroics. But for professional pilots the decision to land was never in doubt. Engine fire procedure – throttle closed … fuel and oil shut off … fire extinguisher discharged … and propeller feathered – was initiated immediately.

Hearing the checklist read was impossible with the fire bell located just inches behind the co-pilot’s head. Juggling radio contacts with the Frankfurt control tower, managing the cockpit procedures, and flying the plane with heavy military traffic in the landing pattern, Buck displayed an effortless grace under pressure. We landed without further incident.

Buck pursued the problem of the distractive effects of the fire-warning bell. With crafty engineering, he ultimately called for a cutoff switch that would silence the bell once it had alerted the flight crew. I doubt that he ever experienced an issue involving safety without taking action to improve the situation, technically or procedurally.

Buck’s counsel was sought industry-wide throughout his career. Even in retirement, his broad aviation expertise continues to serve the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Air Line Pilots Association(ALPA), Air Transport Association (ATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on world-wide aviation problems.

Later, in 1957, when I served on Flight Operations staff, I saw a new facet in Bob Buck. He held a key role as special consultant to Carter Burgess, the newly appointed president of TWA. Buck’s background was well-known to Burgess and his advice on flight operations issues calmed the turbulent times of jet planning which confronted the industry. The earliest concept of "crew coordination" for operating jet aircraft at TWA was developed by Bob Buck teaming up with Captains Flod Hall, Fred Austin, Ray Rowe, and the TWA Flight Training staff. The principle of teamwork with shared responsibility in the cockpit was innovative and formed the basis of cockpit resource management (CRM) programs long before those heralded programs in today’s air transport industry.

Today Buck shares his expertise in numerous books which cover a broad array of flying topics such as weather flying, instrument techniques, navigation ant jet-flying. His astute grasp of technological changes in the industry is enriched by his link with early aviation. His books are ageless and remain worldwide best sellers in aviation circles.

(In a recent) book, The Pilot’s Burden, (Buck) addresses the long neglected subject of flight safety and paints a realistic picture of man’s challenging role in coping with cockpit overload and regulatory strictures. His wealth of flying experience merges with his grasp of human behavior to create logical and realistic views of changes needed to enhance safe flight.

"Technology has progressed, but human factors have not," Buck says in The Pilot’s Burden. "The fact that reducing demands on the human will reduce chances for human error has not been addressed with the intensity and honesty it deserves … until now!"

Bob Buck’s contributions to aviation continue to be acknowledged. The Active Retired Pilots of TWA (TARPA) honored him with their Award of Merit. Since the recognition came from his peers, it is treasured by Buck as one of his greatest achievements.

Bob Buck’s youthful interest in flying can be seen as the springboard for his lifetime of achievements in the advancement of aviation safety and professionalism … from one with "the right stuff!"

Walt Gunn (1942-1981) served in Flight Operations and was based at BUR, NYC, CHI and MKC.

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