The Legend of Captain Jepp
This was the last formal interview of Captain Elrey Jeppesen before he died with Parkinson’s Disease in 1996. The company he began, known as Jeppesen Sanderson in 1993, included this biography in their media kits, as it was the most comprehensive story available on the man whose name now graces the main terminal at Denver International Airport
What do the crews of all U.S. airlines, most foreign carriers and instrument-rated pilots have in common? Dig through any flight bag, any cockpit and you’ll find Jeppesen Airway Manuals. Sit in any ground school class and see that everyone is being taught to read Jeppesen Airway Manuals. Ask instrument pilots who are dancing their way through clouds, night skies and storms what is critical to them, and no doubt they’ll clutch their Jepp charts. All pilots, planes and passengers in the world owe their safety and success in the sky to this invaluable data.
There was a time, however, before instrument flight was possible, before complex protocol and regulation, when any pilot’s guess about how to maneuver terrain and reach destinations was as good as another’s. Of course, some pilots were smarter than others.
One of the smartest was aviator Elrey Jeppesen. He took care to document physical details of his flights in a little black book. In 1934 those notes were the beginning of a company that capitalized on Captain Jeppesen’s aerial adventures, making possible many of the adventures of pilots today. The 10-cent notebook was the precursor to the air navigation business that the L.A. Times-Mirror Company bought in 1961, which now grosses multi-millions annually.
Jeppesen was one of few surviving pilots who had first-hand recollection of the mythical days of mail pilots and barnstormers — when Jack Knight flew the first night airmail trip that convinced the U.S. government to forge ahead with delivery of mail by air, before the Boeing 247 challenged pilots to start flying instruments.
With his triumphs behind him, this pioneer airline pilot and barnstorming hero lived to tell about them. Indeed, you haven’t known the best of armchair flying unless you’ve sat with Captain Jepp.
“I helped make it safer to fly, but it also took a lot of fun out of it,” he once told a Denver Post reporter. “Shoot, not knowing exactly where you were going made you appreciate getting there a lot more.”
Portions of the legend of Captain Jepp are sprinkled from newspaper clips dated in the 1920s, to a full-color feature published in Flying magazine in 1991. The terminal at Denver International Airport is named for Jeppesen. His first pilot’s certificate, issued in Oregon in 1929, has the signature of Orville Wright. Young Elrey Jeppesen grew up in the Northwestern U.S., idolizing the perseverance of heroes like Thomas Edison and John Paul Jones. It was here that he took his first barnstormer ride and was inspired to learn to fly.
THE FLYING CIRCUS
Young Jeppesen’s early flying experience was as Chief Aerobatic Pilot in Tex Rankin’s fabled air circus. A pilot who worked in Tex’s circus, Basil Russell, taught Jepp to fly, and Jeppesen taught others. (One of his students, Dorothy Hester Hofer, became the first woman to fly an outside loop, and in 1933 she set a world record by flying 76 consecutive outside loops over Omaha.) Jeppesen’s job with the circus included wing walking, but he downplayed this, explaining, “The guy who usually did it got thrown in jail in Baker, Oregon. We had to keep the crowds, so I crawled out there like I’d seen the other guys do. That was my first time.”
The list of awards bestowed on him outnumber the aircraft he has flown. Skimming the top: He was fifth to receive the Meritorious Service award from The National Business Aircraft Association (the first four were Col. Charles Lindbergh, Gen. James Doolittle, Donald Douglas Sr. and Igor Sikorsky). He has been formally recognized for his contribution to the development of scheduled airline service.
Senator John Glenn, former astronaut, inducted him into the Aviation Hall of Fame. Glenn said, “I might not be here if it wasn’t for Jepp.” One old news clip from the Yakima Herald-Republic in his home state of Oregon announced that he was the first to land on the strip that is now the Yakima Air Terminal. Charlie McAllister, owner/operator of McCallister’s Flying Service, was intending to do the honors. McAllister flew to the 80-acre site purchased a few days prior by Yakima County, where townspeople had carved the landing strip from sagebrush, but, McAllister explained to the local paper, “When I landed, there was this 19-year-old kid leaning on the wing of an Eagle Rock. He asked me where I’d been and how come I took so long getting up.” McAllister had risen at 5 a.m.
Modestly, Jeppesen claimed that snatching the honors was not a premeditated part of his barnstorming adventures for that day. In fact, he didn’t realize he had, until someone sent him the clip from the local paper. Years later he was invited to be a guest of honor at the airport’s anniversary celebration.
Looking back on 1928 when he performed aerial surveys of Mexico’s east coast for Sherman Fairchild’s company, he remembered the blue puffs of smoke coming out of the woods as natives shot at planes sent to help the search for oil. He remembered the Chinese cook who was too afraid of attack to go into the jungle to work for the survey pilots at their airfield. And he remembered the “army” sent by the Mexican government to protect the airfield. They arrived barefoot with families and livestock, and he couldn’t convince them to quit building fires to cook chickens in the hangar next to his airplane.
But he didn’t recall that he took the first aerial photos ever of Mexico. “I just remember that we had to send one copy to Fairchild and another to the Mexican government.” Being in charge of Fairchild’s foreign mapping division was a fluke for the young pilot: Jeppesen had substituted for a pilot who was supposed to fly a photographer from Dallas to New Orleans, but that pilot never showed up. Reluctantly, the photographer agreed to fly with the young pilot, then only 21 years old. “He taught me how to fly a strip pattern for photography. We sent the films to Dallas and they came out great. Right there and then I was a big photographic pilot.”
It was in this same spirit that his company began. “I wasn’t trying to start a business,” he explained. “I just wanted to continue flying.” In 1930 Jeppesen was flying mail for Boeing Air Tansport between Salt Lake City, Utah; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Oakland, California. There were 18 pilots flying between Oakland and Cheyenne. That winter he attended funerals for four of them.
The route was the most dangerous and highest paying: $50 a week and 7 cents per mile, or 14 cents per mile at night. It once took Jeppesen 13 hours to fly the mail from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City.
“You’d have to sit there all by yourself, and you had to keep the engine running at 1500 rpm or it would die on you,” he said. He remembered waiting for the weather at an airfield in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.
“Not a soul around… dark… no lights… wind blowing… You had to put the blocks under the plane and you had to drag the gas cans from theshed. Trying to pour gas in a plane in the dark with the wind blowing 40 miles an hour is an experience in itself!” he recounts, making certain that no one understate the inherent misery of those venerable days of aviation.
He began to record field lengths, slopes, drainage patterns, lights and obstacles. He illustrated the terrain and airport layouts and noted phone numbers of local farmers who could provide weather reports. He was the first to climb and measure Blythe Mountain outside of Salt Lake City.
“I climbed it with three altimeters strapped to my back, and I took the temperature when I went up. I took the readings to the physics department at the University of Utah and had them figure the elevation. Then I added 500 feet to it, to be safe.”
Later, when the altitude of that mountain was officially documented, Jepp discovered, “I was off by 200 feet, so with the 500 feet added, at best I was 300 feet in the clear,” he smiled.
“At first I considered taking the information to the government and getting them to do the charting, but they weren’t very interested and they moved so slowly.”
Because they asked, Jeppesen would sell copies of his data to other pilots for $10 each. When World War II broke, Captain Jepp’s compilation of information for pilots was vital to U.S. defense. The American government didn’t have such a file. Flight bags were an anomaly until pilots began carrying Jepp charts. Jepp recalled, “Once Jack Knight came into the hangar and Ray Gore, chief dispatcher in 1934, asked Jack why he had a bag. Jack said, ‘Don’t all modern pilots carry a flight bag?’
Ray looked inside and found a box ofkitchen matches, a candle and a pair of pliers.” When the business boomed it became difficult to balance his United Airlines flying career while the aerial map business burgeoned from the basement of his home in Salt Lake City. In 1939 he offered to sell United his publishing operation for $5,000.
The company declined. It already furnished pilots with mimeographed sheets of mountain ranges and descent procedures for each airport. But many of the pilots preferred Jepp’s notebook. Another pilot working for United in 1942, G.C. Kehmeier, later wrote: “I bought a copy of his Airway Manual even though I was making only $240 per month.”
By the end of World War II, United intiated an agreement with Jeppesen so that all UAL pilots would have Jeppesen Manuals at UAL’s expense. TWA was the last of the airlines to contract for charts from Jeppesen’s company. Today, racks on the walls of flight operations offices in major airports across the world are stacked with flight bags bulging with Jepp Charts, a standard provision for the ranks of thousands of airline pilots. Commercial pilots now dread the required task of inserting hundreds of loose-leaf page revisions in their notebooks every week. More than 2,000 charts are updated every month.
In 1993, United Airlines alone spent roughly $5 million on Jepp charts for its pilots. One can only guess at the savings and profit for the airline if it had accepted Jepp’s early offer of a mere $5,000 for his company.
“United’s refusal was the second best thing that ever happened to me — the first being that Nadine (his wife of nearly 58 years) became Mrs. Jeppesen,” Jepp claimed. Nadine Liscomb, a registered nurse, made her first flight in 1935 in a Boeing 247 as a pioneer stewardess. When flight attendants were hired in the early years of airlines, they were required to be nurses. Those days are particularly fond memories for Captain Jepp. “I had a good deal… pressed the call button and got Nadine!”
He also looks fondly on the days of raising a map business and a young family in Salt Lake City, where he and Nadine settled after marrying in 1936. Nadine became the company’s secretary, treasurer, personnel manager, layout editor and mother of two sons. Jepp was flying United’s DC-3s to San Francisco, a task he considered relaxing compared to his map business, which he regularly devoted 12 hours per day.
After Jepp would draw the charts himself, the Jeppesens would hire student engineers from the University of Utah to conpose final drafts. The helpers worked on drafting tables in the Jeppesen basement at all hours. Their coming and going was a terrific source of entertainment for an old neighbor who watched from her sewing room. She called the FBI. investigators sanctioned the work, but the students had also found a terrific source of entertainment… “They got a few guns and put them in a rickety box in their car, waited till grandma was looking out the window, then carried the box very carefully up the lawn and dropped it. Out spilled the guns… I got to know the FBI fellah pretty well,” Jeppesen remembered with a smile.
Captain Jepp has been under suspicion on other occasions as well. On Dec. 13, 1932, he was flying a single-engine Boeing full of mail through light snow when the engine quit one mile east of Omaha. It was 3 a.m. He plunked the plane in a pasture and it rolled into a ravine. The landing knocked him unconscious. After gaining consciousness, he was stumbling around in a daze while the plane burned and a woman near the scene yelled “Get his gun!” Back then, the U.S. Post Office issued Colt revolvers to their pilots and instructed them to shoot anyone who tried to rob the mail. Meanwhile, officials were worried about something else: No one had told Captain Jepp that his mail load had a shipment of diamonds. “They dug up all the ground around the crash and sifted the dirt, but they only found one diamond… They watched me pretty closely over the next several months, but what could I do?” Jeppesen seemed to remember a claim for $6 million made against the diamonds, but couldn’t recall if the owner was ever paid. However, he did remember that post office officials scooped up the dirt and saved it. For 10 years after the wreck they would ritually sift that dirt through a screen in hopes of recovering a few more of the lost gems. They never did.
A monumental success for aviation safety came in 1947, six years after the Jeppesen family had moved to Denver and Nadine had insisted that the business be moved from their basement to a legitimate office. The U.S. government cooperated with the Jeppesen Company to introduce the first Standardized Instrument Approach Procedures. Before this, there were nearly as many approach procedures as individual operators. Next, Jeppesen published the first VOR approach chart in 1949, followed by the first High Altitude enroute chart in 1959. Jeep was instrumental in establishing the FAA’s National Flight Data Center. Jeppesen was 47 years old in 1954 when his doctor told him he risked a heart attack if he didn’t give up either the airline or his navigation business. Leaving the airline was so difficult for Captain Jepp that for years he would drive out of his way not to see the old entrance sign to the airline on Stapleton Field.
The DC-6 was the last airplane he flew with United. He had begun on the Boeing 40B, then the tri-motor Boeing, then the 247. He had logged about 10,000 hours on the DC-3 before ending with the DC-6. “We had no retirement plan. We were just out trying to build a transportation system,” he recounted. Three years after leaving United, the Jeppeson Co. Established a plant in Frankfurt, Germany to publish maps for Europe, Africa and Asia.
Joe Hutchinson, Captain Jepp’s co-pilot during the early days of United Airlines, also holds memories of making history. “I learned to fly in the Army Corps, before there was an Air Force,” Hutchinson relates. “Then they let half the Air Corps go — All of us were 2nd lieutenants or higher — but it was pretty easy to find a job because United had just bought a fleet of brand new Boeing 247s.” These were the first fast, all-metal airliners. He and Jepp were piloting a 247 when they spied a burning barn in the pre-dawn hours, Hutchinson recalled. “We had left Chicago at 1 a.m. for Omaha. It was a clear, bitter cold night during the winter of 1935-36. To the north, some distance away, we saw a pretty big fire, obviously a house or barn… In those days we flew planes low to avoid westerly winds at higher altitudes. When we flew east we could fly higher, but this night we were only about 500 feet.” With passengers aboard, they flew to the fire and circled around the homestead until a big man in his old-fashioned night shirt came out of the house and waved in grateful acknowledgement, Hutchinson claimed.
Later, Walter Winchell, network radio broadcaster and columnist for the Chicago American, made the flight famous when he presented an orchid to Jepp. The flower was awarded annually as a symbol of heroism. Jepp gave it to his love Nadine. Hutchinson knew Nadine through their work and remembered meeting Nadine’s family. They routinely greeted her at the Omaha airport after the pioneer stewardess returned from Boeing 247 flights. “She came from the finest kind of farm family in western Iowa,” Hutchinson said.
CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
In 1961, when the company was doing about $5 million of business per year, Jepp sold the company to the L.A. Times-Mirror. He stayed on as Chairman of the Board, and his ideas continued to flourish. The first RNAV approach charts appeared in 1971. Then in 1976 the U.S. government worked with Jeppesen’s company to create Profile Descent Charts to combat airline fuel costs that were sky-rocketing as jetliners spent much time in holding patterns.
In an article titled “How to Read Approach Charts,” published in Flying magazine in 1992, J. Mac McClellan wrote: “The first thing you should look for on an approach plate is the name Jeppesen. I know that the FAA uses government charts as examples in the IFR written test, but forget about those ink-splotched crude plates as soon as you’re done with the written. The whole civilian aviation world uses Jepp charts.”
1961 was also the year that the government threatened to take away Jeppesen & Company’s monopoly on aerial charts. They figured they could acquire the maps from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey at half the Jeppesen prices. Byron Rogers, a Colorado congressman at that time, defended the company on the floor of the House of Representatives, explaining that many of the government maps were copied from Jeppesen charts.
Jeppesen was quoted in the news: “We are not afraid of competition and will welcome any challenge predicated on quality of product and fairness of price. But we cannot contend with subsidized practices of fractional pricing legislated by the government.
Admiral H. Arnold Karo, Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, admitted to the subcommittee of the House that the government is required to charge only for the cost of paper and printing, but not for other spending to obtain the information. He also said that Jeppesen’s charts had more complete coverage and offered a worldwide service that the government did not. The army agreed to stick with Jeppesen for another year, and the issue has not arisen since.
In 1964 Times-Mirror merged the company with Weems System of Navigation, Inc., a reputable manufacturer and publisher of marine navigation aids in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1968 the company merged with Sanderson Films, Inc., featuring Paul Sanderson’s widely respected multi-media training system and pilot supplies (Sanderson courses are standard for Air Force ROTC college programs). Jeppesen OpsData has been established, offering computerized computation of maximum allowable takeoff and landing weights required by the world’s airlines. Lockheed DataPlan and its London sibsidiary, Memrykord, have also recently been acquired to provide optimized flight planning, advanced weather services and personalized international flight services, The company has outgrown Denver offices four times.
In the 1990s, Jeppesen Sanderson employed more than 800 people around the world. Most of these employees worked at the Denver facility, updating thousands of charts each month and producing millions. Jeppesen explained that he sold the company “because I thought the insurance was going to knock us over. Nadine and I couldn’t get any liability insurance, even though we’d never had any suits filed against us.”
After Jepp sold the company, Pan American World Airlines sued Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc. in response to the crash of a cargo plane and death of its four crew members. Mt. Kamunay, a 3,100-foot mountain 20 miles east-northeast of Manilla in the Phillipnes, wasn’t shown on a chart made by Jeppesen Sanderson. The airline won $5.79 million. (Wayne Rosenkrans, president of Jeppesen Sanderson at that time, explained in court that the point was only one along a range and that pilots are supposed to be guided by the prescribed minimum flight altitude, which cleared this obstacle by 1,000 feet. According to Rosenkrans, after the crash the Philippine government decided the prescribed clearance over Mt. Kamunay was adequate, regardless of the unmarked mountain, and didn’t change it. But the judge ruled in favor of Pan American.) What regrets did Captain Jepp have of his legendary life?
He said he never would have sold his first plane, his beloved Jenny, if he had known the stunt pilot who bought it would intentionally fly it into a barn and smash it for the sake of drawing a crowd to a show.
What’s the best flying Jepp ever performed? He told a tale of when a spring in a Burlington magneto on an OX-5 engine in an early Beechcraft, made the engine fail. The only available landing spot was a baseball diamond in Hood River, Oregon. A game was being played. “Everyone cleared out except the pitcher. He didn’t move. But I managed to miss him. I had a passenger, too — the fellow who owned the airplane, as a matter fo fact,” he recalled. “I only had about 100 hours (pilot experience), but that’s the best job of flying I ever did.” They made a phone call to get the new part, “but they said they wouldn’t bring it — no place to land,” Jepp said, disappointed in the trepidation of the pilot for the parts company.
What was his favorite plane to fly? “The Tri-motor Boeing 80-A,” he said without hesitation. “It was a big airplane, rattled all over, shook and felt like you were doing something!”
Another favorite memory for Captain Jepp was sliding over the hills into San Franciso, flaps down. “Sinking into that beautiful bay with all the lights… God that was great! It’s difficult to find the words.”
At age 86, he sat in his spacious home among model airplanes, awards, scrapbooks and vintage photographs. He pointed to a picture of pilots under the wing of an old circus plane. He is in the group, next to Tex Rankin.
“I’d bet there wasn’t more than $25 in all of our pockets combined when this was taken,” he smiled. “My grandson is 18 years old. People ask me what he should do… The only answer I have is ‘Find something you like to do; don’t go for the money — it’ll come.’”
When Jeppesen was a young man flying mail and living in Chicago, he typed a letter to his parents, who were anxious about his education and future:
I am studying hard and long most of the time and I intend to do that as longs I can, but under no circumstances am I ever going to stop flying. I like it too well and when the time comes when I can no longer fly, I might just as well start looking for the next world. So far as I can see, the most important thing in this world is to learn the art of living and that is what I have been trying to do for some time… I will not get very much out of life if I can not fly…”
Not only did he get a lot, he created a legend.