Thursday, August 23, 2007

Truce to Navigation

Navigation is a crucial skill for any pilot, and in the era of radar, GPS and collision avoidance systems it is easy to forget how recently pilots had to find their way by using physical features on the ground and other techniques based on maritime navigation. It wasn’t long ago that a navigator devoted the entire flight to plotting the course and speed of the aircraft the keep tabs on its position. There is many a student pilot who has swooped down to read what it says on a road sign to confirm his position.

The pioneer of specialist charts for pilots was Elrey Borge Jeppesen, who died in 1996 at 89 years of age. He was born in 1907 and began flying at age 16. His pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright, and he left high school to fly his war surplus JN4 "Jenny" biplane (that cost $500) as a barnstormer with Tex Rankin’s Flying Circus based in Portland, Oregon.

Jeppesen flew the night mail route between Cheyenne and Oakland, California. Fed up with the difficulties of navigating using a compass and the terrain below, he began making aerial surveys and taking photographs. His charts featured elevations, landmarks and obstructions, which he has observed from the air. "I invented something to prevent me from getting killed," he said. He sold his first charts to other pilots, at $10 each in 1934.

United Airlines began business in the 1930s, and Jeppesen became a pilot for them. His future wife worked for United as a stewardess. In 1936 they began a chart business
- putting together the Jeppesen Airway Manual - in the basement of their homes in
Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and in Denver, where they moved in 1941.

Jeppesen climbed obstacles such as mountains, water towers and the like,
checking their elevations with an altimeter. He had charted most of the U.S. by the time his country entered World War II, and his "Jepp" charts became standard issue to pilots in military service.

In 1954, pilot Jeppesen retired from United on medical grounds and put all his effort into the charting business. It was sold to Times Mirror Corp. in 1961, although Jeppesen served as chairman until 1988.

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