[Portrait] Elrey Borge Jeppesen

Jeppesen in Varney Air Lines overall, 1930
Elrey B. Jeppesen was born to Danish immigrant parents in 1907—too late to be part of the first generation of inventor/pilots that included the Wright brothers and others who flew before and during World War I. Yet, he was a peer of Charles Lindbergh (born 1902) and other second-generation pilots who set new records, tested exotic new aircraft and truly dazzled the public’s imagination with aviation’s possibilities.

The magic of flight

Jeppesen was in love with flying nearly from the first moment he saw an airplane. He took his first ride in a JN4D “Jenny,” in the summer of 1921. A barnstormer named Briggs charged him $4 for a 10-minute ride. “We got up there, and the sun was shining, and we’d make turns and banks, and I could see the hills and the clouds and the colors brought on by the setting sun,” Jeppesen later wrote. “This was magic. I remember how great it felt when he’d go into a bank and pull it around, and you’d sit tight in the seat. The sun would shine through the canvas, and you could see the ribs, the sunlight, the river below and the mountains.”

In 1927, just after Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Jeppesen decided to drop out of high school and focus on a flying career. He moved from his parent’s home into a hangar at Pearson Field, near Portland, Ore. There, he performed odd jobs and eventually started a hamburger stand, serving lunch to pilots, mechanics, passengers and visitors. He began flying lessons and quickly demonstrated a proficiency and skill far beyond that of a beginner. After only two hours and 10 minutes of instruction, Jeppesen soloed in an Alexander Eaglerock, powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine. (Many early aviators logged time in the stately biplanes, manufactured first in Englewood, Colo., and later in Colorado Springs, Colo.)

Jeppesen in the cockpit of the JN4D Jenny in 1927
That same year, Jeppesen and a friend pooled their money and paid $500 for a 1916 Jenny from World War I. The friend subsequently backed out of the deal, leaving Jeppesen as sole owner. For the next several months, he gave rides in the plane to earn extra money.

He considered going back to school for his high school diploma and then trying for a college degree in engineering, so he flew down to Oregon State University in Corvallis to meet with the dean of men. “I must have looked like a hippie,” recalled Jeppesen. “I was in my puttees, leather jacket, and the rest of . the regular flying gear we wore. I’ve reviewed it many times in my mind, trying to figure out what happened.”

The dean hardly spoke to Jeppesen, except to ask how he was going to finance his way through school. Jeppesen responded that he was going to give flying lessons, barnstorm and sell rides. “But it was no-go,” he said, adding, “I know that if I’d been in that position and a young man came to see me and said, ‘I have an airplane,’ I’d be pretty interested in getting that kid to attend my school. But that’s not the way it goes.” Jeppesen decided to focus 100 percent on a flying career.

The Little Black Book

Oregon's 27th pilot license, signed by Orville Wright
Over the next several months, Jeppesen made money as a barnstormer in Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, finally landing in Dallas. He began a period of “job-hopping,” while he honed his flying skills. He worked briefly as a flight instructor at Love Field, and then Fairchild Aerial Surveys hired him to fly their photographers. That job led to a brief assignment, photographing and mapping parts of Mexico’s coast and interior. Jeppesen received Mexico’s pilot license number 33. With the natives continually shooting at his plane, Jeppesen found that Mexico could be an exciting place, but the work eventually turned tedious, and he left to join Boeing Air Transport. He piloted the first plane to carry a stewardess, Miss Ellen Church. He returned to Fairchild for a short time and then moved on, first to Southwest Air Fast Express and then to Varney Air Service.

Hand-written notes of Medicine Bow Field, Wyoming
While this period may not have demonstrated job loyalty, picking his way to safe landing spots did provide Jeppesen with many experiences in navigation. He began to note landmarks, fences, poles and other obstacles along his routes. Jeppesen’s thorough and detailed nature became obvious during his quest for personal safety. Sometimes, when he landed at airports, he’d walk around the area, recording distances and heights. He recorded names and phone numbers of airport managers, as well as nearby farmers, so he could phone ahead for current weather conditions. He then purchased a 10-cent black notebook to organize his expanding notes. Eventually, other pilots learned of his “little black book” and began to ask for copies.

Finally, in 1934, Jeppesen decided he should charge a small fee for copies of his black book. He borrowed $450 from the bank, bought 50 binders and had 50 copies mimeographed. The little black books sold for $10 each, and pilots gladly paid the price. Some even began collecting data and forwarding it to Jeppesen. Other information sources included city and county engineers, surveyors and local residents.

Nadine Liscomb
Not surprisingly, Jeppesen had little time for the ladies—until he met Nadine Liscomb, a United Airlines stewardess working the Boeing 247 he was flying from Chicago to Omaha. He called for coffee, and when she entered the cockpit, both were smitten almost instantly. “I ordered coffee, but I got Nadine,” Jeppesen often joked.

They married on Sept. 24, 1936, beginning a love affair and true partnership that would last 60 years. The young couple grew their fledgling chart business and their family, first living in Cheyenne, Wyo., and later, Salt Lake City, Utah. Jeppesen continued to fly for United, while they ran the business from their home. In 1941, he transferred to Denver, and the company moved into a storefront on East Colfax Avenue.

World War II brought additional business, with the Army and Navy both wanting “Jeppcharts.” Armed services personnel wanted Jeppesen to stay out of the military, so he could continue to run his business, providing charts critical to their military operations.

Like many civilian commercial pilots, Jeppesen did fly some missions for the Air Transport Command, a government military agency. In 1943, the ATC awarded a contract to United Airlines to fly transpacific routes, and Jeppesen was one of the pilots selected for these operations. After finished his training on the C-87, he made just one trip to Brisbane, Australia, in December 1943, before the War Department grounded him to manage his chart business.

Painful decisions

Jeppesen as a United pilot in his mid-20's
After the war ended, Jeppesen continued to fly for United. The aviation industry boomed during the postwar years, and his company benefited from the surge. In 1947, the Civil Aeronautics Administration adopted the Standard Instrument Approach Procedures, and Jeppesen worked closely with the CAA to create the template design.

Growth necessitated another move for the company, from downtown Denver to Stapleton Airport. The burgeoning aviation business, the addition of new airports and the airlines’ expansion to international markets all contributed to a nearly unmanageable pace for both the company and Jeppesen himself. Overworked and suffering from a bad back, he continued to fly a full schedule with United, while overseeing his business on his days off.

In 1954, at the age of 47, Jeppesen made the painful decision to retire from United and devote himself to his business. He had logged 18,000 hours and more than three million miles in 24 years of service. For three years after his retirement, he took a back route to his office at Stapleton, just so he wouldn’t have to pass the United sign at the company’s hangar.

His company’s rapid growth, coupled with remarkable changes in aviation and technology, almost predetermined the likelihood that management would have to change in order for the company to survive. Jeppesen hadn’t finished high school, and although he had taken some correspondence courses, he never earned a business degree. He had the vision, drive and discipline to launch the company and see it through adolescence, but it would take more to get it to the next level, and it would take deep pockets. He also worried that any inaccurate chart information could result in a fatal plane crash, potentially a huge liability. He feared that he and his wife could lose everything, including the company they loved.

Jeppesen employees at Stapleton Airport in 1961
In 1961, Jeppesen sold his company to Times Mirror Corporation. The decision would benefit his company, but would lead to his eventual ouster. One provision of the sale required Jeppesen to vacate the president’s position within five years and select his own successor. Despite interviewing several highly qualified candidates, Jeppesen could find no one suitable for the job. Times Mirror finally replaced Jeppesen with Chester “Chess” Pizac, naming Jeppesen chairman of the board, emeritus. Jeppesen printed his business cards with the word “emeritus” omitted. The company’s new guard didn’t value his role and contributions, and, eventually, Times Mirror moved Jeppesen’s office out of the building and into space at the Stapleton Airport terminal.

In 1968, Times Mirror acquired Sanderson Films, a company that sold audiovisual materials for pilot training. The founder, Paul Sanderson, had been a ground school instructor who wanted to standardize a high level of quality in pilot education. Seeing the synergies between the two businesses, Times Mirror merged the two companies in 1974.

Later years

A Jeppesen Airway Manual nowadays
After Horst A. Bergmann took over the reins as Jeppesen’s president in 1987, he decided to find a more positive role for Jeppesen in the company—one that acknowledged and capitalized on his enormous contribution. “I felt that if you have a historical basis for a company, it’s good to work from there and move towards the future,” Bergmann said. Bergmann also recognized that connecting the employees with the founder could provide a solid basis for company pride and commitment. He noted that employees wanted to find ways to recognize Jeppesen and help him gain his rightful place in aviation history.

In time, Captain Jeppesen would be widely recognized for his contributions. His honors include induction into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He was presented the Tony Jannus Award, signifying outstanding achievement in the field of scheduled air transportation, and was a member of the Order of Daedalians. The most meaningful honor came when the main terminal at the new Denver International Airport was named for him. Many individuals and organizations, including the Silver Wings Fraternity and the Colorado Aviation Historical Society, backed the idea and worked hard to make it happen.

Replica of Lundeen's sculpture of Jeppesen
The City and County of Denver and Jeppesen Sanderson Inc. formed the Jeppesen Aviation Foundation to raise money for a sculpture to grace the new terminal. The commission was awarded to George Lundeen, a sculptor and resident of Loveland, Colo. Jeppesen employees contributed nearly $50,000 towards the $189,000 cost for the bronze statue. The remainder came from Times Mirror, pilots, friends and citizens. Elrey and Nadine Jeppesen were honored guests at Denver International Airport’s dedication, on Feb. 29, 1995. Janet Conner, who worked closely with Jeppesen in the 1980s, spoke of that moment. “The dedication, the naming the terminal in his honor, was the highlight of his life,” she said. “He was absolutely thrilled.”

After both Elrey and Nadine Jeppesen’s health had failed precipitously, on June 10, 1996, Nadine passed away, from complications of emphysema. Her husband mourned her passing every day. His licensed practical nurse, Annette Brott, often found him “talking to Nadine,” deep into the night. On Nov. 26, 1996, only six months after Nadine died Capt. Jeppesen “went west.” He was two months short of his 90th birthday.

  • Tony Jannus Award in 1975
  • National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993
  • Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000
  • Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor
  • OX5 Aviation Hall of Fame
  • NBAA Meritorious Service Award
  • Edward Warner Award, 1995
  • Honorary degree from the University of Denver


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