Pioneer Pilot Flew Into Fame, Fortune and History--With a Notebook : Aviation: The urge to survive night-mail routes drove Jepp Jeppesen to draw his first aerial chart. Today his navigation manuals are used by all U.S. airlines.


In 1927, Elrey (Jepp) Jeppesen borrowed $500, bought an old Army surplus JN4 “Jenny” biplane, quit high school and went barnstorming with a flying circus.

Within two years he had flown the first aerial surveys of then-uncharted Mexico. He went on to survive dangerous night-mail routes over the Rockies and Northwest, and he later became an airline captain into the 1950s.

But it was his air navigation charts that won him both a fortune and a place in the national Aviation Hall of Fame.


Jack Leffler, who founded the Museum of Flight at Seattle, once said the museum traces the history of flight from “Leonardo da Vinci to E. B. Jeppesen. . . . Jepp’s work has saved a lot of lives. People who didn’t use his charts ran into mountains.”

Now 83, Jeppesen, the shy son of Danish immigrants, looks back on that Golden Age of aviation from his home in an exclusive Cherry Hills estate area.

“It was magical for me. I can’t hardly believe it ever existed,” he said. “Those old open airplanes--you felt like a bird, a part of the airplane. . . . It was so damn much fun. You could feel the wind on your face, the wind on the stick and the rudder. You were part of it. Today, you just might as well get on a train.”

A strong sense of survival prompted Jeppesen’s first chart book, a tiny hand-size loose-leaf ring binder.

“My motivation was to learn the routes real fast, to try to remember all these things,” he said of his days as a night-mail pilot. “I started writing them down and making sketches. We followed railroad tracks (called ‘hugging the UP’ or Union Pacific) and highways. We needed to know the size of the fields, where they were, obstructions”--such as smokestacks, water towers, power lines, trees, mountains.

“All of the outhouses faced south. If your compass went out and you could find an outhouse, you could find out what direction you were going.”


Jeppesen’s little black notebook became the granddaddy of the Jeppesen Airway Manual, first published in 1933. It sold for $10 and included landing-approach procedures for 50 airfields between Chicago and Oakland.

Jeppesen confirmed his information by driving the entire distance by car, climbing mountains and smokestacks and water towers with altimeters strapped on his back. He obtained additional information from city and county engineers, surveyors and farmers.

Today, Jeppesen Airway Manuals are used by all U.S. airlines, many foreign carriers and two-thirds of all instrument-rated pilots.

When instrument flying was introduced during the mid-1930s, Jeppesen updated his black book to show pilots how to follow radio beacons, mileage reference charts and terrain elevation profiles.

He believed instrument flying was the only way to develop aviation into a reliable form of transportation, he said.

“At the outbreak of World War II, I had the whole United States covered. I gave 50 of the manuals to the military,” he said, and secured contracts with both the Navy and Army air wings.


His aviation navigation chart business began as a moonlighting business with the help of his wife, Nadine, a United Airlines stewardess he met and married in 1936. They worked from their basement in homes in Cheyenne, Wyo.; Salt Lake City and Denver as United moved Jeppesen around during his commercial pilot career. The Jeppesens hired college students as draftsmen and artists.

Finally, in 1954 in Denver, the stress of two full-time jobs became too much. Under doctors’ orders, Jeppesen retired from commercial flying at the age of 47.

When he sold his Denver-based air navigation chart company in 1961, it was grossing $5 million a year and had more than 200 employees. Today it employs 840 people worldwide and grosses $80 million annually.

Jeppesen launched his long aviation career as a teen-ager.

“I never finished high school. I soloed (with just two hours and 15 minutes flying time) and bought this Jenny for $500--borrowed most of it from people on my paper route (in Odell, Ore.). I got in the airplane and just never got out of it.

“I’d been sleeping in the hangar, gassing engines, going barnstorming with the older guys, doing a little wing-walking,” he recalled.

“I used to take this old Jenny up to about 5,000 feet over the Columbia River and make long slow loops all the way down. . . . “


“The hum of the engine had a lot to do with it, the noise of the propeller--it all glued together for a sensation you certainly can’t enjoy today on an airliner,” Jeppesen said.

“I used the Jenny for barnstorming. They called it a flying circus. Two or three of us would get our planes and go into a town, do some stunts to attract the people . . . then charge them $10-$20 for a 15-minute ride.”

In 1929, he landed a job with Royal Dutch Shell Oil flying English aerial photographer Sidney Bonnick on a pictorial survey of then-uncharted Mexico.

He was the 27th pilot to be licensed in Oregon, the 31st in Mexico and his Federation Aeronautique International pilot license is No. 7034, dated Jan. 29, 1929, and signed by Orville Wright.

In 1930, he began flying the night mail--it paid twice as much as flying by day--for Varney Airlines at Portland, and then joined Boeing Air Transport. Both companies later merged to become United Airlines.

On the mail runs in Wyoming, he remembers the wind so strong against the puny power of the plane that sometimes he’d be flying backward.


Flying the mail early in the 1930s was flying by the seat of your pants, Jeppesen said.

“We guided mostly on terrain features and dead reckoning. We flew anywhere from 50 to 300 feet” above the ground, he said.

“I had to start learning fast. Anytime somebody got sick or killed, they’d say, ‘Send Jepp over there--he’s only got a suitcase and no family.’ I got to fly a lot of runs that way.”

Four of the 18 pilots on the Oakland to Cheyenne run were killed in the winter of 1930.

Flying the night mail in a cold open cockpit, with ice on the wings, “You just staggered along. The prop would throw ice off and it would crash against the fuselage like a rifle bullet. The ice would get on the wing wires and vibrate and snap like a gunshot. . . .

His bright blue eyes looked far away as that era seemed to fly past his mind in review.

“The most fun was barnstorming,” he said. “God, I’d love to do it all again.”