Henry Saine and Colin Ebeling have finished a short film based on the Rinker Buck best-selling memoir Flight of Passage. Their company, Just Chorizo Productions, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for it and hope that it will lead to a feature length version. “In 1966, Rinker and Kern Buck, aged 15 and 17, rebuilt a Piper Cub in their backyard barn. Later that summer, the two brothers flew the small aircraft from their home in rural New Jersey to San Diego in six days, making them the youngest aviators ever to fly coast to coast. The journey captured the attention of newspapers, television stations and eventually the entire country, catapulting the pair to celebrity status amongst aviators and common folk alike.” Colin said.
While learning to fly a few years ago, Colin received a copy of the book and after finishing passed it on to Henry. “Rinker and Kern’s story is so full of warmth, humor and adventure that I fell in love with it immediately,” director Henry Saine says, “It’s an important story, not just for aviation, but to show young people, or anyone for that matter, that you can create your own odyssey, that you don’t have to be bitten by a radioactive spider or get hit by a magical comet to do something great or head out after your life’s passion. You truly have the freedom to become your own hero, not just with flying, but with anything in life. It’s a really inspiring journey.”
Inspired by their moxie, Rinker agreed to let Henry and Colin be the guardians of his memoir. Shooting is finished so I thought it would be a good time to talk to him about it. I caught up with him via phone busy promoting his new book The Oregon Trail.
I asked him how he felt about what Colin and Henry are doing with his story and he said, “It’s been a long process for me because a number of people over the years, including some really talented screen writers, had options for this to develop. Hollywood is just a very frustrating place, it’s like nothing ever happens there, so for Colin and Henry to come along with all the energy and direction that they’ve brought it’s obviously very very helpful and I’m excited about that. I developed a lot more affection for the project after I saw some of the shooting they did in New York state in October. Once I saw the quality of their work I was excited. I think all writers are ambivalent about having their work turned into a movie because while it can really help your book there are things they want to change however in general I’m very optimistic about Henry and Colin and can’t wait to see what they come up with.”
Those who’ve read the book were quick to point out that the film uses a different Piper Cub. I asked Rinker if it’s a big deal and where the plane is now. He was quick to point out, “I think everyone understands that in a low budget short film designed to help garner interest in a feature length version you just want to get an idea of what that full movie will look like. This little short is something they’re taking around to the studios. In Colin and Henry’s case they’ve only done one other movie before and so the studios who would have to spend a lot of money to make a movie aren’t going to buy into somebody who doesn’t have a lot of work out there unless they get a sense of what it will look like. The original airplane will be available to film the feature length movie with. I don’t think it matters if the plane is yellow.”
Rinker told me the PA-11 Cub (N4971H) he and his brother bought for 300 dollars and restored in their parents barn over the winter of 65-66 is now in Chattanooga Tennessee. “What happened was it sat in a barn in Vermont for like 10 years then Chris Nesin bought it in 2011 for $25,000 and took 3 years to restore it. Chris is an interesting guy, a corporate jet pilot, he put a lot of work into it and did an immaculate renovation. He even recreated our flight across the U.S. with it. He got together with Colin and Henry in California so the original plane is there to use if they actually get around to filming a feature length version of this,” he recounted.
I had to ask Rinker what he thought of Sean D. Tucker playing Hank the Stearman Man and he chuckled, “I was skeptical about it at first and then I got on the set and saw him playing Hank and I thought he was really really good but I’m not sure he’s going to end up being in the full length version he might have just been doing it for the short but I was surprised at how good he was. He’s got the right face and we did a scene together in which we were encourage by Henry to ad-lib. (see video clip below) I think Sean is a natural for that kind of part, he’s the character type.”
More than a book about flying, Flight of Passage is a touching memoir about Rinker’s complex relationship with his father, Tom Buck. As a Canadian I am fascinated by the fact that his father was part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and came to Manitoba as an American flight instructor. Rinker said he wished he could remember where is father’s old flight jacket was, “I can never swear that all of my father’s stories were true but he did have this old Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. He had this jacket in his closet for years, it had the emblem of the RCAF on it, I wish I knew what happened to it. In ’40 or ’41 somewhere in there, the American government sent out a message that instructor pilots were desperately needed. He went up to Canada taking a leave of absence from work at Life magazine and went to train pilots for 6 months on the Harvard. (most likely at Dauphin Manitoba) He did basic instruction and he did aerobatic instruction. He was declared ‘exempt’ because Life magazine was considered essential to the war effort so my dad worked out a deal where he was allowed to be away for half the year. He wanted to return to Canada but when America got involved in the war he became a civilian instructor in Texas for the USAAF on Stearmans.
Rinkers father lost a leg in a crash after the war and worked with RAF Ace Sir Douglas Bader when he was instructing in Canada. Bader lost both his legs but continued to fly and went on to become one of Britain’s highest scoring aces despite it. “When I was studying at the London School of Economics in 1971 – 72, my dad told me look up Doug Bader. The World War II ace was then a member of parliament and gave me the most beautiful tour of Britain’s parliament building. My dad had lost a leg too, they had been friends since the war, I guess it was a bond. My father did a lot of events for wounded veterans after the war. He would land a plane then take his prosthetic leg off and hobble out just to show there was a future,” he said.
Rinker went on to tell me that he ran into another of his father’s flying friends from the BCATP by accident, “I joined the London School Of Economics Glider Club at Lasham, an old RAF base. I did my check ride with a guy who actually looked a lot like Sean Tucker. We go up, fly around and land then he says you’ll be fine and starts to sign my log book and it’s Derek Piggott, RAF hero, one of Britain’s best known glider pilots and another of my father’s buddies that he worked with in Canada. Derek also did the flying in the movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and helped with the construction of several of the early aircraft recreated for the film. I told him you might have known my dad and he said he’d only been in Canada a couple of months but I do remember Tom Buck.”
Derek Piggott Movies (IMDB)
His role as a stunt pilot began in 1965 with the film The Blue Max which tells the story of the rivalry between two German pilots in the First World War. He was one of several pilots who helped recreate the dog-fight scenes. However, he was the only stunt pilot to agree to fly for the climax of the film in which the two rivals challenge each other to fly beneath the spans of a bridge over a river. Taking the role of both German pilots and with multiple takes from contrasting camera angles, he ended up flying through the wide span of this bridge in Ireland 15 times and 17 times through the narrower span. The two Fokker Dr.I replicas had about 4 ft (1.2 m) of clearance on each side when passing through. Piggott was able to fly through the arch reliably by aligning two scaffolding poles, one in the river and one on the far bank. The director had placed a flock of sheep next to the bridge so that they would scatter as the plane approached in order to demonstrate that the stunt was real and had not used models. However, by later takes, the sheep had become accustomed to the planes and continued to graze, and so they had to be scared by the shepherd.
Rinker’s father continued to fly after the war and bought an AT-6 he used as an airshow pilot, “We were driving by an airport in Philadelphia in 1961 and there was this ratty old looking T-6 sitting in the tie-down area. There was a for sale sign on it. I laugh now because I remember exactly what my dad paid for it, he paid 3000 dollars. He couldn’t find anyone on the field to check him out but he had so many hours in these things, except they were called Harvards, so he ran it up real good, had a mechanic look at it and everything, he just hopped in it and flew it home.”
I also asked what some of the characters in the book thought of it and where they are now? Rinker recalled, “I would think that Hank is not around anymore. He wasn’t particularly senior then, maybe in his 40s, but that would make him pretty old now.”
And what of Robert Warren Pate, ‘a glorious head case of a man, the find of the trip’? “He was pretty significant, you’ll remember we met in El Paso. He was a character and took us over to Juarez for dinner. We got into this big fight with the FAA. Pate saved us, he was a brave guy because he got the FAA so pissed off at him they forgot about us. I had exchanged some letters with him as a college student and lost touch. 20 years later I sat down to write the book and all I had was an address so I sent him a letter. 4 or 5 days later the phone rang, he said he’d been thinking about us just the other day and had written a poem and a song for you guys. He was then in his 70s or 80s and just as much of a crazy coot as he was then. He was still excavating for gold out west but he unfortunately had some kind of debilitating disease. I just always remember the story he told that night about losing his engine in a Stearman in the mountains and coming down in this little valley near El Paso where he saw what he considered to be Montezuma’s tomb if you remember from the book. I was desperate for him to read the 3000 pages I wrote about it because I didn’t want the book to come out and then he’d say it was inaccurate. So I sent him a copy and he called me back and said ‘I’m amazed at how accurate it is you just gotta’ change one word. You got me saying here that she was a prostitute and I wouldn’t say that.’ So I asked what he did say and he says, ‘that woman was a whore!’ We became good friends on the phone,” he said.
While checking for accuracy Rinker was asked to make another adjustment from a family member, “My uncle Jimmy married a respectable Orange County lady and when the book came out I think aunt Joan was pissed off about some of the language in the book that was in Jimmy’s mouth so Jimmy calls me and says ‘Rinker your books great if anyone asks I’ll swear every blessed word of it is true but there’s just one thing that’s total bullshit in your book, I can’t believe you put it in there. I did not use the word bullshit in front of you boys!” he recalled.
The author did fly most of the route again 25 years later, the east half in a Cessna 182 and from California to Arizona in a Lake Biplane. He told me, “When we landed at Cochise County, Arizona, I walked into the place and the same picture of a crashed landed sea plane in the dessert was still on the wall. I talked to the airport operator there and he said ‘I wasn’t here in ’66 but I remember them talking about you guys coming in here to land, the prior owner told me that he wouldn’t let you pay for gas.'”
His latest book Oregon Trail is an epic account of traveling the length of the trail in a covered wagon with a team of mules. It’s another journey story which chronicles the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, its significance to America and his father. When I asked what, if anything, from Fight Of Passage inspired his new book he explained, “I have a lot of reminiscence about my dad in the new book too. It was a pretty big trip, we went about 300 miles total in a covered wagon when I was a kid which was a pretty big deal. I said to my editors I don’t want have all this stuff about my dad in there even though I was reminded of him a lot. I didn’t want people to think I was just re-writing Flight Of Passage but my editor said they’re not going to say that, it’s the truth and you gotta’ stick it in there. The book is doing great and not one review has said it’s a rehash. With the success of the new book all my other books are going to be reissued so it’s really a kinda’ fun period for me that way.”
Asked if he still flies Rinker said, “I fly a little bit usually in friends planes, I’m not current. I kinda’ got out of the habit of it when I was putting kids through college, I couldn’t do both financially. I took on this new book and then moved to Maine to care for my mother who passed away a few weeks ago. She was very healthy and very good right to the end. So I’ve been dislocated but my brother has a really nice Cub up here (another brother). I fly with him and a friend who has a Decathlon. The other reason I haven’t flown is that as I get a little older I just find that you really have to be careful. If you’re going to fly that day that should be the main activity and everything else should centre around that. You have to be safe, you have to plan your cross county, weather and all that kinda’ stuff. Its serious. Because I have so many other interests, if you’re not proficient you shouldn’t be in the plane. I just think its been a tough period for me to stay proficient but I’m sure in a couple of years, when life slows down a bit for me I’m gonna’ get back into it.”
On Colin, Henry and the short movie Rinker concluded, “I really appreciate their passion and the quality of their filming. They understand something else that’s important which is that it’s really not a flying book it’s really a story of father and son. It’s a winsome tale of the 1960s about a couple of boys growing up and their determination and their relationships with themselves, their father and family. Colin and Henry understand that pretty well.”