Who is Elrey Jeppesen, affectionately known as “Jepp”? I found the answer during a weekend trip to Denver in the Elrey Jeppesen Terminal. Jeppesen was one of the first pilots in America, a barnstormer, a wing walker, an instructor pilot, an airline pilot and most importantly the man most responsible for making the skies a much safer place to fly.
As I walked through the Denver Airport I came across the gigantic statue pictured above. Later I ran across six display cases chronicling Jepp’s life. If the statue was impressive (and it was – for quality and size), the display cases were fascinating.
Jeppesen was born in 1907 in Louisiana. He caught a ride in an airplane when he was a boy and like others aviation pioneers of the early 20th Century, he caught the flying bug early. As a young man he scraped together money from a paper route and other means to acquire his first plane, a Jenny.
The most surprising fact I learned of Jeppesen was that his pilot license (like many in the 20s) was signed by Orville Wright. Both Jeppesen’s middle name and last name were misspelled on the license. As the story goes, Jepp was so in awe of Orville that he kept silent about the errors.
After some barnstorming, wing walking and pilot instructing Jeppesen took a job with Varney Airlines. If you haven’t heard of it, you are not alone. Varney merged with several other small airlines to become United Airlines.
As Jepp flew around the country there was little written information about flight routes and airport layouts. Jepp began to cobble together notes in a little black book from each airfield. He copied things like runway numbers and radio frequencies for the towers. He also noted any obstructions (e.g. radio towers) in the vicinity of the airport and along the routes between airports.
Eventually word got around that if you wanted information about a route or destination to go see Jeppesen. His little black book was his resource, packed with neatly transcribed pictures and notes, all by hand. Eventually he figured if he benefitted from the book, why not let other pilots in on the action. He sold copies for $10 apiece.
Eventually, Jeppesen began publishing charts (i.e. flight maps) in his basement on different air routes and navigational aids. To this point, pilots had relied on Rand McNally road maps!
Jeppesen relocated from Salt Lake City to Denver in 1941. Paired with his beloved wife, Nadine (a former United stewardess), Jepp raised a company while raising a family. By the 1950s, he had 300 employees and retired from United in 1954 to focus on the business full time.
When I was pilot training, before we went cross country, the Instructor Pilots would ask, “Do you have the Jeppesen charts?” That is how all pilots refer to them.
Jeppesen was honored in several ways, particularly in the 1990s. He was put in the aviation Hall of Fame. John Glenn said, “I might not be here, if it wasn’t for Jepp”. The new Denver Airport dubbed the terminal, The Elrey Jeppesen Terminal in 1991.
Jeppesen passed from this earth in 1996. His company lives on (http://jeppesen.com/index.jsp) and is now a subsidiary of the Boeing Company. So who is Elrey Jeppesen? The man, who more than any other, is responsible for making the skies a safer place to fly.