Elrey Jeppesen

By Divan Muller
Elrey Borge Jeppesen, the son of Danish immigrants, was born on 28 January 1907 in Louisiana, in the USA. When he was fourteen years old, Jeppesen had the opportunity to fly in a Curtiss Jenny with a travelling barnstormer. From then on, he was determined to pursue a career in aviation. Jeppesen used the money he earned from delivering newspapers and from odd jobs at a local airport to save up for flying lessons. After two hours and fifteen minutes of flight training, he completed his first solo flight. At the age of eighteen, Jeppesen was employed by famous barnstormer Tex Rankin to work in various positions, including ticket clerk, wing walker and propeller turner. Soon enough, Jeppesen was able to earn a living as a pilot, by ferrying aircraft and serving as a photo pilot for aerial survey flights. In 1930, during the Great Depression, Jeppesen found employment with Boeing Air Transport as an airmail pilot.

At the time, pilots used roadmaps and terrain features, such as railway lines, to navigate. Flying at low level, often in bad weather or over mountains, made this occupation notoriously dangerous. Jeppesen realized that it was not uncommon for his fellow pioneering pilots to die in accidents. In an effort to preserve his life and the lives of his friends, Jeppesen began to draw airfield charts and made notes of flight routes in what he referred to as his ‘little black book’. He even climbed mountains to determine their height, drove to airfields to examine obstacles and made a telephone number list of farmers who were willing to share weather-related information with pilots. Jeppesen made copies of his notebook for his friends, but the ‘little black book’ became so popular, that he decided to sell copies instead of simply giving them away. He later updated his book with newly introduced radio beacon information and terrain elevation profiles and, in 1934, he founded Jeppesen & Co.

With his chart business growing, Jeppesen continued to fly as an airline pilot. One night, whilst flying a Boeing 247, Jeppesen noticed a burning barn on a farm. The fire was quickly spreading, so he flew low over the farmhouse, circling above it until the farmer woke up to fight the fire.

Jeppesen retired as an airline pilot in 1954 and sold his chart business in 1961, although he continued to serve as its chairman. He died on 26 November 1996 at the age of 89. Today, the Jeppesen company continues to produce flight information solutions as a subsidiary of The Boeing Company.