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The Majors

My first career goal was professional baseball; after all I was born with the initials for it—MLB. At eight, I was a starter in the nine and ten year old league and I had a mean fastball with a natural rising screwball action. As a lefty, I could throw it inside the plate to right-handed batters and it would ease over the inside corner. Every strike appeared as a brush-back pitch. When I could control it, that is, and therein lied the problem. I threw harder than my peers, and some of them had the bruises to prove it. My nickname was “Beanball Berry.”            

I should have stuck with pitching. Lefties are in high demand in the big leagues, but I also loved to bat. By the time I moved up to the Junior Babe Ruth League at age thirteen, my coach moved me over to first base so I could stay in the line-up, the refuge of pitchers when not on the mound, and I accepted my coach’s wisdom. My pitching reputation didn’t fully go away though. At my ten-year high school reunion, I thought Will Wilson was approaching me to shake hands and say hello. Instead he said, “Hey Beanball, you hit me in the back with your uncontrollable fastball in 4th grade. I still remember it.”

I was taken aback and thought, “That’s a long time to hold a grudge for a pitch I let loose in grade school. Are you smart and fast enough yet to get out of the way? Maybe I should throw an apple at him and find out.” Instead I laughed it off and replied, “That’s Captain Beanball to you.” It was good to be remembered, but not as the kid with the wild arm, and he didn’t need to know that I was still merely a first officer at my airline at the time. Reunions are great for glorious self-declarations of success.            

Growing up, as the baseball funnel grew tighter with all three of my town’s junior high school teams graduating into a single high school, it became apparent that being good wasn’t good enough. I didn’t make Greenwich High’s roster. My major league baseball dreams were crushed about the time I was learning to drive.

High school became my soul-searching time, and like almost every other kid I had to face the future as Mom and Dad were making plans to kick me out of the nest. That’s when I asked for flying lessons at nearby Westchester Airport, New York. We lived in the southwest corner of Connecticut.            

I remember watching tickertape machines spit out weather reports and Glenn Larson, my first instructor, reading official sounding words from the gibberish shorthand. A glass door opened from the flight planning area and revealed a ramp full of beautiful single-engine Piper Cherokee airplanes. Behind them was a maze of pavement and a multitude of colored lights. As we walked to tail number 1945-Hotel that would be our aircraft for the next six-tenths of an hour, Instructor Larson handed me a small clear cup and taught me how to sump the wing tanks free of water. AvGas spilled on my hands and the flying bug soaked into my soul. I could smell my future in the sky as I held the cup up to my face to see the separation of AvGas and the little bit of water I’d drained from the tank. We opened the cowling and checked the oil level, verified the tire inflation and remaining tread, tugged on the flight controls, and everything I touched on the plane felt like first kiss excitement.            

This was an introduction flight. In addition to the Four Fundamentals—climbs, descents, straight and level flight, and turns—we flew over my house for a new aerial perspective of familiar surroundings. It was obscured in trees, but we did find the neighborhood schools and churches. I was awed by the whole experience until Instructor Larson put me back to work learning to operate the aircraft. My logbook includes “radio communication” in my initial entry. Communicating with New York’s extensive Air Traffic Control system was something I’d have to learn by doing. He taught me to un-key the microphone if I was going to say, “uh.” Better to let someone else talk than to announce to the world that I was standing on my tongue.

After Instructor Larson landed with me following through on the flight controls, I tried taxiing the airplane back to the ramp while he kept our wheels on the pavement. Mom picked me up—I was old enough to take flying lessons but still only possessed a learner’s driving permit. It was obvious to her that I was onboard with this new activity, so she bought me a logbook for Instructor Larson to sign and a primary flight book that I still recommend as a first read for flight students—William Kershner’s Student Pilot Flight Manual.

My enthusiasm earned me a trip to Daytona Beach to visit Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with my dad, and afterwards a trip to the Florida Keys for the SCUBA diving mini-lobster season. We flew on PBA—Provincetown Boston Airlines where a single pilot landed us in Marathon Key, and I got the golden ticket ride in the co-pilot’s seat. I didn’t have any clue of the job market back then, but my dad had an idea because he was a businessman. With no formal aviation training yet, he studied the industry from a financial viewpoint to see if learning to fly would offer me an opportunity to obtain a reasonable return on the required educational investment. For me it was just about the flying. I was still in high school and hadn’t paid rent or a bill in my life. He asked me if flying Cessna 402s around the Keys would be satisfying if that’s as far as I got in my career. I think he was preparing me in case my flying career got stuck like my baseball ambitions. My view was more idealistic and I said, “Hell yeah!”

The Cessna 402 was bigger than the Piper Cherokee that I’d taken my two lessons in and the whole experience was a lot of fun. That was good enough for Dad. I’d turned the corner and found a new, more obtainable career goal than baseball, although Embry-Riddle accepted me as both a flight student and a baseball player.            

Six days after my high school graduation, I left my Senior Babe Ruth baseball team mid-season. I was batting over 600 after 9 games against my high school’s pitchers who were spread around the league for additional playing opportunities. Hard to believe, but I was on fire at the plate that season. My coach was crushed, but I started college less than a week after my high school graduation party, anxious to start learning how to fly. My parents miscalculated their annual vacation and left me as the man of the house. I walked across the stage in my cap and gown and then threw a bash for three hundred friends all while my folks were sailing in Greece. The first letter from Mom that I found in my new university mailbox down in Daytona Beach began, “Dear Mark, why is our lawn growing flip tops this year?” This was before the tabs on beer and soda stayed attached to the cans after opening, and I hadn’t stuck around town long enough to collect those shiny little discards.

After Dad got over cleaning up my mess, and making me feel guilty because our dog cut his paws on the sharp aluminum hidden in the grass, he decided to check out what it was that I saw from the cockpit that I was newly addicted to. He took lessons up in Massachusetts where he was running a business. This began our friendly rivalry: who would get his Private Pilot’s License first, and take the other one flying. The loser would have to buy the clam chowders on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island as we planned to make a cross-country chowder run during my next visit home. Finding New England’s best airport diner in his newly acquired Piper Cherokee 160B was our favorite father and son quest.

Most of the family flying was just between Dad and me. My brother didn’t have any interest in flying, although he recently surprised me by skydiving. Mom went with us once, but screamed louder than she did at Yankee games where she was always at the verge of being ejected. She had the world’s longest brown ponytail that she pulled through the back of an adjustable baseball cap, and she cheered and jeered like nobody I’ve ever met. She loved attending baseball games, both mine and the pros—maybe that’s why a career on the mound seemed so appealing during my impressionable years. Mom’s attention was very focused at the games.            

One day at college my scheduled training flight got rained out. That was one thing that flying had in common with baseball; it was subject to delay and cancellation due to foul weather. When I returned to my dorm, I was doused with water from all directions. The parking lot flooded during extreme afternoon thundershowers, and the battle of the dorms was happening with wastebaskets and water balloons. It was all kinds of fun until my instructor showed up, and also got soaked. Instructor David Esser told me the rest of his afternoon flying was cancelled, but since I lived on campus we could go up when there was a break in the weather. “Awesome, just let me change.”            

“No,” he said. “If I have to fly wet, so do you. And by the way, your friends are all crazy.”            

“I know, isn’t it great?”            

Off we went, to the small southern runway at DBA—Daytona Beach Regional Airport. Three times we went around the pattern together and then he told me to pull over to the local Fixed Base Operator—a facility for General Aviation aircraft. I was confused because Embry-Riddle had its own ramp where we parked our airplanes. He hopped out, but before he reclosed the door, he said, “Now go back out and do what we just did three more times. Remember, the airplane will be lighter without my weight in it, but you can handle it.” With that he closed me in that little cockpit, walked into the building attached to the hangar, and was gone—what I later learned was the old school method, or not letting the student dwell about soloing, and just making him go do it without warning when he’s ready.            

I was both scared and excited as I looked over at the empty seat beside me. I was hyper-aware now and even noticed that Instructor Esser had courteously secured his seat belt and shoulder harness. I restarted the engine, reading my checklist out loud with nobody to listen to me talk. Releasing the brakes was the deciding moment. With just a nudge to the throttle I was rolling and on my way on my own.

I taxied out only to find the airport was turned around. The wind had shifted and take-offs and landings were now operating the opposite direction. I briefly considered turning back to get my instructor. Was I qualified to do other than what he’d specifically told me to do? The urge to solo got hold of me and I rationalized, “I need to be flexible. Isn’t that what pilots do, adapt?” I wondered what Instructor Esser thought when I taxied a direction other than expected. I don’t know what the aviation equivalent of Beanball is, but he was probably thinking it. Perhaps he was wondering what else he was qualified to do if the FAA ripped up his license. As a solo student, I was flying on his ticket.            

I wasn’t signed off for touch and goes. Every landing had to be made to a full stop with a lengthy taxi-back for another take-off. Air traffic picked up as darkness approached and day-flight only students returned from the local practice areas. It was a double Ray-Ban shade of dusk when I taxied back into the FBO ramp to pick Instructor Esser up. He was wired on iced soda, his favorite vice, and was still holding a giant cup of it. I was wired too—I had just soloed! He sipped while letting me taxi us back to the school’s ramp to park the plane. I tried to be smooth so he didn’t spill.            

We went up to Instructor Esser’s desk and he grabbed a pair of scissors. Several other instructors and fellow students watched as he cut the back off my t-shirt, still wet from the water war and now also mixed with my sweat. I was initiated as a fledgling pilot in the true aviator’s tradition. He signed my now priceless shirttail with the airport name, runway, and date—8-9-83. It was a trophy like none I’d ever earned before, and I sent it to my dad as a thank you for his support. A few weeks later his arrived in the mail, and I hung his solo shirt up proudly in my dorm room. By luck, we were scheduled to solo on the same day, 1200 miles apart, and we were both rained out. My soaking wet instructor made up our flight right away, while it took my dad two more weeks to reschedule.

From that point on, Dad continued learning to fly but he couldn’t keep my pace since I was learning full time in a total-immersion aviation environment. I went home for the winter holiday after I’d just earned my Private Pilot’s License, and made my dad tell me, “You’re the pilot in command” of his own airplane because I now had a license and he was still working on his; also, because I felt the need to enforce my new authority. I was a bit of a prick for making him do that, but my eighteen year-old mind needed the ego-feed as much as we really needed to establish whom had the final word over the safe operation of the flight on our long awaited chowder run. He was the owner/operator and I was the pilot in command—our roles in the cockpit were now clearly defined, and for the first time I had authority over my father. I consoled him with the fact that letting me fly his plane was putting my college tuition to immediate good use.

He made good on his debt and we became clam chowder connoisseurs throughout New England. The pre-departure discussion came in handy on our return to Danbury Airport, where he kept his plane. We asked for runway 35 which came through a cut in the hills. It’s an approach that’s breathtaking during the weeks of fall foliage but exciting anytime. After touching down and rolling out, dad told me to turn off onto the crossing runway 08. I told him, “No” and tried rolling through. Dad stepped on the brakes on top of his rudder pedals and we stopped in the middle of the intersection but I refused to turn onto the other runway. The tower came over the radio, “Seven-One-Whiskey” roll through to taxiway Alpha. Aircraft on runway 08 is waiting to take-off.”

Dad was thinking about the shortest taxi-time back to our parking area. He wasn’t experienced enough yet to keep the whole airport operation in mind. I taxied back to his spot and we tied the plane down in silence, but we did what most pilots do after a flight—we debriefed over a beer. Every flight is a learning experience and sometimes it just takes a look back from a non-moving seat to see the big picture.

Cherokee 5471-Whiskey became the vehicle for a tight flying bond between dad and me, until he finally sold it. I’ve got him into other cockpits since then though, and at 73, although he no longer flies, he still loves aviation. When I’m ready to get my own plane someday, I know I’ll get him back on the controls again because I keep my flight instructor qualifications current. He got me into aviation in the first place and now it’s my turn to keep flying available to him occasionally. Maybe we’ll start the search for the best clam chowder all over again.

My urge to fly pre-dated my love of baseball. I still have an “Official Junior Captain” certificate from National Airlines, signed by the captain, that I earned on a flight to Florida when I was just three years old. At 4 ½ I sewed a scene on stretched canvas of an orange wand-waving ramp guide man directing a plane with what looks like picture windows. As a schoolteacher, Mom trusted me with needle and thread at an early age—probably because it kept me quiet for a long time.

As an MD80 captain now, I finally made it to the majors, although just not in the way I expected. I still only get into baseball stadiums with a purchased ticket, but I get to fly over them, and flying is a satisfying career too. Had I not beaned Will Wilson and many others with my pitching, I might still be struggling to get into Major League Baseball instead of enjoying a career with a major airline.                                                            


Mark 45 1/2



25 Years Since ERAU


25 years since my ERAU graduation in December, 1985 is a landmark that’s caused me to reflect on how I’ve put my BS in Aero Science degree to use. Embry-Riddle was the best two and a half years of my life. I started Summer B of 1983 only six days out of high school, and I had so much fun learning to fly that I stayed straight through. The summers were the best time because I had the flight line practically to myself, and summer school also met the requirement for the Flight Fellowship/Leadership Scholarship that allowed me to instruct at ERAU before I graduated.

After serving as IP#001 for a spring trimester after graduation, I needed a summer off and wanted to test my education in the outside world. In 1986 the airline hiring boom was still just over the horizon. I bought a one-way ticket to San Juan to try and find a job island-hopping. Paul McDuffee, Chairman of the Flight Department, told me that I’d starve in the Caribbean. I was honored that he wanted to keep me in his employment, but we parted with a handshake and I promised to be back in the fall if his prophesy came true.

In San Juan, I stayed on a friend of a friend’s girlfriend’s couch. She was an agent for a regional airline and understood being bit by the flying bug. Such was the fragile connection I had with the aviation world. She was also eventually the key to my invitation to de Havilland Twin-Otter ground school. She pulled some favors to get me out of her apartment. Thus I learned the value of the phrase, “You must be present to win.” Resumes alone would never have got me hired at Eastern Metro Express. But that opportunity didn’t materialize until after I’d chased Crown Air chief pilots around the San Juan airport and received my first ever jumpseat as a way to get to St. Thomas in a DC-3. The Aero Virgin Islands chief pilot lured me there with the promise of an interview, but instead gave me the keys to a C-172 and told me to spin-train his CFI candidate. The DC-3 ride and seeing the Virgin Islands upside down and rotating were early aviation thrills, but were only part of a persistent job hunting effort that finally paid off through a personal connection.

I did return to ERAU that fall, with a regional airline ID, and informed Mr. McDuffee that we both were right—I did get a job and yet I was starving in the Caribbean at $875/month before taxes. In St. Croix, I shared a condemned hotel room with two other pilots, the gnawing noises of rats too clever to be seen, and millipedes long enough to wrap around a shoe. But, I was turning jet fuel into black smoke and noise, so I was happily employed for a year until I could land a job flying around the northeast and cut my winter teeth at airports like LGA, JFK, and DCA.

By 1987, independent American Eagles were popping up and a total of nine existed before American’s holding corporation, AMR, started buying them out and consolidating them. I made $18,000 my only year at Command Airways/American Eagle flying Shorts-330s which was almost double my previous salary. Still low on the pay scale, I kept my eye on the prize of landing a major airline seniority number.

1988 is much like what I predict 2013 will be. I got hired at TWA as the airline boom began. Luck has a lot to do with timing, but it’s important to position ourselves to be lucky. In 2013 the first group off airline pilots will reach the new mandatory retirement age of 65. Current ERAU students can possibly see the first wave of major airline hiring since before 9/11/2001.

When TWA called to hire me in 1988, I knew my education at ERAU had paid off, as well as my persistence to pursue my aviation goals. Hanging on for the ride at the major airline level is another story altogether. If you’d like to read how I got trained in the flight engineer seat of the Boeing 727 and was shipped straight over to West Berlin, my story Surviving Probation will be published in the August issue of Airways Magazine. It develops the song Long Live the Pigship so I hope you log on to their website to both read the story and listen to the song.

I’m still using my ERAU degree every day I fly an MD80 for American Airlines. I’m also continuing my education at Fairfield University’s low residency Creative Writing MFA program.

Listen to music by Mark Berry: "My First Solo": http://www.pushingleavestowardsthesun.com/solo and "When I Look Back at 20": http://www.pushingleavestowardsthesun.com/twenty

To contact Mark Berry, e-mail him at mark@pushingleavestowardsthesun.com.