Paul Berge

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A series of conversations about lives enriched by flying

Oh sure, pilots have the FARs and the AIM, and controllers have the 7110.65, to tell us what we must do and can't do. But where do you go -- besides AVweb -- to find out how the ATC system really works out on the firing line -- like VFR climbs and descents, approach gates and tight turns to the marker? IFR magazine. Paul Berge hung up his ATC headset after 13 years at Des Moines tower, and now edits and writes for IFR. Before that he worked towers and scopes in California, earned a degree in European History, ran a pharmacy, wrote four aviation-themed novels, and co-produced 80 episodes of radio drama, and he still hosts Sideroads on Living in Iowa on public TV. This month, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Paul about being a pilot, being a controller, and how we can all get along.


Paul Berge

Paul Berge was born March 9, 1954, in Newark, N. J., -- the oldest boy of six children. Paul heard stories about flying from his father, who had been a crewman on DC-3s in the Air Corps. Paul caught the bug early, and when he wasn't riding his bike to spend the day at Teterboro or Ramapo, he was leafing through aviation magazines looking at the pictures. He hated school, so he joined the Army, became a pharmacy technician, and spent his service years in Monterey, Calif., and Honolulu, where he learned to fly. After the Army, he got a degree in European History at UC Santa Cruz, and worked part-time at the Watsonville, Calif., airport pumping gas. When a fellow worker took the FAA controller exam, he took it too, and the FAA hired and trained him. He loved airplanes, but hated the grunt work of schlepping flight strips at Oakland Center, so he quit the FAA in the spring of 1981 and opened a pharmacy in the Sierras. Paul's seed money ran out just about the time of the PATCO strike, so he went back to work as a controller -- first at Reid-Hillview near San Jose, Calif., then Monterey, Calif., then -- for something completely different -- Des Moines, Iowa.

During his 13 years there, he wrote four novels and lots of short stories about aviation. He became such an expert in rejection slips that he created Rejection Slip Theater -- producing a full-blown hour-long radio drama for scripts other writers sent in -- but accepted only on one condition: the script had to be accompanied by a rejection slip. You can catch reruns of the 80 episodes of RST on WHO radio on Sunday nights. Paul moved from radio to TV and currently contributes Sideroads -- focusing on Iowa's quirkier nooks and crannies -- to Iowa Public TV's Living in Iowa. Pilot's Audio Update has just released the Best of Berge Part 2, an audio cassette that features about an hour of Paul's humor and insight. (Best of Berge Part 1 is still available, too.) He loves taildragger flying, and he's recovering and restoring his 1946 Aeronca Champ, which got damaged when his hangar door crumbled during a severe microburst earlier this year. Paul manages the airplane's home field -- Nash, a private grass strip near Indianola, Iowa. And every month he edits and writes for IFR magazine, "trying to build a bridge between pilots and controllers."


Were you really born in Newark?

I was. On a dark and stormy night -- as far as I can tell -- they kept me indoors. I grew up in northern New Jersey and took my first airplane ride out of McGuire Air Force Base when I was 13. I had joined the Civil Air Patrol because I thought we'd get to fly a lot, and mostly we got to march a lot. We went up in a C-130 Hercules on the hottest day of the summer and I threw up all over that plane. I never even got to look out the window. It was miserable, and it absolutely sold me on aviation.

I grew up around Teterboro airport and I would ride my bike over there and watch the airplanes -- back in the days when a kid could get through the fence and walk around the airplanes. A man named Ken Hanscom had restored a Stinson Stationwagon, and he gave me my first small airplane ride. It was an autumn day -- just gorgeous -- and being in a small plane was totally different than the C-130. I still threw up in his airplane, but it was different.

Ramapo was another smaller airport on the border between New York and New Jersey -- it's gone now, became a subdivision years ago -- and would I ride my bike over there and spend all day watching airplanes.

How did you get to shake hands with Nixon?

That was at Teterboro. Nixon came in to rally the troops for an off-year congressional election at the height of the anti-war protests. I knew the airport so I told my buddy I could get us in. I got us there but there was a huge crowd -- the anti-war protesters, the Tricia Nixon-type Young Republicans, State Police, Secret Service, and some Republican Party volunteers providing security. That was the weak link that led to two high-school kids getting to shake hands with Nixon.

The protesters and the supporters were all gathered at the front of Atlantic Aviation -- one of the big FBOs there -- smoking cigarettes waiting for the cameras to roll. I guessed that the president wouldn't come in the front -- past the protesters -- but instead would come in the back. So we waited by the back door of the hangar.

Pretty soon we hear the thump thump thump of Marine One, and the protesters start chanting, and the Young Republicans start chanting, and the door next to me swings open and in steps a Secret Service guy, and right behind him is Richard Nixon. I said "Hello" and put out my hand and he shook it. That was it. A huge crowd pushed us out of the way and it was over. But thanks to general aviation, I got to shake hands with Nixon.

Was there aviation in your family?

My dad was in the Air Corps as a crewmember on DC-3s in the 442nd Troop Carrier Group. He never learned to fly, but the Air Corps trained him as a radio operator. He had lots of flying stories and that's what got me interested.

After your Stinson ride, were you thinking about flying as a career?

Paul Berge and Daughter Emily
Paul, his daughter Emily, and their 1946 7AC share the grass at Nash Field in Indianola, Iowa

When you're 13, a career is something that bounces around in your head like a loose marble. I hated school and I was a terrible student, and I loved the romance of airplanes and airports. I wasn't the type who would read a book from cover to cover -- I would leaf through magazines looking at the pictures and reading the captions.

When did you learn to fly?

I joined the Army when I was 18, got stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, Calif., and joined a flying club at Fritsche Field -- which is now Marina airport. They had some 150s, a 172, some L-19 Birddogs that nobody wanted to fly. I didn't complete the flight training -- I was 18 and got distracted. I ran the pharmacy at Presidio -- the Defense Language Institute. I lived off-post in an apartment just a few blocks from Cannery Row and got involved in theater groups and met a lot of interesting people -- having a lot of fun. Then the Army split my unit in half and prepared to send half of them to Europe and half to Korea -- it was our turn in the barrel for 13 months. My name wasn't on either list, and one day I got a call from a colonel in personnel who said, "Burr-gey?" [Paul's name rhymes with "urge."] "I don't know who you know ..."

You knew Nixon.

That must've been it. He said, "I don't know what strings you pulled but you're going to Hawaii." And off I went to Trippler Army Medical Center for 13 months.

They had an excellent flight school at the Hickham/Wheeler Aero Club at Wheeler AFB Base in Oahu, and that's where I really dove into it. I soloed on an auspicious day -- December 7th -- at Wheeler, and got my private the next year, in '75.

After Wheeler I flew out of Honolulu International. There were two Grumman dealers, a Piper dealer, a Cessna dealer and a Beech dealer. In the military flying club you filled out forms, you filed a flight plan just to go around the pattern, you got a full briefing from the Air Force weather specialist -- and I thought that's the way it was. Then I checked out in one of the Grummans at Honolulu, and they told me where the key was and where to put it when I came back, and I realized the freedom of flying.

On the weekends we'd fly to the other islands -- low-time, VFR pilots -- and had a great time. Somebody came along with a black-and-white TV camera and we filmed a few shows for a local station about flying to the islands. The tapes are long gone but it whetted my appetite for doing TV.

I had acted in high school and tried out for small parts in Monterey, but mostly worked backstage, mostly to meet girls. The Presidio of Monterey had a beautiful theater called the Tin Barn, and it was used by the local community, not just the Army. I wasn't serious about theater but I enjoyed it.

When I got out of the Army in '75, I got discharged in Oakland. I got accepted at UC Santa Cruz, and abandoned theater and got a degree in European history in '78.

What time period of European history were you studying?

My major was modern European, which was Louis XIV through WWII. My minor was French history, and I was really interested in the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745-46 -- Bonnie Prince Charlie and that gang. I like history -- it's storytelling, it's romantic. It doesn't help predict the future, but you can see patterns occurring over and over.

I went back to graduate school to get a degree in public administration and was bored out of my gourd. I walked away from the program and decided to write novels. I wrote four novels, and Bootleg Skies is the only one that was accidentally published. It was published by a company in Des Moines headed by an antique-airplane enthusiast named Joe Pundzak. He had a beautiful Beech 18, and I used to work that airplane as a controller in Des Moines tower. He also had a Travel Air -- the biplane, not the Beech.

Bootleg Skies Cover
Bootleg Skies : A tale of daring Prohibition aviators who risked their lives smuggling whiskey over the American Plains.

One day I was working ground control at DSM. I was in the process of writing Bootleg Skies, and would work on it during breaks or on position if nothing was going on, editing, correcting. Then this guy calls ground and says "Ground, Travel Air so and so, Elliott, taxi for takeoff." When you're working ground you always prefer to eyeball the airplane you're taxiing if you can. So I look over expecting to see a twin Beech and instead see this gorgeous red and black biplane with a silver prop flashing in the sun. Whoa. As he's taxiing I've got the binoculars on him and I asked him "What year is that?" "What model is that?" "What engine do you have?" For the next couple of weeks every time he would fly I'd ask him questions -- "How fast does it go, what's the stall speed, what's this, what's that?" and finally he asked me if I was looking to buy one. I told him I was writing a book about old airplanes and he invited me down for a peek.

He told me he loved reading about old airplanes and I gave him a bunch of my unpublished aviation short stories, and when the book was done he offered to publish it. Just as the book came out his company ran into financial problems and eventually dissolved, so it never got promoted. But I made a friend and we went on to produce "Rejection Slip Theater" together.

Bootleg Skies takes place in 1929 in the Midwest, and I wrote a sequel that takes place in 1936 in southern California, when the eastern syndicates made the first big push into California. I wrote a third aviation novel, set in the 1930s, with a female protagonist. All of them have a crime theme -- pilots that are struggling all of a sudden have an opportunity to make money doing something shady. I love gangster history -- don't forget, I grew up in New Jersey. I'm still searching for a publisher for the other novels.

We jumped from European history in Santa Cruz to the tower in Des Moines. What did we miss?

Two towers and a center. In 1977 I started working at Watsonville airport as an airport attendant, working for the city of Watsonville and a guy named Vern Ackerman -- a highly-decorated WWII PBM pilot; a cigar-chewing, fly-any-kind-of-airplane kind of pilot. I worked there for two years, and a woman I was working with decided to take the test to become a controller, so I decided to take it, too. We both did well on the test and both got hired at the same time at Oakland Center. She worked Oceanic and I worked the central valley in California.

In those days, training was a very slow process. After the academy training, you did on-the-job training, which was basically being a runner -- ripping off flight progress strips from the old FDEP printers and distributing them to each position. You did that until there was an opening, then you worked D-side [data], then R-side [radar], then off you went.

Being a young guy, I was bored and I left. I went to the Sierras and opened a pharmacy in Arnold, Calif., with an old Army buddy. He was a pharmacist and I wasn't, so I ran the non-drug side -- photos and that kind of thing -- and he ran the drug side. I was tending bar and living in a trailer and we slowly starved to death. Then the controllers went on strike, and when things got resolved, a buddy of mine from Oakland Center called. He said there were a lot of openings and it was a lot nicer place to work. I was broke and starving, so I called the FAA. They said, "Pick a tower, ANY tower." I said, "Monterey." They said, "No. They weren't stupid. They didn't strike." So I went to Reid-Hillview in San Jose from November of '81 through the next summer, until there was an opening at Monterey. That was my first radar position and I stayed there until '84. I had been reading a lot of Richard Bach -- about flying in the Midwest -- and my wife and I moved halfway between her family on the west coast and my family on the east coast -- Iowa.

Did you have a favorite position to work? Tower? Ground? Clearance? Approach?

It varied with attitude and age. The younger controllers like to work radar, and it's exciting when it's busy. When it's not busy, it's like being in a laundromat with the lights off watching the clothes go around in a dryer. At DSM we would have nice mix of aircraft -- Tomahawks and Skippers mixing with A-7s and C-141s, air carriers and helicopters all at once. We didn't have arrival gates and mandatory speed reductions, so when the flight plans are popping out and the weather was moving it was fun. That's an experience only radar controllers get -- I'm sure other professions have it, like athletes or musicians, or a pilot who greases a crosswind landing after weaving through a line of thunderstorms -- but radar is deadly dull when it's slow.

I like airplanes and weather so I wanted to go upstairs and look out the window. Clearance was boring to me -- it's just paperwork. It's easy -- there are a million little rules, but you learn them and that's it. Dealing with flow control and traffic management was frustrating. The FAA likes the idea of central flow control and it doesn't always work when you're dealing with local issues. Ground control can be tricky because of incursions, but it's still a two-dimensional picture and it's not that challenging. Tower is where you're really controlling airplanes.

I used to use my hands to point at the airplanes, and swipe my hand down the runway if I had just cleared somebody for an immediate. Some controllers sit quietly in the chair -- very Zen-like -- and do it all with their voice. Different styles.

Did you have a favorite shift?

I hated midnight. Too slow. But I did enjoy how the rules changed at midnight.

For instance ...

After midnight you're dealing mostly with the freight dogs, who are also bored and tired, and for the most part fantastic pilots doing amazing flying with old garbage equipment. They'll give you the short approach, make the first turnoff, give you the speed reduction or keep the speed up, and do it all so effortlessly.

Paul at DSM Tower
Paul working DSM tower, 1987. Photo by Bob Bishop

I like to think of IFR readers as people who understand the cooperative relationship between controllers and pilots -- it has to work hand in glove. Just like a good pilot will beat up on himself if he side-loads the gear on a landing -- not because it was unsafe but because it was sloppy -- a good controller will beat up on himself for turning the wrong guy or giving the wrong vector -- not because it was unsafe but because it was sloppy.

Sometimes as a controller you get jet-itis -- kerosene on the brain -- and you assume a jet's going to be faster because it's a jet. I had a 737 coming in from Phoenix and a turboprop coming in from Kansas City. They both show up on the scope at the same time and I jam the 737 in first and turn the turboprop out, thinking I can slow down that turboprop and make this thing work. I kept telling the 737 to keep going fast and I had that turboprop turning and slowing and turning and slowing and finally I was able to clear them both with the turboprop four in trail of the 737. The turboprop guy reads back his approach clearance -- with his speed restriction -- and says, "By the way ... I think we should have been first." I keyed up and said, "You know, you're absolutely right. I just plain screwed it up." He said, "I didn't mean for you to apologize. I shouldn't have said anything." And I said, "No, you're right." So when he came out again later, I called tower and said "Give him left on course up to 10,000," and called Minneapolis Center and said, "Request Kansas City direct on this guy," because I felt like I owed him one.

Do pilots make better controllers?

No. One of the best controllers I ever saw couldn't tie his shoes when he first showed up for work. He could barely find his locker. Didn't know anything about airplanes. Was terrible on clearance and not much better on ground. We were ready to wash him out. He got to local and became "The Natural." He could just see things that nobody else could see. You'd see him setting something up and swear it wasn't going to work and it did. So we said, "Well, he can pitch, but can he catch?" and when he went to radar he put us all to shame. He went to O'Hare and became one of their best controllers.

One thing you run into with non-pilot controllers is they may not understand what airplanes can and cannot do. But a good controller who takes his job seriously will learn that. I knew a guy who kept a notebook. When he'd see an airplane he wasn't familiar with he'd ask the pilot, "What speed do you like on final? What can you give me? What can't you give me?" and learn it that way.

The FAA's training is awful. Some facilities are good, some are awful, and there are a lot of gaps. I left the FAA because the management at DSM was horrible -- it has improved since I left. When you lock horns with bad management, it's like something out of Dilbert -- confusing, frustrating and infuriating. In 1981, PATCO was right about a lot of things -- wrong on the major points -- but they were right about FAA management.

Every now and then the FAA gets a bug up its ass and charges ahead with something -- MLS [microwave landing systems], Mode S; and now they're talking about reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM), which is going to be a real burden on the guy who owns an old Lear and wants to get up high in a hurry. He'll still be able to operate down low, but it'll cost him a fortune, and a bigger fortune to retrofit the airplane.

Is Senator McCain going to win? Will ATC be privatized?

I admire Senator McCain for a variety of reasons. I respect his military record and I like him politically because he's a loose cannon, but he can be very dangerous to general aviation. I think we need to keep our eye on him and make sure we educate him on the issues. I don't think we'll see privatization on any grand scale. Nav Canada is a good organization, but it's tiny. I don't see how it would work here.

NATCA is very strong -- they pulled the strings on Jane Garvey, got what they wanted and, as a result, she had a successful FAA career. The bill will come due down the road on that. NATCA has now reached into other parts of the FAA now, and represents more than just controllers. It's a very powerful organization.

ATC -- whether you want it to be part of the FAA or not -- has to be a quasi-military organization. You have to have generals in charge, reporting to civilian authority -- congress and the president -- but they have to have managerial control. And you need people that are technically astute -- most of the people in the field are, and most of the managers aren't. That's where you find the politics, the confusion, the frustration, the madness -- in the middle management.

Will Blakey be a good administrator? Who should have been picked?

Blakey will make it unless she figures out what a thankless, miserable job she's taking. I believe she's fairly sharp, but I'd always prefer to see a pilot in the job. I hate to think who I'd curse with that assignment. Maybe we could get Rick Durden to do it. Curtis Lemay would've been good. Seriously, former Congressman Jim Lightfoot -- a pilot -- would do. Don't know whatever happened to him. The real Jane Garvey -- the IFR contributing editor -- would whip the FAA into serious shape, and they wouldn't even have to change the letterhead much.

The job should be filled through a draft -- anyone with a valid medical certificate is eligible. It'd be like jury duty. You get a call, go before a board of aviation types representing GA, FAA, and air carrier, and the qualified names would be dumped in a hat with the unlucky winner to be drawn at random by a nearsighted CAP cadet at Sun 'n Fun 2003. The loser ... er, winner ... would serve for 18 months, and then be released with a new BFR, Class III medical, and a Wings pin. I'd do it, but I'm afraid I'd piss everyone off.

In that case, give her some advice. What should she do first?

The first order of business Blakey faces will be reading -- and implementing -- the recommendations she'd sent to the FAA in her previous life as NTSB boss. My advice to her:

  • Eliminate medical certificates for non-commercial flying as she implements the Sport Pilot certificates and perhaps gets a license herself.
  • Don't kowtow to NATCA.
  • Threaten any community that plans to close an airport -- or restrict its use -- with nuclear annihilation ... maybe that's a bit harsh. I'm sure she can reword the proposal more diplomatically.
  • Get serious about training controllers. The FAA is crappy at this. Part of that includes teaching controllers about the importance of vacuum systems in aircraft. In the process, reinstate FAM (familiarization) trips -- get controllers into cockpits again.
  • Take a broad axe to FAA middle management. Weed out the career ladder-climbers, quit promoting them.
  • Streamline everything at FSDO. Reinvigorate field approvals. Let A/P mechanics return to being mechanics instead of merely paper-filler-outers.
  • Get FSDO inspectors back into cockpits -- flying. Their flight budgets have been slashed too drastically -- thanks in part to Jane Garvey's sellout to NATCA. FSDO inspectors should be the best pilots on the field, someone the rest of us respect for more than the suit and G-car.
  • Eliminate random drug-testing.
  • Push WAAS and LAAS ahead.
  • Revamp or eliminate FSS.
  • Promote Amtrak.
  • Floss daily.
  • It's almost time for Iowans to vote again. Will Bush be challenged in the caucus? And which Democrat will you give us?

    Cover of IFR Magazine

    No one will challenge Bush, although many Republicans quietly would love to. McCain will snipe from the tree tops, but as he did last time, he'll endorse Bush through gritted teeth. That said, McCain would be the better choice -- although as I've said, he's no friend to aviation.

    Of the Demo lot, Iowans aren't impressed -- rich kids and Eastern noise makers. Gore is Dull-On-Arrival, made too much of a fool out of himself last time. Jeez, he couldn't even beat Bush. Hillary is seen as part of the 1990s hangover -- old news. Iowans will listen politely but take a pass. Edwards and Kerry -- as the rest of the pack falters, these two will spark interest, but watch out for the eyebrowless populist Gephart. He's been stumping these fields for decades and almost speaks the language.

    One thing about the Iowa caucus -- whomever we select will ultimately lose.

    How long have you been at IFR?

    I've been the editor for a little over three years. I've been writing for the magazine since 1991. I don't hold out as the instrument pilot expert. I am a CFII, but mostly I write about the ATC perspective. We have a great stable of writers, from airline pilots to single-engine instrument pilots who just happen to know a great deal about something -- like GPS, for instance. The cover of the magazine says, "...for the Accomplished Pilot." We're not Martha King trying to teach you how to fly an ILS. She does that wonderfully. We don't preach and we don't give you step-by-step "cookbook" instructions. IFR's there to give you hints and tell you how the system works. In the editorials and the articles, I'm constantly trying to build a bridge between controllers and pilots.


    Joe GodfreyJoe Godfrey mixes his love of flying with a love of music. He is an instrument-rated private pilot who flies a 1974 Bellanca Viking based at Palomar airport just north of San Diego, Calif. He composes music for commercials, films, broadcast and corporate media and has composed and produced thousands of music tracks for America's largest advertisers. He'll be playing bass with Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara in "A Mighty Wind" -- Chris Guest's spoof of folk music due out in the spring of '03. Find out more at Joe's website. In addition to writing for AVweb, Joe has written for AOPA Pilot, The Aviation Consumer, Twin and Turbine and IFR magazines. He is a pilot and ex-director of Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization that uses private airplanes to fly indigent medical patients. He is married and lives in Leucadia, Calif. So far, Joe is the only AVweb staff member who has logged time with Ella Fitzgerald and conducted the London Symphony.