I remember it like it was yesterday: April 30, 2001. This was the date of commercial multi-engine checkride, the last hurdle between me and the beginning of my career in aviation. I was scheduled to be evaluated by Adam Berg. I didn’t know much about Mr. Berg going into the office, but in the briefing with my instuctor the day before, I was told that he was some kind of Navy pilot and if I could get him going on about the war, I’d probably coast right through my checkride. It sounded like pretty good advice, so the next day I walked through the door with that in mind.
It started out ok. Not great, you know, but ok. He asked me a few questions about my experience and the airplane, all pretty standard stuff. In turn I countered asking about some of his experiences in aviation. He mentioned that back when he was younger he was in a movie or two and that he did some flying in the war. One look at my senior examiner left little question as to which war he was referring. It was all going according to plan. He also went on to note that the airplane We were flying for the checkride that day, the aesthetically uninteresting PA-23 Piper Apache, was one of the aircraft his squadron used for training in 1941. Really? That is interesting (read: aw, shit). The inquisition resumed with more questions about airspeeds, operating weights and single engine operation. I was treading water alright, but I was nervous, so I tried to put the focus back on him. Because I’m a genius, I asked him if he ever had the opportunity to fly the P51 Mustang. I mean, here’s a WWII pilot, right? And who wouldn’t want to fly the Mustang? I think we all know the answer to that. Navy Pilots. As soon as the words left my lips, I knew I had made a horrible mistake. In that moment, which seemed to last a lifetime, the entire tone in the room changed. He revered me with a look that would have made even the hardest Marine uneasy, and said, “I don’t fly Airforce airplanes, son. Lets go do some flying.” I swallowed hard, grabbed my gear and headed for the airplane.
What followed were two of the most harrowing hours I have ever spent in the skies over Southern California. To say he gave a very thorough and exacting checkride would be the most grievous of understatements. Stalls, were followed by steep turns; the VMC demo was followed by single engine ops, multi and single engine approaches, go around and landings. It seemed as though every maneuver started and ended with, “Who told you to do it that way?” And my personal favorite, “What are you doing now?” It was pretty clear to me that this checkride could probably have been going better. One hour and forty five hard fought minutes later, with the ride over, we landed at Van Nuys and taxied back to his office. The cockpit was silent. I was absolutely positive that I was going have to come back and endure another two hours of unrelenting abuse from a man who had obviously forgotten more about aviation than I was likely to ever know. I set the brake and as the engines came to a stop, I braced for the inevitable. My eyes straight ahead, I could see him in my periphery getting his things together. He stepped out of the airplane, stopped and said, “You fly a pretty good airplane kid. Secure it, and I’ll meet you upstairs.” He let the door close behind him and I sat there a moment, trying to figure out what in the hell just happened. My composure somewhat regained, I chocked the airplane and went up to his office. He signed off my logbook, shook my hand, said, “Fly safe,” and sent me on my way.
I didn’t realize until much later how established an actor, and no kidding war hero Adam Berg actually was. For his service in combat against the Japanese Navy in 1944 he was awarded the Navy Cross. It reads as follows:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Adam William Berg (NSN: 0-278522), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Dive Bomber in Bombing Squadron FOURTEEN (VB-14), attached to the U.S.S. WASP (CV-18), in action against the enemy fleet in the vicinity of the East Philippine Sea on 20 June 1944. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Berg’s attack against an enemy fleet oiler was pressed home to a low altitude with determination and skill in the face of intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire. He scored direct hits with his bombs and contributed heavily to the destruction of the enemy ship. During retirement his excellent airmanship and coolness were instrumental in frustrating enemy fighters which made repeated attacks against his division. While returning to his own forces, his fuel exhausted, and he was forced to make a water landing in complete darkness. Both he and his air crewman escaped injury and were eventually rescued. His courage and skill were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.
General Orders: Commander 1st Carrier Task Force Pacific: Serial 0583 (September 27, 1944)
Action Date: June 20, 1944
So, let me see if I understand this: Dropped bombs on an enemy ship, scoring direct hits; fought off scores of enemy fighters; ran out of fuel and performed a water landing (read: crashed in the ocean) at night, and survived. Yeah, this guy was the real deal.
And I asked him if he flew the P51. Genius.
As far as his movie career goes, I’ll just leave this here:
It too, speaks for itself.
I was saddened to hear that he passed away in 2006. Another loss from a generation to whom the country, if not the world, owes so much. I think of that day often, as a funny story about how I was chewed up and spit out by a tough old fighter pilot turned actor, turned in my face FAA designated examiner. He didn’t give me an inch, but when the dust settled and the engines cooled, I felt as though I had earned his endorsement.