Thirty Seconds Over SoCal


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:

Adam Williams IMDB

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.



  1. I enjoyed your story about Adam. Here’s mine: Back in the 80’s I was a TV producer living in LA and working on my commercial. I scheduled a single-engine check ride with Berg-Branham, thinking nothing of the name and not knowing anything about my examiner (or so I thought).

    Like your ride, mine was very thorough but I nearly threw in the towel before we left the pattern. As we were climbing out he said “you don’t remember me do you”. What? “I read for a part on your show, but I didn’t get it”. Shall I turn around now? We continued over to Apple Valley and he signed my ticket, but for a moment… Quite the career both in the air and in front of the camera…

    1. That’s great. Thanks for adding another story about Mr. Berg. It speaks great volumes about the man I knew for only a few hours that other people want to share their experiences with him.

    2. Joe, I was there that day in the office when you got back. I was a student at Berg-Branham. I remember the day because Adam made a comment to me about who you were. I was also there the day Dwight Yokum was going to do his first solo. About Adam: He liked me because as a very young kid I recognized him as one of the two bad guys in Noth by Northwest. He gave me my phase-check rides and signed off on my ticket. His teaching, expectations, and integrity were unsurpassed. He could intimidate the hell out if you, but that’s because he didn’t want you to kill yourself or someone else. Flying was serious business. At one point I didn’t fly for 15 years. When I went to get checked out again by a local examiner, after 2 hours of flying and landings, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you haven’t flown for 15 years. “Whoever taught you did a really good job.” He certainly did. Thanks Adam.

      1. I was just telling this story at work this week to my First Officer who has stayed active in GA throughout his career. As I have begun to relearn the things I’ve forgotten (like actual flying) over twenty years of airline flying it has been fun to reflect on where I started so long ago.

        Thank you for added another story and more context to the man Adam Berg was. To this day I look back fondly on the few hours I got to spend with him.

  2. Wow, I am so grateful for your very talented and entertaining description of my step-father, Adam Williams (Berg). That was amazing and brought tears to my eyes because he really was an incredible man, yet humble about it because he never bragged. I miss him so much and just love your story about him. God Bless you, you talented and brilliant man. Lol. But you are.

  3. I started flying at 16 and on my 18th birthday took my commercial check ride with Adam Berg. This was the first time I met him. Within a few months I had my instrument rating and flight instructor airplanes and flight instructor instruments. I was going to college at the time and worked with my previous instructor, Carl Pitcock at Tailwinds Aviation. I used to ferry new airplanes from the Cessna factory to build time. Tailwinds folded and Carl and I went to work at Golden West Skyways. Adam Berg was the chief pilot. I taught single engine and multi engine for private licences, commercial and later multi-engine airline transport ratings. I became good friends with Adam and worked my way to up chief flight instructor. Carl was killed in a mid air collision when a B-26 hit him from the rear. I receive my multi-engine Airline Transport license on my 23rd birthday. I took my check ride with C.C. Sargent who was a full time examiner for the FAA. He also gave me a part 141 single pilot multi-engine all weather certificate. A few weeks later I ferried a new Cessna 421 from the factory and it went right into the showroom. The next day when I came back with a student it was being pulled out of the showroom. I remarked that that was a fast sale and I was told to spruce up because Adam and I had a charter. I was the pilot and Adam was my co-pilot. I flew to Sacramento and parked where I was directed. A few minutes later Ronald Reagan, governor of California came out and climbed into the airplane. He immediately recognized Adam from the Screen Actors Guild meetings. Ronald Reagan looked at me and at Adam and said aren’t you two in the wrong seats? Adam said, no. The flight went without a single bit of turbulence and I managed to land at Burbank without a tire chirp. Ronald Reagan patted me on my shoulder and said you are in the right seats.
    After a while there was a big shake up at Golden West and Adam was tramped. I quit about 1 month later. In the mean time Adam had started his own flight school with a Earl Branham, it was called Berg-Branham Aviation. I was about 24 and had spent some summers in Alaska as a bush pilot. I was completing my college and in December I was hit head on by a drunk driver. My right knee was shattered beyond repair. After six surgeries they put in a replacement knee. The FAA pulled my medical.
    Adam and I remained friends for many years. He told me he learned to fly before WW-2. He flew a bi-plane with a brace on the top wing a woman could stand on the top wing and strap herself in and he would do an airshow with the grand finale he would roll inverted and she would pick a handkerchief from between two 1 foot high stakes. He enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and quickly got his military wings. He said he had made 250 flights off a carrier in WW-2. He said in a dogfight he got a Japanese pilot behind him he dove to outrun him but the Japanese pilot stayed with him. He couldn’t turn because the Japanese was so close his bullets were hitting below his plane. He stayed in ground effect to try to outrun the Japanese but he finally ran out of fuel. He ditched grabbed is life raft and waited to be strafed. After a few minutes he inflated his raft and climbed in. Much to his surprise the Japanese had run out of fuel and was about 150 yards behind him. They shot at each other with pistols. As it started to get dark he decided to get close so he could hit him but as soon as the Japanese saw him he paddled away. When it got dark he paddled away a few hundred yards and the changed directions to the east. When the sun came up he looked for the Japanese but he was nowhere to be seen. A few hours later he saw a periscope and when the sub surfaced he was doubly glad it was American and he was rescued.
    He also told a story about a dog fight where he got hit from the left rear and some of the 20mm shells missed the armor and went between his legs and blew a big chunk of sheet metal of the right side of the plane. He shut the throttle and snap-rolled the plane which became a spin. The Japanese thought he had a victory and didn’t follow Adam. Adam pulled out of the spin and away from the carrier until he knew he wasn’t being followed.Then he headed for the carrier.As he was flying back his foot started to hurt and he looked down to see a big hole in his boot. When he removed the boot on the carrier the last 1/2 inch of his big toe was gone.
    In his office he had pictures of the attack he led on the Yamato. His Navy cross was earned when he sunk a cruiser. I could tell the stories he told us about WW-2 for a week. I believe shot down 7 airplanes but I will close with one more story.
    There was a little restaurant in the Skyways building. We ate lunch there almost every day. One day Adam, Clay Lacey and another WW-2 Navy pilot were arguing about the performance of a Corsair. Nobody backed down on their opinion and Clay Lacey said “i’ll settle this, I have and original manual in my desk.” he went to get it and when he returned he said, “Everybody write down your number.” there was an old flight instructor named Corb Penton sitting behind them at the counter who looked at the numbers they had written and told them they were all wrong. Clay said here is the manual we will settle this, Adam said the performance data is in the back. The old instructor said to look at the front. At the bottom of the face page it said “Written by Corb Penton Chief Test Pilot” which was who he was. Back in those days the airports were full of the Greatest Generation.We all owe them a great debt. If anyone has read to this part of my diatribe and knows where he is interned please let me know. I owe it to him to pay my respects.

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