The aviation bug bit Bellevue resident Brad Berger when he was 9 years old. After a trans-Atlantic flight to Belgium, the youngster declared that he was going to be a pilot when he grew up. “I was fascinated by planes, flying, and all things aviation,” Berger said.
For the next several years, Berger nurtured his love of planes as his family moved around the world with his father, who worked in the U.S. Army’s intelligence division. When Berger was 14, his family finally settled in East Wenatchee. The teenager saw opportunity in residential stability: I can now buckle down and get my pilot’s license, he thought.
Berger approached his parents about flying lessons, arguing that he had been interested in flying for years, and that his fascination with planes wasn’t going away. They agreed that flying lessons would be worthwhile, but there was a hitch: Berger had to pay for the lessons himself.
That was in 1979, and flight lessons were about $4,000, the equivalent of about $13,000 today — pretty steep for a teenager without a job. Berger, however, was undeterred.
“I earned money any way I could,” he said.
Berger spent his summers working in local orchards. He also signed up to be a cadet with the Civil Air Patrol. In that organization, he met a crop-duster pilot named James Watson, who was willing to volunteer his time to teach the cadets to fly. Berger had to pay for the plane rental and fuel, but Watson’s instruction was free. That cut the cost of learning to fly in half.
Berger began his flying lessons in the airspace of Eastern Washington, which lacked air-traffic controllers. “You communicate with other pilots,” Berger said, “but you are basically announcing to the world, ‘Here I come, here I am, here I go.’ That’s it.”
He relished that freedom as a young pilot, but Berger’s dream was to become a commercial pilot. During the 1980s, major airlines mainly hired ex-military pilots with ample experience. Some of the older commercial pilots of the day had flown in the later stages of the Vietnam War. That’s when Berger had a “heartbreaking” realization.
“My vision would never be good enough to be a military pilot,” he said.
Military pilots during that era had to have uncorrected 20/20 vision, and Berger didn’t. The boy was crushed. He readjusted his career plans and opted to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Nevertheless, he maintained his pilot license.
When he was 23 and stationed at an Army base in Berlin, Berger drove to Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, for his biennial flight review.
“That was my first full taste of what controlled airspace was really like,” Berger said. And he didn’t care for it one bit, especially because controlled airspace in Germany is more restrictive than it is in United States.
“It really sucked the fun out of it for me,” Berger said. “My love of flying came from the freedom — not being obsessed over the altitude or current heading or constant communication.”
And that was it for Berger. He hung up his proverbial wings and walked away from flying for 24 years.
It wasn’t just the controlled airspace that deterred future flying. Berger and his late wife, Theresa, also were busy raising twin daughters. “She wasn’t against (flying), but it wasn’t something she enjoyed,” he said.
Berger eventually remarried, and his second wife, Beth, restoked his passion for flight. In 2012, for example, she took him on a date that included a seaplane flight to a winery near Lake Chelan.
“It was the most expensive Groupon ever,” Berger said. “Because from that minute on, I was hooked again.”
This time, all the rules and regulations of controlled airspace gave Berger, who was now in his 40s and the owner of Tacoma-based Cornerstone Financial Strategies, a sense of security. “I have a lot more to lose now,” he said. “I have family, I own a business, I have employees. I have responsibilities.”
When he decided to start flying again, Berger vowed not to take family or friends in the air until he was proficient. “I wanted to significantly improve my flying experience,” he said.
To Berger, that meant getting certifications, including ones to fly seaplanes and planes with tailwheels, which require more finesse to pilot. He also became an instrument-rated pilot, a certification that a pilot can use instruments to fly when vision is impaired by inclement weather or clouds.
“It prepares you for the unexpected,” Berger said. “There are lots of incidents where pilots and passengers have been killed because they are not instrument-rated, and then they are caught in a situation of deteriorating weather where the outcome was a disaster.”
The certification, required by commercial airlines, also allows pilots to fly larger planes, which Berger wanted to do so he could take his family on outings.Today, Berger gets antsy if he doesn’t fly at least every other week. Most of his flying is done out of the Renton Municipal Airport and through the Boeing Employees Flying Association, of which he is a guest member. He flies a Cessna Turbo 210, a Cessna 172 XP float plane, and occasionally a Citabria. Seaplanes are his favorite to fly.
“I’m still fascinated by float planes, even though I fly them myself,” he said. “It’s the fact that they can take off and land on the water. It opens up places to go that would otherwise be inaccessible.”
Berger appreciates the pilot culture in the Pacific Northwest. “We have a ton of expertise here,” he said. “There are so many places you can go: the mountains, the water. The air traffic control here is awesome. It’s incredibly professional. They recognize that general aviation is a way of life around here.
“Here we are adventurous — we ski, climb mountains, bike, sail, boat, hang glide. We don’t care about the rain. Flying is just another one of those hobbies. The attitude here fosters the desire to do these super-cool things. We are incredibly blessed to live here.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of “425 Business.”