From Tuskegee Airman To Rocket Ship Designer: Ben Berry Interview
Intel Free Press interviewed Ben Berry, one of the famed Tuskegee airmen, the highly decorated World War II African-American aviators. After the war he earned an aerospace engineering degree and worked on the design of NASA's Apollo spacecraft.
Riding a resurgence of recognition thanks to the Hollywood movie "Red Tails," Ben Berry spoke with Intel Free Press following his presentation and book signing at Intel's Hillsboro, Ore. facility Wednesday. He discussed not only his days as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, but also his work on NASA's Apollo spacecraft and his current project designing a vertical takeoff and landing craft with his son.
As one of the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed forces, "Flaps" Berry said he overcame adversity and racial bigotry during training and air combat to become what he is today. The 87-year-old received the Unit Citation of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor and pursued a career in mechanical and aerospace engineering after devoting years of service to his country.
Berry's historic military career began when he was drafted at age 18, but his passion for engineering can be traced to childhood.
"When I was about 12 years old my aunt gave me a dog-eared engineering handbook and I saw all these formulas in it I couldn't understand," he said in an exclusive interview. "Over the years as I advanced in school, I'd look at the book often, trying to know everything that was in it, but it wasn't until I graduated from USC when I understood the entire book. It was a personal accomplishment that began when I was a child."
Some of what he learned in that engineering manual came in handy when he worked on U.S. Army airplanes, particularly on the B-25 bomber. Preferring to fly planes instead of fixing them, Berry asked for a change of duty and got his wish.
"I always wanted to fly planes, even as a child, and I was so excited when given the chance," Berry said.
Many of the Milwaukie, Ore. hero's war stories are captured in his book, "Tuskegee Airmen: To the Moon, Mars and Beyond (Secrets Revealed)." One secret he shared wasn't from his days as a B-25 bomber pilot, but a tragic event that occurred during his post-war career.
After graduating from USC with an aerospace engineering degree, he worked on the design of the Apollo spacecraft for North American Aviation, which later became part of Rockwell International and now Boeing. Berry claims that his team had discovered a flaw of potentially catastrophic proportions involving old airplane switches used in the space cabin of Apollo 1.
"One spark from one switch would blow the thing up," said Berry, concerned that the cabin was a 100 percent oxygen environment. "I told top NASA management in Houston, 'You're talking about sending three men to the Moon. They're not going anywhere. They're going to be blown up right here on the launch pad. You've got to get rid of all those [old] switches and put in electronic switches.'"
Berry said he was told the upgrade would be made despite NASA's race "to beat the Russians to the Moon," but the switch of switches never was done.
"Somebody didn't get the message," Berry said, recalling his first thoughts when he read in the newspaper that three astronauts were killed on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. "Just like I told them was going to happen."
When Berry went to the office the next day, all his locked cabinets were gone. "I thought they took them to investigate the disaster. I never saw those cabinets again. I never heard of any investigation. Those men didn't have to die," he said.
Berry went on to share an earlier, happy memory from the night WWII ended. He and seven of his army buddies talked about their career aspirations for when they returned home. Airline captain, medical doctor, scientist, attorney, judge and test pilot are what six of the men said before getting to Berry and his bunkmate.
"My friend said he planned on being the first black governor of a state," Berry recalled. "I said I was going to design the first manned spaceship. Through conventions every year around the country I was able to maintain relationships with all these people for many years, and every last one of these guys did exactly what they said they were going to do - even my roommate."
His bunkmate, George Brown, was lieutenant governor of Colorado, though never a governor. However, when he and California's Mervyn Dymally were elected on the same day in 1974, they became the first African-Americans to serve in that post since Reconstruction.
"I'm so proud that each of us turned down our commissions to go back to school, realize our dreams and make contributions to our country after the war," Berry said.
Revisiting the bigotry he saw during his military service, Berry recalled that black fighter pilots were required to fly the slowest planes in air combat and though 66 Tuskegee Airmen were killed during the war, not one was shot down by enemy fighters while they were protecting the bombers. He said there were no aces among the Tuskegee Airman because once a black aviator shot down four enemy fighters - one away from ace status - he would be sent back to the States to become an instructor.
As for "Red Tails," the George Lucas movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Berry said he's seen it four times and will likely make it five soon as yet another friend wants to go with an actual Tuskegee Airman. Berry gives the movie a thumbs up, but is it accurate?
"No," he said. "It's a great movie, but there was some dialogue in there I took very strong exception to. One [scene] has two fighter pilots talking and one of them said, 'You know, every time I close my cockpit I feel like I'm closing my casket.' I know a hundred Tuskegee Airmen and not one would ever say that."
Even though he's 20 years past what many consider retirement age, Berry hasn't stopped being an engineer. He and his son, Ben Jr., have spent the 10 years working on a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. His son is CEO of AirShip Technologies Group, a Lake Oswego, Ore. company that is developing three versions of the "AirShip" craft. Still in the design stage, Ben Sr. said $5 million is needed for a prototype, adding that there's been worldwide military and corporate interest.
"It's designed to be used by military and civilians," he said. "It's going to be the vehicle that replaces the Humvee. It's the car of the future."