Ben Burg with the 1946 Piper Cub, in which he made his first solo flight in 2022.
Courtesy photo
Ben Berg with the 1946 Piper Cub, in which he made his first solo flight in 2022.

A Bear in the air

BUHS senior Ben Berg, a licensed pilot at age 17, does a flyover for the football team’s season opener and wags wings of hello and support

BRATTLEBORO — When the Brattleboro Union High School Bears football team took the field in the season opener against Middlebury on Sept. 1 at Natowich Field, and voices singing the national anthem rose to the line "and the rockets' red glare," in the sky appeared a small Cessna 182.

Perfectly poised, the plane, piloted by 17-year-old BUHS senior Ben Berg, saluted the team and celebrated the first varsity sports event at the school with its new mascot, the Bears.

"It was awesome," Berg says of his successful flyover.

He had carefully planned the surprise for days in advance with Athletic Director Chris Sawyer and Interim Principal Hannah Parker.

"It was super cool," says Parker of the flyover. "Every school should have a Ben Berg in it. Not just because he's such a good student, but because he cares about the community."

Berg piloted the plane in which he received his pilot's license in June and was accompanied by his girlfriend, Caeden Green, who Berg calls "a rock star" who has flown with him numerous times in gliders and airplanes.

The young couple took off from Hartness State Airport in Springfield at 6:20 p.m. for the anticipated 6:50 p.m. flyover.

"One thing about this kind of flying is it's very comprehensively planned," says Berg. "A lot of safety and coordination efforts happen way in advance to make sure we're being safe and following all the rules and can mitigate any risks, so we can also have fun.

"My thought process for the whole flight was, 'I'm going to do whatever I need to do to be safe, that's what I'm going to do, and if it works out for the flyover, that's great.' But I planned for it to work out."

To help execute the perfect flyover, Berg's father Tim was on the ground at the game with a hand-held airplane radio. Singing.

"My cue to turn from my holding pattern was 'the rockets' red glare,' to set me up to be over the field at the end," Berg says. "He was singing me through the anthem […] and we made it happen."

At about 1,300 feet above the field, maintaining the mandated altitude for optimal safety, Berg said he and Green could see the field and players, although they couldn't hear the crowd.

But not unlike the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, Burg came over the field and offered "a little wing rock" salute and hello.

"It's a pretty benign maneuver, about a 15- to 20-degree bank," says the modest senior.

After the flyover, the couple returned to the airport, put the plane away, and "were at the game for the fourth quarter."

What was the reaction on the ground?

"The people who knew about it were excited and pleased, and those who didn't were amazed and happy to have that special thing happen," Berg says.

An early start in the sky

A flying aficionado since he was a young boy, Berg takes flying seriously. And joyfully.

"It's been quite a process," says Berg of his learning to fly.

"My dad was an aviation enthusiast. He never flew planes, but some of his friends did," he says.

After attending a Rhode Island air show when he was 8 years told, Burg was awestruck by the Blue Angels.

"Seeing fighter jets fly super fast and low and display their capabilities really inspired me and started a real passion for aviation," he says.

After that show, Berg watched YouTube videos and flight simulations and "tried to absorb how it all works."

"I played around with basic computer flight simulation, and that taught me about systems and procedures and where to look and not be completely clueless in the front seat of an airplane," says Berg.

Journey to the cockpit

Berg's devotion to flying led him to Hartness State Airport and an Aviation Careers Education (ACE) summer camp of young teenagers hosted by the New England Soaring Association (NESA) when he was 13 years old.

The young pilot has a real fondness for Hartness, established in 1919 in just two weeks by James Hartness - who had served as president of Jones & Lamson Machine Company and would go on to become Vermont governor - after he was inspired by the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk flight.

Hartness bought three farms, and the airport was officially certified as the first landing field in Vermont. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh stopped here after his successful Atlantic crossing - the first transatlantic flight - to 30,000 fans awaiting him.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation has recently made a video about Hartness - - in which Berg appears.

"It's a very cool spot, nestled in the eastern range of the Green Mountains," he says. "There's a lot of topical diversity. It's a great spot to fly and learn how to fly."

At the week-long ACE day camp, Berg was exposed to myriad aspects of aviation, from maintenance to operations, to air traffic control, and to flying.

"That camp gives you an exposure and lets you explore," he says. "They also give the campers flights in gliders with instructors in the back, and they show you how to go soaring."

Admittedly, Berg "didn't even know what gliders were."

"The cool thing is they don't have engines, so you're relying on weather and thermals," he says. "I was immediately enthralled and addicted to that feeling at the age of 13. The cool thing is also you can start flying them at a super-young age."

One can fly solo at age 14 in a glider and be licensed to do so at age 16.

So Berg did.

"I was dedicated to that process," he says. "I could fly now and start what I knew were my aviation goals. That was a really special experience."

Glider flying led to Berg's joining the NESA. Then the pandemic came, in the winter of 2020, and he wasn't able to get back to gliding until July, when he started training in earnest.

He soloed in early September 2020.

"Then it was like, 'All right, I'm soloing gliding and I'm 14 and I have to wait two years to get my license, but I can still solo,'" he says. "So that left a whole season where I could build time and experience. That really taught me how to fly. Instead of adding energy with an engine, you're adding energy through the conditions of the atmosphere."

Berg found engine-free soaring "very pure, and it instilled a deep connection to the environment and a humbling relationship, because when you're flying a little tiny airplane, the atmosphere is very strong."

Even at age 14, he was "really dedicated to doing it safely and working hard."

"It's not something inherently dangerous, but it's something you have to be aware of," he says of flying.

"Flying airplanes is statistically super, super safe," Berg says. "Making sure you're dedicated to that safety and situational awareness is important. It's a big responsibility, but it's very rewarding."

At age 15, Berg applied for a youth scholarship from the Soaring Society of America (SSA) and received an award - "very gratefully" - that allowed him to fly in the 2021 soaring season and "build more gliding experience and become even more comfortable in flying in general."

"That was a great summer, getting to fly with different people in gliders and appreciate soaring and the aviation community and be mentored by people who have had half-century-long careers in aviation."

In June 2022, when he had turned 16, Berg obtained his glider license, which allowed him to take passengers and "be very independent and not under the supervision of an instructor."

"It was special to share soaring with my family and friends and show them what aviation looked like and what Vermont looks like from above," he says. "Then I got into the whole airplane world."

From gliders to airplanes

At that point, Berg met his "main mentor, flight instructor, and friend," Bill Batesole.

It was Batesole's plane in which he received his pilot's license and flew over the BUHS football game.

Batesole "really helped me and made it possible for me to start flying airplanes," Berg says.

He calls his first solo in September of 2022 - in a 1946 Piper Cub - "a super-historically special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Still, Berg was just 16 - a year away from applying for his airplane pilot's license.

He could, however, and did, with Batesole's help, "start flying airplanes more and training to the standard of the pilot's license."

Berg passed the written test and started the flight training curriculum for his private pilot's license with his teacher and mentor.

That training included night flying, flying trips of more than 150 miles (called cross-country training), and learning and practicing maneuvers in which he'd have to demonstrate efficiency for the license.

"Bill really mentored me to my private pilot's license, which I got in June," Berg says. "I was wrapping up school and training and playing tennis. It was a very busy spring for me, but very rewarding."

Berg is emphatic in his appreciation of "the generosity of my mentors and the aviation community."

"Those were the people who saw my passion and made it happen for me and taught me to be safe and have fun," he says.

He also appreciates "the immense opportunity in Vermont, at any airport, but especially at Springfield, for flying in general."

Back on terra firma

Back on the ground, Berg, now 17, was one of the last school year's student representatives to the Windham Southeast District School Board.

"It was a great opportunity to try and represent my community and constituents with Kaiya Colby, the other rep," he says. "We worked very well together as a team and were able to be at the meetings and give input and report back to our people and make things happen."

He says his proudest accomplishment was a group effort - the establishment of the Student Advisory Committee (SAC) - mentored by board members Deborah Stanford and Tim Maciel.

Of that group of "passionate students who are voluntarily dedicating a lot of time to the improvement of their school communities," he says, the biggest and "most special accomplishment" for him is that "we pulled off a three-hour professional development session for faculty."

About 100 staff members attended the session, which tackled "the expectations of community and student support in a classroom and damage of racial slurs and unaddressed racial aggression."

"We had some great conversations and workshopping," Berg said. "I was super impressed with the attentiveness and dedication of the faculty and staff. It just felt like not only the right thing to do, but also a good thing to do. I'm very proud to be part of that team."

Future flying

What's next for Berg?

"I love the whole flying industry; I'm fascinated by the aerospace engineering world," he says. "I'm also very interested in the service, military academies and the kind of integrity and leadership and service they offer. I'm a big community person, so [post-high school] might look like a university, or a military academy […] there are a lot of opportunities."

Berg says he plans to "synthesize those - when and if they come - and make my decision based on where I think I can succeed and help my community and country and world succeed."

"The community of Brattleboro and of Hartness and the values of my family have pushed me to pursue my passions and do good by whomever I can," the senior says.

As to actual flying, Berg clearly plans to continue his love affair in the sky as a lens to contribute to his much-loved world below.

"The perspective is unlike any other," he says of a pilot's capacity for "appreciating and admiring and exploring the world."

"But really," he says, "Vermont, where I've lived and grown up forever, is exciting and beautiful, and really just cool."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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