Life-long passion takes Clearfield man to the skies
Saturday, September 08, 2012
By Josh Woods Staff Writer
The 27th Annual Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven Fly-In held on June 20-23 at William T. Piper Memorial Airport in Lock Haven held a special place in 88-year-old Clearfield resident Tom Berry's heart. The event celebrated the 75th anniversary of Piper Aircraft Co. and the Piper J-3 Cub.
Berry took to the skies as a guest passenger in a standard yellow Piper J-3 Cub, an airplane he'd helped to manufacture about 65 years ago. It was a special moment for Berry, who recalled learning to fly at Lock Haven's airport.
"I served in the Army during World War II, and in the Army you never got to do what you wanted," said Berry. "After I got out of the Army, I was crazy about airplanes and I wanted to learn how to fly. I went up to Lock Haven, Roberta Sabato was running the airport, and I bought eight hours of dual instruction. I started the next day."
Berry's love for flying led him to convince his friends, Phil Ciltoski and John Henwood, to get jobs at the Piper plant. Piper hired the trio while business was booming in 1946, Berry said, and their motivation for working there was an employees-only aviation club.
"It took a couple of weeks but we got into the club," said Berry. "They had a big hangar and an office area. It had an awful lot of young guys in the club because they could fly a half hour for $1.50. That got me flying."
Berry and his friends stayed at a boarding house with about 10 other men who worked at Piper or a paper mill. The house was at the opposite end of town than the Piper plant and airport, he said, and none of them owned a car. The trio walked to work each day and hitchhiked home on the weekends.
"We'd miss breakfast and eat our main meal at lunch time," said Berry. "We'd began our work day at 4:30 p.m., and Mrs. Smith who ran the boarding house would pack us a lunch. After lunch we'd walk to the airport and fly every day as long as the weather was good."
A mechanical aptitude test was given to Berry and he learned to construct Piper J-3 Cubs. He worked on an assembly line where fuselages were brought to him on a monorail system. His job was to lift up the front end of the fuselage, put a horse under it, and put its landing gear on. He also bolted the wheels on, completed some frame assembly and bled the brakes. Berry said when he was finished the plane would be pushed to several other stations where it received wings, an engine and a tail. After final inspection the plane would be pushed out the door.
Berry worked for Piper when the last three Cubs were produced and sent out the door. The company's assembly line shifted from Cubs to Super Cruisers, he said.
"The ‘J' stood for the engineer who designed it, and it was the third Cub," said Berry. "It started out that a guy named (Clarence Gilbert) Taylor (an aeronautical engineer from Nottingham, England) was building planes called Taylorcrafts during the Depression, and he moved to Bradford where he built small planes called Cubs.
"Piper was, I believe, an investor who bought Taylor out. The plane was renamed the Piper Cub then and he hired an engineer to modernize and redesign it. That's where the J-3 came from."
Piper J-3 Cubs had a reputation for being slow, affordable and easy to fly, Berry said. They were used mostly for training and transportation, he said, and guys who had extra money would have one.
"We built a heck of a lot of Cubs when we got into the war," said Berry. "The military had big Army planes that took paved runways to use; big planes with winged flaps, so they could land real slow.
"Piper went to the Air Force and said why not use our planes for observation. Their big planes were costly ... they were monstrosities. Piper let them try out maneuvers and the Cubs worked fine. They didn't require much training for an Air Force pilot to man because they were simple to operate and used regular gas you'd put in a Jeep."
Berry said the Air Force liked the Cub because they could land on any field or road. They were affordable, effective and worked well for observation, he said. Berry said the planes eliminated the need for artillery officers like him to climb hilltops or buildings to identify enemy targets.
After two years on the job, Berry quit the Piper plant to attend school at Gannon University.
His interest in aviation never waned.
Berry later worked at a Cleveland airport as a gasman who fueled unscheduled flights. He worked there right after the war when pilots were a dime a dozen, he said, and many bought surplus DC-3s and flew dresses for sales in Chicago.
He built his first model airplane (with a two-cycle gasoline engine) while in high school, and has continued the hobby throughout his life. Berry's first model plane took flight at the Clearfield airport while all civilian flights were grounded. The plane flew in a curve and its wing tip hit the ground, causing it to spin and damage its nose.
"I was leaving for the Army on July 1, 1943, so I put it in the attic," said Berry. "When I got home I took out a book at the library; the guy that wrote it had a theory about how to stabilize it. I fixed it back up and it flew nice. His design theory worked, and I took that book out more than anyone else."
On June 22, Berry flew in a Cessna 150 with Rodney Bowers, who he met while working at Ryan Brothers, from Clearfield to Lock Haven's annual fly-in. The three-day Cub Haven Fly-In brought in more than 200 planes to the field next to William T. Piper Aviation Museum. The event showcased pilots who tested their skills in a spot landing contest and a "bomb drop."
Visitors were treated to 30-minute introductory flight lessons, guided tours of the flight line, aviation-themed movies and live entertainment. Greg Koontz and The Alabama Boys landed a Piper Cub on a moving pickup truck.
During the fly-in, Berry made his triumphant return to the skies. Bowers spoke to a gentleman who owned a renovated Piper J-3 Cub, and the man was willing to take Berry for a ride.
"I remembered the first time I tried to get in one ... it hurt my back," said Berry. "But the guy lifted me in. It was a nice ride up the valley. It's fun to be in a small plane looking down at all the streets, people and cars."