Brad Berlin was just a little boy when he was bitten by the desire to fly. That desire was fueled by an uncle who was a pilot for Eastern Airlines and a high school science teacher’s aviation course.
“Every year my uncle and his wife would fly in (to Nashville) to visit,” Berlin said. “He flew a plane with big props and we’d go out (on the runway) to watch them taxi in. Just smelling the exhaust, I was bitten by the bug.”
Berlin also recalled when a neighbor — a reporter with WSMV-Channel 4 — invited Berlin to accompany him to cover a plane crash at Maryland Farms, back when the area was still Brentwood farmland.
“I was in fifth grade,” Berlin said. “I decided then I wanted to make (flying) my career.”
Berlin became intentional in every move he made toward his future career, including joining the military. He attended Middle Tennessee State University in 1976 because it had an aviation program. During his first year, he learned to fly, and when he graduated, he had a private pilot license.
“That just put more fuel on the fire,” he added.
After Berlin earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace administration and a masters in aerospace education, his uncle got Berlin an entry-level job with Eastern Airlines — as a baggage handler in Atlanta. His paycheck went to rent, food and accruing flying time.
“To get to fly in the airlines, you have to have a lot of experience and hours under your belt,” he said.
In 1981, when a strike by air traffic controllers resulted in Berlin loosing his job, it led to be a great opportunity. Berlin went to talk to a college friend at a recruiting office.
“I was invited to take a test and was accepted into the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School,” he said.
The AOCS is a 16-week program run by a Marine drill instructor to “wash out” the weak. Out of the 60 who began with his class, only 28 made it to be commissioned early in 1983. Berlin was one of the 28.
He married his high school sweetheart in November and was off to primary flight school for three months. The young aviation officers received their choice of platform — propellers or jets — according to their rank. Most chose jets, but Berlin intentionally picked prop planes, the primary plane airlines fly.
“I got my wish and was assigned to the P-3 Orion. The civilian version is the Lockhead Electra,” Berlin said. “That was what my uncle flew with Eastern ... the prop, the noise and the smell of the exhaust I was loving!”
In November 1984, Berlin received his wings and gold leafs at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas.
At the time, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was still raging. Berlin was sent to Jacksonville, Florida, for P-3 training. The P-3 was known as the submarine hunter, and Soviet submarines were the target.
In early 1985, he and his new wife reported to the NAS in Brunswick, Maine, the last choice on his wish list, for four years.
The upside? “I was actually going to be doing something instead of preparing to do something, as the jets were doing,” he said. “I was sent on missions to track (Russian submarines).”
A Russian submarine fleet was headquartered in Murmansk, Russia, and subs frequently passed through the Greenland, Iceland and United Kingdom gap in the North Atlantic heading to either the U.S. East Coast or the Mediterranean for maneuvers or to spy. Although based in Brunswick, Berlin was often on six-month deployments to various parts of the world — Bermuda, Iceland, Spain, the Azores — to track submarines all while racking up flying time.
Russian subs were aware they were being tracked. Occasionally they would slip under glacial ice, which made tracking more difficult. During the summer of 1989, Berlin found himself deployed to Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, near the Arctic Circle.
While Berlin was deployed, his wife returned to her parents’ home in Georgia. On one of those deployments, his daughter was born.
In those days, “We only got one phone call a week, and I couldn’t be there for her birth,” he said. “I didn’t see her until she was 4 months old. There was no Internet, only letters.”
More than four years after he received his wings, Berlin was ready to be an airline pilot, but the Air Force wasn’t ready to let him go. He accepted a two-year obligation at NAS Whiting Field near Pensacola, Florida, serving as an instructor on the P-34 Charlie two-seater plane.
He did three flights a day, three hours each flight, he said.
Berlin was discharged in February 1991 and in March began flying with Delta Airlines.
“The military made me a neater person. Now I don’t like clutter. And to appreciate the sacrifices of the families,” he said. “I learned a skill, and the military gave me a career. I ended up doing what I always wanted to do.”