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Sunday, December 23, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Les Berven, 1942-2001: For gutsy, skillful test pilot, living was all about flight

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Steve Berven captured the essence of his dad's job well: "He was out there trying to break the planes."

Les Berven tried to break a lot of planes in more than 30 years as a test pilot. And if you've ever taken a flight on a Boeing jet, chances are his efforts helped you arrive safe and sound.

A renowned pilot with a mischievous sense of humor and a voracious intellect, Mr. Berven was an all-star in the small but close-knit community of fliers who routinely put their lives on the line to make airplanes safe for the rest of us. He died Dec. 14 at the age of 59, after complications from heart surgery.

Mr. Berven was chief test pilot for the Federal Aviation Administration's Northwest Mountain region for more than 20 years before retiring in August. He flew every Boeing model built since the late 1970s before certifying them to shuttle passengers around the globe.

"Every Boeing airplane has Les' fingerprints on it," said Steve O'Neal, an FAA flight-test engineer who first flew with Berven in 1978.

Though he lived and worked far outside the public eye, Mr. Berven's day-to-day routine demanded the same white-knuckled risk-taking that made military test pilots like Chuck Yeager heroes.

John Cashman encountered Mr. Berven's skills and intestinal fortitude often. As Boeing's chief test pilot, Cashman flew alongside Mr. Berven during many regulatory reviews of Boeing jets.

Mr. Berven was especially adept at stall tests — piloting a jet at the slowest possible speed until it stopped flying and started falling.

While testing the 777 in the mid-1990s, Cashman recalled, Mr. Berven once performed 54 stall tests in a single day.

Another typical test involved loading a commercial jet to its maximum weight, accelerating down a runway at 200 miles per hour and slamming on the brakes — just to see what happened.

A plaque in Mr. Berven's Woodinville home boasts a chunk of blown-out tire from a 757 that he'd ground down to its landing gear in 1982.

In a rare public moment, Mr. Berven was called upon in 1995 to assist the investigation of US Airways Flight 427, a Boeing 737 that had crashed near Pittsburgh the year before.

When investigators suspected a wake vortex from another jet may have triggered the disaster, Mr. Berven purposely flew into wake vortexes more than 200 times to test the theory. (The National Transportation Safety Board concluded in 1999 that the crash was caused by rudder malfunction, and the FAA subsequently ordered Boeing to redesign the 737 rudder mechanism.)

Mr. Berven thought little of such stomach-churning thrills.

"Somebody's got to stick their neck out, or we don't fly," explained Burt Rutan, chief executive of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

Rutan and Mr. Berven met while testing fighter jets at Edwards Air Force Base in the 1960s and 1970s. Rutan achieved fame in 1986 for designing and building the Voyager, the first aircraft to circle the world without refueling.

Rutan recalled Mr. Berven as a "phenomenally great stick-and-rudder pilot" whose passion for flying was unrivaled.

Rutan added: "The thing you've got to include if you do a story on Les is his quote. 'The purpose of man's existence on Earth is to fly. Time not spent flying or preparing to fly is wasted.' "

Getting his wings

That passion for flying was born early. Raised in tiny Loyalton, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada, Mr. Berven could distinguish planes by the sound of their engines by age 6. His stepfather, Gordon Berven, himself an Air Force test pilot, took Les for his first flight in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the military's first jet fighter. Les Berven had his pilot's license by the time he was 14.

After earning a degree in aeronautical engineering at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Opisbo, Calif., in 1964, "there was never any question what he would do," said Carol Berven, his wife of 38 years.

Carol Berven never tried to talk her husband into a safer line of work. Instead, she said, "my job was to learn not be nervous."

Mr. Berven helped the cause by downplaying the often harrowing nature of his job, such as his work flying the BD-5.

Bede Aircraft was a maker of experimental planes in Newton, Kan. Mr. Berven followed Rutan to Bede in 1972 and become the company's test pilot.

The company's tiny BD-5, which weighed less than 900 pounds and had an 18-foot wingspan, developed a cult following for its radical design. But it was sometimes unstable.

"It was only years after the BD-5 testing that Les told me he would kiss each of the (three) kids before he left in the morning because he wasn't sure he'd come back that night," Carol said. "It was good he waited."

Notes from one of Mr. Berven's BD-5 flight tests typifies the mix of humor, technical expertise and placidity he brought to his work.

"I touched down on the road at about 85 mph and an 800 (foot-per-minute) descent, folded the main gear aft and ran off the left side of the road down into a 10-foot ditch, up the other side and came to a stop in a small cloud of dust," Mr. Berven wrote. "The only injury sustained was to a field mouse I mashed at the bottom of the ditch."

Respected middleman

Mr. Berven also had the political skills to thrive in a bureaucracy like the FAA while building mutual respect among his peers at Boeing, despite the ever-present tension between regulator and regulated.

"That adversarial relationship would raise its head on a daily basis if we're talking about a big program like the 777," said his colleague O'Neal. "He could be diplomatic, but a lot of time diplomacy wasn't called for and he'd just say, 'This is the way it's got to be.' "

"Sometimes you could change his mind, and other times he wouldn't budge," agreed Boeing's Cashman. "He represented the FAA and the public extremely well in that role."

To the end of his life, Mr. Berven's enthusiasm and curiosity never flagged. Upon leaving the FAA last summer, he purchased a 22-foot Catalina sailboat and began reading everything he could get his hands on about sailing and the latest navigational gear. He spoke excitedly about long trips to tropical islands, though "we were going to start small, in Puget Sound," said Carol.

Mr. Berven's family and the Seattle flying community are now coping with his loss.

"You never expect a guy like that to go away," said Fred Griffith, a longtime contract FAA test pilot.

Mr. Berven was honored by family at a private service Friday. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sons Steve, 35, of Spokane, and Andrew, 34, of Seattle, and his daughter Anne, 32, of Santa Fe; and two grandchildren. The FAA, family and friends are planning a public memorial service, which will be held at 7 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Tukwila.

David Bowermaster can be reached at 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com.

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