The passion of the pilot - Retired COANG members inducted into Aviation Hall of Fame

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral
  • Colorado National Guard Public Affairs
Passion: It drives us to do what we do every day. So when we say, "The sky's the limit," we're lying. The only thing that limits us is ourselves.

Enter Col. Micheal W. Bertz and Col. Don Neary, retired Colorado Air National Guardsmen who joined the ranks of 23 other COANG laureates when they were inducted into the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame Oct. 2.

Created in 1969 by the Colorado Aviation Historical Society, the Hall of Fame commemorates the achievements of Colorado aviation pioneers - as individuals and groups - past and present.

But these pioneers have a lot more in common than just the title. A combination of ingenuity, vision, skill, intestinal fortitude, and most important, passion, is what truly sets them apart from their peers.

Retired Col. Michael W. "Gas Passer" Bertz

If Santa was a speed freak, Bertz's hangar would be at the North Pole instead of the airport in Jefferson County, Colo., where fire-engine red horsepower covers the floor in the form of winged and wheeled racing machines.

"It has to do with speed," said Bertz of the color. "There's something very erotic about acceleration ... going from a dead stop to accelerating to 300 knots, 500 knots ..."

He bought his first airplane, a North American P-51D with a rich COANG heritage, in August 1968. He named it 'Stang Evil; based loosely on the term "standards evaluator" - which he assures you he is not - and the classic American icon of ... speed.

There weren't any dual-control P-51s at the time, but two friends had T-6 Texans with dual controls, so he'd planned on learning to fly with them. Unfortunately, there was always something broken on the Texans, so he never got the chance.

Determined, one day he started the P-51's engine, taxied out onto a 6,000-foot runway, made three or four high speed runs and eventually took off - without any formal training in the airframe and less than 500 total flight hours under his belt.

"When I first got that airplane, I was a 30-year-old kid and I wanted to press the test button on everything," he said.

Looking back, Bertz knows it wasn't the smartest decision - teaching himself how to fly a P-51 - and he certainly doesn't recommend it to others, but the high he got that day was the beginning of a 43-year love affair with his P-51 (and later a supersonic Folland Gnat jet and a Hunting Jet Provost).

"The P-51 still is my all-time favorite airplane to fly, because it requires some different skills to fly it, and I wouldn't dare fly it like I'd fly my little red jet, the Gnat."

Fueled by passion, this humble man hopes his flights and displays at air shows across the nation inspire future generations of aviation aficionados.

"You need to have a burning desire to fly to be a reasonably good pilot," he said. "I hope that I've given that burning desire to kids over the years."

Ingredients of passion

"Let me go back to the beginning," said Bertz, "because it has to do with airplanes and medicine both."

"My passion for aviation came when I first realized there were such things as airplanes," he said of his childhood. "When I heard an airplane flying overhead, I'd run out of my house to watch it go by. And I just had to do that - it had to be the right thing to do. I had the burning desire."

The son of a coal miner in Cadiz, Ohio, he grew up near a maneuvering area, where, at age 5, following the United States' entry into World War II, he regularly witnessed what turned out to be a lot P-51s flying overhead.

His goal then became to own and fly a P-51.

"I thought the P-51s were flying twice the speed of light, and that really wound me up. Even in school, for math or whatever, I drew P-51s all over my assignments."

At about the same time he fell in love with planes, Bertz experienced the horror of his first dentist. "He didn't know how to give an injection without giving excruciating pain," he said. Then, when he was almost 8, Bertz suffered a perforated appendix, making him very ill, and a drip-ether anesthetic rendered him unconscious for his appendectomy. To say his interest in anesthesiology peaked then is an understatement.

Flight plan

After high school he enlisted in the Air Force. After a little more than three years, he was offered an early release, complete with GI Bill, and began his undergraduate degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The school's airport sat on the grounds of a former World War II Navy primary training base, so as Bertz earned his degree, he also joined the university flying club, where he learned the basics of piloting from a former World War II Navy flight instructor who ran the airport.

He earned his pilot's license in July 1958.

Bertz knew the Ohio Air National Guard was going to transition from flying F-84s to F-100s, and that's what he really wanted to fly, so he joined the OHANG and was selected to go to flight training. His commander wanted him to go through as an aviation cadet to learn how to be an officer, but he didn't have 20/20 vision, so after a year and a half in the Guard, his flight plan wasn't filed.


Bertz went on to dental school at Ohio State University where he earned his D.D.S., but after a year or two he realized he didn't want to be a dentist. Rules back then barred him from getting two professional degrees from a state school, so he sought out and was accepted into an oral surgery program at Denver General Hospital.

Upon moving to Denver, he performed a year of internship and a year of residency at DGH. He also joined an Air Force Reserve medical unit where he earned his commission.

"During my internship, I had a month on anesthesia rotation, doing all kinds of surgical cases. The second year, the year of residency in oral surgery, I had three months on anesthesia. At the end of that, they needed people to take anesthesia call at night, and they talked me into taking anesthesia call with two M.Ds. who were going into anesthesia."

He applied for a full-blown M.D. residency in anesthesia at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where he did a residency and fellowship in anesthesia, then stayed on the faculty until 1996.

In 1973 he returned to Denver and began practicing at Children's Hospital, where he met now-retired COANG Col. Bruce Labaugh, an obstetrician/gynecologist who was performing a residency in anesthesia. Labaugh commanded the COANG's hospital and recruited Bertz into the ranks in 1980.

Another family

In the COANG, Bertz held Air Force Specialty Codes of dentist, anesthesiologist and flight surgeon. In 1991, he was called to active duty and deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm. He went on to become the director of base medical services before retiring as a colonel in 2001.

"I dearly loved all my time in the Colorado Guard. ... The comradery of all these people, the fact that I don't know anybody who disliked it ... they put forth 100 percent to make it the best Guard unit in the U.S., and I really think it is one of the best units," he said.
"There's a communication link, and I hear from all kinds of people in the Colorado Guard all the time. Walt Williams and Wynn Coomer - former Minute Men who retired before I got there - always remembered my name, and that told me a lot about the culture. The time I spent in the Colorado Guard - the comradery of that whole group - is probably one of the neatest and outstanding experiences that I've ever had."

Bertz is a member of the COANG's Other Side of the Mountain Gang, an organization of more than 600 Colorado Guard retirees, and is also involved in a number of organizations dedicated to preserving the history of aviation for generations to come.

To read more about Bertz and view a photo essay about his beloved 'Stang Evil, please visit Warbird Alley.

Retired Col. Don "D.O." Neary

"I was born a fighter pilot. My brother Joe built planes - balsa wood planes - and when I'd fly 'em, I'd break 'em."

By the time he graduated from high school, the Korean War was in full force. Fortunately, Neary was pretty good at football, so he earned his way through the University of Colorado on scholarships, playing fullback, tailback and running back.
"My dad used to say, 'Just let the chips fall where they may and just work hard,'" said Neary.

"As long as you went to college and maintained a C average, you were deferred from the draft, and that was difficult for me," he said. But he persisted. He changed his major from business to physical education in order to earn his sheepskin.

He also joined the Air Force ROTC Detachment 105. "The instructors were so inspirational and such neat people, and cared about teaching the cadets to be military officers, so I got hooked."

In the mean time, his brother was drafted into the Army. Neary also received a draft notice even though he was qualified for deferment as an ROTC cadet, but the draft board ordered an Army physical anyway.

"I was following all the rules," Neary said. Though he felt he was being punished by someone he knew in the draft office, he was patient and didn't complain. Then one of his ROTC instructors got wind of the action and put a stop to it.

"The draft lady must've gotten in trouble with the V.A. (Veterans Affairs), because when I walked into the (draft) office later, you'd have thought I was God," said Neary. "That (ROTC captain) was a guy who'd stand up for and take care of his people. That meant he had integrity. I liked that, and it made me want to be a military officer even more."

Neary describes his ROTC classes and instructors as the best he ever had at CU, because "they were talking from experience - and they were conscientious of our goals. I have to say my military career started at CU as an ROTC guy."

A 'Pightrer Filot' is born

At that point he hadn't considered a career as a pilot - he didn't even know if he'd qualify - but he was intrigued by the military's abundance of jobs and duty stations around the world.

"Also, the job didn't break you away from your family responsibilities or ties, and so it really sat well with me. ... I thought it would be really neat to go and do something with the kind of people who I really had respect for," he said.

In June 1955, Neary graduated with a bachelor of science in physical education. In August, he received his commission and was selected for pilot training. He had a year to report, so he spent the time between teaching physical education at Wheat Ridge Elementary School in Wheat Ridge, Colo.

Neary reported to Lackland Air Force Base in June 1956 to in-process into the Air Force, then was assigned to Stallings Air Base at Kinston, N.C. for pilot training.

"When I first climbed in my airplane with my flight instructor, I'd never flown one before," he said. "My instructor asked me if I wanted to do some acrobatics. I agreed of course, and persevered through the spins and loops in the T-34 Mentor - a 125-horsepower prop job - without a problem. When we got on the ground, I threw up. But I was good in flight. I never threw up in flight."

After serving 10 years in the Air Force, Neary made the difficult choice for his expanding family - he ultimately had seven kids - and left active duty. He found out quickly, though, that the life of a civilian wasn't his true calling, so after a short break in service, Neary found a home in the Colorado Air National Guard, where he spent the next 23 years.
"Sometimes you get a lemon, and sometimes in turns to lemonade."

And even after 6,000 hours in nine different airframes (including the F-100 Super Sabre and the A-7 Corsair), a year of combat sorties in Vietnam, and planning a deployment to Merzifon, Turkey, where he led 500 fellow Guardsmen in preparation for the Cold War, he never left the service again.

Though he retired his flight suit in 1988, Neary is never far from the Colorado Guard. He dearly misses both the flying and the people equally. To this day, he keeps in touch with nearly everyone who has affected his life positively - including his now 84-year-old flight instructor, Hendrik C. Gillebaard. "He was probably the most important person. He controlled my destiny."

Today, as he looks due east from the back deck of his home in Aurora, Colo., Neary has a clear view of the flight line at Buckley Air Force Base. Periodically, he grades the patterns made by current COANG "pighter filots," as he calls them, as they maneuver their F-16 Fighting Falcons overhead. And when the mood strikes, the ornery Neary follows up with phone calls to the 140th Wing's operations desk to voice his opinion - just for fun. Even his son-in-law, a current COANG pilot, isn't above a ribbing.

In his spare time, Neary chairs the COANG's Air Heritage Committee, which seeks to preserve the 88-year history of the Air National Guard in Colorado. (One needs only to browse the Air Heritage Room at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver to see the impact of his committee's efforts.) He's also one of more than 600 members of the COANG's Other Side of the Mountain Gang, an organization of Colorado Guard retirees, and involved in a number of other organizations dedicated to preserving the history of aviation.

"You have to have a passion for what you do, and you'll be good at that. Find a job that you like and you'll never have to work another day in your life."

Lessons in life, leadership

Neary defines leadership as "getting people to do what you want done because they want to do it. It means they buy into what you're asking them to do. And the Colorado Guard? Incredible."

His three P's are patience, persistence and perseverance.

"When you had adversity, you persisted. Sometimes you'd win and sometimes you'd lose and that's your patience. And the ones you really respect are the ones who stick up to tell you, 'You screwed up.' Could be a chief, could be an enlisted guy or gal - I don't care - but when they look you in the eyes and tell you (that) you need to look at something, I told 'em, 'Put it in writing.' And if I got something back, I knew they were serious - and I'd take action.

The lesson? "It's not about me, it's about us: the Colorado Guard. Stand up for what you believe in and accept responsibility for your own actions. We have a reputation to uphold."