Flying high while remaining grounded

For Tarrytown-based commercial pilot Regina Berryman, work may be up in the air but her hobbies are thoroughly down to earth.

Every child yearns to fly, but for young Regina Berryman taking to the sky had nothing to do with superheroes or other childhood fantasies. “Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to fly,” says the
Tarrytown resident, but Berryman was no wannabe Wonder Woman. 

Indeed, she wanted to be a fighter pilot but her eyes weren’t good enough. “It was strange because neither of my parents was in aviation or the military for that matter, so I don’t know where it came from. I was like the black sheep of the family.” On a recent call, she remembers how her father took her to Westchester County Airport when she was a kid. “They had an observation area and I had a receiver, which my dad had bought me — I believe in Radio Shack. I could hear the communication between pilots and air traffic control and I learned to understand all the lingo.” She flew model airplanes and had them hanging over her bed. “Yes, I was a little weird,” she laughs, “a complete geek.”

By the age of 16 she was already working at Danbury Airport “behind the desk.” Then, as soon as she was old enough, she started to take flying lessons at the airport flight school, gaining all her certificates and eventually reaching the commercial level, meaning she was qualified to fly paying passengers. 

Now a first officer with United Airlines, she flies its wide-body 787 Dreamliner airplanes on the airline’s intercontinental routes. Berryman’s been with United for 20 years and flying for about 30. Along the way, she has flown both charter aircraft and corporate aircraft — basically the civilian side of aviation, as opposed to military. Flying out of Teterboro Airport, she has flown heads of state and politicians, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among them.

At the time of 9/11, Berryman was working at Continental Airlines and was furloughed as a result, but she landed a job at Teterboro Airport for Million Air, flying a Citation (a Cessna business jet) and then later a Gulfstream IV corporate jet. “I saw every celebrity, athlete and political figure. Harvey Weinstein, she confides, was “not the easiest client in the world,” but — she pauses — “I had no issues with him.”

She has, she says, enjoyed every aspect of her career but admits that corporate flying did begin to take its toll. “You’re basically on call all the time. Then again, I have to say I would never have gone to parts of the world which I went to.” She casually name-checks South Africa and the Cook Islands. “You know, basically any place a Gulfstream goes, I went.”

Neither jaded nor tired after three decades at the yoke (airline-speak for the control wheel or column) Berryman still looks forward to going to work every day. “I mean, I think it’s awesome that I add fuel to these engines and this huge airplane goes up in the air and stays there for 16 hours and gets people to their destination half-way across the world.” The child’s sense of wonder has remained with her.

Of all the many roles and functions she has fulfilled and enjoyed in her career to date, she says her present position with United Airlines is the best. “I love United — not that I’m propping them up,” she says, “but there’s no other airline where I could be flying this type of equipment and going to the places I’m going to right now.” (The 787 is a beautiful machine indeed, with its raked wingtip, designed to give the aircraft more fuel efficiency.) “It’s more regulated,” she elaborates, “and my quality of life is better.  I have a fixed schedule and (the job) is seniority-based. I also choose pretty much where I want to go.”

That choice invariably involves Europe. “I love it,” she says. “I was on the Boeing 767 before the 787 and Europe was all I did. When you go to a city, you have a routine. You know the restaurants, you’re with great colleagues — for the most part — you’re in a nice hotel.” She especially likes Germany and was travelling so frequently to German-speaking cities — Frankfurt, Berlin and Zurich — at one time that five years ago she started learning German. “You get that… that immersion.” 

Other favorite European cities include Rome and Amsterdam, while outside of Europe she loves Tokyo. South Africa holds a special place in her heart, too, although that country is currently off limits, owing to Covid. 

Having visited so many countries, Berryman nevertheless still has a bucket list, countries or places she wants to visit for pleasure. “Oh absolutely, this world is so big and so vast.” While she has already visited Oslo and Stockholm, high on that list “for pleasure” is northern Scandinavia in the summertime. “I think that would be amazing,” she says, while lamenting that time is always the enemy.

And yet, Berryman is someone who does have time or rather makes it. Down on the ground, gardening is a passion of hers. It started with houseplants, she explains, in her “young person’s” apartment. Her grandmother was Sicilian and was a big influence. “Any little plot of land she had, she’d put something in it.” She says she just loves growing things. “The fact that you can grow something from a little seed, that you can provide so much nutrition and satisfaction, a meal just from planting… that is a miracle.” She seems to marvel at the wonder of it the same way she continues to marvel at the wonder of flight.

She has a ranch house, around 90 feet deep, along which her garden extends, and her design has been to divide it up into “rooms,” reflecting the interior of a house. One part of the garden is formal, with lawn, hydrangeas, trimmed boxwood and the like.  Then, you go through a rose archway and get to a more informal garden where she mixes vegetables with perennials. Yet another area is less cultivated, wilder, “American plants, native grasses. That sort of thing.”

In addition to the flying and the gardening there is Berryman’s love of horses. Dracula, her 13-year old Lusitano gelding, stabled in Ossining, came to her from a lady in Florida. “Sad story,” she says. “I had to find a home for him.”  Dracula, whom she gets to see whenever she is home, is “a really good guy.” Berryman does dressage and occasionally competes and she totally loves the sport, pointing out that dressage is a refined “art form” but one with a lot of athleticism involved and one she feels is particularly suited to her, a kind of flip-side to her world of flight. “When I’m at work, I tell the airplane what to do and it does it. In dressage, you tell the horse what to do and he may do it or he may not do it, so you have to figure out ways to convince him to do it. That’s a dichotomy and a challenge for me.”  

While dressage and for that matter gardening may have been seen as pursuits a woman could also pursue, flying is likely the odd one out and I wondered if Berryman had ever come across any resistance in her chosen career.

“There’s no resistance, just the opposite,” she informs me in a written reply, a few days after we speak. “The industry has gone to extensive lengths to recruit and hire women. In terms of my own personal experience, I’ve worked with the most professional group of men, who’ve not only become dear friends but wonderful mentors in my aviation career. I’ve been treated with the utmost respect and dignity in and out of the flight deck.”

While attesting to Berryman’s personal professionalism, it also reflects well on the industry itself, which is encouraging in today’s climate. Then again, if you will forgive the pun, Berryman seems exceptionally well-grounded.  

“My career focus was always to be a good pilot, not a woman pilot,” she says.

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