Aviator Beryl Erickson dies
December 27, 2006
Beryl Erickson was born to fly.Over a long and distinguished career as a test pilot for the company that would grow to become General Dynamics, Erickson was instrumental in the development of a number of World War II and Cold War era planes, including the first intercontinental bomber and the first bomber that could fly at twice the speed of sound.The former Aspen resident died at age 90 on Thursday after a heart attack at a restaurant near his Grand Junction home.Erickson was as passionate about skiing, tennis and life in the Colorado mountains as he was about aviation. Survivors include his wife, Billie, of Grand Junction and son, Sidney, of Albuquerque, N.M.Erickson was born in Bottineau, N.D., but raised in Los Angeles, where he sold newspapers to fund his early flying lessons. He became a commercial pilot by age 21, and was on active duty status with the Army Air Corps before World War II.
Returning from delivering planes to U.S. allies in the Philippines, Erickson passed through Pearl Harbor just two days before the Japanese attack in 1941. He made it to California just in time for his wedding to Billie, and the two honeymooned on skis in Sun Valley, Idaho.Erickson was chief of tests for Consolidated, the company that would grow into General Dynamics, and the family lived in Fort Worth, Texas, until the late 1940s.Erickson was 30 years old when he took the maiden flight of the B-36, the first long-range bomber, in 1946. The plane would be an important factor in the Cold War. He was the test pilot for many U.S. fighters, bombers and cargo planes, including the B-24 Liberator, P-51 Mustang, the B-25 Mitchell and later the B-58 Hustler. While developing the B-36, he took a test flight with Charles Lindbergh as his copilot – a story Erickson was fond of telling.Avid skiers, the Ericksons moved to Aspen in 1950, where they raised their children: their daughter, Mary Sue, who died in 1966, and their son, Sidney.
Erickson flew sick and injured patients from Aspen to major hospitals before there were adequate facilities in town, and he was a fixture at tiny Sardy Field, on the ski slopes or the tennis court.Beryl and Billie Erickson celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary atop Aspen Mountain in 1991, and Beryl skied and flew airplanes well into his 80s.”He was such a character,” said longtime family friend Pat Bingham. “And a great storyteller.” “He took classes and was well-read and he just was interested in a lot of different things,” said Janie Gerbaz, another longtime friend.Beryl and Billie were regulars at the Red Onion and active at the senior center, where they were known for playing pool. Marty Ames, director of the senior center, remembers Erickson as “always kind and engaged. He loved to learn and teach other people.”
“They didn’t dabble in anything,” Ames said – whether skiing, tennis or bridge, the couple did things well.What Erickson was most passionate about was aviation. And whether flying small planes out Aspen’s short, dirt-strip runway or mentoring young pilots like David Hach of Aspen, Erickson was at home in the skies.”If I’d be offered a chance to fly the B-58 to heaven, I’d go right away,” Erickson once told Mary Eshbaugh Hayes of The Aspen Times.During graveside services Thursday in Grand Junction, a military honor guard saluted Erickson for his World War II service and his contribution to freedom.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.