On October 22, 1938, Italian pilot Mario Pezzi and his small biplane soared into the stratosphere, setting the world record for maximum altitude achieved by a propeller-driven, piston-engine aircraft at 17,083 meters (56,047 feet) – a record that still stands, 79 years later. Karl Bergey was just 15 then, and today, at 94, he still aspires to beat it.
“We just want to break that record,” says Bergey with a smile. “That’s the only purpose.” Bergey is talking about his project to create a high-altitude research plane (HARP) with the design firm he founded, Bergey Aerospace, in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma. The goal is for the plane to soar above 60,000 feet. While that may seem an unreachable pipe dream for a near-centenarian, we would be wise to believe that Bergey can make this dream come true. The slogan for another of his companies, Bergey Windpower, is “Power your dream with the wind”; perhaps it’s a slogan for his life as well.
I was crazy about aeroplanes for as long as I can remember.
“I was crazy about airplanes for as long as I can remember,” says Bergey. In particular, he was fascinated by the tales of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the writer, poet, journalist and aviator who vanished over the Mediterranean during World War II. Bergey incorporated one of Saint-Exupéry’s maxims – “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away” – into his own philosophy, setting a standard of simplicity as a hallmark of his work.