Combat Legends

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Flying Lines interviews with American pioneers of control-line Combat.

By Ken Burdick

An evening with Carl Berryman


Yes Folks, it’s true,

Feb. 29, leap year 2012, I spent a fascinating hour talking with one of the innovators of early control line Combat, Carl Berryman.

To the average Combat flyer who was active in the 1960s, Carl was known for designing the Big Iron Combat wing kitted by Veco and later Dumas.  In those days, you mostly heard about Riley Wooten and his famous Voodoo kit that came with some tips on how to fly Combat.

Carl however, was a bit more unassuming than the larger than life Texan we all call Riley, but was not without his own ideas and contributions. Carl was known to have an unusual flying style and held his hand down about waist high and would aim his hand at a target like a gunslinger.

To me, a fourteen year old kid, this was nothing short of the coolest thing in the world. I was on the bandwagon and crashed too many wings trying to emulate this flying style.

Getting started

One question that always has fascinated me is “how did you start flying Combat?”

The reasons are many but I have observed that a certain personality type will jump into this ego-on-a-string event, so it’s always one of the first things I ask. Carl wanted to fly real fighter planes in World War II and as such trained on several airplanes such as the PT-17, the BT-13, and the AT-6 Texan.

CB: I had earned my pilots license and had the skills and reflexes to fly fighters, but I didn’t.

KB: What prevented you?

CB: Two things actually, I started out about 6 feet tall, then 6’2”, 6’ 4” and I finally stopped at 6’8” in height. They said I was too tall. About that time the war ended so I started living my adult life but still had the idea of Combat in my head.

KB: Did you fly models at all?

CB: Yes, I always liked model aircraft and tried putting a Brown Jr. engine onto a control-line like thing that I had made from an old free-flight wing. Most airplanes would just fly in circles but I was able to get this one to loop. I suppose that inspired me some. I liked flying Stunt in later years because to me, it was like flying a real airplane.

KB: But what actually got you into flying control-line Combat?

CB: (Long pause) You may not believe this, but it was nighthawks that did it. They would dive out of the sky, straight down and try to catch the models.

KB: You may not believe this, but the very same thing happened to me and my friend Don McKay. We were kids and the night hawks would swoop down and try and catch our airplanes.

Starts and restarts

Carl had grown up in Wichita Falls, Texas, and as everyone does, became busy with life, working, and getting married to the love of his life Barbara. They are still going strong after 64 years of marriage.

Sometime around 1950, they had moved to Aritzia, Texas, and then to Abernathy, Texas. After a period of not flying, Carl picked up the handle in Abernathy and went flying one day. A guy stopped his car to chat with him and said that his brother actually flew Combat models in Lubbock. The man’s brother turned out to be Riley Wooten.


KB: So you and Riley began flying together?

CB: Yes, Riley took me under his wing and taught me what I needed to know about flying Combat. In those days, the only people who Riley had not bested in a match were the ones he had never flown before. He not only had the reflexes, but he could somehow read a flyer and know what was going to happen before it did. Although I became quite good, I believe Riley could kill me at any given moment. I don’t believe that I ever killed Riley in a contest.

KB: What engines were you using then?

CB: We used “Hot Head Foxes” which was a Fox stunt highly modified. With domed pistons and lots of timing changes.

KB: What airplane did you choose to fly?

CB: I flew Riley’s Quicker but thought it would fly better if the stabilizer and elevator were placed in clean air and not right behind the trailing edge. This discussion created the next airplane that Riley called the Whatizit. The stab and elevator were on top of the wing in an attempt to get the tail into clean air. I think the Quicker was the best airplane of its type and I flew them exclusively. I was, however always thinking of ways to improve things.

KB:           How did you come up with the Big Iron?

CB: (Laughing) Aren’t you’re getting ahead of the story?  In 1957, Barbara and I had moved to Oklahoma where I began to work on ideas that would give me some sort of advantage. I had worked as a kid in a motorcycle shop and could get an engine to run fast by my own special modifications. I never ran high nitro because I believed power could be gained through efficiency. It was just my way. About that time, I put the engine horizontal instead of vertical on the wing which was the style back then, it just made sense to do that. I also solved what I believed to be the dirty air on the elevator and came up with what you now call booms, putting the elevator back into cleaner air. This design I called the Oklahoma Twister. It was the first of its kind and it created the “modern combat wing.”

KB: So you made the first modern low profile Combat wing and The Big Iron was a refinement of the Oklahoma Twister.

CB: Yes.

KB: What fuel system did you use?

CB: I started with tin pressure tanks and then to pen bladders. I finally settled on baby pacifiers as they didn’t have so much pressure and seemed to give a nice run with more constant pressure.

KB: Do you have a particular match that you enjoyed?

CB: Yes. Riley and I were flying the Nats around 1960, might have been '62, and it was my dream to be flying him for first and second in combat. Riley couldn’t get his engine started (blown plug) and I signaled my pitman to kill my engine. The nationals officials had never seen this before and were quite disturbed by it. I told them I came here to fly and not win by points on a default. I gave Riley the rematch and I refused to let my pitman launch until Riley did.

KB: We call that a “simo launch” why did you do that?

CB: As I said before, I came to fly and if I was going to win, I’d do it with a kill. I believe Riley killed me.

KB: How and why did you develop that peculiar flying style of the handle at the hip? I couldn’t do it as a kid, and crashed a lot trying.

CB: For the same reason as the simo launch, I was 6 foot 8 inches tall and I could use that for an advantage if I chose to. I chose to win or lose on my skills and not on my size. When I put my hand at a certain place, the lines would be equal to the average flyer.  

KB: That’s amazing because all this time, I just thought it was a cool factor. ... showing off.  There are some very tall flyers who take advantage of the height in line entanglements by holding their arm up making it difficult for the opponent to unwrap after a crash. They usually win on points that way.

CB: I refused to do that, in fact, back then many would use the line entanglement as a tactic but I would not. I did my best to fly out of them by shouting "insides, and outsides” as the case required. Once out of the mess, I would ask if they were ready and we would fly Combat again.

KB: What made you stop flying combat?

CB: I always figured I would stop when my reflexes gave out. That didn’t happen and I think even today I could still fly at 83. It was that I just couldn’t glue one more spar into one more airplane. I was tired of building, plain and simple. I stopped and that was that.

KB: What do you do now to fill the void?

CB: I fish for Bass with Barbara.

KB: Let me guess, a shingle with a high powered outboard?

CB: Yep, and I modify my bait as well.

KB: What sort of music did you listen to when you were flying Combat? (Another favorite Combat question of mine.)

CB: I liked Jazz, blues and country music. I don’t much care for the new country, but songs like “Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb.

KB: Any regrets?

CB: Yes, one day at the Nationals, a kid named Howard Rush asked if I would fly his airplane. I told him I didn’t like flying other peoples stuff. He insisted it was okay so I did. He had some hopped up engine that cost something like $250 and it was pretty fast. I began to wring it out to see just what the Nemesis would do when that sweet little engine launched the cylinder into space.

KB: (Laughing) Howard is a friend of mine, what did he say?

CB: He picked up the airplane after it fluttered down, looked at the engine and declared, “Why….that’s defective!”

KB: Thanks Carl, it’s been my pleasure.

CB: You’re welcome Ken.


Carl Berryman and some of his planes.


Foreground is an 80-inch Quicker powered by a Hornet .60.

An early Whatzit, a Riley Wooten design; this one owned by Barry Baxter.


Barbara holds a Wildcat in 1954.

Today, at 83, Carl enjoys bass fishing.  

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This page was upated March 30, 2012