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On Eagle's Wings

Lee Berra '02, second from right, with B-1 crewmates.

Lee Berra ‘02 always knew he wanted to fly. As a kid, he wrote a letter to Santa Claus with “being a pilot” on his wish list. But something differentiated him from most others – he actually followed through.

Berra earned his pilot’s license by high school. Flying quickly became his passion.

He studied aerospace engineering in college, earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California in 2006. That same year – since becoming an Air Force pilot had long been a dream of his – Berra was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. From 2010-15, Berra was assigned as a B-1 pilot at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. He was then reassigned to Edwards Air Force Base to attend the USAF Test Pilot School, where he graduated in June 2016.

Tragically, Berra died in a private airplane crash on Jan. 25, 2017. At that time, he was a B-1 test pilot with the 419th Flight Test Squadron and was temporarily assigned to the 12th Flying Training Wing at Joint Base San Antonio for T-38C pilot instructor training.

Berra enjoyed a 10-year career with the Air Force, flying 2,599 military flight hours in 30 different aircraft, with most of his time in the supersonic B-1 Lancer. He deployed to Afghanistan three times as a B-1 bomber pilot and was also a licensed commercial pilot.

Lee (right) and brother Andy in flight with their wives.

Berra’s family describes him as kind, loving, smart, funny, genuine and humble – in short, “a genuine guy with a real heart of gold” who had loyal SLUH, USC and military friends. Beloved husband of Sydney, son of Phil and Beth, brother of Andy ‘00 and Adrienne, he was passionate about sports, hiking and fishing.

Lee and Andy had the unbreakable bond of brothers. At graduation from USAF Pilot Training School, Lee broke his first pair of uniform wings in half. He kept half and presented the other half to Andy for safekeeping. In the Air Force pilot tradition, these two pieces were joined again at Lee’s funeral to unite their souls forever.

Andy says his brother was adventurous, and that their time together was “one seamless adventure to the next.” The adventure that is most vivid, he recalls, is their last.

“The last day I spent with Lee was Dec. 28, 2016. As his Christmas gift to my wife Liz and I, Lee and his wife Sydney planned a day for the four of us in Key West. We flew down in his plane from my parent’s place in Fort Myers Beach and spent the morning cruising around Key West on four old, rusty bicycles Lee had secured for us. After lunch we headed out on a catamaran for some snorkeling. Lee and I spent an hour swimming and snorkeling through the Great Florida Reef. As the sun began to set, we hopped back into his plane for the short return flight to Fort Myers.

“It was a perfect day. You don’t get to pick the last day you spend with a loved one, but if I could’ve, I wouldn’t have changed anything about the last day I spent with Lee.”

Lee (second from right) with his parents and siblings.


In loving memory of Lee, his family is establishing a fully endowed memorial scholarship in his name at SLUH. The Maj. Lee M. Berra ‘02 Memorial Scholarship will provide a quality education to a student in financial need every year in perpetuity. The Berra family hosted a golf benefit at Forest Park on Armed Forces Day on May 18, 2019, raising more than $191,000 for Lee’s scholarship. The Berra Family Charitable Foundation will fund the remainder of the $300,000 scholarship.

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