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John Paul II: The Ideal Passenger

Interview With Pope’s Helicopter Pilot

By Serena Sartini

ROME, APRIL 19, 2011 ( According to the pilot of the papal helicopter, Pope John Paul II was “the ideal passenger,” never showing “concrete worries or fears.”

For some 20 years, Colonel Antonio Berardo had the task of flying the Polish Pontiff around Italy.

He spoke with ZENIT about his memories as the Pope’s pilot, recounting: “I remember once we went to the airport of Orio al Serio [southeast of Bergamo]. There was a very strong storm. The Pope was seated tranquilly and serenely. We carried out our operations and everything went well.

“When there was turbulence, which happens frequently with a helicopter, we never saw the Pope tense or worried. He was the ideal passenger, tranquil.”

ZENIT: What did John Paul II do during the flights?

Berardo: During a trip, the Pope usually read or looked attentively and with curiosity out the window, especially when we flew over mountainous areas and he admired the snow-covered landscapes.

ZENIT: Did the Pope like to make excursions outside the program?

Berardo: Yes, that’s true, during transports, especially the one on Wednesday from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo, he liked to go on outings that weren’t programmed. Between our team and the Pope there was perfect understanding. It wasn’t necessary for him to ask: It was enough for him to make a gesture with his hand to be understood as saying, “Let’s take a little spin.”

We would ask his secretary, [Monsignor] Dziwisz where he wanted us to take him and how far we could go. The Pope loved to go to the snow and in the summer we made excursions through the mountains, arriving even at the Gran Sasso. Once we took him to the sea, to the Pontine Islands. After asking him several times, that time he said to us: “It’s OK, today we are going to Ponza.” He observed the pastures and the landscape. He seemed very entertained.

ZENIT: What was it like to travel with the Pope? After all, you were his pilot.

Berardo: The first time I had the occasion to fly with the Pope, I was very overwhelmed. I knew I was taking a personage of enormous importance. So I was tense. Then, as time went on, it became little by little more tranquil and routine. It became something automatic, almost familiar. The tension and emotion passed quickly.

ZENIT: What was the Pope’s relationship with the team?

Berardo: Every now and then John Paul II would say a phrase to us. But what we liked most about him were his gestures, the military greeting he gave us when he saw us, his smile, a pat on the back, an embrace. Once he embraced me because I saved a situation at the last minute. He was a very easygoing Pope. A couple of times he came to the cabin, looked at all the equipment, observed, put on the headset and then returned to his place.

ZENIT: What is the Pope’s place like in your helicopter?

Berardo: The easy chair where the Pope sits is very inviting. It is a comfortable chair, which is in front of a window that allows one to see the scenery, almost like a balcony on the world. Then there is a small table in front, often adorned with flowers. Many ask me if they can be photographed in that chair.

ZENIT: Tell us some special memory.

Berardo: It became such a routine for us to take the Pope that at times we forgot who it was. One Wednesday, I remember there was a solar eclipse. We had prepared to have the Pope see the eclipse. We stopped on the platform of the heliport of Castel Gandolfo. We were not equipped for the eclipse, however the prefecture had given the Pope a welder’s glass. John Paul II was with us and he gave it to us. At a certain moment, one of the crew had it for such a long time that he said to the Pope, as if he were a friend of his, “one moment, I’m going to look a bit more.”

A characteristic of John Paul II was that with him the weather was always fine, including when the forecast was the contrary, or when we went directly toward the storms.

When we completed 10,000 hours of flying, for example, we organized a little ceremony in Castel Gandolfo with the Pope. However, it was raining terribly, a fantastic amount of water was falling. We didn’t know what to do. However, no sooner we got to the heliport, it stopped raining. A miracle. The Pope brought with him “fine weather.”

[Translation by ZENIT]

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