ST. JOSEPH -- Jim Byers remembers the first time he saw
an airplane, the first time he flew in one and the first time he flew one.
All were in the 1930s.
At 80, Byers has been around for most of aviation's
first 100 years, being celebrated today on the centennial of the Wright
Brothers first flight.
"The first time I ever saw an airplane in
the sky, I wanted to get up there and fly,"
the former flight instructor, airplane mechanic and hobby flier said. Due
to ill health, Byers hasn't flown a plane since the early 1990s.
"I was only 7 or 8 years old when I
remember seeing my first airplane," he said.
"I just wanted to be up there.
I've had the desire ever since."
Byers was then living in Benton Harbor with his mother
and grandmother. He and his mother later moved to Hartford, where he
got to fly for the first time.
"The first time I ever
went up, I was 12 years old. There was a fellow in Hartford, Ronald Leach,
who had a plane. He flew out of a field at the edge of town. I used to hang
around and watch him fly."
One day when Byers was at the landing strip and Leach
was in the air, he said, he started talking to Leach's father. When the
father saw how interested the youngster was in flying,
"He said to me, 'Would you like to go up?' I said, 'Would I!'"
So when Leach landed his open cockpit biplane, he took
"It just thrilled the dickens out of me," he recalled with still vivid memory about his first flight.
"I thought that was the most
wonderful thing there was. That more or less convinced me I wanted to fly."
By the time he started taking flight lesson, Byers
said, he had flown three or four times.
"I started flying in 1939," he said. "I was 16
when I started. I soloed when I was 17." Byers
was still living in Hartford. The lessons were at Ross Field in Benton
Harbor, now Southwest Michigan Regional Airport, so
"I hitchhiked to Benton Harbor to take my
flying lessons." He financed his
lessons with proceeds from a newspaper delivery route.
"I think it was in April 1940 that I
soloed," he said, shortly before graduating
from Hartford High School.
In February 1942, with World War II underway, Byers
entered the Navy, but didn't become a pilot.
"I flew in a PBY flying boat as a flight
engineer. Actually, all I was was a glorified mechanic." He first was stationed in the New Hebrides islands in
the South Pacific, then spent the last 11/2 years in a training squadron at
"I wanted to keep flying, so
after the war was over, I went to California. I got my pilot's license
there," Byers said.
He got out of the Navy in 1945, but re-enlisted in 1949
and stayed until 1966. "I was
still an airplane mechanic" for part of that
time, but spent the last 10 years on ships and had nothing to do with
airplanes. But, Byers said, "Any time I was ashore, I would be flying." He either belonged to a flying club in order to use its
planes or rented a plane. He bought his first airplane in 1965, a
1946 Taylorcraft two-seater, when stationed at the Navy shipyard in Boston.
After retiring, he moved to Maine, got his instructor's
license in about 1968 and starting giving flying lessons in Machias. He
then moved to Fryeburg, Maine, and gave flying lessons and flew people on
pleasure flights or to destinations.
Byers returned to Southwest Michigan in 1975.
"My mother was still living in Hartford, so
I came back to be with her."
Until 1988 or '89, he was an instructor for the
Taildraggers Flying Club, based at the Benton Harbor airport.
With more than 50 years of flying, Byers said,
"The thing I got the most satisfaction
out of was teaching people to fly, and I was really satisfied the first
time I let them go up by themselves. ... I was really satisfied I gave them
the skill and knowledge, so they could do it by themselves."
Byers still owns an airplane, though it's for sale*. In
1984, he traded his Piper Cub for a 7/10 scale replica of a Hawker Fury, an
open cockpit biplane used by the Royal Air Force as a training plane before
World War II.
"I guess he didn't want me to go up any
more (with him)," Byers' wife, Virginia,
joked about her husband having switched from the two-seater Cub to the
The couple lives in Glen-Air Mobile Home Park in
Byers, who guesses he taught more than 100 people to
fly, said he is especially pleased that the first person he taught to fly
in Machias makes mercy flights, flying seriously ill children and adults in
his own plane from there to hospitals in major cities.
"It makes me feel good he's still doing
that today," he said.
Byers, who flew about 5,500 hours, had a potentially
fatal mishap in probably 1954, when he was flying over Oklahoma in a plane
called an Ercoupe. The plane had a sliding canopy. "It was summer. I had the canopy open and I didn't
have my seat belt fastened. I hit a downdraft and I went up in my seat. If
I hadn't caught myself on the underside of the canopy, that would have been
the end of me."
He said he fastened his seatbelt when he got back in
the seat and never flew again without buckling in.