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December 17, 2003


80-year-old pilot still relishes the thrill of flight
 Jim Byers - WW11 Pilot


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.

Jim Byers and Chrissy Dyer 1991At 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 Byers up.

"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 Pensacola, Fla.

"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 single-seater Fury.

The couple lives in Glen-Air Mobile Home Park in Lincoln Township.

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.

Jim Byers plane.

Webmaster note:  *Jim sold his plane on eBay during the summer of 2004.  Bill Dyer took these incredible photos at the airport that day when the new owner flew the plane away to a new home.  Jim passed away on August 26, 2004, thus ending the incredible adventure of a 1940 Hartford High School graduate.

Jim Byer's plane as it left the Watervliet Airport for the last time in 2004.
Jim Byer's plane as it left the
Watervliet Airport for the last time in 2004.


Information for this web site was gathered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, personal photo albums, and other documented materials - many available to the public at the Hartford Public Library or Van Buren County Historical Museum.  Please report any typographical errors, updated information, or incorrectly stated information to the webmaster for correction.  Reprinting for personal and instructional purposes is permitted, however, unauthorized commercial reprinting of this information or unauthorized linking to photos-pictures on this site is strictly prohibited without written permission from the webmaster. 

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A Pictorial History of Hartford, Michigan
Emma Thornburg Sefcik,
Competent Secretarial Service
Copyright 2000 - All rights reserved.

Revised: May 27, 2015