His father was performing his final flyover — an Air Force tradition to help mark a pilot’s retirement from the service. The youngster, like all the onlookers on that sunny California day in 1970, was impressed.
“I knew then what I wanted to do,” said Air Force Col. Jerry Byars Jr., who was visiting his parents, Kay and Jerry Sr., in his Jasper hometown during the Fourth of July holiday. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is fly airplanes.”
The younger Byars grew up, graduated from Auburn and made it happen. He has flown friendly and unfriendly skies as an Air Force pilot for 26 years. And, in just the past six months, he enjoyed two of his stellar career’s most significant milestones.
In December, Byars was promoted to colonel, leaving his post as a training squadron commander in San Antonio to become vice commander of the 413th Flight Test Group at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga.
Then, on June 29, he was named to the prestigious post of Group commander.
The 413th’s history dates back to 1944, when it was the 413th Fighter Group. Now its units conduct tests nationwide to ensure the safety of the pilot in the cockpit.
“I never expected all this. I was happy being a captain,” Byars said with a chuckle at his parents’ Forest Park home. “My goal was to make it to squadron commander, which is over about 50 people. This group has about 350 folks.”
Byars has flown various aircraft, including fighter jets, bombers and tankers. He will deal with all of those in his new command.
“We test everything the Air Force flies,” he said.
Military life and flying came natural to Jerry Byars Jr. His dad, Jasper icon Jerry Sr., served in three wars.
The elder Byars enlisted in the Navy at 17 during World War II. After the war he graduated from Auburn and joined the Air Force to become a pilot and serve in Korea and Vietnam. As a civilian he flew for the Drummond Company and eventually became vice president of public relations.
It was the flying that got his son’s attention.
“I had grown up with it so I knew what to expect,” Byars Jr. said of his career choice.
Flying jets is deeply ingrained on both sides of his family. His wife, Kathy, a Purdue aerospace engineering grad, was also an Air Force pilot for some 10 years, following in the footsteps of her dad and uncle.
Col. Byars, Walker High Class of 1980 and Auburn ’85, began flying with the Air National Guard in Birmingham. On active duty he served in the United Arab Emirates in support of Desert Shield in 1990 and in 2005 deployed to Uzbekistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
While promotions and awards have distinguished his career, a personal highlight came recently when he flew with the Blue Angels during a practice held by the elite flying group in Warner Robins.
Today, the modest, soft-spoken officer and gentleman smiles shyly while talking about the future.
At 50, he still has a perpetual twinkle in his eye. It‘s likely similar to the one he had as a boy watching his dad fly an F4 above an endearing throng.
That sparkle is there when he talks about the possibility of becoming a general. That would be just one promotion away. But it’s also there when he talks about retiring, building a home on property he has just bought in Jasper and enjoying life with Kathy and children Erin, 15, and John, 13.
He lightheartedly pondered the future a bit while he and John got ready to brave the heat and wet a hook near Jasper last week.
“People say, ‘don’t you want to stay in and make general?’ but I don’t know,” Byars said, smiling. “I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. As long as I can do that I’ll keep going ... but I really can’t tell you what I’ll be doing in two years.
“I do know,” he added, “that sometime I want to retire and go fishing.”