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Phoenix wings: Tradition carries on through third aviator

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Benjamin N. Valmoja
  • 47th Flying Training Wings Public Affairs

The World War II era conjures visions of monochromatic film flickering in sync with the distinctive pop of a reel-to-reel projector, coupled with a monotone voice-over description of planes roaring overhead, gunfire whizzing back and forth and explosions dealing real death and destruction.

Those jarring images of WWII have a more grave meaning to the Byrd family. And for 2nd Lt. Colin Asbury, 47th Flying Training Wing pilot, the wings he now wears on his chest are a vivid reminder and direct link to those WWII sights and sounds. Asbury, who recently graduated the Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, had a pair of aviator’s wings pinned by Lt. Col. (ret.) Thomas Byrd May 18, 2018, as the third pilot to wear the set dating back to 1941. Air Force pilots inherently ground themselves with their tradition, as does the rest of the aviation community.  And the passing of wings is a time-honored tradition focused on the pedigree of pride and honor.

“Pilots have been passing on their wings since the wings became a thing,” said William McEvoy, 47th Flying Training Wing historian. “Humans instinctively pass on things of significance because history is tangible through these objects.”

With each generation to pass their wings, the history of that particular pair deepens like the patina on the metal. The pair Asbury received first took flight in 1941, only a few hours’ drive away from here—or less than an hour as the pilot flies.

1941: War Bird takes flight       

A native of Waco, Texas, Lieutenant Joe Curtis Byrd commissioned with Baylor University’s first class of “war birds” into the U.S. Army Air Corps on July 19, 1941. After attending basic training at Goodfellow Field, San Angelo, Texas, and preliminary flight training at Hicks Field, Fort Worth, Texas, he began his career as an American aviator. The wings that were pinned to his chest kicked off a more than 75-year-long lineage of aviators to come.

When he graduated, he was assigned to the P-40 Warhawk, where he was eventually stationed with the VIII Bomber Command in England. The modern day Eighth Air Force traces its lineage to the VIII BC, which came to life on Feb. 1, 1942, at Langley Field, Virginia. Just a few weeks later, about Feb. 23, the VIII BC moved to England, first to Daws Hill and later to High Wycombe, where it established its wartime headquarters in the Wycombe Abbey school for girls. Byrd participated in some early forays into France where he delivered ordinance and is credited with a half-kill on a German Messerschmitt, according to family history. Though not confirmed officially, family tradition also declares the lieutenant swapped his P-40 with a British counterpart into the British Supermarine Spitfire.

“The British really liked the P-40’s for the ground attack abilities, and the Americans really wanted the Spitfires for the bombing escort capabilities, so they switched aircraft,” said Lt. Col. (Ret.) Thomas Byrd, the nephew of Joe Curtis Byrd.

On Nov. 8, 1942, in Northern Africa during Operation Torch, Byrd was on flaps down short final for a landing when a flight of four Vichy French aircraft suddenly appeared over a hill to engage the Allied squadron. Anti-aircraft battery downed three of the four enemy aircraft, but one escaped harm, delivering a burst of rounds into Byrd’s cockpit, killing him. Even with the minimal losses to men and equipment during the operation, the Allied forces efforts were a complete success in seizing control of Northern Africa from the Axis powers.

 Much of the information regarding Byrd’s service was lost in the July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center, in St. Louis, Mo., which reportedly destroyed between 16-18 million official military personnel files. The family carries on his story, keeping it alive

When Byrd’s plane went down, they recovered his personal effects, including the wings, and sent them home to his parents. There the wings sat idle in safe keeping as a family heirloom. Upon their passing, the weathered aviator’s wings were handed off to Byrd’s sister.  For 37 years, the wings sat as a static display, but the break in service wouldn’t last forever.

1978: Wild blue connection

The family made sure the legacy of Byrd’s sacrifice would not be forgotten. Now  Lt. Col. (Ret.) Thomas Byrd,  grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, reading about naval aviation and dreaming of the skies, just like his uncle did all those decades ago.

His initial direction when heading into the service was to join the U.S. Navy to fly. When the time came and he began talking to recruiters, he was given a list of tasks to complete before he could finally reach the sky. To this next generation dreamer, it sounded obtainable.

“When I asked what my wife thinks, she said, ’Have you ever thought about the Air Force? You know, the branch known for flying?’” said Byrd, who joined the ranks of the Air Force in 1972. “Long story short, I ended up in the Air Force recruiter’s office and on my way to becoming a weapons system officer.”

A weapons system officer works hand-in-hand with the pilot and is directly involved in all air operations and weapon systems of a military aircraft. However, being a weapons system officer was a launching point for Byrd as he craved to be a pilot.

After a few overseas assignments and deployments into Cambodia Thomas was assigned as a WSO instructor. As fortune would have it, the unit was re-designated as the first F-4 Phantom unit in Europe. He was recommended by his commander and finally selected for pilot training. Byrd was reassigned again to attend Specialized Undergraduate Pilot training at Laughlin.

When pinned with his uncle’s wings, Byrd was handed a piece of WWII and Air Force history.

“These are heritage wings,” he said. “They were first earned before the U.S. entered World War II. They went from my uncle to me. When I got them, I felt that connection. I never knew him, he died before I was born. But he was my dad’s brother. My dad was proud of him and of course I was proud of him too.”

For more than 26 years, Byrd accumulated more than 3,000 hours in nearly every variation of the F-4 Phantom, and more than 1,000 hours in the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Byrd, adding to his uncle’s legacy, which is embedded into the aviator’s wings, wrote his own pages into the lore of his family’s wings.

With a desire to continue the tradition of passing down the wings after his retirement in 1995, he patiently waited for a qualified and willing suiter to take the wings back in to the skies.  With no one in the family to take up the mantle, Byrd had no choice but to be patient.

2018: A dream come true

For 13 years, Byrd stared at those wings from time-to-time wondering if they would ever see service to the United States Air Force again. Byrd met and befriended members of the Asbury family, who by chance was looking for a place to ride their horses. There is never any telling where conversation among military veterans will lead, especially when both of those veterans learned to fly in the same school house--Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB. Byrd had a good feeling his wait was over.

Second Lt. Colin Asbury’s path in the story of these wings started in his 1st grade class’ library visit, where a search for a book turned out to be the beginning of his passion for flying. While some 7-year-olds were looking for books about cute puppies and barnyard animals, his eyes were set on another prize. 

“When I first got my assignment to fly F-15E Strike Eagles, the first thing that I could think about was the librarian at the Potomac Elementary School where I grew up,” he said. “I remember looking for a book, and she had recommended the non-fiction section where the books with planes and tanks were, and that’s where it started.”  

Some veterans or even currently serving members could attest to the thought that the job they ended up doing in their service was by chance and circumstance. For Asbury, he asserts that becoming a pilot is a career that is not given by chance.

“You never just end up in pilot training,” he said. “Getting to this point is always 100-percent intentional because you have to put so much of yourself into the process.”

Asbury said he actually created detailed plans to start the long process as early as the 10th grade, putting time and effort into making himself competitive for military academies. Though he initially wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, he set his goals in another direction. Once selected for the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., courses of study and career path plans were stringent. Asbury, a native of Potomac, Md., knew the chores ahead of him would not be easy—and if it was easy, everyone would do it.

“I’ve wanted this job for 18 years,” he explained. “I spent four years at the Air Force Academy and jumped through all the medical hoops, I made it to initial flight training, then made it through the T-6 phase, as well as the T-38 phase and I’m still a year away from being operational.”

Asbury spent the last year of his life one step closer to becoming the pilot he has dreamed about since he was seven years old. The 47th Flying Training Wing’s Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training mission is a year-long course that teaches American and allied pilots how to fly high-performance aircraft flown by modern air forces around the globe. It is broken down into three phases that last just over three months each. In Phase I, trainees are taught how to fly in the academics portion. Following that, they transition to Phase II in the T-6 Texan II.  The final step, or Phase III, has two tracks utilizing either the T-38C Talon or the T-1A Jayhawk. Flyers who are going to move on to fly a fighter jet will stay with the T-38, while pilots who are moving on to a career flying a bomber, refueling tanker or cargo aircraft, move into the Jayhawk.

Having been selected for the F-15E, he tracked through the T-38 and will soon enter advanced training in fighter fundamentals. On his chest, and close to his heart, sits the legacy of two men who came before him taking the fight to the enemies of freedom.

A not-so-family tradition

While the passing of aviator’s wings from one pilot to another is typically a family tradition, Byrd and Asbury have proven that to be family members, does not mean everyone involved has to carry the same stands of DNA.

“Lt. Col. Byrd and I never really knew each other before all of this came about,” Asbury said. “My aunt was looking for a place to ride her horse in Georgetown, Texas, and Colonel Byrd happened to own a horse ranch. I was up there for Thanksgiving and my family had mentioned that I was going through pilot training.”

Thomas and Asbury had a long talk that night, sharing flying stories, when the topic of the heritage wings inevitably surfaced.

“He asked me, ‘Are you willing to take these?’” Asbury said, solemnly. “I told him that I’d be honored to be a part of this lineage.”

Byrd’s waiting had finally come to an end as that Thanksgiving visit became a close friendship. Byrd says he is happy Asbury is the next generation pilot who will carry the torch.

“What a fine young individual,” he said through a smile. “He’s kind of like me. Aggressive, opinionated, cocky, self-assured – and that’s exactly what a fighter pilot has to be. I see myself as a young lieutenant when I look at him.”

Relatives or not, Byrd feels secure knowing the wings are in good hands.

“There were a lot of folks in that graduating class where there was a father passing their wings down to their son or daughter,” Thomas said. “As long as these wings are in the air, I’m happy. I really didn’t care if he flew heavies, bombers, transports, even drones. I really didn’t care as long as they were serving the country.”

“Initially I thought that having wings from a pilot who was killed with them on would be bad luck,” Asbury explained. “But in one of my favorite books, ‘God is my Copilot,’ I read about a pilot that said you aren’t ever really alone in the cockpit. I never thought about it, but maybe the first pilot to wear these wings will be a guardian angel figure and he’ll be flying with me.”

Looking to the future, Asbury said he has intentions of serving for as long as the Air Force will let him, hungry to make his own path for the heritage wings.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve been to more than 20 countries, hung out with people of all services, and I love seeing new places. Once I get through all my training I’ll be volunteering for deployments because I want to go out and do my job. I want to get out and support our troops on the ground.”

Being the third keeper of the wings, Asbury said that he won’t be the first to break the tradition. When asked if he’s going to pass it on and if he has an ideal recipient of the wings’ lineage, Asbury broke into a smile.

“I just got them, I’m not ready to give them up yet,” he laughed.

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