Capt. Gerald D. Lawrence, 76, an experienced pilot and Vietnam War veteran, had known Will Byler’s father for years, and was a beloved part of the family. So, there was no question when it came to who would fly Will and his new bride Bailee Ackerman Byler in the family’s helicopter as they made the ill-fated flight from their Uvalde, Texas, wedding reception.
“My dad has worked for his company for a very long time. He was a very trusted friend of the family,” Lawrence’s stepdaughter, Amilyn Willard, tells PEOPLE of the beloved pilot. “You would never be able to tell that he was older, he was a very young-hearted individual.”
Lawrence attended the couple’s wedding as a guest, and did not drink alcohol at the event, Willard says. He was ecstatic to fly the bride and groom to a local airport, where they would then board a flight to their honeymoon location.
However, tragedy struck at around 1:57 a.m. when they crashed near the family’s ranch. The groom’s grandfather, William Byler, told KTRK that the couple had only been married for about 90 minutes when the aircraft went down.
“You see it in the news and you see it in movies, but you would never think in your life that something like this would happen to you,” Willard, 26, tells PEOPLE. “We loved our father, we miss him dearly.”
Judge Steve Kennedy, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1 in Uvalde County, told local news outlets that the groom’s father was the owner of the helicopter, a Bell 206B, but that Lawrence had piloted the aircraft for about 20 years.
“My dad was a very responsible man. These people trusted their most precious gift of their children in his hands. They all loved my dad dearly,” Willard says, referring to the couple’s parents.
“He was very fit. There was nothing wrong with him. The family does not blame my father for the accident. We don’t know exactly what happened.”
In the wake of the deaths, many of the couple’s 700 wedding guests have posted moving tributes on social media.
One guest wrote alongside an Instagram slideshow that the wedding was “magical in every way. Absolutely perfect.”
“Bailee & Will – I hope I find a love as true & wonderful as yours,” the user continued. “Our hearts hurt now, but we know this is not forever.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the crash.