Wilfred Boyuck Ryan, right, with his son Lee, left, and bush pilot Holger “Jorgy” Jorgensen. Photo courtesy East Ramp Wood-fired Pizza.
Wilfred “Boyuck” Ryan has 51 years of flying experience, nearly all of them in rural Alaska. During 40 years as president of Ryan Air, he grew the company from an operation with three planes and two pilots into one of the largest freight carriers in bush Alaska. In the midst of that growth, between 1980 and 1987, Ryan Air planes were involved in a series of fatal crashes. Ryan’s son, Lee, took over as President of Ryan Air in 2019. ~ as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy.
Tell me a little bit about your journey as a pilot. How did that first get started?
I don’t remember a day in my entire life without an airplane in our backyard. My first job was to refuel airplanes and clean them. I was always around airplanes. I grew to love them. My dad witnessed a bunch of his friend’s children enter into flying, and many of them perished. So, Dad was fairly protective. He didn’t really want me to learn how to fly, but I was quite persistent. Apparently, he got tired of me asking when I can learn how to fly. He made a deal with me. He said if I spent a summer with my grandfather building him a log cabin, he would fund me to learn how to fly.
How old were you at the time?
I was a sophomore in high school when I built the cabin. That was 1969.
Tell me about growing the company.
Growing the company was really not a focus of mine when I first had to keep the company alive after my dad passed away. I was just trying to learn. I think we’re lucky that we placed a lot of focus on service and reliability. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, service and reliability were kind of a secondary focus to most operators. For our competitors, if they arrived in that particular day, that was good enough. We attempted to run the schedule as the contractor required. We built a reputation fairly early of service and reliability.
Could you talk about the accidents that Ryan Air suffered in the 1980s? What was that like both personally and as a company?
That’s a very difficult topic to discuss. Those relationships I’ve built with the victims and their families over the years are lasting relationships, even today. Some of the survivors of those accidents are close friends of mine. Accidents in the aviation business occur year over year here to different types of operations. We work hard to mitigate accidents because I know firsthand how the result of an accident takes the wind out of an organization. Even more importantly, I understand firsthand the hardship and heartbreak that the survivors have to endure.
The operating environment back in those days was far different than it is today. There were very few weather reporting stations. There were very few navigational aids. The runways were a lot shorter, rougher, and not very well maintained compared with today. That’s not an excuse for the accidents that we incurred. What those taught me was to have an operation that would look at all phases of operations to mitigate any type of potential risk.
This is a family business you took over from your father that you’re now passing on to your son. What does that mean to you to have sustained through all the decades and challenges and be able to pass on this legacy and airline?
Our mission is to improve the quality of lives of the people we serve. As you know, rural villages in Alaska are probably the most challenged in America. They live in a cold weather environment, where it’s dark and harsh for most of the year. There’s really not any type of economy in the villages. Many of those communities still lack water and sewer. They’re still hauling water and still using honey buckets. And those individuals are my friends. We serve 72 communities in bush Alaska. Over the course of 51 years of flying to those villages, I’ve built a lot of bonds and a lot of friendships in the villages. Our transportation is a means to give them a way to acquire goods in the city that could be useful for them in the villages.
There’s a lot of people who question why people live in the villages. Well, that’s their home. If we can make their life just a little bit easier and improve their lives, that’s what this organization is all about.
Is there anything else you want to add?
You made mention of my flight time. Pertaining to that, a lot of my friends have a lot of flight time as well. What I’ve learned to respect about those individuals who have a long tenure of service and flight time is they never talk about total time in the air. It’s just always about relationships and good times they had. I’m sort of that way. The most pleasure that I get from my job is just the relationships that I’ve built with different communities and individuals who live in those communities. I say that Alaska is a huge state, but it is an awful small community because of the relationships that you build over that tenure.