Claude Ryan (1898-1982) Biography

The future looked overcast and dreary for T. Claude Ryan at the start of 1927. He and his partner, the glad-handing B. Franklin Mahoney, had launched the nation's first year-round regularly scheduled daily airline passenger service two years earlier on March 1. The San Diego-Los Angeles flights sold out at the beginning. Then, with the novelty gone, business dropped and bankruptcy loomed. So Mahoney bought out his partner's share of Ryan Airlines, Inc.

Ryan stayed on as manager. His preoccupation with financial problems left little time for overseeing production of the Ryan M-1, the first plane of his own design. Airmail flyers liked the trim little monoplane for its rugged dependability. Despite its appeal, the trickle of M-1 orders had all but dried up.

Early in 1927 a wire arrived from Robertson Aircraft in St. Louis: "Can you construct Whirlwind engine plane capable flying nonstop between New York and Paris? Stop. If so please state cost and delivery date." The wire came from Charles A. Lindbergh, former balloonist, wing walker and airmail pilot. He put up $2,000 of his own, obtained backing from St. Louis businessmen and convinced them a single-engine plane stood the best chance for the crossing. Other fliers vying for a $25,000 prize for the first non-stop Atlantic flight had opted for multi-engine planes, some of which could not rise off the ground when their oversized tanks were filled with gasoline.

Lindbergh visited Ryan Aviation's San Diego plant, which still exuded pungent reminders of its previous use as a cannery. He felt in his bones time was running out. His first choice, the Columbia aircraft, was unobtainable, so with his options nearly nil he signed papers with the Ryan company and practically moved in. Engineer Donald A. Hall designed just what Lindbergh wanted -a flying gasoline tank almost twenty-eight feet long and with a forty-six foot wing span.

One day a careless worker dropped a crescent wrench that broke off a thumbnail-size piece of the engine's number one cooling fin. Mechanic 0. L. Gray said, "We could smooth that out with a file and paint it, and never know the difference." Lindbergh said, "I'll always know the difference." After a pause he added, 'We want another engine in there."

Gray thought he was kidding. Someone asked, "Why so much perfection in this?" Lindbergh had his reasons: "One is I'm a poor swimmer." In this way the work crew learned of his plans and redoubled efforts in the race against time.

Enmeshed in the firm's economic plight, Ryan rarely became involved in the craft Lindbergh called "The Spirit of St. Louis." The two men shared much in common. Both grew up in small towns: Ryan in Parsons, Kansas, and Lindbergh in Little Falls, Minnesota. They developed affinities for motorcycles, cars and finally airplanes. In San Diego Ryan bought his first aircraft, a jenny trainer, in 1922 for four-hundred dollars. Lindbergh followed suit a year later, paying five-hundred for his Jenny. Both took flying lessons on their own, then benefited from military training schools. And both of them did stints at barnstorming, acquiring along the way know-how in matters such as forced landings, which in the early days of flying rated as routine.

Lindbergh's solo nonstop flight that began outside New York City May 20, 1927 ended thirty-three and a half hours later in Paris. Overnight he became a hero around the world. The flight also made Ryan Aviation famous. Orders for the M-1 came from all parts of the globe to a woefully unprepared company. Ryan, no longer an owner and far removed from the design or construction of "The Spirit of St. Louis," built a protective shell that shielded him from the onrush of news media inquiries about his role in the saga. He kept the shell up for years.

In 1928 Ryan formed The Ryan Aeronautical Company. His knack for anticipating the needs and desires of fliers helped the San Diego firm survive the lean depression years. The Ryan ST (for Sports Trainer) became the Model T of flying, except it looked much sportier. Adapted slightly, the ST served as the preeminent trainer through World War 11. In the years the followed, Ryan built the first jet-plus-propeller aircraft for the Navy and the first successful vertical takeoff and landing aircraft -the Ryan X13 Vertijet. His company pioneered remotely piloted vehicles and jet drones, Doppler systems and lunar landing radar.

Like Lindbergh, Ryan ended up a wealthy and widely acclaimed man. Teledyne, Inc. acquired Ryan's company in 1969 for $128 million.

He started out mowing lawns and delivering The Saturday Evening Post for spending money During school vacations he drove a wagon for his father's Excelsior Steam Laundry in Parsons, where he was born January 3, 1898. His first regular job, a paper route, still left time to watch repairs being made on the town's first automobiles. Later, after the family moved to Orange, California, he invested his savings in a motorcycle, a seven-horsepower model.

After buying his Jenny in San Diego, he charged from two-and-a-half to five dollars a ride, using an improvised air field on the waterfront near the foot of Broadway. Next he shifted operations to Dutch Flats, which later would become the main Postal Service office site. Dutch Flats served as the terminal for the airline passenger service he and Mahoney operated.

"Claude Ryan's name will probably be longer remembered for associations with Lindbergh's plane than for many more significant contributions he made in the half century that followed," according to William Wagner, author of Ryan, the Aviator. T. Claude Ryan died in 1982 at the age of eighty-four while he sketched a rough design concept for a plane with simplified controls. It was a goal that characterized his career - making flying easier for more people to enjoy.

[biographical sketch from San Diego Originals by Theodore W. Fuller, published by California Profiles Publications, 1987]

T. Claude Ryan (1898-1982) American Aviation Postcard

View a signed postcard from T. Claude Ryan posmarked San Diego May 10, 1977.

Click to view a large image

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