Ashley Bowen Cook, vice president at Greteman Group, a marketing communications agency in Wichita, the Air Capital.

I helped the Wichita Aero Club make history at its recent gala. The evening marked the official start to my tenure as the first woman to serve as chair of its board of directors. Growing up with a father in aviation, I had a front-row seat (often at 30,000 feet) to this dynamic industry. There were few women. Standing in front of the crowded ballroom, I was filled with gratitude and no small amount of wonder at how far I and aviation have come. The impressive turnout for the evening included state and local elected officials and aviation legends and past trophy honorees Clay Lacy, Paul Bowen and Jeff Turner.

Founder of International Jet Aviation Lynn Krough; 2020 honoree legendary aviator Clay Lacy; Chief Pilot for Clay Lacy, Scott Patterson; and 2017 honoree legendary aviation photographer Paul Bowen.

I follow some impressive predecessors. They include, most recently, John O’Leary, Airbus Americas Engineering vice president and general manager; Jeffrey Peier, Klenda Austerman managing member; Patrick Tuttle, then ADR CEO and now Delta Dental of Kansas COO; back to our first chairman, Robert Stangarone, then Cessna Aircraft Company vice president of corporate communications and now New England Air Museum chairman and president.

I consider each of these gentlemen industry friends and mentors. As the first woman to sit on the Wichita Aero Club executive committee, the first to serve as vice chair and now to chair, I’ve never felt anything but warm welcome from fellow board, committee members and Club President Dave Franson (who was also my first boss in my Bombardier Learjet intern days). Their encouragement has meant everything. And so has this club.

Ashley Bowen Cook speaking as the first female chairperson of Wichita Aero Club.

An Aviation Club Slow to Take Off

While the origins of the Wichita Aero Club date back decades, the club never took flight. It wasn’t until 2008 in the depths of the recession that Wichita’s aviation community pulled together to get the club off the ground. You could say its platform had me at hello. To foster and promote aviation. To provide a forum for key issues. To gather lovers of flight. To deepen relationships. To further cooperation. These are my people.

A big part of the club’s appeal is how it provides a way to lift each other up and to celebrate those who have elevated this industry. Each year at the gala, we honor one of our own. For this trip around the sun, the spotlight shone on Ron Ryan, a respected leader, pilot, airline founder and philanthropist.  

The always eloquent Franson said it best: “Ron’s vision and unwavering commitment made him not just a great pilot but a true force in the local aviation community and around the world. He embodies creative, resourceful, undaunted entrepreneurship.”

Past honoree Jeff Turner was one of a few close friends who honored Ron during the evening. Turner shared that unless Ryan is out of town for his annual birthday trip or sick, you always know you can depend on him to attend a board meeting for the various organizations he serves in the community. Turner went on to talk about Ryan’s contributions as a board member, “You never wonder what he’s thinking,” which got a good laugh from the crowd.

Our Trophy Winner: Ron Ryan

Ryan has done it all. From Learjet captain to owner/operator of the United States’ largest charter airline. He fantasized about growing up to be a pilot. Even as a young boy in a small Iowa town, he maintained a laser focus on that dream, eventually obtaining his private, commercial, and instrument pilot ratings in only six months, while working as a mechanical engineer at Western Electric. It wasn’t long before he took his first full-time flying job, as chief pilot of a military charter company. In 1966, he added a Learjet type rating and took a job as a pilot with Mid-West Lear Jet in Kansas City, Kansas.

The Wichita Aero Club gala honoring Ron Ryan was held Saturday evening, Jan. 29, at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, Eisenhower National Airport.

Moving to Wichita in 1968, he became chief pilot for DeBoer & Associates, owned by developer Jack DeBoer. In 1973, Ryan helped transition the company’s flight department into a jet charter service company specializing in corporate executive travel. In 1974, Ryan started flying for George Ablah, another legendary Wichita developer, and the two formed Ryan Aviation Corp., which started as a charter flight operation and cargo carrier. In 1976, he purchased the company and began operating a fueling and maintenance center for aircraft at what is now Eisenhower National Airport.

In 1981, Ryan International Airlines was formed to operate large aircraft and Ryan Aviation upgraded its FAR Part 135 certificate to a Part 121 air carrier certificate. He eventually grew the airlines to an international charter and cargo service with more than 2,500 employees and over $350 million in annual sales. He sold it in 2004 and funneled his tremendous energy into many worthwhile causes.

He tirelessly advocates for military personnel and their families, serves as honorary commander of McConnell Air Force Base’s 931st Air Refueling Wing, is a longtime benefactor and board member of the Kansas Aviation Museum and DOC’s Friends. His broad list of accomplishments and generous philanthropy led to his selection as the 41st Admiral Windwagon Smith for the 2014 Wichita River Festival. He’s the only Admiral Windwagon to show up at a River Festival event in a Learjet. Don’t you just love that?

Ryan has logged more than 30,000 flying hours piloting 30+ kinds of aircraft. He helped set an around-the-world speed record in a Boeing 747SP. His recently published autobiography, “Making Money Out of Thin Air,” chronicles many of his adventures. Even while giving his acceptance speech Ryan was encouraging attendees to purchase his new book with proceeds from the evening going to Wichita Aero Club. Ryan’s longtime legal counsel and longtime friend, Jack McInteer, commented, “He’s the best salesman I’ve ever seen in my life.”