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Ryan Air—the Alaskan bush freight carrier founded by Wilfred and Eva Ryan in 1953—joined the Saltchuk Family of Companies in December. It’s legacy spans generations.

Lee Ryan’s tenure at Ryan Air—the 70-year-old Alaskan bush freight carrier founded by his grandparents Wilfred and Eva Ryan in 1953—has been nothing short of idyllic.

“I’ve worked with some great people over the years, bringing adventures most can only dream of—inspecting aircraft in the middle of the Pacific. Traveling to Russia, Greenland, Iceland, and Canada for indigenous conferences and aviation work. Flying into a community when it was 52 (degrees) below (zero) because it ran out of food. Landing on ice runways on the North Slope. Flying thousands of hours as a crew member with my dad. He has all the good stories—I just get all the fun.”

Ryan Air joined the Saltchuk Family of Companies in December, expanding Saltchuk Aviation’s reach to more than 70 villages across Alaska’s frozen north that rely on small bush planes to deliver the supplies they need to brave the harshest of conditions. Lee Ryan, named company president in 2019, grew up in the family business.

“I grew up around airplanes, following my dad to work so I could clean his planes, refuel, load bags, and get to fly with him when he had room,” Ryan said.

Born in Nome, Alaska, Ryan lived in both Unalakleet and Anchorage before the family settled in Unalakleet for good when he was eight.

“My childhood was like every other kid in rural Alaska. We were outside all day playing, exploring, getting dirty as long as possible when the sun doesn’t set in the summer,” he said. “When I was in middle school, our art class teacher asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be in 15 years. I drew a picture of an office with a big window overlooking an airport. A Cessna 180 was taking off in the background with a flock of geese flying by and an empty desk with a small nameplate that said ‘President Ryan.’ I wanted to be a pilot, the president of an airline with the ability to take off to subsistence hunt and fish as my grampa did and his grampa before him.”

A legacy of service

Ryan Air was originally named Unalakleet Air Taxi by Wilfred Ryan Sr. and founded as a charter airline.

“My Grampa Wilfred was a Captain in the territorial guard during World War II, and when the war ended, Eva supported him while he worked to achieve his dream of being a pilot. Together, they started what today is Ryan Air.”

In the 1960s, the company began handling USPS mail delivery and transportation of schoolteachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs between communities along the lower Yukon River. In 1977, Wilfred P. Ryan, Jr., or “Boyuck” Ryan, took over the company after his father died of cancer. In 1979, the company expanded service beyond Norton Sound and changed its name to Ryan Air. The company became the largest commuter carrier in Alaska, serving 85 cities and villages with a fleet of 28 planes. In the 1990s, Ryan Air converted to a cargo-only airline and changed its name to Arctic Transportation Services, changing it back in 2010 and adding passenger charters out of Anchorage the following year.

“Ryan Air is very much a family-oriented airline with roots based on the value of serving people in rural Alaska,” Ryan explained. “We are fortunate to serve 72 communities out of our eight hub locations. Each community and region we serve is unique. Some are small, with fewer than 20 people, and have more than 1,500. Of the 72 communities we fly to, only three have paved runways—the rest are gravel with varying levels of infrastructure. Some don’t have running water, sewer, or any kind of typical infrastructure. Add in the typically adverse weather, and you realize these challenges take a lot of communication, coordination, and teamwork to overcome. We serve the toughest people on earth—but I believe they’re among the happiest.”

Lee Ryan and his father pose in front of a Cessna. Lee rests his hand on the prop.
Above: Lee Ryan, left, and his father, Wilfred “Boyuck” Ryan, in front of a Cessna 180. Wilfred taught Lee to fly in this plane when Lee was 18 years old. Main story image: Lee Ryan, right, and his father, Wilfred “Boyuck” Ryan, in front of a Casa 212, which can transport up to 5,000 pounds of cargo. The two frequently fly the plane together.

The cutting edge of aviation

Ryan’s first job at the family business was cleaning the bellies of the small planes.

“In elementary school, I started commercial fishing with my dad and some relatives, and by the time I was a freshman in high school, I was able to buy my own snowmachine. I spent summers building cabins, commercial fishing, and eventually landing my first paid job in aviation after high school as a mechanic’s helper.”

Ryan said he fell in love with aviation—specifically, the reality that every day is an adventure.

“Any given day, I could be in the office working with the accounting team to implement process improvements and strategies, or I could be flying a load of water to a community that’s lost access to drinking water in a freeze-up or storm or flying a generator to a community that’s lost all power. I want to continue to learn and grow and do more in aviation.”

Including, he said, continuing a family tradition of being on the cutting edge.

“Not only did my grandparents make a huge, positive impact on aviation, but my dad progressed aviation in rural Alaska as one of the first pilots to safely and continually fly IFR (instrument flight rules with single and multi-engine aircraft) and was part of the team to test Capstone, which eventually became the FAA’s NextGen air navigation system. I want to have a similar positive impact on the next leap in aviation and service to rural Alaska, whatever that may be—UAS/Drone technology implementation or even the next big improvement in aviation safety.”

Roots in rural Alaska

Like many Alaskans, Ryan said he enjoys time spent outdoors—fishing, flying, hunting, picking berries, and camping.

“I’d like to have a side hustle, but the day job is a straight hustle,” he laughed, adding that he tries to give back as a member of the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board and also serves on the Iridium Communications Polar Advisory Board.

In the next 10 years, he said he’s committed to making sure Ryan Air is truly meeting its mission to raise the quality of life of the people it serves.

 “This includes new technologies, UAS, and all-weather delivery. The next five to ten years will just be adding to the foundation of the next 70 years of Ryan Air.

“I’m proud to be the grandson of Wilfred and Eva Ryan, the son of Wilfred and Vicki Ryan, husband of Chelsea, and dad of Joe and Gavin. My roots are in rural Alaska, and I’m proud to continue to be able to serve rural Alaskans.”

For more stories highlighting the companies and leaders who’ve joined our Saltchuk family, click here.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.