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2011 – General Thomas M. Ryan, USAF (Ret)

General Thomas M. Ryan, USAF (Ret)

General Thomas M. Ryan, USAF (Ret)

General Thomas M. Ryan, Jr. is, without question, one of the foremost Mobility leaders of his generation. He walked the walk as Commander of the Military Airlift Command, leading from the front with impeccable personal integrity, superior selfless service and a tireless commitment to excellence. General Ryan was a humble and respected Airmen’s General who earned the trust and respect of his civilian and military superiors, his interservice peers and, most importantly in his view, that of his mobility airmen. General Ryan is a command pilot with more than 8,000 flying hours. His military decorations and awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Medal (Air Force), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters and Air Force Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was promoted to general on 1 August 1981, with date of rank 31 July 1981. General Ryan retired on 30 Septemer 1985.

General Ryan was born in 1928, in Detroit and graduated from Ridgewood (N.J.) High School in 1946. He received a bachelor of science degree in military science from the University of Omaha, Neb., in 1965, and a master of science degree in international affairs from The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., in 1968. The general graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College at Norfolk, Va., in 1965 and from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in 1968.

His military career began as an aviation cadet in September 1949 and, after completing pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in October 1950. He then served in various flying assignments with the Strategic Air Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico; and Hunter Air Force Base, Ga., until July 1953 when he entered observer training school at Ellington and James Connally Air Force bases, Texas.

From May 1954 to June 1962, he was assigned to Forbes Air Force Base, Kan., as a B-47 pilot, select crew aircraft commander, instructor pilot and squadron operations officer. In 1958 he become a standardization evaluator in the 90th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

General Ryan transferred to SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., in June 1962 as a staff officer in the Plans and Organizational Section of the Weapons Management Branch, Weapons Maintenance Division. In February 1965 he entered the Armed Forces Staff College and following graduation in July 1965 he joined the SR-71 equipped 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where he served as chief of the Quality Control Division and later as chief of the Maintenance Control Division.

In July 1968 he graduated from the Air War College and then attended RF-4C combat crew training at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. In March 1969 he was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, as a maintenance control officer and later as chief of maintenance. During this tour of duty he flew 114 combat missions in RF-4C’s.

Upon his return to the United States, General Ryan served on the staff of the inspector general, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., from April 1970 to June 1971. He then transferred to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Mich., as vice commander and then commander of the 379th Bombardment Wing. During 1972 and 1973, he completed a temporary tour of duty as commander, 303rd Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and participated in the Linebacker II campaign against North Vietnam in December 1972.

The general assumed duties as commander of the 47th Air Division with headquarters at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., in July 1973. General Ryan was again assigned to SAC headquarters in January 1974 as assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics and in January 1975 become the deputy chief of staff for logistics.

He returned to Air Force headquarters in April 1976 as director for logistics plans and programs, and in July 1977 become the deputy chief of staff for systems and logistics. From October 1977 to July 1981, General Ryan served as vice commander in chief of the Military Airlift Command at Scott Air Force Base. The general then became commander of Air Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. In June 1983 he became commander in chief of the Military Airlift Command, with headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. He retired from the Air Force on 30 September 1985.

After retiring General Ryan joined the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, California. He served as Vice President of Product Support from 1985 through 1988, where he was responsible for field support of McDonnell Douglas’ commercial jetliners and military aircraft ,as well as for overseeing maintenance training programs for the existing fleet and new aircraft designs. In 1988, General Ryan became Vice President and General Manager McDonnell Douglas Transport Aircraft with direct oversight of C-17 aircraft production. In 1992, General Ryan was promoted to Senior Vice President Government Products with responsibility for the C-17 military transport program. The tremendous success of the C-17 Globemaster III program can be directly attributed to his leadership and commitment.


General Tom Ryan, a natural leader known for his integrity, selfless commitment to the mobility mission and his heartfelt consideration for his troops and their families, demonstrated, during his two leadership tours as vice commander (1977-81) and then commander in chief (1983-85) of the Military Airlift Command (CINCMAC), a leadership style that, was grounded in the present but looked to the future and was guided by genuine concern for the well-being of those he led. During his MAC leadership tours he presided over numerous mobility operations in support of many significant national and international crises, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief efforts.

In November 1978, as MAC vice commander, he directed the MAC staff’s crisis response to the Jonestown, Guyana massacre, overseeing airlift recovery operations and the return of 912 U.S. citizens’ human remains to the Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, mortuary for identification and repatriation. This internationally publicized event highlighted the rapid response, capabilities and commitment of our mobility forces.

In March of 1979, and again in September 1980, General Ryan, again in his role as vice commander of MAC, provided senior leadership and crisis action team direction of airlift and mobility assets in support of two separate U.S. nuclear incidents, the March 1979 Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident and the September 1980 Little Rock Arkansas Titan II Missile Explosion. His previous SAC nuclear background and relationships helped deliver airlift support to emergency responders and air evacuation for injured and contaminated personnel. These nuclear emergencies were supported by MAC Air Rescue and Recovery, MAC host-base disaster and emergency responders and air evacuation assets. General Ryan oversaw critical, essential mobility assets that helped support local and national emergency responders.

General Ryan stood constant watch and responded to countless taskings from the Joint Chiefs during the 444 day Iranian Hostage Crisis ordeal from November 1979 through January 1981, directing Airlift/Mobility support for the deployment and recovery of Special Operations forces and elements in support of Operation Eagle Claw (Iranian Hostage Crisis); provided recovery for eight U.S. service members killed during the aborted rescue operation; and finally, supported the repatriation of remaining 52 U.S. hostages in January 1981. The lessons learned from this military misfortune resulted in MAC gaining command of combat search and rescue, combat control, special operations air forces in 1983 and the standup of 23rd Air Force. and later, the Air Force Special Operations Command.

Shortly after taking the reins as CINCMAC, in September 1983, General Ryan directed MAC Search and Recovery forces to support the USCINCPAC Task Force 71 search, recovery and salvage mission for Korean Airline Flight 007, a Boeing 747 shoot-down by a Soviet interceptor west of Sakhalin Island killing all 269 aircrew and passengers on board. MAC HC-130 Air Rescue and Recovery Service aircraft flew continuous missions in the crash zone in September and October.

That same October, General Ryan responded to a SECDEF order and tasked the 23rd Air Force to deploy its MC-130 Combat Talons, AC-130 Gunships and other Air Force Special Forces’ assets to secure Point Salinas airfield on the Island of Grenada to facilitate the rescue of approximately 600 American medical students. Operation Urgent Fury, the first major combat operation conducted by the U.S. military since the Vietnam War, sent a warning message to Cuba and Nicaragua that exporting revolution in the region would not be tolerated. .

Fitness was another one of General Ryan’s passions. An avid bicyclist, General Ryan created the Volant Shape and Improved Fitness Testing programs. He was the most vocal advocate for total fitness and lifestyle changes amongst the Air Force four-star generals in the mid-80s. His input helped improve testing and fitness programs for mobility airmen and promoted a culture of fitness.

General Ryan was a true believer in taking care of America’s mobility airmen and their families. He went to great lengths to ensure mobility security police, maintainers, civil engineers, aircrew, PJs, etc. had the uniforms and equipment they needed to do their jobs. He included enlisted calls during every unit visit to get a pulse of the issues at each station. General Ryan was famous for his visits to night-shifts to meet those that normally didn’t have time to see him on the planned agenda.

General and Mrs. Ryan were well known champions for family services, housing and child care. The Ryan’s zealously pursued excellence in Family Support and Service programs and modernization of MAC’s Child Development Centers. As grandparents, General and Mrs. Ryan found ways to improve family programs by advocating in Congress and in DoD for greater funding.

General Ryan realized the Cold War world of the day was about to dramatically change. He recognized the path President Reagan had chosen would prevail over communism. He saw the writing on the wall and had the vision to know Air Force Special Operations Forces (SOF) needed to grow and prosper. He helped establish Air Force Special Operations and personally accepted the responsibility to identify and groom future SOF Leaders. He hand picked the SOF Leaders to fill key joint billets like that of Joint Special Operations Commander (JSOC). He selected his Command Senior Enlisted Advisor (Command Chief) from the SOF community to demonstrate his commitment to that cause.

General Ryan understood future conflicts would be fought jointly with other services and allies. He supported Senators Goldwater, Nunn, Kennedy and Cohen in their efforts to push Joint Legislation that made the services work together. He worked with the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army (General Wickam) and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (General Gabriel) to identify 31 areas where the services needed to work together jointly.

He nominated four areas (Air Base Ground Defense, Combat Search and Rescue, SOF Rotary Wing Aircraft, Intratheater Lift) to be included in the1984 Memorandum of Agreement on U.S. Army-U.S. Air Force Joint Force Development Process. His emphasis on joint readiness resonated with the staff and put mobility in a very favorable position with the SECDEF and Congress.

General Ryan was a strong advocate of joint doctrine and testified before Congress advocating for increased joint assignments with the goal to improve service interoperability and warfighting synergy. He had several meetings with Senator Barry Goldwater, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the sponsor of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, which directed the Department of Defense and the Services to improve their joint warfighting cultures. It also attempted to fix problems caused by inter-service rivalry, which had emerged during the Vietnam War contributing to the catastrophic failure of the Iranian hostage rescue mission, and which were still evident in the invasion of Grenada in1983. General Ryan supported this initiative and hired a U.S Army Brigadier General to head up MAC Transportation and U.S Army and Marine officers to liaise with the mobility operations and requirements divisions.


General Ryan oversaw the codification of Airlift Doctrine in support of the combatant commands. He drove the development and publication of the first U.S. Air Force Airlift Master Plan. This foundational document established the 20-year mobility road map that justified significant air mobility growth and modernization and addressed the mobility shortfalls spelled out in the 1981 Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study which defined an airlift requirement of 66 Million Ton Miles per day.

General Ryan spent six-plus years fighting for mobility modernization. His engagement with the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Service Chiefs secured unanimous support and a letter signed by the Chairman and all four Service Chiefs in support of the C-17 airlift program. This letter broke the deadlock in Congress between the C-5B and C-17 camps and allowed the C-17 program to go forward.

Masterfully engaging DoD and Congressional leaders, General Ryan won support for a number of mobility modernization programs including aircraft programs for the C-5B, C-21 Operational Support Aircraft, C-23 European Distribution System Aircraft, VC-25 Air Force One Presidential Aircraft Replacement (Boeing 747). General Ryan even flew the Bell-Boeing prototype XV-15 which later became the CV-22 Osprey. His knowledge of the complex acquisition life-cycle and procurement processes helped win allies for mobility systems operated by our mobility airmen today.


General Ryan established the MAC motto “MAC … The Backbone of Deterrence” to compliment the National Military Strategy of the Cold War. This simple motto won MAC and Mobility a special place with the mind of the Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger who was a mobility proponent.

General Ryan supported the Service Life Extension Programs for both the C-130 and C-141 to include the stretch and refueling mods that later proved to be invaluable when overflight rights were not granted because of political disagreements between nations.

General Ryan was a huge proponent of increasing the role the Air Reserve Component (Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard) played and developed a relationship of trust and open communication that provided the Air Reserve Components the flexibility to train and be ready to surge when needed. He oversaw several unit conversions resulting from a drawdown in tactical forces at the end of the Vietnam War. Working with General John Conway (Air Guard) and General Sandy Gill (Air Force Reserve), MAC transferred C-5 and C-141 to units and offered opportunities for total force aircrews to train and integrate into day-to-day operations while fulfilling their employer and family commitments.

Embracing the computer revolution and understanding its potential to transform MAC Command and Control, General Ryan brought Major General Bill Overaker back to MAC as the Director of Operations – General Overaker transformed the 322 Airlift Division in Europe by doing away with grease boards through computerization. General Ryan tasked him to do the same at MAC. General Ryan partnered with the Air Force Communication Command to accelerate command and control upgrades. This had a definite impact on the MAC culture and allowed MAC to develop automated processes on which our current systems are based.

General Ryan spent almost 10 years in the maintenance and logistics career field at every level of command. He deployed to Guam in 1972 – 1973 as the Commander of the 303rd Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Wing at Andersen AFB, Guam, and participated and supported the Linebacker II bombing campaign against North Vietnam in 1972. This intense campaign drove the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and eventual release of our Prisoners of War. This logistics experience convinced General Ryan to create the MAC Volant Wrench program which identified select aviators and exposed them to the rigors of maintenance and support as part of a career broadening program to grow future leaders. The program was institutionalized and continues to grow Air Force leaders with better understanding of the challenges of logistics.

Recognizing the critical need to protect deployed mobility aircraft and assets, General Ryan strongly supported the Volant Scorpion initiative introduced by one of the foremost aviation security experts in the U.S. Air Force, Rocky Lane. General Ryan provided resources and security policy that codified MAC Air Base Defense and asset protection responsibilities. General Ryan then reached out to the U.S. Army to begin dialogue on doctrine on working jointly to protect mobility aircraft deployed. Today our airfield and air base defense doctrine reflects many of his visionary concepts.


General Tom Ryan has demonstrated sustained superior performance and produced a legacy of achievement that any mobility airman would recognize. In fact, his mobility impact has already been recognized at least five times by previous A/TA Hall of Fame selection committees – he served under, and learned from, two CINCMACs and previous winners of the A/TA Hall of Fame Honor – General Bill Moore and General Dutch Huyser; he supervised and mentored three other recipients of the A/TA Hall of Fame award – General Duane Cassidy, General Bagger Baginski and General Bob Patterson. General Ryan shared these distinguished recipients’ accomplishments and recognition; he played an incredible supporting role in association with these world-class individual and Hall of Fame recipients. These previous winners would agree and acknowledge the pivotal role General Tom Ryan played in their success.

This selfless leader and mentor was always the first to highlight the accomplishments of his commanders and airmen. His behind-the-scenes leadership and advocacy helped bring about mobility cultural changes that we take for granted today. General Ryan was a big fan and admirer of President Ronald Reagan and he shares a philosophy with the late president – Ronald Reagan had a brass plaque behind his desk in the oval office which read, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” This saying tells you a lot about both of these great leaders.

General Tom Ryan epitomizes the best of America’s mobility culture. Because of his superior and sustained leadership performance, his unwavering commitment to the Air Mobility mission and his dedication to generations of Mobility airmen, General Thomas M. Ryan, Jr., is truly deserving of his induction into the Airlift/Tanker Hall of Fame.