PEASE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.H. --
Under cover of Hangar 254, here, mid-afternoon light streaming through the windows, with a KC-135 Stratotanker staged behind him, Col. James "Jim" P. Ryan celebrated his more than 30-year career with family, friends and generations of Wingmen in front of him on April 7, 2018.
Ryan will retire from the 157th Air Refueling Wing in May, after three decades of service to the U.S. Air Force, including over 20 with the New Hampshire Air National Guard.
As the child of a military retiree, the youngest of nine, the Virginia native grew up with close ties to the military installations around him, including Fort McNair and Andrews Air Force Base.
"If you have ever been to a base theater, you know they always play the national anthem at the beginning, before the movie-no matter the branch of service," Ryan said. "It was years before I attended a civilian theater and realized it was only a military thing. In any case, this stemmed a deep sense of patriotism and desire to serve whereas I constantly saw good people in uniform and was inspired by their courage, professionalism and what they believed."
His father, Howard Ryan, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and then the U.S. Air Force, when it became a separate branch in 1947. The veteran of World War II and Korea opened Jim's eyes to what would be a lifelong passion.
"Although retired prior to my birth, his love of aviation was, no doubt, my primary motivation for becoming an Air Force pilot," said Ryan. "I had fallen in love with flying at age five, when I flew on an airplane for the first time, a Boeing 707."
Ryan described the Air Force open houses and air shows he would attend with his father, particularly the annual pilgrimage of sorts they made to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the Experimental Aircraft Association's Air Venture. The weeklong airshow included demonstrations from the U.S. and international teams, like the Thunderbirds.
"There, he and I would wander through the fields of vintage war-birds and watch them fly each afternoon," said Ryan. "I would lay in the grass, gazing in wonder of what it would be like to fly them."
On April 23, 1988, Ryan took one step closer to realizing that dream. He graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in aeronautical engineering, earning his commission as a second lieutenant through the university’s Air Force ROTC program.
During the commissioning ceremony, Ryan's father and stepmother pinned on his rank. His then girlfriend, now wife, Mary Ellen took photos of the occasion.
"The normal and fun excitement and craziness of a family gathering is a consistent memory, but what I really remember most was that the people who loved and who had supported me were there," Ryan said.
He was then selected to attend Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
"My expectations were that it would be an intense year of training," said Ryan. "It was. Wonderful, challenging, intense and remarkably fun. No surprises."
Afterward, Ryan attended the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course as a student pilot, training on the Northrop AT-38B Talon, at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, after which he was assigned to the F-111D Readiness Training Unit at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, as an Aircraft Commander Trainee, working with the General Dynamics F-111D Aardvark.
Earning his pilot wings in 1989, he served at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. He filled many roles, including an F-111F Aircraft Commander.
He then deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Provide Comfort, to preserve the "No-Fly" zone of Northern Iraq.
In 1992, he served at Sheppard AFB as a Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (JSUPT) T-37 instructor pilot, training U.S. and NATO AF students.
Ryan joined the NH Air National Guard in 1996, and was assigned to the 133rd Air Refueling Squadron, where he filled numerous roles including aeromedical evacuation coordination officer, assistant flight commander, and flight commander. He assumed command of the 133rd ARS in 2011.
After commanding the 157th Operations Group and serving as an assistant to the adjutant general and functional lead for KC-46A conversion, Ryan took command of the 157th ARW, his final role within the U.S. Air Force.
"Let's just say, it was not expected," said Ryan. "Given the opportunity-I said, 'Absolutely, yes!' and my wife was very supportive, which made the difference for me."
As the Wing Commander, Ryan was responsible for supervising the Wing's air refueling, airlift and aero-medical evacuation missions, which support U.S. and coalition contingency operations, as well as the U.S. Strategic Command's strategic deterrence mission.
"28 years of watching, listening, learning, taking risks and trying new things certainly helped shape who I am, what I believe," Ryan said. "Every day is an opportunity to prepare for what may come next. I had a lot of great instructors and mentors along the way, and tried to use all the positive tidbits I could."
Between deployments, base construction, KC-46 conversion preparations, senior leadership transitions and many other considerations, Ryan credits the professionals around him for being able to tackle all the challenges.
"It has been an uplifting sensation that has kept me focused, positive and even healthy during my time in command," said Ryan. “There are plenty of long days and unforeseen challenges, but I was pleasantly surprised to have a fresh energy and resolve each day to tackle them. I think I can credit it to having an incredible team of professionals on the staff that made it easy to start each day anew."
On February 23, 2018, Ryan made his fini-flight from Pease Air National Guard Base as call sign Lipper. The fini-flight, or last flight, is an aviator's tradition dating back to World War II.
Wingmen and family members awaited his return to the flight line. Upon his arrival, his three children sprayed him with streams of champagne, keeping with tradition. Soaking wet, with the winter wind whipping him in the face, Ryan hugged and shook hands with nearly every person there.
"I couldn't have done it without them, their love and support," Ryan said, expressing gratitude for his family. "They have been my personal champions of support and their encouragement has made a difference throughout my career."
After hanging up his Air Force uniform, he will return to another. Ryan will begin training to pilot Boeing 757 and 767s for United Airlines this spring.
"I am blessed to have been able to serve and fly both on active duty and in the Guard," Ryan said. "Although bittersweet to be hanging up my military uniform, I look forward to the way ahead, flying both international and domestic. I hope to see many of you again in the friendly skies."