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Sky Rider

Piloting World War replica planes isn’t for the faint of heart, out it certainly adds spice to this CEO’s life.

My German Fokker DR- I cabane brace wires are humming as I dive onto the tail of a sharply banking Sopwith Camel while spike-helmeted German troops support me with passing shots from the grassy field below.

Nieuport, Pfalz, DeHavilland, and Albatros fighters swirl about me. The skies are alive with the largest gathering of these colorful aircraft in 75 years. As we land, shut off our engines, and remove our leather flying helmets and goggles, we’re rewarded with the applause of thousands of delighted spectators.

This realistic 20-aircraft dogfight highlighted both days of Aerodrome ’92, a World War I fly-in convention my wife, Carolyn, and I organized in northern Alabama. Over 50,000 people attended the inaugural annual event-fellow buffs who share our passion for these historic aircraft.

As the founder and CEO of Ryder International Corp., a $25 million product-development company, my hobby may seem just a bit unusual. However, in light of the fact that I am an inventor with hundreds of patents, I guess I feel almost obligated to exhibit some eccentric behavior.

This is ironic. After all, my rise through corporate management was facilitated by dispelling the stereotype of inventors as peculiar. But now that I am no longer scrambling to get ahead in my career, I can relax and revert to form. As my wife frequently says, I should have been born with feathers, because I fly everything from helicopters to gliders to seaplanes to stuntplanes and replicas of the most significant aircraft of the Great War.

My lifelong love of aviation started by building stick and paper model airplanes as a young boy. Earning money by delivering newspapers, hunting rabbits, mowing grass, and selling Kool Aid, I bought airplane kits for a quarter, then ran the two miles back from town to start building.

Sequestered in my attic, I labored for hours, painstakingly gluing and piecing together the materials into a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. While I worked, I imagined myself at the controls, performing loops and rolls-or at least skywriting “PEPSI” on a summer day.

World War I models quickly became my favorites when I discovered they were the most realistic, and challenging to build and rig. This taught me many skills I would rely on in later years, including blueprint reading. Those countless hours also ingrained the benefits of perseverance and patience in an otherwise impatient boy.

Forty years later, I proved the notion that “the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys” by buying my first World War I replica, fulfilling a dream that had laid dormant. I bought a British SE5a from a Coca-Cola executive for $8,700.

That was just the beginning. Today, Carolyn and. I own the largest collection of World War I replica aircraft in the world. With an estimated value of well over $2 million and growing, it includes most of the significant fighters built by both Allies and Germans from 1916 to 1918, when the hostilities ended.

The 40-plus plane collection fills six interconnected hangars in Guntersville, AL, and attracts visitors from around the world. I even took a visiting Soviet cosmonaut for a ride and then had to fight him for the controls when he wanted to continuously loop and roll. Unfortunately, the only Russian I knew was “nyet.” Well, not really, but somehow “glasnost” and “perestroika” didn’t seem appropriate.

In 1993, we founded Ryder’s Replica Fighter Museum. Working there, craftsmen affiliated with the museum build new replicas from scratch. In many cases, drawings of the planes no longer exist, and we are forced to rely on photographs. Whenever I’m not in the office or in the air, you can find me in the museum’s workshop constructing or detailing a new plane.

I’m often asked why we deal with replicas rather than original planes. It’s simple: I wouldn’t want to drive a Model T on the interstate, so why would I let myself fly even 100 feet off the ground in an antique aircraft constructed from obsolete materials and powered by a 1917 engine? I believe in the old aviation adage: “It is far better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here.”

More World War I aviators perished because of faulty equipment than any other cause. When I fly, I want space-age materials supporting me and a more modern engine propelling me. I insist upon having each aircraft maintained to perfection, and our shop is hospital-clean, and hospital-regimented, complete with schedules and procedures.

Recently, I read an article that said entrepreneurs are perceived as great risk takers. However, it also said entrepreneurs strongly disagree with that assessment. Many claim they are certain of the outcome of any given issue, and that they wouldn’t do it if it were risky. I approach business and flying with that attitude: Keep risks to a minimum and rely on determination, thoroughness, skill, and experience. But everything is relative, and I confess to thinking bungee jumpers, streakers, and those who swim with great white sharks are life’s real crazies.

Flying a World War I plane is a lot more demanding than a modern-day Cessna. Those early fighters were one-seaters-no room for an instructor. You have to be a quick study and make the right decisions in a heartbeat, because you don’t get a second chance, especially when you’re flying an unproven design on its maiden flight.

On one of my first flights in the Fokker triplane, a wheel bearing froze on landing and nearly flipped me over before I could get back into the air. Confronted with the unenviable task of having to make a one-wheeled landing, I mentally rehearsed what I planned to do at least 50 times. I wouldn’t want to-and probably couldn’t-do it again, but I managed to land without a scratch while firetrucks chased me down the runway.

Another time, I was in our Fokker D-VIII “Flying Razor” on my way to attend a World War I re-enactment in Pennsylvania when a low battery gave me inaccurate navigational readings. Over the West Virginia mountain forests with low fuel and low visibility, I opted for a precautionary landing in a tiny pasture, because it was the only clear, visible space. Barely stopping behind a little house next to a church cemetery, I climbed out of my plane and hopped over the fence. As I walked toward the porch, I spotted 90-year-old Ruall Anderson rocking. Without a word, he turned a second rocking chair around and motioned for me to sit. He didn’t seem surprised by either my presence or my flight suit, perhaps because, as he said, “someone did the same thing in 1950.” By the time we pulled his truck out of the shed, went to town, bought gas, visited his church, his birthplace, and drank some of his homemade wine, I was stuck for the night.

Of course, aviation appeals to people of all ages and so does the aerial equivalent of slapstick comedy. At a performance for schoolchildren in Huntsville, AL, strong, gusty winds lifted the tail of my plane while taxiing. As the propeller splintered, and the engine died, I had to laugh in spite of the loss when I heard 4,000 kids howling in laughter. They thought it was part of the show and the most hysterical thing they had ever seen. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

My wife is now learning to fly her new Super Decathlon stunt plane and attends all of the airshows as part of our crew. Our Fokker D-VIII, Albatros DVa, and Nieuport 28 have each won “Grand Champion” for a record three straight years at the Sun-n-Fun Airshow held each spring in Lakeland, FL. The gathering is the second largest airshow in the nation with about 700,000 in attendance.

Of course, it’s not just the planes that draw spectators, it’s also the personalities. At our own show, Aerodrome ’92, in addition to seeing nearly 100 World War I aircraft, the public had an opportunity to meet three surviving World War I pilots, all in their 90s.

Joining Americans Glenn Messer and Art Seligman was Otto Roosen, who regaled the crowd with stories of flying with German Ace Ernst Udet and being shot down by Canadian Ace Billy Bishop. Coincidentally, Bishop’s son, Arthur, also attended and was accompanied by the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen’s niece. To everyone’s delight and amazement, both Seligman and Roosen took the controls and flew while I had the unforgettable historic opportunity to fly in formation with them.

It was probably the defining moment of my flying career to see these vibrant and adorable old gentlemen get into the cockpit by themselves and still remember how to fly. And fly they did, taking time to grin and wave at me while maintaining precise wingtip to wingtip coordination.

After taking a breather in 1993, the World War I Fly-In Convention will now be held annually in August in Gadsden, AL, as an outgrowth of our new international non-profit organization called “The First Warplanes.” This aims to promote public interest in preserving and recreating the era of World War I aviation. An Historical Hall of Fame has been established to honor modern-day individuals who have contributed to achieving that goal. We also publish a World War I magazine and a mail-order gift catalog.

Ultimately, Carolyn and I plan to donate our entire World War I holdings to “The First Warplanes,” so our efforts will survive for the enjoyment of future generations. Heirs and governmental agencies almost assuredly would have conflicting future agendas, and foundations may become taxed into extinction.

Aim No. 21 of The First Warplanes charter: “We intend to have fun.” That’s what we’re all about. World War I aircraft carry an aura of excitement, danger, entertainment, and even romance. Witness my good friend, Fred Jungclaus, who wore his flight uniform during his wedding ceremony performed at Aerodrome ’92. After kissing his bride, he ran to his waiting SE5a and took off into the sky to meet the attacking Huns.

Frank Ryder is chairman and CEO of Arab, AL-based Ryder International Corp., a $25 million product-development company he started in a 1,000 square foot garage in 1968. Ryder inventors design proprietary products on speculation for major corporations, generally in the medical and healthcare markets. The CEO currently tools around the country in a new Piper Malibu.

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