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The San Diego Air and Space Museum’s Library & Archives is home to the historical and corporate records of Ryan Aeronautical, one of the most influential aerospace companies in America’s air and space history. Ryan Aeronautical was established by T. Claude Ryan, who had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and who had offered popular sightseeing flights and flight instruction in San Diego in the early 1920s.
Ryan Aeronautical manufactured many significant aircraft. The company developed technologies far ahead of its time, which are now commonplace. The archival collection at the San Diego Air and Space Museum is comprehensive, and captures and documents the entire history of this company. Although the Museum has begun to index, preserve, catalog and digitize this collection, much work remains to ensure that it is available for future generations.
After his initial successes, Ryan, along with his business partner B. F. Mahoney, established Ryan Airlines, converting used aircraft to operate the first all-year scheduled airplane passenger service in the nation. Ryan Airlines began service in 1925, running between San Diego and Los Angeles. The airline enjoyed success, and Ryan and Mahoney decided that Ryan Airlines should enter the aircraft manufacturing business as well.
Their first unique design, the M-1, was popular among airmail pilots and its reliability attracted the attention of a young man named Charles Lindbergh, who contacted the company and asked if they could build an airplane that could make a nonstop flight from New York to Paris. The company assured Lindbergh they could, and the result was the Spirit of St. Louis, and a flight that would propel Lindbergh into history.
Although Ryan sold his interest in the company about this time, it continued to develop and manufacture aircraft, now fully under the control of Mahoney, including the B-1 Brougham, which was similar to the Spirit of St. Louis. Mahoney sold the company (sometimes referred to as “Mahoney-Ryan”) to the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, which itself eventually became a victim of the Great Depression. However, T. Claude Ryan did not stay out of aviation long.
In the 1930s he opened a new flight school in San Diego, and started building aircraft once again. His new company, Ryan Aeronautical, would develop many popular and innovative aircraft, such as the S-T, which was adapted to military use as a primary trainer, and the PT-22, which helped thousands of American pilots learn how to fly during the Second World War. Ryan also developed the FR-1 Fireball in the mid-1940s, one of the first production fighter aircraft with a jet engine.
The post-war period saw continued Ryan growth, as the company continued to produce experimental aircraft, such as the X-13, a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. However, during the post-war era, Ryan would become more involved in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), most famously the Firebee, which was used both for reconnaissance and as a target drone. Ryan’s early work with UAVs provided the groundwork for several of today’s advanced systems, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, which are changing the nature of warfare. Ryan was also involved in other diverse projects, such as producing Doppler radar used in the Apollo Lunar Lander, as well as early air-to-air missile development.
Teledyne acquired Ryan Aeronautical in 1968, becoming Teledyne-Ryan, which then merged with Allegheny-Ludlum Corporation 1996. The company was purchased by Northrop Grumman Corporation in 1999. It was during the 1990s transitions that the San Diego Air and Space Museum acquired the majority of today’s Ryan Collection, including the personal library of Ryan historian William Wagner. Northrop Grumman donated other records in 2005. The entire Ryan Collection measures approximately 500 cubic feet, and includes records from every phase of the history of Ryan’s several companies.
The William Wagner personal library itself includes over 100 albums containing records and photos organized by Ryan subject type. Most of these albums have been digitized and placed on Flickr.com. Additional material collected by Wagner includes a variety of photos, engineering information, newsletters, flight school year books, press releases, corporate financial records, as well as internal memos. This material has been organized by material type by box, and a basic inventory prepared.
Remaining items in the collection include a wide range of materials documenting the company’s history, which, for the most part, are not cataloged. There are over 200,000 negatives (4x5 inch) documenting various programs. These negatives are not indexed and have not been available to researchers. Although most focus on UAV programs, we have discovered negatives that document activity from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. These negatives were donated to the Museum when the Ryan facility at Lindbergh Field was closed, and would have been destroyed if we had not accepted them.
The Ryan Collection also includes several thousand 16mm films, which are not indexed and focus on their UAV programs, with several exceptions. We have begun to digitize this collection and have created a database as work has progressed, but the majority of the film content is still unknown. Fortunately, many have a short description on the film canister. Films from the collection that have been digitized have been placed on YouTube. These films also came from the Ryan Lindbergh Field facility when it closed.
Lastly, there are several thousand photographs and contact sheets, organized by year, showing company projects and important personnel during the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These were donated by Northrop Grumman and are organized into binders by year. There is no index for these images.
The Ryan Aeronautical Collection is very popular among the general public and researchers, Because of the company’s tie to Charles Lindbergh and its significance in aviation history. Documents, photos and films from it have been used in many articles, books and television productions. We believe that there are many other historical gems in the collection that will be of great interest to the community when they are processed.