Once swallowed whole by TWA, local Missouri favorite Ozark Air Lines flies again.
- By Nan Chase
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 4 of 6)
Stricker’s Mustang is part of a collection of more than a dozen aircraft, including a Czech L-39C Albatros jet trainer, and an elegant Piaggio P180 Avanti. He still has his first airplane, a wreck of a Piper J-3 Cub that he and his younger brother bought as teenagers with money they earned hauling hay and then rebuilt themselves over three years. And, yes, he even flies the line for his own airline occasionally. (Stricker’s wife, Pam, is a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, usually on the Minneapolis-to-Paris route, and their young daughter has already spent hundreds of hours in the air.)
John Ellis graduated from the University of Missouri in 1962 and served as a Navy fighter pilot until 1967. Then he founded Kal-Aero, a Michigan fixed- base operation for major aircraft servicing and custom modifications; when he sold the company in 1998 the firm had 350 employees and revenues of $40 million. Along the way he became a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and was inducted into the Warbirds Hall of Fame. For relaxation he likes to ride one of his Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
To gauge interest in a new airline, Ellis bought a mailing list of key business leaders in the Columbia and Jefferson City area and sent them a survey requesting detailed information on travel habits and preferred destinations. The results uncovered a huge pent-up demand for reliable regional air service out of Columbia—especially to Dallas and Chicago—but not with turboprop-powered commuter aircraft. “If the airplane had propellers on it we wouldn’t achieve what we wanted,” he says.
A perpetually smiling Columbia native named Mary McCleary Posner quickly earned a spot as head cheerleader and behind-the-scenes matchmaker between Ozark, the city of Columbia, and the rapidly expanding business market the new airline soon hoped to serve.
In the process of organizing the airshow—to replace the previous Memorial Day festivities that she called “three old men gathered at the courthouse for speeches”—Posner also put together a huge network of Columbia business people who were attuned to the local airport and the desirability of a local airline.
A contemporary of Ellis, she had left Missouri and headed to New York City as a young woman, but instead of becoming a college teacher as she had hoped, Posner went into advertising and stayed in the Big Apple for 25 years. When she returned to Columbia with her husband in the 1980s she remained active in promotions and marketing. Today, she serves as Ozark’s Director of Corporate Communications.
Going into the FAA certification process, Ozark Air Lines and the city of Columbia needed each other badly. “We’re screwed if we don’t have an airline like Ozark,” says Mike Shirk, who besides running Columbia’s Chamber of Commerce serves on the board of directors of Boone Hospital Center. “We are always in the top five or ten places to raise kids, do business, et cetera, but we’re not going to be a serious contender until we have our own airline. Ozark’s startup has allowed us to send recruitment letters to Dallas and Chicago and all points in the world after that…. It was a shot in the economic arm.” Shirk has increased the out-of-town per-diem rate for hospital staff—as long as the travelers buy tickets on Ozark instead of taking the long drive to the St. Louis airport.
As much as Ozark promises to help the Columbia business community, the nascent Ozark Air Lines needed help in financing such airport improvements as a new apron and site preparation for what would become a spotless, all-white 22,000-square-foot hangar plus offices. City leaders set to work with unprecedented zeal to find grants and begin the startup process.