In short, getting anywhere from Columbia by air—or into Columbia, an important business consideration—took a lot of time.
Enter Wes Stricker, a 46-year-old physician, pilot, aircraft collector, and native of Missouri. “About three years ago I was coming back from Chicago and it struck me that it was just so hard to get there from here,” says Stricker. “We had a lot of business that had trouble getting to us. It just hit: We need a scheduled service to Chicago. No one else seemed to have an idea to do it.” Today, his company’s jet service to Chicago takes less than an hour; to Dallas-Fort Worth, just two.
“The word on the street was that you couldn’t start an airline in today’s environment,” says Stricker. “The FAA… gave us a lecture that only a very small percentage of people who applied for the air carrier certificate ever received it. It was a very dismal percentage.”
Stricker tapped 60-year-old John Ellis to become president of Ozark. Both men are Missouri natives, stubborn believers in Midwestern values like hard work and patriotism and community spirit. Stricker, a doctor’s son, worked his way to wealth as an allergist: Today he oversees six allergy treatment clinics in small Missouri towns and six research facilities that test drugs for FDA approval. Ellis and Stricker participated over the years in Columbia’s Memorial Day Weekend Salute to Veterans Celebration, a huge airshow that takes over the town for a few days every year. Both men perform—Ellis flies a Grumman F7F Tigercat, often in formation with a Navy F-14, and Stricker flies his P-51 Mustang.
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.