Home Grown

Once swallowed whole by TWA, local Missouri favorite Ozark Air Lines flies again.

On this steamy August afternoon in mid-Missouri the temperature and humidity are both stuck at 95—it’s a wonder anyone can move at all. Yet the moment Ozark Air Lines Flight 111 from Chicago’s Midway Airport touches down at Columbia Regional Airport, there’s Brad Fraizer looking cool as a cucumber, and he’s in a hurry.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, black slacks, banker’s shoes, and tie, Fraizer doesn’t even seem to be perspiring as he and his crew of one begin their 20-minute round of duties: stocking the galley, dumping the lavatory, loading luggage, swabbing the windshield, and boarding passengers. He’s too focused to sweat the weather. Fraizer is director of airport operations at Ozark, a year-old startup with a more-than-50- year-old name and, according to more than a few passengers, an inherited legacy of friendly Midwestern service.

But now there’s a problem in the cabin, a bit of a passengers’ revolt aboard the new 32-seat Fairchild Dornier 328JET.  The flight attendant has opened the door and deployed the steps, but no one is getting up from the seats.

“I don't want to get off,” sighs lanky Ron Watts, who has just returned home to Columbia with his wife, Teri.  He’s enjoying the air-conditioned chill, the expanse of legroom, and his wide leather seat, even the new car smell of the interior of the new jetliner. Ozark has just become his airline of choice, and he wants to linger for a few more minutes in the unfamiliar luxury.

Across the aisle Michael Shirk is smiling as he gathers up some papers. As chairman of Columbia’s Chamber of Commerce, Shirk was one of the city’s business leaders who worked to get funding for the airport improvements that were necessary before Ozark Air Lines could begin operations last year.  For Shirk—as for much of Columbia’s business community—Ozark’s success in the years to come will be important in helping the region grow.

Inside the low-slung brick terminal, big John Evans, Ozark’s manager of sales and marketing, is critically eyeing a plate of doughnuts and flask of coffee set out near the ticket counter. It’s a homey touch, but that’s okay. He wants the new Ozark Air Lines to be homey too, just like the airline of the same name that folded in 1986. Evans should know: He’s the only current employee who worked for the old Ozark a quarter-century ago, and having a chance to work for the new Ozark is a dream come true.

“February 21 [the date of the new airline’s first flight] was probably the most exciting day of my life,” says Evans. “I know that sounds silly, but to see those green and white swallows [the Ozark logo] flying again…. You know, they stand for the swallows of Capistrano, and they’re on time.”  

The genial gray-haired Evans grew up in Atlanta as the son of an Eastern Airlines pilot. Evans himself wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his poor eyesight prevented that, so he became an Eastern ticket agent in the early 1970s—just in time to get furloughed. He went back to school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and in 1976 was hired by Ozark as a station agent in Clarksville, Tennessee. He was devastated when he heard whispered reports that the airline was about to be bought by TWA. He could have stayed with TWA, but would have had to relocate and derail his wife’s career.

“[The old Ozark] was small enough that the people cared,” Evans says. “If I had a problem with a customer, a travel agent, I could pick up the phone and talk to the president of the company and he would take care of it. We were a safe carrier, it had a good reputation, it was profitable,” Evans says. “People come in and say they remember the old Ozark.”

Ozark also prided itself on its inflight service, which included food served from restaurants around the country and an extensive wine list on select flights. But the airline wasn’t always high-brow. “For lunch it might be a hoagie and Mateus,” Evans says.

Even though Evans is the only holdover, fondness for the old airline runs deep. “You can talk to anybody who lives in the Midwest and they’ve flown on the airline,” William E. Boston III, manager of Columbia Regional Airport, says of the old Ozark.  Boston is a sandy-haired, decorated veteran who flew combat missions in Vietnam.  Some call the retired U.S. Air Force colonel Bill, others call him Boss, short for Air Boss, because he served in that capacity at Columbia’s annual Memorial Day airshow, a volunteer post he held for eight  years. In addition to his other accomplishments, Boston is proud to be a “veteran” of numerous flights on the old Ozark.

Such nostalgia is a result of the loyalty that many now-defunct regional airlines inspired among the communities they served, often for decades. The Ozark name has been in the air on and off since 1932, when a short-lived operation flew Stinsons between Kansas City and Springfield, Missouri. An unrelated Ozark—destined to become the airline fondly remembered by Evans and Boston—flew from September 1943 to November 1945, then languished during a period of confusing post-war regulation aimed at controlling exploding commercial air routes. Ozark didn’t reorganize again until September 26, 1950, when it flew a single passenger on an inaugural DC-3 flight between St. Louis and Chicago.

Ozark grew rapidly, adding a succession of cities to its route map in the 1950s. By 1959 it was modernizing its fleet with turbine-powered Fairchild-Hiller  FH-227s. But even though Ozark passengers could ride new Douglas DC-9s in 1966 between hubs like LaGuardia Airport, St. Louis, or Chicago, they could still climb into a rumbling DC-3 to get to Peoria, Ottumwa, or Kirksville. Eventually, Ozark became a thoroughly modern airline flying the Douglas twin jets exclusively. The carrier became so proficient in DC-9 upkeep that in the 1970s, its St. Louis maintenance facility overhauled Air Force C-9s (a militarized DC-9), and even overhauled Hugh Hefner’s DC-9, which was resplendent in gloss-black paint and a Playboy-bunnied tail.

But deregulation in 1978—and the elimination of the Civil Aeronautics  Board that had begun approving Ozark’s routes in 1950—spelled trouble ahead for many regional airlines. Ozark (which by the mid-1980s was carrying more than 5.5 million passengers a year) and its peers like Piedmont Airlines had grown rapidly. Without regulations that protected their routes from the larger carriers, the regionals found themselves competing directly with the big boys. The end finally came on October 26, 1986, when Ozark was absorbed by Trans World Airlines. Jet service disappeared in Columbia, which became a Trans World Express town, served by a handful of daily turboprop commuter flights.

“In 1978, when the airline industry deregulated, that’s when smaller communities started to suffer,” Boston says.  “In Columbia, 67,558 people enplaned here in calendar 1978, more than the population of the town at that time. In 1986, another peak year, the year Ozark was bought, there were 60,000....  Then the assets were pulled out, and routes changed a lot.”

Columbia Regional, which is owned by the city, is a 15-minute drive from town through a lush, undulating landscape of field, forest, and cream-colored rocky bluffs. When the original St. Louis-based Ozark was flying, the airport prospered; when it stopped flying, the airport businesses started to dry up as the passengers disappeared (even as the privately owned general aviation fixed-base operations got busier).

The numbers declined steadily throughout the late 1980s and fell to a “devastating” 32,740 in 1991, Boston says. In 1994 there was a sharp increase thanks to service by Lonestar, a Texas feeder that flew to and from Dallas, but after that airline left the scene fewer and fewer passengers used the airport, which reached an all-time low of 24,537 passengers in 1999.

Boston knows the numbers backward and forward and what the patterns mean for Columbia, an adopted hometown that he and many others love for its charming combination of big-city attractions—a highly-regarded state university, top medical facilities, a booming economy—and small-town warmth and convenience;  the population is about 80,000 and boasts a community of several hundred retired military folks.

After Ozark disappeared in 1986, the only alternative to riding a TWE Jetstream 31 turboprop to the St. Louis airport was to travel those same 100 miles on I-70, labeled by state officials as one of the most dangerous roads in Missouri. Because TWE’s Columbia service can be delayed whenever the weather at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport gets sloppy, many people make the roughly two-hour drive instead.

“The airport’s biggest competition is the interstate highway,” Boston explains. “Most people have come to an automatic thinking that you have to go to St. Louis to get anywhere.”

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.  

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.

Bill Boston was a key link. With his assistance the city got plenty of help from the FAA regional office in Kansas City, which rushed crucial federal grant applications for Ozark through Congress during an auspicious cycle of appropriations. “When I called those guys and said, ‘I’ve never done this,’ they talked me through the process,” Boston says. “We did things that airlines would take two, three, four years to do typically, and we did it in 18 months. A lot was expected of the community, the city, and a lot of other people to cooperate in the process of starting an airline. I learned a lot very fast.”

Besides getting a certificate of convenience from the U.S. Department of Transportation—proof of financial responsibility—Ozark had to work through an added layer of bureaucracy: It was one of the first passenger carriers to go through the beefed-up FAA certification process instituted after the well-publicized 1996 ValuJet disaster, in which oxygen canisters in a DC-9 cargo hold caught fire and the jet plunged into the Florida Everglades.  

In January 1999, when the certification application was filed, it was time for Ellis to hire the FAA-mandated startup staff—a director of operations and a chief operations officer, a chief inspector, a director of safety, a chief pilot, and a director of aircraft maintenance. A lot of money went out but none was coming in; Ozark couldn’t even advertise until it had the certificate in hand. In fact, for months the whole operation was hush-hush. Wes Stricker put $3 million of his own funds into the airline.

Another wrinkle: Stricker and Ellis had chosen an airplane so new that it wouldn’t be certified until July 1999. When they realized they would need a small jet for Ozark the choices were few. Two likely candidates, the Embraer ERJ-145 and the Bombardier RJ 200, already served a number of feeder airlines but were too big for Ozark. That left one contender, the $12.5 million German-built Fairchild Dornier 328JET, a turbofan-powered version of the 328 turboprop commuter airliner. The comfortable aircraft proved to be a perfect fit with passengers, pilots, and the folks who pay the fuel bills. Ozark currently owns two 328s but there may be up to 10 more on the way in the near future.

 Almost everyone involved in the certification process describes it as...well, they all take a deep breath and say “boot camp.” The workday stretched to 12, 16, even 24 hours as the management team developed the airline’s operations manuals. Then they had to train their new employees and lead them through a series of FAA-mandated proving flights to make sure not only that all safety procedures were in place and the employees were well-trained but that each segment of the airline knew just how to  work with all the others.

Wes Stricker says, “To a man, the motivations have not been financial for the airline.” The certificate came on February 11, 2000, and 10 days later Ozark Air Lines took to the air. The airline pledged to bring 21 new jobs to the airport; so far, the tally is 75. The motivations included pride in a business community ripe for a reliable, direct jet link, a desire to revive the airport, and nostalgia for the old Ozark’s local-flavored service, all of which  bound the airline tightly to the community from the first tentative steps until the first flight took off for Chicago, on February 21.

There’s no better illustration of Ozark’s deep local roots than 44-year-old Captain Randy Eckley. A job with Ozark allowed him to settle down near his extended family outside of Columbia after an Air Force flying career that took him to Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Italy, and the Pentagon.

In 1998, at a family wedding in Missouri, his newspaper-owner in-laws told him about the coming startup of Ozark Air Lines, but there was no job yet for Eckley. Instead, he kept his flying skills fresh serving as a pilot for Continental Express. In July 1999 Ozark called.

“I always wanted to come back here,” he says. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to live back here as a pilot. For me it was a dream job. I’m flying a wonderful airplane, and I’m here at home helping my son with his homework. I’m home every night.”

Ozark also features the father-and-daughter team of Jack and Kathy Ekl. The elder Ekl is a former U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot with 27,000 hours of jet time in both the Navy and Air Force Reserve; he passed his love of flying on to his daughter, who started flying at age 15.

Since the new Ozark began operations, Boston says, 40 percent more passengers are using the airport and revenues are “way up.” Ellis says he fields calls almost every week from other cities that want Ozark jet service.

Perhaps that’s the beginning of an inevitable cycle: As the old Ozark grew and added more sophisticated aircraft, it first served—and later shed—some of the same towns. But for now, Missourians are watching the rise of their brand-new line, equipped with the latest aircraft and a hometown smile.

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