Samuel K. Ryals

Colonel Sam Kent Ryals (USAF, retired) passed away peacefully at home in Sarasota, Florida on 15 October 2022, at the age of 70, after a courageous 11-month battle with cancer. He was surrounded by loving family and friends including his four children, Cherish, Nikki, Ashley, and Sam Jr., and his brother and sister, Steve and Bethany Ryals.

Born April 15, 1952 in Vallejo, Caifornia to Byron and Sondra Ryals, Sam had a passion for aviation and space from a young age. Sam graduated from Newport High School, Bellevue, Washington in 1970 where he distinguished himself as a State Wrestling Champion and Eagle Scout. In the fall of 1970, he attended Millard Prep School in Oregon, and entered Basic Cadet Training at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) in July 1971. Sam graduated with the Class of ’75, earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Astronautical Engineering. He was a record-setting athlete, a leader and coach and proudly led Cadet Squadron 13 to Wing Championships in both wrestling and team handball. Sam also competed as a quarterfinalist for the 1976 U.S. Olympics team in team handball, and distinguished himself by being the only member of the Class of ’75 to max the USAFA Physical Fitness Test all four years.

Graduating from pilot training at Vance AFB, OK in 1976, Sam embarked on a storied flying career that spanned three decades. He amassed over 5000 flying hours, including operational assignments in KC-135s, RC-135s, and U-2s at Kadena AB, Okinawa and Beale AFB, CA and later as a graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) and as a TPS Instructor. Sam flew over 100 aircraft and served as a test pilot on 12 development aircraft programs and as source selection authority for two programs. Sam was twice decorated with Air Medals, was an Associate Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, obtained a Master’s Degree in Systems Management from the University of Southern California, and a Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Dayton. Of all the planes he flew, Sam was most proud of his time as a U-2 pilot, saying he felt this mission had the most impact in support of the warfighter.

His work as a Program Manager was historic. He led the Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment Division, Commanded the Space and C3I Division at McClellan AFB, Calfornia, and served as the F-117 Stealth Fighter System Program Director and later as the USAF Special Operations Forces/Combat Search and Rescue System Program Director at Wright-Patterson AFB. Under his leadership, the F-117 System Program Office (SPO) was selected for John J. Welsh Award as the Top SPO in the Air Force, in addition to winning the Secretary of the Air Force Lightning Bolt Award for Initiative in Acquisition Reform, Secretary of Defense David Packard Award for Acquisition Excellence, and Vice-Presidential Hammer Award for Innovation in Government Savings. Sam retired in 2005 while serving as the Deputy Director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate.

After military retirement, his contributions to national security and the warfighter continued in his
follow-on career as Director of Air Force Research and Development Programs for Goodrich Corporation and later, via acquisitions, as part of United Technologies Corporation (UTC) Aerospace Systems and Collins Aerospace.  Sam distinguished himself as part of a small team that was awarded the 2017 UTC Board of Directors Trophy for their work on developing and operationalizing advanced Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities. He was also a past President and Chairman of the Board of Directors for the NDIA Wright Brothers Chapter. 

Sam excelled in his Air Force and civilian careers because he was a trusted mentor, friend, subject matter expert, and servant leader. But his true passion and legacy was being a dad. He was extremely proud of his four children and enjoyed organizing family trips or assisting in family projects so they could spend more time together. He loved golf and barbeques - especially a good burger or steak - and he was an accomplished carpenter/builder. Sam loved having his friends and family visit him in Sarasota, Florida, watching the sunset over the ocean, playing golf, and building new memories. He leaves a strong legacy behind, having an incredible impact on his family, friends, his community, and the nation. We all mourn his loss.

Rick Pyatt, Class of ’75, Nikki, and Sam Jr  |  October 2022