Jack Ridley was born in Garvin, Oklahoma, not long after the aeroplane had made its first hesitant appearance on the world's stage. At that time, the warring powers in Europe were still uncertain about the role which their awkward flying machines would play on the field of war. Even that early, however, the U.S. Army was deep in plans to set up its own aeronautical engineering laboratory at McCook Field at Dayton, Ohio, and by 1918 it had begun systematic research and development of the fledgling weapon of war. Ridley was destined to leave an indelible mark on the newly emerging science of aeronautical testing.
Jack graduated from a high school in Sulphur, Oklahoma in 1935. Following high school, he entered the ROTC program at the University of Oklahoma where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1939. The world into which he graduated was in turmoil. By the summer of 1941, the Battle of Britain had been fought and the United States was desperately building up its long-neglected armed forces to prepare for the world conflict which many thought was inevitable. In July of that year, the young engineer received a commission in the U.S. Army field artillery and began a military career, which would continue for the rest of his life. The science of flight soon attracted him, however, and it was not long before he transferred to the Army Air Forces. Lieutenant Ridley was sent to the Flying Training School at Kelly Army Air Base in Texas, where he earned his pilot wings in May 1942.
The Air Corps needed engineering-trained pilots and, instead of being sent into an operational combat unit, Ridley was ordered to the Consolidated Vultee plant in Fort Worth, Texas, where his initial assignment was to conduct acceptance tests on four-engine B-24 Liberator bombers. Soon thereafter, he was named as engineering liaison officer on both the B-24 and B-32 programs. Even at that early date, the Air Corps was developing the mighty six-engine B-36 intercontinental bomber, later to become the mainstay of the postwar Strategic Air Command, and Ridley found himself assigned to that program as well.
Two years later, after the tide of battle had turned to the Allies' favor, Ridley was sent off to further his education. The technological revolution spawned by the war had demonstrated that the postwar Air Force's success would be dependent upon having a corps of officers with first-rate technical training. After attending the Army Air Forces School of Engineering at Wright Field (later renamed the Air Force Institute of Technology), Ridley was sent to the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California where he received his Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering in July 1945.
The young officer was sent to Wright Field, Ohio, and assigned to the Air Materiel Command's Flight Test Division. The world had seen the greatest advances in the history of aeronautics during the war: the piston engine reached its peak of development, jet propulsion was overturning all previous concepts of airplane design, and planes were flying higher and faster than ever before. The scientific and engineering staff at Wright Field had played a pivotal role in all of these developments. The science of training test pilots had also advanced, and Ridley had to go through the Air Materiel Command Flight Performance School from January through May 1946 before he could be put to work. In the spring of 1946, he graduated with Class 46A.