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Best of Airways — Modern Air Transport: The Turbulent History of A Charter Airline

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Best of Airways — Modern Air Transport: The Turbulent History of A Charter Airline

Jon Proctor Collection

Best of Airways — Modern Air Transport: The Turbulent History of A Charter Airline
August 03
14:00 2017

By Jon Proctor • Airways Magazine, May 2017


The C-46 was a rugged type, capable of carrying more passengers than a DC-3, but it was not without its shortcomings. On November 8, 1955, one of MAT’s C-46s, with only crew members aboard, landed 22 miles short of its intended destination of Roswell, New Mexico, when both engines failed. The following February, a military charter flight carrying 37 soldiers landed at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with an engine fire caused by a broken oil line.

On July 15, 1956, Modern Air achieved the distinction of becoming the first non-scheduled airline to operate a government sanctioned scheduled flight: between Pittsburgh and Miami. That milestone was made possible by a Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) decree that allowed supplemental air carriers to operate 10 round-trip flights per month between any two cities on definite schedules (Airways, October, November, and December 2015). MAT Vice President H.B. Johnston, who had spearheaded a four-year battle for the rights, announced that the C-46 service would be flown on weekends at a $38.05 one-way fare, with 16-day excursion trips for $60.75.

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MAT’s distinctive maroon and red colors appear on C-46 N3935C at Rochester, New York, circa 1960. PHOTO: Tom Kirn.

A bizarre near accident occurred on May 24, 1957, when another military charter flight, having narrowly missed penetrating a tornado funnel over New Mexico, ran into an adjacent hail-laden thunderstorm and encountered severe turbulence. The C-46 made an emergency landing at Tucumcari. The Captain and Flight Attendant were hospitalized but the Co-Pilot and 39 passengers escaped injury.

One of MAT’s biggest customers was the Gulf American Land Corporation (GAC), which was formed to develop a tract known as Cape Coral, Florida, near Fort Myers. Beginning in 1958, the airline’s charter service flew hundreds of prospective buyers weekly, eventually commanding 25% of MAT’s business.

To replace the C-46 fleet, MAT bought five Lockheed L-049 Constellations from Capital Airlines in 1961. Only two entered service; the other three were used for spare parts. The company also briefly leased two larger L-1049 Connies and purchased an L-749 Constellation in 1964. It withdrew all three a year later in favor of five longer-range Douglas DC-7Cs and added five DC-3s in spring 1965.

In May 1966, GAC announced that it would acquire Modern Air and run it as a subsidiary. The development company bought the stock of sole shareholder John Becker for US$807,500. The CAB formally approved the acquisition two weeks later and the transaction was completed on June 29.

Because of heavy flying to the Sunshine State, Modern moved its headquarters from Trenton to Miami, although its maintenance department remained in New Jersey. This move precipitated a strike on June 4 by Stewardesses and Pilots represented by the Teamsters Union. A settlement was reached two weeks later after GAC assured workers that they would retain seniority and receive expenses for the move from Trenton to Miami.

In August 1966, MAT purchased five Martin 202As that had previously served with TWA and Allegheny Airlines. That same year, the CAB gave the company broader civilian and military charter authority, allowing Modern to operate limited scheduled flights, which coincided with a mechanics’ strike against five major airlines that began in early July and lasted 43 days. Pittsburgh-Miami service began on July 15. Also that month, the CAB authorized Modern to provide temporary service to Miami from New York and Washington, DC.

During its December stockholder’s meeting, GAC shortened its formal name to Gulf American Corporation as it increased its diversification. The company also offered rights to purchase $600,000 worth of stock to employees.

At the end of 1966, MAT’s fleet consisted of five DC-7Cs, five DC-3s, and five Martin 202As.

Mat’s First Jets

MAT finalized a US$17.5 million deal for five ex-American Airlines Convair 990s with the San Diego-based aircraft maker in January 1967. It received the first of these, N5609, a month later and put it into service in a comfortable, 139-seat, all-Coach configuration, painted in the attractive ‘Silver Palace’ livery. The second, N5605, arrived in March and was leased to Air France (AF) in April for the operation of four daily round-trips between London and Paris.

Modern also leased two Boeing 727-100Cs from Executive Jet Aviation in September 1967, a deal arranged by Morton S. Beyer, the newly appointed Executive Vice-President, and General Manager. It also opened negotiations with Boeing for the purchase of one stretched and two standard 727s.

Beyer returned the leased 727s to Executive Jet Aviation after three months and canceled the factory orders because of a labor dispute with MAT’s pilots. He also began permanently grounding the entire piston-engine fleet. The DC-3s and DC-7Cs were stored at Fort Myers, and the Martinliners at Cape May, New Jersey. More than 100 Stewardesses and Pilots were laid off as a result.

DC-7C N287, formerly with Northwest Airlines, rests between flights at Kansas City in April 1966. PHOTO: Bob Woodling.

DC-7C N287, formerly with Northwest Airlines, rests between flights at Kansas City in April 1966. PHOTO: Bob Woodling.

MAT’s managers justified the Convair jet purchase on the basis of low acquisition costs and of the ability to operate the type across a wide variety of missions. The cockpit crew of three included a Flight Engineer, who was required to have a mechanic’s certificate and inspector rating. Overwater flights also carried a Navigator supplied by an outside firm.

The jet acquisitions overwhelmed Modern Air. Insufficient aircraft utilization was a major challenge and financial losses mounted quickly. After just three 990s had been delivered, MAT unsuccessfully attempted to cancel the last two airplane orders and began laying off employees. Meanwhile, the management team concentrated on heavy flight schedules to Florida and Arizona.

GAC and Fort Myers’ Page Field (FMY) shared costs for extending the airport’s northeast-southwest runway to 6,400ft. Prior to that, jet flights had been limited to Boeing 727-100s operated by National Airlines (NA). With the runway modification in place, the first MAT Convair 990 revenue flight landed on February 1, 1968, bringing 134 prospective land buyers in from Sioux City, Iowa. After a brief stopover, the 990 left for Kansas City, Missouri, and Lincoln, Nebraska. Despite the field improvements, takeoffs with Convair jets were barely achievable at Fort Myers. In fact, the auto and truck traffic on the street bordering Page Field was stopped each time a 990 took off.

Three 049 Constellations flew for Modern Air beginning in 1961. An example is seen at Kansas City. PHOTO: Bob Woodling.

Three 049 Constellations flew for Modern Air beginning in 1961. An example is seen at Kansas City. PHOTO: Bob Woodling.

Considering the need for speed to be less important, MAT began slowing its Convair jets down from Mach .85 to Mach .78, producing 38% savings in fuel consumption and boosting range by more than 20%—a point which enabled trans-Atlantic flights. Low capital investment costs combined with the reduced fuel burn made the 990 an ideal charter aircraft.

One Modern Air flight, with a full load of passengers, completed the 4,319-mile segment from Philadelphia (PHL) to Vienna (VIE) nonstop. As the flight was about to depart, an American Airlines (AA) Pilot reportedly came aboard to admire the same aircraft he had flown before its sale to MAT.

“Where are you headed for?”, he asked the Captain.

“Vienna”, came the reply.

“Oh, where are you stopping for fuel?” When told “We’re not”, he remarked, “I couldn’t even get one of these across the country nonstop, let alone the Atlantic Ocean!”

A Base In Berlin

After receiving the fourth and fifth 990s from American Airlines in the first quarter of 1968, Modern Air began operations out of Tegel Airport (TXL), in West Berlin, Germany, taking advantage of inclusive charter regulations more liberal than those allowed in the US. From its new European base, the airline flew to 19 Mediterranean and African holiday resorts. The 120 MAT employees included Pilots from the US and ground staff and Flight Attendants from Germany. At Tegel, MAT also provided maintenance and catering for Pan Am, Air France, and other carriers.

Initially, two Convair jets were based in Germany for the five-month summer season, from May through September, when most Europeans took their vacations. One was retained during the winter to develop—successfully—a speculative market from Berlin to the Canary Islands.

Although operating from West Berlin’s Tegel Airport, Modern Air conducted crew-training flights in and out of nearby Tempelhof, where N5625 is seen in May 1974. It also served as an alternate destination in bad weather. PHOTO: Ralf Manteufel.

Although operating from West Berlin’s Tegel Airport, Modern Air conducted crew-training flights in and out of nearby Tempelhof, where N5625 is seen in May 1974. It also served as an alternate destination in bad weather. PHOTO:
Ralf Manteufel.

Summer flights were sold exclusively by tour packager Baeseler Flug Ring. Service later expanded to Mauritius, Karachi, Colombo, and Bangkok. In 1968, 125,582 passengers were carried on 580 round-trips. At the same time, MAT wet-leased three US-based 990s to Canadian carrier Nordair (ND) for trans-Atlantic flights, at least two painted in full Nordair colors.

To help improve the bottom line, MAT installed new slim-line seats in 1969, enabling the addition of two extra rows without compromising legroom and increasing the 990’s capacity from 139 to 149 passengers. Morton S. Beyer told Airways of a plan for a conversion of seating from five to six across, with a 16-inch aisle, which would have increased capacity to 179 passengers. Mercifully, this plan never went beyond the proposal stage.

In May 1969, Modern began flying prospective homeowners to Tucson for them to inspect GAC’s Rio Rico development near Nogales, Arizona.

Earlier in the year, Modern Air and Gulf American Land Corporation became wholly owned subsidiaries of the newly formed GAC Corporation, with Gulf American rechristened GAC Properties. James M. Browne, a former GAC officer, was named the president of Modern Air. The company purchased American Airmotive and acquired one of the largest hangars on Miami International Airport along with an aircraft repair facility. Having purchased American Airlines’ entire Convair 990 spares inventory and engine tooling equipment, the company could now perform all maintenance in-house, with the exception of engine and airframe overhauls, improving reliability and cutting costs.

The company continued trying to sell its four DC-7Cs, which had been parked at Fort Myers since November 1967. Two had been partially cannibalized; the remaining two were offered for $60,000 each. Airport officials began pushing MAT to get all four airplanes off the field. It would be another two years before the aircraft were sold to Interair Parts of Miami for a mere $8,000.

The Acapulco Accident

On August 8, 1970, Modern Air suffered its only Convair 990 hull loss when N5603, chartered by Asti Mexican Tours, crashed at Acapulco and was destroyed. Because Mexican inclusive tour rules required groups to arrive by air at one city and depart from another, the aircraft, which had been acquired less than a year earlier from Alaska Airlines, had brought 102 passengers to Mexico City from New York and was being ferried to Acapulco to pick up 146 for their return trip to New York a day later. When it crashed, it carried only the cockpit and cabin crew.

N5615 wears Polar Bird II titles, as seen at Templehof Airport.   PHOTO: Ralf Manteufel.

N5615 wears Polar Bird II titles, as seen at Templehof Airport. PHOTO: Ralf Manteufel.

Landing in rain and fog at night, the 990 touched down 300ft short of the runway and broke up. Seven crew members, all badly injured, were transported to the hospital. As they began regaining consciousness the following morning, it was discovered that Stewardess Claire Tucker was unaccounted for. Rescue workers quickly returned to the crash site and discovered the overlooked woman pinned in the tail section, critically hurt with a broken leg, head wounds, and having endured a short-circuit fire during the night. Brought to the hospital, she later recovered, as did all of her fellow crewmembers.

The World’s Largest Convair 990 Fleet

MAT acquired two more ex-American Airlines Convair jets at the end of 1970, bringing its total to seven and matching Swissair for the largest 990 fleet. Meantime, MAT ceased all flights to Fort Myers, which had carried in prospective Cape Coral property buyers, ascribing the suspension to an overall dip in the national economy.

In 1971, MAT celebrated its 25th anniversary. That year, the company initiated thrice-daily service between West Berlin and the German city of Saarbrücken (SCN), utilizing a 14-seat Hamburger Flugzeugbau HFB-320 Hansa Jet—the first German-built passenger plane to land at Tegel since the end of World War II. The type had begun non-scheduled ‘taxi’ service the previous spring. During 1971, Modern Air’s overall West Berlin operation was the only profitable sector of operations, effectively subsidizing the rest of the company.

Modern Air Transport acquired two more Convair jets with the purchase of VARIG’s remaining pair of 990s in 1972, bringing its fleet to nine. MAT now boasted the undisputed claim of owning the ‘world’s largest Convair 990 fleet’.

In North America, a pair of tour operators, ASTI of New York and Berry of Kansas City, contracted for 200 MAT flights while extensive military charters carried reservists on assignment within the United States.

Slim-line seats were installed in the 990s beginning on 1969. Alternating fabric colors and a light blue cabin created a bright, roomy atmosphere. PHOTO: © Michele & Tom Grimm

Slim-line seats were installed in the 990s beginning on 1969. Alternating fabric colors and a light blue cabin created a bright, roomy atmosphere. PHOTO:  © Michele & Tom Grimm.

Then, with little warning, a change in the GAC board of directors prompted the company to move all of its flights to West Berlin after marginal losses were incurred in stateside operations. The transfer pushed European operations into the red and resulted in a US$8 million loss for the year. The move also caused 250 Miami-based employees to lose their jobs. A US supplemental carrier abandoning all stateside operations in favor of Europe was unprecedented and the action disturbed the CAB. The Board threatened to ‘take an interest’ if MAT did not restore some stateside operations by 1973, as it had promised to do.

Perhaps fearing such repercussions, GAC-appointed President Thomas Ferguson decided to move three of the eight Convair 990s back to the US in November and stage them from New York, rather than Miami. Charters were planned to Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, as Ferguson acknowledged that profits would not return for another year.

Increasingly high fuel costs, caused in part by low-altitude flying inside the intra-German corridor, resulted in the closing of the Tegel base at the end of October 1974.

A year earlier, MAT had upgraded two Berlin–Saarbrücken rotations from Hansa Jets to 990s, but the oil crisis forced a reduction in service. A plan to introduce used DC-8s and DC-9s fell apart and tour operators refused to extend contracts with MAT. The base closing ended a seven-year German presence, during which the airline had carried more than two million passengers.

Removing a seat from each row resulted in a most spacious aisle for the Polar Bird II trip. Lounge arrangements were added forward as well. The original American Airlines seats were used for the flight. PHOTO: © Michele & Tom Grimm.

Removing a seat from each row resulted in a most spacious aisle for the Polar Bird II trip. Lounge arrangements were added forward as well. The original American Airlines seats were used for the flight. PHOTO: © Michele & Tom Grimm.

In 1975, parent GAC publicly announced that it could invest no further in the airline, cutting its umbilical cord, and three 990s were sold. Modern Air never fully recovered. The situation only worsened as five aircraft were parked and gradually disposed of, including two sold to the Denver’s Ports-of-Call Travel Club.

The airline’s last seven Pilots walked out on September 1 in a contract dispute, abandoning two aircraft, one at New York-JFK, the other at Chicago-O’Hare. The last 990 was parked at Opa-Locka Airport in Florida.

There were no picket lines. A union spokesman commented, “We wouldn’t even know where you’d picket. There is no Modern Air organization.” Losses since 1967 totaled approximately US$43 million. No potential buyers surfaced and GAC Corporation went bankrupt the following year.

On October 6, 1975, the CAB officially grounded the airline and revoked its operating certificate effectively November 20. Nearly 30 years after its birth, Modern Air Transport, which had at one time employed a workforce of 600 and had never recorded a passenger or flight crew fatality, ceased to exist.

Epilogue

Having already purchased two ex-MAT 990s, Denver Ports-of-Call eventually acquired four more, although two were cannibalized for parts and never entered service. Detroit-based Nomads Travel Club, Spanish airline Spantax, and NASA had taken the other three. While considered less than ideal because of their limited capacity and expensive operating costs, the Convair jets still found homes more than 15 years after the type had begun rolling off of the assembly line, a tribute to their durability and longevity.

Modern Air began flying Hansa Jet air-taxi operations in 1970, and, a year later, began scheduled service, although just a fraction of the company was flying. PHOTO: Jon Proctor Collection.

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