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Best of Airways — Airlines of the Past: Central Airlines

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Best of Airways — Airlines of the Past: Central Airlines

Best of Airways — Airlines of the Past: Central Airlines
April 29
09:00 2018
Story by David H. Stringer • Airways Magazine, September 2014

Kahle was an aviation writer for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, and, with a degree in engineering, he had helped to build air installations during World War Two. He was an avid aviation promoter and enthusiast. Previously he had been involved with two proposed airline projects, one called Trans-Southern, the other named Southwest Feeder Airlines. Neither of those early efforts proved successful but his application for Central’s certificate held promise. The CAB was getting ready to open the “Texas-Oklahoma Case,” a forum to consider the need for more air service in the region, and feeder petitions would be considered along with other route requests. 

To understand how coveted the CAB’s new feeder certificates were, a look at the Board’s Texas-Oklahoma Case will give some insight. Twenty-seven applicants applied to establish local service in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. The applications encompassed 367 cities which these outfits suggested that they could serve, 328 of those communities would receive service for the first time. Among the 27 candidates were enterprises calling themselves Texas Central Airways, Great Plains Airways, Gulf Airlines and Oklahoma Airways. 

Also vying for a certificate was a company called Spartan Airlines, controlled by oil baron J. Paul Getty, and another called Skylines, Inc., backed by Phillips Petroleum. Union Bus Lines and Texas Bus Lines both submitted applications to operate feeder service in the region as did Eagle Airlines, a subsidiary of the Missouri Pacific and the Texas & Pacific Railways. Not to be left out was Oliver Parks, whose Parks Air Transport was already busy trying to acquire certificates in three other CAB route cases. 

Then there was Central Airlines, which had no ties to oil companies or other transportation businesses. Kahle had secured a loan guarantee from the First National Bank and Trust Company of Oklahoma City and he had access to the deep pockets of businessman Guy O. Marchant, and his son, W.C. Marchant, two of his first investors. The CAB noted that Central’s management “presented an extensive study of the travel habits, the needs, and requirements of the area. The key figure of Central who made the study (Kahle) has long been associated with aviation activities in the state and is thoroughly familiar with the local transportation problems of the area.” Yes, Keith Kahle was ready.

Among all of the applicants, only one petitioner was selected to provide feeder service focused on Texas, an outfit called Aviation Enterprises, which would soon change its name to Trans-Texas Airways. In the Oklahoma area, the choice was down to two contenders: Skylines and Central Airlines. 

Central had proposed a system that would serve dozens of cities and towns in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and reach into Arkansas, Louisiana, and Colorado— the Colorado part of the proposal was deleted from hearings in the Texas-Oklahoma Case. This projected network would span 2,991 miles, and was planned to be operated with fourteen Beechcraft Model 18s. The Twin Beech was the “feeder-liner” of choice suggested by many of the early applicants. 

In the end, the members of the Board selected Central over Skylines because they wanted a company without any ties to other businesses, one whose management would concentrate wholly on running an airline. The CAB declared that “it is apparent from a comparison… of the two applicants that Central has evidenced more interest in the development of local transportation, has given more study, and has better planned the details necessary to the inauguration of… local service… needed in the state.” The Board also noted that “the financial resources of Central appear adequate and its management clearly has sufficient comprehension of the undertaking and is prepared to devote its entire energies to that undertaking.” Keith Kahle had done his homework and the CAB found Central Airlines fit, willing, and able to become the region’s local service carrier. The first hurdle had been overcome. 

From Dream to Reality


Central’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity was issued by the CAB on November 14, 1946. The company was expected to become “airborne” by March 14, 1947, and the certificate would expire on March 14, 1950. The whole concept of feeder airlines was experimental and each of the new certificates was issued for a period of just three years. After that time a company would be evaluated to see if it deserved to continue operating for another three years, or longer, or less, or have its certificate revoked or allowed to expire. There were no guarantees other than the desire of the CAB to see the scheme work and the government subsidy that would be paid to each feeder airline to cover losses from operating the service. Subsidy was to be paid through the United States Post Office for carrying the mail by air. 

The certificate issued was for a much smaller system than the one that Central had initially proposed. That in itself was probably a blessing. Instead of 2,991 miles, Central’s network would cover 1,355 miles and span five routes: Oklahoma City to Wichita; Oklahoma City to Dallas and Ft. Worth; Amarillo to Tulsa; Dallas to Tulsa; and Dallas to Texarkana. Of course each route included intermediate points, small cities in between the bigger stations, which was the whole purpose of the feeder experiment.

The process of getting an airline into operation presented formidable problems to many of the newly-certificated feeders. Despite all of the graphs, charts and research presented to the CAB about expenses and how they would be covered, the reality of establishing facilities, hiring and training personnel, purchasing aircraft and putting a whole airline into operation became a Herculean task. It was another hurdle that some of the new feeder companies never did surmount. Central was not spared. Despite Keith Kahle’s preliminary work behind the scenes, a lot of money was necessary and banks and investors didn’t want to put their money into a venture unless others were also willing to invest. Financing was hard to find for the new carriers in the late 1940’s, with no guarantees that an airline hopping between small communities would make any money at all. 

Kahle did not make the March 1947 deadline to get Central off the ground. Then Guy O. Marchant and his son apparently became disillusioned and wanted to sell their shares. Meanwhile the clock was ticking. 

Stepping in to save the day financially were F. Kirk Johnson, an oilman from Fort Worth, Texas, and Deane Gill. Following their lead was the Fort Worth National Bank. With the airline’s new financial backing coming from Fort Worth, it made sense to relocate the company’s headquarters to that city. Kahle had also established a fixed-base operation (FBO), Keith Kahle Aviation, at Oklahoma City, leading the CAB to initiate an investigation into the propriety of interlocking relationships between Kahle’s two companies. Having the airline headquartered in Fort Worth while the FBO was in Oklahoma City helped placate the Board’s apprehensiveness. 

Finally came the question of aircraft. It was now 1949 and several of the feeder carriers that had been certificated in the previous three years, including Central, had yet to put their routes into operation. This was frustrating not only for the CAB, but also for the cities and towns that had fought for and won the privilege of being included in the nation’s air transportation system. Part of the problem was that some of the cities did not have airports yet capable of handling aircraft as large as Douglas DC-3s, which had become the aircraft of choice as large numbers of used DC-3s were becoming available from trunk carriers disposing of “tail draggers” from their fleets. The other issue was money, of course, and a very small, brand-new airplane would be cheaper to purchase and easier to resell than a DC-3 if the airline was not successful. On June 8, 1949, the Board issued a press release stating that it would approve “the use of single-engine aircraft in scheduled air transportation of passengers limited to day VFR conditions and over areas whose topography is favorable to single-engine operation and relatively short trips.” They had to do something to give Central and the others a push. The CAB had issued a directive to Central on March 24, 1949, instructing Keith Kahle to get his airline flying by July 1st of that year. The unwritten threat was that the carrier’s certificate would be revoked if service was not inaugurated. 

With the Board’s single-engine ruling, Kahle and company considered three basic types for possible use: Cessna’s 190 or 195, the Ryan Navion, and the Beechcraft A-35 Bonanza. On June 30, 1949, Kahle filed a request to extend the date for starting operations because the Board was still deliberating the interlocking relationship issue and the transfer of stock from the Marchants to Johnson and Deane.

A deal was struck with Beech Aircraft for the purchase of eleven Bonanzas. The final hurdle had been surmounted and Keith Kahle was ready to put his little airline into operation. With a fleet of “airliners”, each of which could carry exactly 3 passengers, Central Airlines inaugurated service on September 15, 1949. 

The Bonanzas linked the 25 airports on the initial system, flying at low altitude with pilots using such archaic navigation methods as following railroad tracks. But Central’s management played it to the hilt. As with passenger trains, individual flight numbers were given names: Flight 1, which operated between Ft. Worth and Wichita with 10 stops in between, was called “The Oklahoman”; Flight 37 from Tulsa to Amarillo was dubbed “The Harvester”; and Flight 32 from Tulsa to Ft. Worth was named “The Gusher.” 

Obviously Central wasn’t going to make money operating a flight with 10 stops and only 3 seats to sell. But the Bonanzas bought Kahle and his company a little time. In 1950, DC-3s were procured and these 24-passenger, twin engine aircraft, which became the backbone of every successful Local Service fleet, were introduced onto Central’s system in November of that year. Over the course of the next few months the DC-3s operated alongside the Bonanzas, gradually replacing them on all routes until the transition was complete by June 1951.

From the start, it was obvious that Central’s system was weak. According to the 1950 census, the vast majority of cities on the original network had populations of less than 20,000 people. The CAB allowed small adjustments to the airline’s route map, making the first major changes when the company’s certificate came up for renewal. Even when the new route pattern went into effect on April 26, 1953, Central was basically an Oklahoma airline with extensions into Texas and Kansas. Lawton-Fort Sill, Oklahoma, became a Central station late in 1953, with Halliburton Field in Duncan, Oklahoma added early the following year.

The first true strengthening of Central’s system came in May 1954, with the inaugural service to Fort Smith, Arkansas, home of the U.S. Army’s Camp Chaffee (later renamed Fort Chaffee), then in December of that year to Joplin and Kansas City, Missouri, and to Fayetteville, Hot Springs and Little Rock, Arkansas. Fayetteville would soon prove itself to be the most productive station served exclusively by Central.

As with all of the Locals, Central could breathe a sigh of relief with the announcement of permanent certification in 1955. No longer would the company be scrutinized by the CAB every three to five years in an effort to determine if the airline should continue to operate or be put out of business. Permanent certification made the company more attractive to investors. Central Airlines was here to stay. 

The airline issued its first formal Annual Report covering the year 1955. It was noted that, at the end of the year, Central was operating a fleet of 9 DC-3s, now standardized to a basic 21-seat configuration. Just as interesting as the summary of the company’s accomplishments presented in the report was the appearance of a celebrity name on the company’s board of directors. Actor Jimmy Stewart, who was an aviation enthusiast and a friend of Keith Kahle’s, served on Central’s board for the duration of Kahle’s presidency. 

The CAB continued its attempt to strengthen Central’s network. Lambert Field in St. Louis became a Central Airlines station in February 1956, while Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Liberal, Kansas came on line in December of that year. 

1957 saw Guymon, Oklahoma; Harrison, Arkansas; and Lamar, Colorado added to the network. Topeka, Kansas was put on the route map in 1958, while Plainview and Lubbock, Texas were added to the system the following year. 

But Central’s system was still deficient. It lacked the industrial cities and resort locations served by other Locals. Aside from facilities established by the oil industry, much of Central’s territory was agricultural. One area in which the company did excel was in its service to the military. Central counted a fair share of Army and Air Force installations among the cities on its route map. 

Last Place Woes


When it came to statistics such as the number of passengers carried and average load factor per flight, Central usually found itself in last place among the thirteen Locals. In his article, “Central’s Cure for Last-Place Woes,” which appeared in American Aviation Magazine’s Oct. 6, 1958 issue, Eric Bramley wrote that, of the 160 pairs of points served by locals which averaged over 200 passengers a month, Central claimed two pair. 

Bramley went on to state that the total number of passengers boarded by Central at its leading cities in 1957 was only 78,811. By contrast, Pacific Air Lines boarded 74,000 out of San Francisco, its number one city, alone. Mohawk boarded 114,551 out of New York, and North Central boarded 205,593 out of Chicago. 

In addition to $45,000 per year in service mail pay, an additional $2.5 million in subsidy was paid to Central at the time. This was over-and-above the more than $1.5 million that Central collected in passenger revenue. Keeping Central going was an expensive proposition. 

As a prescription to cure its last-place ranking, Bramley went on to write that Keith Kahle and Central’s management had a four-point plan: 1) cut competition from trunk lines, 2) increase frequency of service, 3) liberalize operating authority, and 4) add some productive new routes while deleting certain unproductive stops. Of course, Kahle and his crew could not implement any of these points without the cooperation of the CAB. More than a plan, it was a wish list. 

Central celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1959. The annual report remarked that 1959 was the airline’s best year ever, with Central flying “more passengers, more plane miles, more revenue passenger miles, cargo-and-mail ton miles than in any previous year.”

But Flight Magazine’s review of the Local Service industry for 1959 showed the airline’s status from a different perspective. Of the 50 leading cities (in terms of passengers boarded) served exclusively by local airlines, only one, Fayetteville, Arkansas– number 48 on the list–  was a Central station. By the end of 1959, each of the thirteen Locals, except Central, had boarded more than one million passengers since starting operations years before. Both Allegheny and Piedmont had boarded well over 3 million, and North Central had carried over 4 million. Central boasted only 814,198. 

In terms of enplaned passengers and passenger revenue generated during 1959, Central was dead last among the 13 Locals. And, in a figure that only a statistician could appreciate, Central’s ratio of total expense to non-mail revenue was the highest in the group. 

The airline was operating a fleet of fifteen 21-passenger DC-3s at the end of 1959. Nine of the other local service carriers had already added aircraft larger than the DC-3 to their fleets. Keith Kahle told Bramley from American Aviation that Central’s management had looked at the F-27, the Convair, “and others,” but the choice of a new craft was difficult. “A plane with double the capacity would have to carry double the loads to maintain the present load factor, and Central’s question is: Would the airplane generate this on its own?”

Kahle acknowledged in the annual report for 1959 that modern equipment would be necessary “to develop the fullest traffic potential of selected routes,” and disclosed that management was “finalizing economic studies pertaining to… modern turbo-prop flight equipment for presentation to the Board of Directors, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and stockholders.” 

The company was also betting on the outcome of the CAB’s Kansas-Oklahoma Case, expected for a final decision in 1960, to give Central the boost that it would need to exit its position in last place among the Locals. Central Airlines was ready and looking forward to the Sixties. A bright new decade was on the horizon. Things could only improve. – DHS

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About Author

David H. Stringer

David H. Stringer

In charge of the magazine’s 'Airchive' section and the occasional Airways Special feature. I work with a great team of contributors. After a 32-year career in in-flight service, I’m fulfilling my passion for researching, writing, and preserving airline history. I love this job!

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2 Comments

  1. Walkingthedog
    Walkingthedog April 29, 11:57

    What a beautiful article. Love it.

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