Published in October 2015 issue
By Maurice Wickstead
Earl Slick’s ideas were as big as the state he hailed from— Texas—and he had the business savvy and, moreover, the money to turn them into reality. The cash came from Tom Slick Sr., a successful oil man celebrated as the ‘King of the Wildcatters’, who had drilled his first big well in 1919. He had left his sons, Earl Frates Slick and Thomas Baker Slick, a potential $25 million fortune ($341 million today) through his Slick Oil Company.
The inheritance would pave the way for the boys, chiefly Earl, to become early air cargo magnates.
After their father died prematurely in 1930, the brothers continued to run the family oil business and did a little successful prospecting of their own in south Texas and Mississippi. In between, Earl took up flying. Despite his youth, he was already an experienced pilot when America went to war. Attempting to enlist in 1941, Earl failed the stringent US Army Air Forces eyesight test, and instead found employment with Ferrying Command (later Air Transport Command), formed in May 1941 as an independent unit of the USAAF.
During one of the early South Atlantic B-24 ferry flights, Earl and his fellow pilots somehow missed the planned half-way stop at Ascension Island and, desperately short on fuel and juggling tanks between the motors, managed to scrape into Dakar, Senegal, on little more than fumes. After later serving in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater, flying dangerous missions over the ‘Hump’, he was discharged from the military in December 1945.
With flying now firmly in his blood and aided by an established business pedigree, Earl returned home to create an airline: Slick Airways—a name that, for the next 20 years or so, would become a major contributor to the postwar US cargo scene. Together with elder brother Tom Jr., a serial inventor and wartime naval officer, Earl invested $247,500 of their inheritance to purchase nine virtually new surplus Curtiss C-46E ‘Commandos’ from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).
THE RIGHT PLANE FOR THE JOB – THE C-46 ‘COMMANDO’
The idea had come when Earl met up with Colonel Samuel C. ‘Singing Sam’ Dunlap, who also served with Ferrying Command and had conducted a study of the use of the C-46 for rapid movement of supplies during wartime. Dunlap was instrumental in finding a home for the new airline and its fleet at San Antonio’s Alamo Field, which the Army Air Forces was vacating. There, an army of workers turned the C-46s into civilian freighters, some outfitted with refrigeration and heating plants.
Slick’s C-46s had originally been earmarked for the Nationalist Chinese Air Force and their new owner retained their eye-catching tailplane color scheme: six prominent alternating dark blue and white horizontal stripes that became an easily identifiable trademark. The fuselages also incorporated the slogan ‘Ship the Slick Way—By Air’, a novel approach when the concept of large-scale movement of commercial goods by air was still in its infancy.
By all accounts somewhat shy and outwardly unremarkable, Earl Slick had an unassuming appearance that belied an inherent spirit of enterprise and adventure. He soon used those attributes to get his airline up and running.
He quickly rounded up 35 pilots—old ATC buddies—on the promise of profit-sharing, and connected with his contacts in the oil business, demonstrating how their rigs could be broken down for transportation in the capacious fuselage of the six-ton (6,124 kg) payload Commando. He also began lining up cargoes of fish and agricultural produce to be flown north, returning with consignments of merchandise for local stores.
With Earl as president, the company was formally incorporated on January 1, 1946, with a capital of $1 million ($12 million today) contributed by Slick Oil, the Slick brothers, and their stepbrother, Charlie Urschel, who was elected treasurer. Operations began on March 4, 1946, when a C-46 bearing the name Braggin’ Buggy carried a consignment of seafood and vegetables to Washington, DC, for the first annual ‘Texas Brags’ dinner hosted by the Texas Citrus and Vegetable Growers Association.
Unfortunately for Slick Airways, the company had entered the air freight business at a particularly inauspicious time, with many small non-scheduled cargo carriers engaging in a rate war with the major airlines. During 1947, the non-skeds progressively dropped their rates from more than 20 cents to 15 cents per mile to grab the business. The majors, keen to eliminate any competition and ultimately keep rates high, countered with a low, at less than cost, of just 11 cents a mile, which they were able to sustain by means of cross-subsidy through their profitable passenger and mail operations.
Despite a stream of petitions to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) designed to harass the all-cargo carriers, the CABcertificated trunk airlines didn’t really have a case. Slick reckoned that his airline had carried 10 times the combined ton-mileage of the trunks for 1946 alone. Pending a final decision on minimum rates, in May 1947, the CAB granted temporary common carrier rights to the six surviving all-freight airlines. This allowed Slick to begin regularly scheduled cargo flights, the following August, over a 26-city network linking San Antonio with key points in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West Coast via Chicago and Detroit. By April 1948,
Slick was averaging nine daily scheduled flights and achieving an average of two million ton-miles per month. Slick had been fortunate to survive, largely due to its financial strength, but, despite a healthy ton-mileage uplift and an average 75% load factor, the company nevertheless incurred losses of $1 million in its first 18 months of operations. Offsetting these losses to some degree were a Supply and Service division and a wide variety of special contract services that generated substantial income. The rate dispute dragged on until July 1948, when the CAB set floor rates at 16 cents per ton-mile. With the final resolution of the Air Freight Case, Slick was able to enjoy the relative security of an experimental five-year scheduled cargo certificate.
One of the rate war’s casualties was California Eastern Airways, which declared bankruptcy in May 1948. Slick bought its assets, including its base at Burbank. Three years later, Slick moved its own company headquarters from San Antonio to Burbank.
Despite having lost six C-46s in assorted accidents during its first five years of operation, Slick’s fleet still stood at more than 20 aircraft, bolstered by 10 obtained through the War Assets Administration in 1948 and a further 10 C-46Fs leased (later purchased) from the USAF; in all, well over 35 examples would pass through the airline’s hands. By this time, Slick, now the largest US scheduled freight carrier, was uplifting three million ton-miles a month nationwide—around 26% of all US domestic cargo and 20% more than its nearest trunk rival, American.
Slick was hauling all manner of cargo: Christmas mistletoe from Dallas to Manhattan; Texas okra for Detroit’s large community of southern workers; and, increasingly, zoo animals and exotic reptiles (from a baby elephant to a python). All of this helped toward the first net profit of $507,000 ($5 million today) for 1950.
That same year, perturbed by the major airlines’ competitive advantages and unfair practices that were designed to put the all-cargo outfits out of business, Earl Slick initiated a $30 million lawsuit against American (AA), United (UA), TWA (TW), freight forwarder Air Cargo Inc., and the Air Transport Association, charging all with antitrust violations. Although litigation does not seem to have been pursued beyond the early stages, after this, the big boys backed off and left Earl and the allcargo outfits alone—at least for a little while.
DOUGLAS DC-6AS JOIN THE FLEET
Maintaining the momentum, Slick took delivery of the first of several new Douglas DC-6A freighters, partly financed by the Manhattan Bankers Trust, early in March 1951. The new aircraft entered transcontinental service on April 16. Three were in operation by early 1952, placing Slick in a perfect position to gain a military contract for trans-Pacific operations to Tokyo in support of the Korean War.
Late in March 1953, Slick’s Sixes began flying the North Atlantic on military charters to Frankfurt. In early August, one of these aircraft assisted in the search for a downed Strategic Air Command Convair RB-36F reconnaissance bomber, which had ditched west of Scotland en route to RAF Lakenheath.
In the early 1950s, the CABcertificated scheduled passenger airlines—with the advantages of an established route infrastructure, along with a significant number of large capacity aircraft—redoubled their efforts to make incursions into the air freight market. That pushed Slick back into deficit, reducing four years of steady profits to a substantial loss of $1.5 million ($13 million today) for 1954.
Recognizing the threat, Earl Slick proposed a merger with the Flying Tiger Line, another all-cargo carrier, hoping to form a substantial and strong organization to combat the main trunk carriers. Earl Slick was now his airline’s chairman, having passed the presidency to Thomas L. Grace (later with Northeast and Ozark) in September 1950. While Bob Prescott’s Flying Tiger Line was able to hold out against the trunk airlines with its more diversified operations, for Slick, it was a matter of survival. A merger agreement was reached in March 1953. However, shortly before the deal was to be finalized, labor difficulties and an intervention by CAB lawyers scrapped any prospect of the two companies combining.
By 1954, Slick had a substantial scheduled network centered on Chicago and Detroit, extending to New York, Boston, and other major East Coast cities, with the Commandos handling 60 departures from Midway (MDW) each week. Chicago and the East were connected to Los Angeles and San Francisco via St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Antonio through Dallas. In 1956, the route map was further enhanced with the addition of nonstop, transcontinental DC-6 service. One of the DC-6s was wet-leased to Transocean Air Lines on weekends for operation of London-New York all-cargo service, which was operated on behalf of the British firm Airwork Ltd. The London-New York service was conveniently scheduled to continue onwards to Los Angeles via Slick’s regular route.
Douglas DC-4s first appeared in the Slick fleet in May 1955 and augmented the DC-6s on transatlantic charters, including immigrant flights to Canada, as well as movements for the military and sub-charters for other carriers.
After a brief resurgence, by 1957, Slick was again struggling financially and feeling the competitive pressure from the large scheduled carriers. With profits once more on a downward trend, Slick opted to abandon its scheduled network from February 1958, on the back of a $770,000 ($6.3 million at current value) deficit. Attempting to put the knife in, American Airlines demanded that Slick’s scheduled operating certificate should be rescinded completely as it had allegedly not been through the mandatory procedures prior to terminating service. The CAB fortunately took a more kindly view and Slick retained its rights, under suspension. Over the next few years, operations were slimmed down and a substantial portion of the fleet, including all the C-46s, was either sold off or leased-out.
Another blow to the operation was the departure from the company of pilot and original board member Urban L. ‘Ben’ Drew, and of his brother, Earl J. Drew, who left to form their own charter company, Seven Seas Airlines.
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SUPER-H CONSTELLATIONS AND “SWINGTAIL” CANADAIR CL-44DS
Relief for Slick Airways came late in 1959 with the award of a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) trans-Pacific contract. To fulfill it, Slick bought three Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellations, which began flying between California and Japan from October 1, 1959, on a grueling twice-weekly schedule. Further military Logair work left Slick suddenly short of capacity; the company hastily chartered seven DC-4s to fulfill this one-year commitment. Business picked up markedly in 1962 with the renewal of the MATS Pacific contract and of another from the US Navy to supply six stations across the nation under the Navy’s Quicktrans air-freight program, which saw the return of the Slick’s own DC-4s that had previously been leased out to an assortment of other non-sked outfits.
Looking to replace its Constellations, Slick ordered two Canadair CL-44D turbo-prop freighters in October 1959; these began flying the Pacific between San Francisco (SFO) and Clark AFB near Manila in early February 1962. Simultaneously, the company also placed an order for six Lockheed GL207 Super Hercules civilian freighters; however, the contract was never consummated and the proposed variant never achieved production status.
Slick contracted for two more CL-44Ds in May 1962—a good move as, in June, MATS awarded Slick a further $13 million contract for trans-Pacific flights to begin in July 1962. In total, military work was worth over $20 million ($156 million today) to the airline.
Following the grant, in January 1962, of a permanent certificate for scheduled freight operations, Slick resumed regular transcontinental flights. From October 1, Slick’s CL- 44Ds, augmented by Constellations, began daily flights connecting Oakland, Dallas, Norfolk, and Newark, and thrice-weekly to Indianapolis.
Earlier, in May, the airline became a division of the Slick Corporation, a holding company with diversified interests in the oil industry and its byproducts, cloth manufacture, industrial plants and pharmaceuticals. These non-aviation subsidiaries had been acquired as a hedge against the up and down fortunes of the air cargo industry. Now headquartered at San Francisco, Slick gradually enlarged its established network with Boston, Houston, St Louis and Chicago all added back to the scheduled service route map during the following year.
For the decade before 1963, Slick had not suffered a major accident, but all of that changed on February 3 of that year when the company’s latest Constellation, leased only a few months prior, crashed and caught fire while landing at SFO, killing four of the eight people aboard. The aircraft was on a Navy Quicktrans flight from Albuquerque and, according to contemporary newspaper reports, was carrying ‘classified cargo’, which turned out to be two Polaris missile capsules. Among the four survivors was a field representative for General Electric, which built the missile’s guidance system.
SLOW DECLINE AND MERGER
Following new CAB rulemaking designed to assist the struggling all-cargo airlines, Slick filed for ‘blocked-space cargo rates’, to be introduced in November 1964. The new CAB regulations specifically excluded the ‘combination carriers’ (airlines that carried both passengers and freight). AA, TWA and UAL quickly objected and successfully obtained an initial reversal of the CAB’s rule. The matter dragged on through the courts until it was finally resolved in favor of the CAB and Slick by the US Supreme Court in October 1966, but it came too late for Slick Airways.
Meanwhile, just before Christmas 1964, Slick was involved in an emergency airlift, flying 143 tons of vital supplies into Northern California after the region was hit by a freak Arctic blizzard.
Sharp cutbacks in military contract revenue and the expenses incurred to restart scheduled operations pushed Slick into the red in 1963. Although returning to modest profit the following year, the airline, still hurting from the block-space rate controversy, requested a 90-day suspension of its scheduled network, effective August 27, 1965. Although permitted to resume contract work, losing its scheduled business was a devastating blow. The financial difficulties held back Slick from participating in the growing transition from propeller equipment to jets, which was fast becoming a necessity to qualify for future military contracts.
From here on, it was all downhill until, late in March 1966, Airlift International (formerly Riddle Airlines) agreed to buy Slick’s operations and assets in a deal worth $15 million ($110.7 million). The Slick Corporation took a minority 10% stake. The CAB approved the takeover three months later. With that, Slick Airways, champion of the early postwar all-freight carriers, was effectively consigned to history. Ironically, had it survived a little longer, the airline would have benefitted from the renewed upsurge of military contract business generated by the Vietnam War.
Unlike his brother Tom, who became a wildlife explorer and adventurer and tragically lost his life in the crash of a light aircraft in Montana in 1962, Earl continued his business career for a number of years. Remaining as chairman of the Slick Corporation until 1972, he then ventured into financing major real-estate projects and became involved in many charitable and conservation activities before his death in May 2007 at the age of 86.