Published in June 2016 issue

Getting Ready for the sixties

In 1959, North Central Airlines was transporting more revenue passengers and more pounds of mail and express than any of the other Local Service carriers. The company was doing it all with 32 Douglas DC-3s, each configured to carry 26 passengers. A larger and more modern type of aircraft was needed to meet demand on the airline’s most popular routes. To fill the need, Hal Carr and his team purchased five piston-engine Convair 340s from Continental Air Lines. These 44-passenger, pressurized airliners were placed into service on highdensity and long-haul segments starting April 1.

By David H. Stringer

The added lift provided by the Convairs arrived none too soon, as the company added 15 new stations to the Route of the Northliners in 1959, a result of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s (CAB) decision in the Seven States Area Case. The company went on to pursue the purchase of more second-hand Convair Twins in the next few years.

The airline’s system continued to grow as the new decade began. In 1960, it established service at 10 more airports in Michigan and at Port Arthur/Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ontario, the company’s first international destination. North Central boarded more than one million passengers in 1960, making it the first Local Service airline to do so in a single year.

With a network stretching across the Upper Midwest and serving the northernmost parts of several states, North Central was greatly affected by harsh winter weather. Personnel and equipment faced sub-zero temperatures, freezing rain, and snow—sometimes in the form of blizzards—for periods of up to six months. The company instituted a program called Operation Cold Front, which covered every aspect of the necessary planning and preparation for complete winterization of the airline annually by mid-October. With these measures in place, North Central was better prepared than most airlines to operate during the coldest part of the year.

Cleveland, Ohio, became a North Central station in February 1961, with a lucrative route nonstop across Lake Erie to Detroit and points beyond. On May 1, the airline added Regina, Saskatchewan, with a non-stop DC-3 flight to Minot, North Dakota, that offered continuing and connecting service to North Central stations farther afield. The Saskatchewan route was discontinued early in 1963.

Replacing the familiar feather motif on the company’s aircraft, North Central began applying an updated livery to its Convairs and DC-3s in 1961. The new paint scheme retained red stripes, but in a sleeker style. ‘Herman’, the mallard duck logo, now appeared prominently on the tail of every aircraft.

North Central had grown into a healthy, profitable carrier at or near the top in rank among the Locals in almost every category. By 1962, with a fleet of 18 Convairs and 29 DC-3s offering scheduled service to 90 cities, the company boasted a new slogan in its annual report: “America’s Leading Regional Airline”.

Indicative of the respect that it was now garnering in the field of comercial aviation, in 1963 the US government awarded Hal Carr’s airline a special assignment. The Agency for International Development (AID) selected North Central to help rehabilitate Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB), the national airline of Bolivia. The project, worth $800,000 to North Central, lasted for two years. Company personnel from various departments lived in Bolivia offering technical and managerial assistance to the South American carrier. The job included everything from reorganizing LAB into four operating departments, expanding service, and adding additional aircraft, to acquiring working capital and establishing an effective accounting system. North Central personnel successfully completed the assignment on schedule.

Although the company settled into doing its job in a safe, businesslike manner during the next few years without any significant new route awards, the ‘60s became the most dynamic decade for all of the Locals, North Central included. The company purchased additional Convair 340s and the somewhat more advanced Convair 440s second-hand, adding them to its fleet while gradually disposing of the DC-3s. It eventually upgraded all of the Convair 340s to 440 standards.

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JETS FOR THE NORTHLAND

The next step seemed a logical progression—but it would also prove the catalyst for transforming the Locals into something other than what they were designed to be. In the ‘60s, all 13 of America’s Local Service Airlines signed contracts to buy or lease jets. North Central investigated the models scheduled to become available and liked the DC-9, but was not satisfied with the aircraft’s 75-passenger capacity. When Douglas Aircraft announced manufacture of the DC-9-30 ‘stretched’ version that could carry 100 customers, North Central signed on to purchase five of the turbojets, taking an option on five more.

The jets would bring North Central and the other Locals to a new level of prestige and into a whole new world of economics. The planes and their parts were expensive. All those seats had to be filled with passengers traveling substantial distances—not just 60 miles, a typical hop for a Local Service DC-3.

The airline was apparently ready for the jet age as net profit topped one million dollars in 1965. The company hit that mark again in 1966, and recorded $1.5 million in net profit for 1967. In 1966, for the first time, North Central boarded more than two million passengers in a single year.

Before the first DC-9 arrived on the property, the management began an upgrade program for the company’s Convair 440s by retrofitting them with Allison turbine-powered engines and adding state-of-the-art communication, navigation, and automatic pilot systems. The process transformed the ships into jet-prop Convair 580s. The ‘new’ 580s were able to achieve cruising speeds 100mph faster than had been possible in their previous incarnations as 440s. The first Convair 580s entered service on April 1, 1967, and, by the end of the year, eight of the prop-jets were operating in the fleet. The goal was to convert all of the company’s 440s to 580s by the end of 1968.

With the introduction of turbine-powered equipment came a new aircraft livery that would adorn all of the Convair 580s and the new DC- 9s. Gone were the red stripes on the fuselage. The new corporate colors were blue, aqua, and gold.

The first North Central Douglas DC-9-30 arrived at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP), fresh from the factory, on July 28, 1967. The first two -30s entered service on September 8, and the company added a third DC-9 to schedule rotations in October. By the end of the year, 21 cities on the Route of the Northliners were being served by the pure-jets.

The equipment transition continued as North Central operated its final DC-3 flight on February 7, 1969. With the Gooney Birds gone and the final Convair 440s converted to 580s, the airline could claim to be ‘flying with all-jet power’. However, for the year 1969, North Central lost money for the first time since 1953, despite having carried over three million passengers.

The late ‘60s brought a few new cities to North Central’s system: Kansas City, Denver, and Toronto all joined the Route of the Northliners. Following North Central’s lead, the Locals were calling themselves Regionals now. No more small, marginally productive cities were being added to their route maps. Now the focus was on longer hauls: flights that could generate more revenue with the expensive new turbojets.


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NORTH CENTRAL’S DARKEST DAYS

As sometimes happens in the airline industry, even with the highest professional operating standards, tragedy can occur. North Central held an unblemished record of 20 years’ operation without a single passenger or crew member fatality. But all of that changed as the airline suffered not one, but three fatal accidents over the course of four years.

On December 27, 1968, a Convair 580 on final approach to Chicago’s O’Hare Field crashed into a hangar on the airport property as the Pilot-in-command attempted a go-around. Light rain and fog had blanketed the area and the probable cause of the accident was deemed to have been “spatial disorientation of the Captain, precipitated by atmospheric refraction of either the approach lights or landing lights.” Twenty-seven of the 45 aboard the flight perished. Unfortunately, a boys’ drum and bugle corps had just finished practicing in the hangar when the Convair plowed into it, injuring eight of the young men, one of whom later died of his injuries.

Then, on June 29, 1972, a Convair 580 operating as Flight 290 between Green Bay and Oshkosh collided with an Air Wisconsin DHC-6 Twin Otter en route from Sheboygan to Appleton. There were five people aboard the North Central aircraft and eight aboard the Twin Otter when the planes collided over Lake Winnebago. All 13 souls were lost.

Finally, on December 20, 1972, a North Central DC-9-30 on takeoff roll at O’Hare collided with a Delta Air Lines Convair 880, which had been taxiing across the active runway in front of the North Central aircraft just as it was becoming airborne. Ten of the 45 people aboard the DC-9 were killed in the accident, in which the North Central pilots were blameless. The cause of the runway incursión was attributed to “the failure of the air traffic control system to ensure separation of aircraft during a period of restricted visibility.” Heroic action on the part of the North Central crew just prior to the collision and during the subsequent evacuation undoubtedly prevented further loss of life.

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THE 1970s

North Central gained an important addition to its route map when the CAB awarded it authority to serve New York (La Guardia). The Big Apple came online in 1970, along with three new stations in Ohio: Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati. With these and other new nonstop markets, including Minneapolis/St. Paul- Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul-Omaha, the airline returned to profitability and stayed there.

The company’s services were obviously popular with the public. During 1974, North Central boarded more than 4.5 million passengers as it completed 99.2% of its scheduled miles with an on-time performance rate of 83%. The airline was the financial leader among the Regionals, achieving the highest earnings before taxes.

In December 1975, Hal Carr, who had led the company from the brink of bankruptcy to the heights of prosperity over the course of 21 years, turned over the chief executive officer’s position to Bernard ‘Bud’ Sweet, while Carr retained chairmanship of the Board of Directors.

Bringing more capacity for North Central’s throngs of customers, the first of six new superstretched 125-passenger Douglas DC-9-50s arrived at the MSP Maintenance Base on April 6, 1976. The airline’s popularity with the traveling public was verified when North Central boarded its 50 millionth passenger on July 2 of that year.

Boston became a North Central station when service was inaugurated to the New England city on January 3, 1977. In 1978, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Philadelphia also joined the Route of the Northliners.

As the prospect of airline deregulation loomed, North Central faced a tough decision about its future. Deregulation would bring a free-for-all in the world of route expansion; the strongest companies with sensible growth plans would be the survivors. One strategy for assuring strength and growth was to merge with another healthy carrier. Even before the Airline Deregulation Act was signed into law on October 24, 1978, North Central’s upper management had been engaged in talks with their counterparts at Southern Airways, another Localturned- Regional that was based in Atlanta and served its traditional market in the Southeast.

The two airlines agreed to merge and, on July 1, 1979, they joined together to form Republic Airlines, a whole new company (technically, North Central was the surviving carrier).

The strategy proved successful. Republic—still bearing North Central’s famed logo of Herman, the blue goose—became a national carrier, acquiring Hughes Airwest (itself formed from the merger of three local airlines) in 1980.

Northwest Airlines’ purchase of Republic in 1986 brought an end to the story of the Little airline formed in Clintonville, Wisconsin, 42 years before.