Published in May 2016 issue

By David H. Stringer

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, the saying goes. That certainly applies to North Central Airlines. The company owes its birth to the needs of one small city and the desire for air transportation to connect it to the outside world.

Clintonville, Wisconsin, was home to the Four Wheel Drive (FWD) Auto Company. As early as 1939, FWD was using a Waco biplane to transport company executives to meetings outside of Clintonville, primarily in Chicago. Soon, local businessmen from other firms in Clintonville began to request space on flights to the Windy City.

When the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) instituted its feeder airline policy in 1944, FWD decided to incorporate its flight service subsidiary and apply for a feeder airline certificate. Choosing the name Wisconsin Central Airlines, the new company officially came into being on May 15, 1944, with Francis M. Higgins, Advertising Manager of Four Wheel Drive, as its President. The company’s managers filed an application with the CAB and prepared for the hearing and examination process.

While waiting for the board to rule on its request for a federal certificate, Wisconsin Central decided to gain experience by operating a scheduled intrastate service, which only required authorization from the State of Wisconsin. It acquired two Cessna T-50s (UC- 78s) in the postwar Marketplace and inaugurated service on April 4, 1946, to six airports on a route that stretched from Madison and Milwaukee to Superior. Of course Clintonville was at the center of the “system”. The operation lasted until November, when the undertaking, which was losing money, was shut down.

But good news came the following month, when the CAB announced its awards in the prophetically named North Central Case. The Board selected Wisconsin Central Airlines to operate over five routes to serve 34 airports in a network that stretched from Chicago on the southern end to Hibbing, Minnesota, and Hancock, Michigan, in the north.

The award was “subject to a further showing as to the adequacy of airport facilities and that Four Wheel Drive Auto Company has divested itself of control of Wisconsin Central Airlines.” The Board was very thorough in its vetting of potential feeder certificate holders. Any suspicion about interlocking relationships that might prevent the company from devoting itself totally to the public good, as opposed to serving private interests, would result in a mandate for dissolution of the association.

FWD divested itself of its investment in Wisconsin Central, and Francis Higgins went searching for someone who knew something about running an airline to help him get the company off the ground. He found that person in 25-year old Hal Carr, an analyst in route development working for TWA. While Higgins remained in the President’s chair, Carr accepted the offer to become Wisconsin Central’s Vice President-Traffic.

Thus began the long career of a man who would be instrumental in the company’s development and growth. Several years later, he would be the airline’s savior.

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Initial financing was a problem for the startup, as it was for most of the new feeder airlines. With the help of a stock issue put together by a Milwaukee investment firm, the company accrued enough capital to purchase two used Lockheed 10-A Electras from Pioneer Air Lines, another feeder carrier, which had upgraded to DC-3s. The twinengine Lockheeds had accommodation for 10 passengers, but Wisconsin Central had to remove the 10th seat in order to make room for radio equipment, thus reducing customer capacity to nine. The company acquired a third 10-A Electra before the start of service.

The airline set up new headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.

Among the preparations for the public unveiling of the company was the need for branding—a standardized presentation of the company’s name, a livery for the aircraft, and a logo. The creation of Wisconsin Central’s trademark, a mallard duck flying through a circle symbolizing the sun or the moon, is credited to Milwaukee design consultant Karl Brocken. His emblem proved a winner, as it survived through name changes and mergers for decades to come. The mallard even earned a nickname, Herman, which would remain as long as the logo survived.

Wisconsin Central Airlines inaugurated scheduled operations under the conditions of its CAB-issued certificate on February 24, 1948. However, the company didn’t receive permission to operate flights after dark and under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) until it spent its own money, later in 1948, to finance the equipment necessary for such operations throughout its system.

It took until December 1949 for service to be introduced over all of the initially awarded segments. By the end of 1950, the young airline’s route map was set for a while. It had divested itself of two stations (Racine/Kenosha and Baraboo/Portage, Wisconsin) because of poor airport conditions, and had added one that hadn’t been part of the original award: Beloit/Janesville, Wisconsin. Some of the originally certificated stations would never receive service from the airline due to a lack of proper facilities. ‘Whiskey Central’, as it was affectionately called, had settled in to serve 22 airports in four states, including Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, the smallest city in the continental United States with certificated air service (1950 population: 548). Land O’ Lakes was served on a seasonal (summer) basis, when tourist traffic mushroomed.

Calling itself ‘The Route of the Northliners’, the airline eventually assembled a fleet of six elderly Lockheed 10-A Electras. The Lockheeds had been acceptable airliners in the 1930s but, by 1950, they were showing their age and spare parts were getting harder to find. It was obvious that larger aircraft, specifically Douglas DC-3s, would be needed to handle expanding passenger demand. In late 1950, Wisconsin Central purchased six DC-3s from TWA. They entered service early in 1951 and, by May of that year, the Electras were gone from Wisconsin Central’s fleet. With the introduction of the DC-3s came a new member of the crew— the steward—to tend to the needs of passengers in a 21-seat cabin.

But the transition to larger aircraft came with costs—for the planes themselves, for spare parts, for staff training, and for conversion of the aircraft to Wisconsin Central standards. The company’s financial position began to deteriorate. Hal Carr advocated improving the airline’s service: spending money to make money. The majority of the Board of Directors disagreed, and Carr resigned in December 1951.

The CAB renewed Wisconsin Central’s certificate for another five years, awarding more new stations and routes. In 1952, the airline started service over two new segments reaching westward from Minneapolis/St. Paul, to Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, via intermediate stops, as well as service to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and Winona, Minnesota. The company bought and leased more DC-3s to handle the expansion. But the financial situation continued to worsen.

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In the fall of 1952, several important events occurred in the airline’s development. Despite the company being in the red, it still needed more aircraft. A source was found in Purdue University, which, with its School of Aeronautics and Purdue Research Foundation, agreed to sell nine DC-3s to Wisconsin Central and take over the balance of an insurance company loan to the airline in exchange for a vice-presidency within the carrier and a seat on the Board of Directors. The airline’s management team agreed. Purdue’s Grove Webster became a Wisconsin Central Vice-President and Dr. Robert Stewart joined the Board.

Then, in the CAB’s Michigan-Wisconsin Service Case, decided October 17, 1952, the airline was awarded a route to Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit from Hancock/Houghton and other points on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, via Green Bay, Wisconsin. In the same decision, the CAB approved the company’s requested name change, from Wisconsin Central to the more appropriate North Central Airlines.

In the midst of all of these developments, the airline lost the lease on its facilities at Madison’s Municipal Airport and decided to move its headquarters from Madison to Minneapolis.

Purdue’s Dr. Stewart had also invaded the boardroom of another feeder carrier, Lake Central Airlines Airways, Aug., Sep., Oct. 2013, which itself had struggled through financial mismanagement, and, on January 1, 1953, he was appointed President of that airline. Purdue’s next announcement was an offer from North Central to purchase Lake Central in order to form one large local service airline. North Central was to be the surviving carrier.

All of these grand plans, along with new headquarters, new routes, additional airplanes and a new name, failed to prevent another disastrous financial year in 1953, the second in a row in which net loss topped $100,000. Francis Higgins had resigned, there was bickering in the boardroom, and the reaction to the company’s financial situation was to retrench and cut back on service— never the best solution. The airline had gone through two more presidents since Higgins’s resignation, and North Central now faced the possibility of being the first certificated air carrier in the United States to declare bankruptcy.

Finally, the Board of Directors made an offer to Hal Carr, asking him to please take over management of the airline. He accepted, assuming the top post at North Central and becoming the youngest airline president in the country as of April 7, 1954. Then things began to turn around. Carr managed to refinance the Purdue loan and pay off the company’s debt to the university, thus negating any power that Grove Webster and Dr. Stewart held over the Board of Directors. The gents from Purdue packed up and left, but North Central tenaciously held on to its legacy of an attempted acquisition of Lake Central for several more years. Despite defeats in the court room and a decision by the CAB that the merger would not be in the public interest, North Central continued to push for a merger with Lake Central. North Central was finally defeated in its bid for the other carrier in 1959.

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In August of 1954, Eric Bramley, a journalist from American Aviation magazine, published an article entitled ‘The Amazing Four-Month Comeback of a Local Service Line’. Bramley outlined a phenomenal turnaround. In just four short months, Carr had reduced expenses companywide while managing to improve employee morale. He had increased aircraft utilization from four  hours, 28 minutes daily in March 1954, to six hours, 30 minutes in August. Whereas some aircraft had been scheduled for long turnarounds at Midway Airport, Carr decided that the wasted ground time could be used to operate extra Chicago–Milwaukee shuttles. Twelve round-trip flights daily between the two cities were increased to 22 round-trips, generating a 47% load factor on a run where 31% was the break-even point.

Improved scheduling, emphasis on service and customer relations, cost reduction, the addition of more seats to each DC-3 interior, and negotiation for a permanent air mail rate (subsidy) were just a few of the tactics  undertaken to recover from the downward spiral. Carr also spoke individually or in groups to as many of his employees as possible to bring them up to date on the company’s progress. He instituted a group of ‘presidential advisers’— prominent businessmen from every city on the system. According to Bramley, North Central’s “community relations . . . improved 100%”.

Also in 1954, the company added its first female Cabin Attendants to the work force.

In the first four months of 1954, North Central lost $229,000, but, after Hal Carr’s return, the company ended the year with a net income of $111,707.

The Route of the Northliners continued to grow methodically through the CAB’s tightly controlled process. In 1955, the Board transferred a local service segment between Chicago and Detroit from American Airlines to North Central. Serving several important intermediate points, this would become a very profitable bread-and-butter route for the airline. The company also inaugurated service to close-in Detroit City Airport in 1955, operating some flights that would have ordinarily terminated at Willow Run with the extra leg to City Airport for those passengers desiring the convenience. North Central continued to serve the airport located at Conner Street and Gratiot Avenue until 1959.

In the 1950s, the potential of the helicopter was still viewed as the next big step forward in local service and Hal Carr made sure his airline was in the running for certification of rotary wing services. North Central applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board for authority to operate dense networks of helicopter routes in the Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Chicago/ Milwaukee metropolitan areas. According to the company’s 1955 Annual Report, the whole scheme would “depend upon the availability of suitable equipment, still only in the experimental stage of development.” Although the company eventually dropped the helicopter proposal, it continued to aggressively participate in several CAB cases in an effort to expand its route system.

In 1957, the CAB transferred stations from Braniff International Airways to North Central on a route extending southward from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Omaha, Nebraska, adding eight airports to the company’s system. On December 1st of that year, DC-3 Northliners began operating nonstop over the 404-mile segment between Duluth/Superior and Chicago.

North Central celebrated its 10th anniversary of scheduled service on February 24, 1958. That year saw the extension of the Route of the Northliners eastward from Duluth/Superior to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, via Ironwood, Houghton/Hancock, and Marquette, bringing to 53 the total number of cities served by the airline.

1958 also marked the fifth consecutive profitable year for North Central, starting with 1954 and the beginning of Carr’s presidency.

The company was now referring to itself as ‘America’s Leading Local Service Airline’, carrying more revenue passengers, more pounds of air mail, and more pounds of air express than any of the other Locals. North Central did this with an all-DC-3 fleet, 32 of which were flying in Northliner colors by the end of 1958. Although it was the leader among the 13 Locals in some areas, the company lagged behind several of its peers in the acquisition of larger, more modern aircraft. That would change in 1959. Hal Carr’s airline had come a long way since its 1953 death spiral.