Published in February 2016 issue
Edmund Converse saw a need in Nevada for air service between Las Vegas and Reno. And he decided to fill it. Bonanza Air Lines, an outgrowth of Converse’s Bonanza Air Service, which performed charters and pilot training, began offering scheduled service between Las Vegas and Reno on August 6, 1946.
By David Stringer
Operating totally within one state, an airline did not have to deal with the United States government agency, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), but only with the licensing authority of that state. Such intrastate operations were the training grounds for several of the companies that eventually would apply to the CAB for certificates to become federally-licensed feeder, or ‘local service’, air carriers.
Bonanza and the other airlines serving Las Vegas after World War II (Western, TWA, and eventually United) operated out of the inactive Las Vegas Army Air Base (formerly Western Air Express Field) north of town. It also carried the name McCarran Field until Clark County purchased a different airport, Alamo Field, south of the city, to separate commercial carriers from the Air Force, which was about to revitalize the old air base. The moniker McCarran Field (named after Nevada state senator Pat McCarran) was transferred to the ‘new’ airport, which was ready for use in December 1948. The new McCarran Field would host the headquarters of Bonanza Air Lines for the next 18 years. Meanwhile, the old Las Vegas Army Air Base was transformed into Nellis Air Force Base.
Operating only inside Nevada, Bonanza served a niche market. But Converse had his eye set on obtaining one of the government’s feeder airline certificates, which would allow him to operate between states, to interline passengers with other certificated carriers, and give him access to a steady stream of income by carrying US mail. The other jackpot attached to a federal certificate would be a subsidy paid by the government for providing service to small cities, the purpose of a feeder carrier’s existence.
When the CAB issued its decision in the Additional California-Nevada Service Case on June 15, 1949 Bonanza came out a winner. Converse’s company was awarded a certificate to operate as a feeder carrier between Reno, Las Vegas, and Phoenix via intermediate points. The award was contingent upon transfer of TWA’s Phoenix-Las Vegas route to Bonanza, which was finalized in November of that year. Bonanza began service as a certificated local service carrier with Douglas DC-3s on December 19, 1949.
Operations along the somewhat straight line from Reno to Phoenix via Carson City/Minden, Hawthorne, Tonopah, Las Vegas, Kingman, and Prescott continued for more than two years as Bonanza’s one and only route. Bonanza also held authority to serve Death Valley, California, on a seasonal (winter) basis.
NEW ROUTES FOR A WEAK CARRIER
The company received its next award from the CAB in 1952, this time in the awkwardly titled Reopened Additional California-Nevada Service Case.
Western Airlines had been serving El Centro, California, and Yuma, Arizona, from San Diego, less than adequately, and the Board had tentatively awarded a transfer of that route to Southwest Airways, a feeder carrier operating mostly within California (not to be confused with present-day Southwest Airlines). The route was more suited for a local service operation like Southwest or Bonanza than it was for a trunk carrier like Western. But not only would the transfer put El Centro and Yuma on Southwest’s map, it would also extend Southwest’s network eastward beyond Yuma to Phoenix.
In the above-mentioned case, the CAB rescinded the transfer to Southwest Airways and instead gave the extension to Bonanza in an effort to shore up the airline’s system. In contrast with some other local service carriers that served industrialized and heavily populated parts of the country, Bonanza hopped across the desert. Dubbed ‘Route of the Gold Strikes’, the little airline did serve Reno, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, but none of those cities, particularly the latter two, were as bustling and popular as they are today.
The new route extended Bonanzas network westward from Phoenix to Ajo, Blythe, Yuma, El Centro, and San Diego. In their wisdom, the members of the CAB allowed the route extension to continue up the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Oceanside, Santa Ana/Laguna Beach, and Los Angeles, offering much greater potential for local and interline traffic. Things were looking up for Bonanza.
At the same time that the Board was bestowing this new prize upon the company, it was also investigating the possibility of a merger between Bonanza and Southwest with an eye toward strengthening the local service network in the western United States and reducing federal subsidy payments. Neither Bonanza nor Southwest wanted to merge at the time and the matter was eventually dropped, only to be revisited 16 years later.
Bonanza started service over the new route to Los Angeles in June of 1952. Also that summer, with the CAB’s blessing, the company offered a nonstop night-time coach service between Phoenix and Las Vegas, an unusual plum for a local service carrier. But there was no competition on the route. A few years later, Bonanza would also be operating CAB-authorized non-stop service from Las Vegas to Reno, a two-hour 30-minute flight aboard a DC-3.
In 1955, Indio/Palm Springs (served through the Thermal Airport)and Ontario/Riverside, California (served through Ontario) were added to the route map. Riverside received service through its own airport in late 1956, and in December of 1957, Palm Springs/ Indio service was transferred to the Palm Springs Airport.
NEW PLANES AND NEW ROUTES
Converse was on top of things in the search for new equipment to replace Bonanza’s unpressurized and un-air-conditioned DC-3s, which flew across the hot desert serving a growing populace. In 1956, the CAB announced that funding would be made available to the local service airlines, via subsidy, to assist with the purchase of new equipment. With this promise of financial aid, the company announced an order for three brand new Fairchild F-27 ‘prop-jets’, with options for three more. First deliveries were expected to take place in 1958.
Bonanza received a new route award in 1957 that was bound to play a crucial role in the years ahead: a segment between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, via either Ontario or Riverside, and Apple Valley, California. For the time being, Bonanza’s DC-3s would have to make two landings between L.A. and Las Vegas in order to serve the residents of the intermediate points, but that restriction would be lifted in a few years. The CAB was starting to add a little strength to Bonanza’s system.
Bonanza updated its corporate branding in 1957, dropping its ‘Route of the Gold Strikes’ slogan and dated paint scheme in favor of a modern, stylized big ‘B’ logo with new aircraft livery featuring an orange window-band that flared as it extended aft from the nose of the aircraft until it encompassed the entire tail (horizontal stabilizer and rudder) of the DC-3, which was emblazoned with the big ‘B’. It was a very modern look for a local service carrier.
On January 3, 1958, Bonanza’s route network strengthened further with the introduction of service between Phoenix and Salt Lake City, both non-stop and with several intermediate landings.
Bonanza fought vigorously for this route during presentations before the CAB, contending that neither Western nor Frontier, the two other airlines vying for the link between Phoenix and Salt Lake, were as well suited to provide this service as was Bonanza. Prior to the award, 77% of passengers traveling between Phoenix and Salt Lake, and 91% of those traveling between Tucson and Salt Lake flew on Bonanza between Phoenix and Las Vegas, transferring to Western for the remainder of their journey.
The effect on Bonanza’s traffic would be significant if the award went to either of the other contenders. Western, as a trunk carrier, wouldn’t be interested in providing the best possible service to the intermediate cities, including St. George, Cedar City, and Provo in Utah (later adding Kanab as a station). Frontier, too, was mainly interested in the nonstop authority.
The CAB agreed and gave the award to Bonanza. As a result, the company wound up with the longest scheduled DC-3 flight in the Continental US at the time: three hours and 20 minutes nonstop from Salt Lake City to Phoenix.
Bonanza received a prized nugget with the Salt Lake route: the authorization to offer service to the Grand Canyon and, eventually, to Page, Arizona, home of the Glen Canyon Dam project and gateway to Lake Powell.
F-27s finally arrived in 1959, bringing such amenities as pressurization and air-conditioning to Bonanza’s passengers for the first time. The company christened the new prop-jets ‘Silver Darts’. As more of the Fairchilds came on line, the airline began retiring its old, faithful DC-3s, until the last Douglas service, flight 65 from Salt Lake City to Phoenix via Cedar City, Page, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and Prescott, was operated on October 31, 1960. With that, Bonanza became the first of the 13 certificated local service airlines to completely retire its stable of Douglas DC-3s.
The fact that the company now operated an all- Fairchild fleet of jet-props led to a creative streak of genius among the company’s advertising consultants (see sidebar).
BONANZA COMES INTO ITS OWN
In 1962, Bonanza gained authority to fly nonstop between Los Angeles International Airport and Las Vegas. That put it in direct competition with trunk carriers also serving the route. The CAB was attempting to strengthen the networks of the subsidy-dependent local service carriers, and allowing entry into competitive markets was a big step. The company had been serving the route via intermediate stops for several years, but now Bonanza’s F-27s were up against Western’s fourengine Lockheed Electras shuttling vacationers on gambling junkets nonstop between the two cities. Both TWA and United also served the route, but not on a turnaround basis. Las Vegas was an intermediate stop on through flights for those two carriers, which had more interest in capturing the long-distance traveler from Las Vegas. Bonanza introduced a reduced-rate excursion fare on the route and quickly captured 30% of the market.
The little local airline had grown up with Las Vegas, which had transformed into a major tourist destination, and now Bonanza was the hometown airline.
Anticipating the need for larger aircraft to keep pace with the times and with traffic demand, Bonanza management boldly decided to purchase the British Aircraft Corporation BAC-111 twin-jet. The decision did not sit well with the CAB, which would have to guarantee a loan for the aircraft purchase. Politicians in Washington were becoming anxious to see the subsidy requirements lessen for this breed of air carrier, and here a subsidized airline wanted taxpayers to pledge security for the purchase of foreign-made jets. The Board denied Bonanza’s request, thus pointing the carrier in the direction of US manufacturers. In 1963, Bonanza announced the purchase of three Douglas DC-9-11’s, to be delivered in 1966.
The company’s net income grew steadily year-overyear from 1958 onward. 1964 was shaping up to be another banner year for the airline that was once considered so weak that it ought to be forced into merger with a stronger local service carrier.
Then, on November 15, 1964, tragedy struck as Bonanza suffered its one and only fatal accident. F-27 flight 114, en route from Phoenix to Las Vegas, descended too low in a snowstorm on approach to McCarran Field and struck a mountain top south of the city. All 29 aboard (26 passengers and three crew members) perished. The probable cause was listed as misinterpretation of the approach chart by the Captain. A subsequent lawsuit by heirs of the deceased crew members charged that the approach charts, manufactured by an outside supplier, which the crew was forced to use, were faulty and deficient.
Bonanza’s first DC-9s entered scheduled service on March 1, 1966. In another one of those marketing moments, the company took the term ‘DC-9 Fanjet’ and christened its DC-9s as FunJets. The new jets served the most heavily traveled routes on the system while the F-27s continued to serve shorter local segments.
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HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Many of the Local Service airlines initially hired men to work aboard their DC-3s as cabin attendants. Their duties included sorting baggage to be off-loaded at the next station and helping the agent on the ground at each airport load and unload bags.
But some of the Locals hired women for cabin duties from the start. And during the late 1950s, the majority of Local Service Carriers were exclusively hiring female Flight Attendants, emulating the practice of the trunk airlines. Part of the reasoning behind this move was to subliminally shame businessmen who were afraid to fly. If these sweet young ladies could work with ease aboard modern-day airliners, why would a big, strong, virile man like you be afraid of flying? Come join your colleagues who spend their money on airline tickets instead of railroad fares.
The work rules imposed upon young ladies hired to work as ‘hostesses’ were based upon the perceived demand (desire) of the company’s mostly male customer base. Stewardesses were required to quit their jobs once they married and thus became ‘unavailable’. Strict age and weight limits were also enforced. The ‘career-span’ of a female flight attendant was not expected to last more than a few short years.
An article that appeared in the October 11, 1957 edition of Bonanza’s employee publication, The B Line, shows what the status quo was like: ‘Hearing Board Told of Grave Peril to Married Hostesses’. The word ‘married’ was a euphemism for ‘pregnant’. The article reported the “startling testimony” of Dr. L.D. Beck of Phoenix, who stated that the scarcity of oxygen (anoxia) at high altitudes for periods or more than three hours could cause harm to an unborn child. Thus, the company was taking the high road when it adhered to this “medical testimony” in fighting a former Bonanza stewardess who was challenging the company policy of forced resignation upon marriage. The company’s female vice-president, Florence Murphy, insisted it did not matter whether an aircraft cabin was pressurized or unpressurized; the danger was the same in either environment.
Today, when Flight Attendants commonly fly many months into a pregnancy, the medical concerns are more focused on “working during normal sleep hours, high physical job demands, and exposure to cosmic radiation”, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). How times have changed — for the better.
Bonanza had served the Grand Canyon as one of several intermediate stops on its Phoenix-Salt Lake City route since 1958. In 1966, the company gained authority to serve Grand Canyon Airport nonstop from both Las Vegas and Phoenix, greatly expanding the potential for tourist travel to the natural wonder. As the years passed, Bonanza’s territory and route structure developed into a well-suited match for sun- and fun-seekers.
With growth came the need for more office and hangar space, which the City of Las Vegas and McCarran Field could not accommodate. The city of Phoenix, which was second only to Las Vegas in importance on Bonanza’s system, offered the company a deal on a new headquarters building and larger hangar facilities necessary for the jet aircraft. The company took Phoenix up on its offer and relocated its general offices to Bonanza Way at Sky Harbor Airport in the summer of 1966.
Bonanza ordered more DC-9s as the airline looked toward spreading its wings south to Mexico. In significant CAB decisions, Bonanza gained authority to serve Tucson, Arizona, non-stop from several major cities on its network, and the company was approved for an international route south from Tucson to the Mexican destinations of Guaymas, La Paz, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta.
After the CAB’s first attempt to force a merger between Bonanza Air Lines and its neighboring local service carrier, Southwest Airways, back in the early ‘50s, Edmund Converse had tried a couple of times to purchase that company, its name changed to Pacific Air Lines in 1958. His attempts failed. Nic Bez, the founder and president of West Coast Airlines, yet another local service carrier which operated in the Pacific Northwest, tried to purchase Pacific through stock acquisition but the CAB thwarted that plan. It was not the first attempt at merger for those two carriers, either. Finally, in the late ‘60s, the three airlines reached an agreement to merge together into one large regional airline. Converse was not particularly happy with the deal but strength through merger appeared to be the next logical step for these three Locals.
On April 30, 1968, Bonanza introduced its service to Mexico, officially becoming an international carrier while it was still independent. Two months later, on July 1, 1968, the thre westernmost Local Service Airlines operating in the US officially became one airline known as Air West.
Howard Hughes purchased Air West in 1970. He changed the name of the company to Hughes Airwest, which merged into Republic Airlines in 1980. Republic, in turn, was absorbed by Northwest Airlines in 1986, and Northwest merged with Delta 23 years later.
But the spirit of the proud, innovative little airline that once called itself the ‘Route of the Gold Strikes’ lives on in the fond memories of its former employees and passengers.
AMERICA’S FIRST ALL JET-POWERED AIRLINE
When Bonanza’s Flight 65 pulled up to the gate in Phoenix on the evening of October 31, 1960, an era ended. Bonanza had just operated its last DC-3 flight. The company’s pistonengined equipment was now retired. Starting the next day, Bonanza would operate a fleet comprised entirely of jet-prop Fairchild F-27s.
A new timetable with a nice blue, white, and silver cover was issued with an effective date of November 1, 1960. Schedules had been submitted to the Official Airline Guide (OAG) with advertising copy that stated: “Fly Silver Dart F-27A Twin Jetprop Service.” It didn’t mention that the DC-3s were gone and now the Fairchild turboprop was the only type in Bonanza’s fleet.
Someone within the company, or at the ad agency, must have suddenly realized the significance of having an all-F-27 fleet. Another timetable with the same effective date quickly appeared. This one proclaimed on its cover: “First all jetpowered airline in America!” It was a bit of a stretch, since the aircraft were not turbojets but turboprops, yet it was a coup for the little Local Service airline to snatch a probable future advertising catchphrase from a trunk carrier.
Two-and-a-half years later, Lewis B. Maytag, Jr., the young, new president of National Airlines, smugly told an audience at a Newcomen Society dinner in Los Angeles that “National in 1962 became an exclusively jet-powered airline, with the exception of aircraft operated on the international interchange… It is the first carrier in the nation to achieve this distinction.”
Obviously, Maytag did not expect anyone to fact-check his statement. And National’s claim was no more substantial than Bonanza’s, because Maytag’s “exclusively jet-powered airline” included 17 turboprop Lockheed L-188 Electras in its fleet. No further mention was made of National having achieved “this distinction”.
Bonanza continued to display the slogan, ‘First All Jet-Powered Airline in America’, on timetables and promotional material for the next few years. It was a clever strategy on the part of a Local Service Carrier that had once called itself the ‘Route of the Gold Strikes’.