by Dave Nichols
DANCIN' WITH THE REGIONALS - 1966
Ah, the '60s The local service airlines began the decade with mostly DC-3s, save for a sprinkling of Martinliners and Convair-Liners. By 1969, every remaining regional was flitting about in expensive DC-9s, BAC I 11 s. 737s and even three-holers. What a change in technology and especially in overhead.
I want to freeze-frame on 1966 because I consider it the beginning of the end of local service as it was originally intended. The turboprop explosion had reached these airlines, and pure jets were on order for most. Managements were now considering the trunk carriers as the enemy instead of a feeding partner. I will only mention those regional carriers that I have a good working knowledge of. We will explore mission statements, attitudes, routes and especially personalities. At this juncture, each regional had its own flavor and was interesting to watch. The airlines are listed in alphabetical order.
I could write a lot, and I already have, about Allegheny (AL). The focus this time is on the heartbeat, the aura and the overall personality during 1966. The densely traveled triangle extending from Rhode Island to Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. was Allegheny’s domain. If you built it, they would come and AL built a frequent-business-commuter type of operation. It was already a big-time outfit, with a total station count of 40 and serving many large-population cities. Flight equipment was a mixed bag of Martin 202/202As, Convair 440s, Convair 580s, brand-new Fairchild F-27Js and a lone DC-9-14 to play with. Top management was strong; Les Barnes was at the helm, there was money in the bank and the first acquisition lay on the horizon. The smaller and now money-losing neighbor to the west, Lake Central Airlines, was becoming attractive and affordable. There were only six unduplicated cities in the entire 46-city system of LCA that Allegheny really wanted.
Allegheny’s rank-and-file employees were weather-proven and challenge-hardened. There was a lot of hustle, and turnover was lower. Allegheny was successful, and their people knew it.
The pilots became a special breed, part survivor and part day trader. Management kept incentive carrots in front of them, and they lunged. Efficiency and rapidity, whatever it took that day. They were certainly differing in personality, but there was that go-go-go commonality that stemmed from the airline’s airmail pick-up days and the 3-minute DC-3 station stops. New first officers were marinated in that sauce, so the persona continued.
One could say that the Convair 580 was born of necessity for Frontier but was the capitalist tool for Allegheny. The 580 was loaded with power; carried a high useful load. It flew over 280 knots true air speed, even at lower altitudes, and was a jewel to fly. Many were the pilots who suffered through cooked pistons and cracked heads on the R2800 radials in the Convair 440s. The Allison turbine power plants on the 580 conversions were ultra-reliable. Kerosene was cheap. A number of captains lavished the speed and told their co-pilots that only two power settings were to be used: “full” and “off.” By the end of 1966. AL had 16 580s running with a lot more coming. A new breed of hot-rod pilot was being incubated.
The “beat the clock’ incentives put in place by AL management certainly created a type-A personality within the pilot group. Time saved each flight, and each day could be banked and meant more time off at the end of the month or year. That carrot was later blamed for some incidents and a nasty crash at New Haven, Connecticut. Making schedule was one thing, but getting the airplane “in” became the goal in the crummy weather months. These pilots were battle-proven, and I flew with them many times.
The Allegheny flight attendants during this time period possessed both leadership and beauty. They still worked alone in 1966. 1 was always impressed at how these women could reassure and comfort their passengers during bad weather or stressful times. Just think about a 22-year-old taking care of her “brood” on a 12-takeoff-and-landing day, bouncing around low altitudes in a non-pressurized Martin 202. I also believe the AL stewardesses had the sharpest seasonal uniforms of any local service airline
Almost forgotten was Fort Worth. Texas-based Central Airlines (CN). One of the original post-World War II local service carriers, it blanketed Oklahoma, Kansas and western Arkansas, serving a total of 46 stations. Central’s burden was small towns — 27 of them — and short stage lengths. Most of those towns, today, have no airline service of any level. Although flying out of Ft. Worth and Dallas, only three other lexas cities were part of CN’s allotted system. The president was none other than M. Lamar Muse, later to run Southwest Airlines and the ill-fated Muse Air.
Central was still flying some DC-3s in 1966, but a fleet modernization program was at its peak. The eight Convair 240s. ex-AA and Ethiopian, purchased conservatively from 1961 through 1964 were being converted by General Dynamics to turboprop Convair 600s. Three former Garuda CV-240s were acquired directly from General Dynamics, freshly reincarnated as CV-6OOs in 1965. Central’s cash reserve and credit line were heavily leveraged on its Convair 600 turboprop fleet. The airline was trying hard to remarket itself with the refurbished airframes, a new “shades of gray” exterior color scheme, and a very upscale, fresh logo that looked like an atom with a bunch of circling electrons. The airplanes appeared sharp and businesslike.
The senior pilots were mostly World War II Army Air Corps veterans. First officers came from the civil aviation ranks after paying their dues flying night freight in Beech 18s or twin-Cessna charters with fixed-base operators. A number of pilots had Lockheed Lodestar time. Lamar Muse knew that the neighboring regional carriers had pure jets on order. Central had drooled over the DC-9-l0, but only three city pairs had any pure-jet potential, and two of those runs keyed off smallish Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Truth was, most of Central’s cities were too unprofitable for Convair 600s.
Some hindsight analysts have said that CN’s top management was “prettying up” the airline to be an acquisition candidate. This could be true, but looking through company memos and letters — only a tiny fraction have survived — Central was keeping its chin up and strived to put a good product in the air. During October 1967, Frontier Airlines absorbed Central, but it was a good fit.
I’ve developed a curious interest in Central Airlines, and I am working on a full history of this carrier. It’s a slow go. Few documents exist. A large number of former CN employees are deceased, or their whereabouts are unknown. If you have snippets of Central history, write to me in care of the magazine.
Pure growth and financial muscle were the key elements for Frontier Airlines (FL) in 1966. The mantra of its management was conservative expansion, listening to customers and protecting the bottom line. By this time, the route system spanned from Tucson, Arizona north to Great Falls, Montana and 52 cities in between. Frontier also had an additional 11-city, east-west route between Denver and Kansas City; no other regional airline contained such an immense geography. About 15 stations were carved into mountain passes or narrow valleys. Stories of Frontier operations into those cities are legendary and normal for the carrier. I recommend the book The Golden Years of Firing — As I Remember by retired FL Captain Tex Searle (Checklist. November/December 1999). The majority of the book covers Challenger and Frontier DC-3 stories.
We all know the Convair 580 was “made” for Frontier. This was a nice-to-have aircraft for other carriers but essential for FL’s future. The 580 allowed for more consistent operations into mountainous and high-elevation airports. The greater speed over the piston Convair-Liners made those six-stop trips 30% faster. Eighteen 580s were on-line in 1966, some since 1964. Nearly as many CV-340/440s (14) were flying, waiting their turns for conversion. The nine Convair-Liners purchased from SABENA would be the last to convert. Several DC-3s still performed journeyman service. They were not babied, as a few runs were to mountainous airports like Durango and Cortez, Colorado.
Frontier station employees and pilots were an interesting bunch; many were true mountain people who relished experiencing the outdoors. How the pilots and flight attendants adjusted to bone-jarring turbulence over the Rockies, I have no idea. I remember a really rough ride as a passenger in a Frontier 580 over the Continental Divide en route to Gunnison, Colorado. I just couldn’t believe that airframe, already 15 years old, surviving the bending and twisting movements. So sudden and brutal was the turbulence, I fully expected to see a wing snapping in the center. After landing, the flight attendant apologized for not doing a beverage service. Still punchy from the experience, I asked her, “How bad was this?” She thought for a moment and calmly said, “It was worse last week.” Just think, that airplane went through pothole-like rides practically every day and did it for years and years. By the way, that particular Convair 580 is still flying today in Alaska for Era Aviation.
LAKE CENTRAL AIRLINES
The system heart of Lake Central (LC) was Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Key cities included Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. The route map extended into Buffalo and Washington, D.C. to the east. Among its 46 stations, LC had too many small towns, and they were all close together.
This regional carrier had come off a sterling 1965 and was adding 12 factory-fresh, 27-passenger Nord 262 turboprops. The new planes were added in 12 months, so 1966 was to be a pivotal year. Half of the 22 DC-3s were put up for sale as the Nords came on-line. LC’s flagship airliner was the Convair 580, of which three were flying by the end of the year. Convair 340s, purchased from United, numbered seven; all would be modified to 580s by the end of 1967.
Although no one could have known at the time, 1966 was to be a terrible year for Lake Central. The Nord 262s turned out to be a bust. Summer heat restricted the load-carrying ability dramatically. Even on cool days, the max allowable weight was below the DC-3. What doomed the Nord, and contributed heavily to the demise of the airline, was four in-flight engine disintegrations during the first eight months of the year. In August, the 262s were all grounded until an engine fix was found. It took six months. Mothballed DC-3s were pressed back into service.
Lake Central was my favorite local service airline, mainly because of the people who labored for it. Yes, I loved DC-3s. Convair-Liners, Indiana and Ohio, but also the sincerity of the employees that showed through. They were a mellower bunch with strong work ethics and devoid of “attitudes.”
The calendar year 1966 swam in red ink with 12 financed, new airplanes earning zero revenue. The cash reserves were almost gone. In another year and a half, Lake Central would also be gone, absorbed into Allegheny.