What Happened To North Central Airlines?

North Central Airlines was a Midwestern US regional airline for executives born in 1944 as Wisconsin Central Airlines by Four Wheel Drive Auto Company (FWD). It aimed to provide better Wisconsin connections to Chicago with two Cessna UC-78 Cranes. The regional airline would grow far beyond these modest aspirations.

From Wisconsin Central to North Central

But regular airline operations would require a move to a mid-size aircraft – the 9-passenger Lockheed Model 10A Electras. Three were purchased, and, yes, the Lockheed Electra was made famous by the late Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated global circumnavigation attempt. The Three Electras would begin Wisconsin Central operations on February 24, 1948.


Initially, 19 cities on a route system of 1,028 miles would be served. So the three Electras would need to be supplemented by three more and $ 150,000 of navigational aids. According to an April 1973 company history, without the navigational aids flights were visual flight rules / VFR only. This would result in unreliable schedules, low aircraft utilization, disheartening operating results, and heavy financial losses.

The DC-3 was

A Douglas DC-3 of North Central Airlines in flight.

Photo: Getty Images

By 1950, it was becoming clear that Lockheed Model 10A Electras were inappropriate for an airline that had flown over 48,000 passengers and 2,177,000 route miles. So the airline management went for a fleet of Douglas DC-3s all capable of hauling 26 passengers on a flight starting on March 1, 1951. By the end of May 1951, the Lockheed Electras were stricken from the North Central fleet. Another change brought about was to change the brand to North Central Airlines and the headquarters city to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1952.

The DC-3 era of North Central Airlines would bring about a sense of professionalism. As Dick Brown explained in a story published on HermanTheDuck.org, a website dedicated to North Central Airlines history, he said,

I would fly with several brand new captains. But because of a strong emphasis on STANDARDIZATION of procedures, we very seldom ever ran into conflicts. The company set the standards and we were expected to follow procedures OR ELSE find work else where. For the most part, I would say that was how it was.

This de facto era would see North Central Airlines grow to a point where it would, in 1956, be carrying 551,775 passengers and have a base of 976 employees to serve a route system of 3,240 miles. North Central Airlines evolved to break down gender barriers too, with male cabin crew riding along to help with baggage and speed up the aircraft turn.

Eventually, is fleet of 32 Douglas DC-3s would be insufficient. According to highly experienced pilot Randy Sohn in, “A Simpler Day and Time”, the DC-3s would be flown low due to being an unpressurized aircraft – sometimes only 1,000 feet above the farms of Minnesota. The DC-3s would fly at about 145 knots (167 miles per hour or 269 kilometers per hour) flying the North Central Airlines’ routes.

Reading a Captain Dick Brown story posted to HermanTheDuck.org, Captain Brown remarked the DC-3, “Was a very simple machine, designed to provide safe, economical air transportation to the public who were used to riding in noisy, drafty airliners that the DC-3 soon replaced. “

The 1960s forced North Central Airlines to evolve

But eventually, aviation – and North Central Airlines – would have to evolve. Especially with 1,035,076 passengers, 2,152 employees, and 14,628,000 scheduled miles according to the April 1973 company historical brochure. So North Central Airlines decided to purchase five Convair 440s. These were radial-engine aircraft that happened to fly at 250 miles an hour as pressurized airliners – no more flying at 1,000 feet above ground level.

By December 11, 1964, North Central Airlines would haul its 10 millionth passenger. From noble beginnings and a difficult financial history, North Central Airlines was growing. Eventually, North Central Airlines would acquire turboprops, and by April 1967 two Convair 580s would be flying for the airline.

Jets for North Central Airlines

In July 1967, 100-passenger Douglas DC-9 jets joined the North Central Airlines fleet. Eventually, an initial 15 would be ordered to serve an airline with 9,900 route miles, 90 cities, 13 US states, and two Canadian provinces.

To commemorate this progress on February 24, 1968, a formation flight led by a Lockheed Model 10A Electra, a Douglas DC-3, Convair 440, Convair 580, and Douglas DC-9 would be conducted. All models but the Lockheed Electra were still flying for North Central Airlines. According to HermanTheDuck.org,

Flying the Lockheed 10A, Douglas DC-3, Convair 440 and turboprop 580 plus the new Douglas DC-9 fanjet close together presented quite a challenge to the aircrew. The speed regime of the Lockheed compared to the DC-9 jet required the little 10A to be flown at full power while the “nine” needed to fly with its leading edge slats and some trailing edge flaps extended at approach speed in order to stay together in proper formation.

The flight would be led by the slowest aircraft (the Lockheed) at 145 knots. Nonetheless, the photo evidence would show a successful and safe formation flypast.

Two years later, in 1970, North Central Airlines would serve 3,753,000 passengers and fly 806,165,000 passenger miles. The airline also attempted to be, “Aware of its responsibility as a corporate citizen” and hire for diversity. Also, all the DC-9 jets would be configured to a more emissions-friendly standard and for reduced take-off noise. By 1973, North Central Airlines would have 20 DC-9s – both 100-passengers DC-9-30s and 130-passenger DC-9-50s – in the fleet.

US airline industry deregulation fades North Central Airlines

Republic Airlines would take on all of North Central Airlines’ DC-9s.

Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

When US airline industry deregulation arrived in 1978, North Central Airlines attempted to maneuver by purchasing Southern Airways in 1979. This made a new airline in Republic Airlines – not to be confused with today’s regional feeder Republic Airways. Republic Airlines then bought Hughes Airwest in 1980, to become the largest US airline by airports served and the largest DC-9 fleet. Republic also kept the Convair 580s flying.

But the debt from the mergers and new aircraft – including Boeing 727s and 757s – caught up to Republic Airlines. With United Airlines buying Pan Am’s Pacific routes, Northwest Airlines saw an opportunity and snatched up Republic Airlines for $ 884 million in 1986.

It’s worth noting that Northwest Airlines got its name from when the US Midwest was considered the Northwest Territory – not the Pacific Northwest. So in a way, this was the Midwest airlines coming together.

But this was not to last. Delta Air Lines in a 2008-2010 process absorbed Northwest Airlines. The North Central Airlines culture would no longer fly.

Do you miss North Central Airlines? Are these the kind of histories you want? Let us know in the comments please.

Sources: HermanTheDuck.org; TheAirchive.Net “The Story of North Central Airlines Brochure” April 1973

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *