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Pacific Northern Airlines

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Pacific Northern Airlines

This article is about the defunct California-based airline that operated between 1925 and 1987. For the defunct Washington state-based airline that operated in 2007, see Western (airline). For the Bahamas-based airline, see Western Air.

Western Airlines
The Western Airlines "W" trademark in red on a white background
Founded July 1925 (1925-07)
Commenced operations April 1926 (1926-04)
Ceased operations April 1, 1987 (1987-04-01) (merged
with Delta Air Lines)
  • Los Angeles International Airport LAX
  • Salt Lake City International Airport SLC
  • Stapleton International Airport (Denver) DEN
  • Fleet size 78
    Destinations 56
    Company slogan The Only Way to Fly
    Parent company -
    Headquarters Los Angeles, California, United States
    Key people Harris Hanshue (Founder)

    Western Airlines (IATA: WAICAO: WALCall sign: Western) was a large airline based in California, with operations throughout the western United States and western Canada, as well as into Mexico. The airline also served such international destinations as London, England and Nassau, Bahamas during its existence. Western had hubs at Los Angeles International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport, and the former Stapleton International Airport in Denver. Before it merged with Delta Air Lines it was headquartered at Los Angeles International Airport. The company's slogan for many years was "Western Airlines....The Only Way To Fly!"


    Western Air Express

    In 1925, the United States Postal Service began to give airlines contracts to carry air mail throughout the country. Western Airlines first incorporated in 1925 as Western Air Express by Harris Hanshue. It applied for, and was awarded, the 650-mile long Contract Air Mail Route #4 (CAM-4) from Salt Lake City, Utah to Los Angeles. On 17 April 1926, Western's first flight took place with a Douglas M-2 airplane.[1] It began offering passenger services a month later, when the first commercial passenger flight took place at Woodward Field. Ben F. Redman (then president of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce) and J.A. Tomlinson perched atop U.S. mail sacks and flew with pilot C.N. "Jimmy" James on his regular eight-hour mail delivery flight to Los Angeles.

    Transcontinental & Western Airlines

    The company reincorporated in 1928 as Western Air Express Corp. Then, in 1930, purchased Standard Air Lines, subsidiary of Aero Corp. of Ca. founded in 1926 by Paul E. Richter, Jack Frye and Walter Hamilton. WAE with Fokker aircraft merged with Transcontinental Air Transport to form TWA.

    General Air Lines

    In 1934, Western Air Express was severed from TWA and briefly changed its name to General Air Lines, returning to the name Western Air Express after several months. In a 1934 press release by the company, it called itself the Western Air Division of General Air Lines.[2]

    Western Airlines

    In 1941 Western Air Express changed its name to Western Air Lines (WAL) and later to Western Airlines. The carrier also billed itself as Western Airlines International at one point. After World War II, Western was awarded a route from Los Angeles to Denver via Las Vegas, but financial problems forced Western to sell the route as well as Douglas DC-6 new aircraft delivery positions to United Air Lines in 1947. Western was later awarded a route between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City via Casper, Wyoming, thus allowing the airline to develop from a large regional airline into a major mainline air carrier. This growth also enabled the airline to introduce Douglas DC-6 (DC-6B models}, Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops and eventually Boeing 707 service. The airline's president was Terrell "Terry" Drinkwater. Drinkwater got into a dispute with the administration in Washington D.C. which severely hampered WAL's growth. Pressured in a famous phone call by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to "buy American made aircraft", Drinkwater reportedly responded: "Mr. President, you run your country and let me run my airline!" For years after this exchange, the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) would not award Western new routes while their major competitors including United and American grew enormous even though all of Western's airliners were of U.S. manufacture while their competitor's fleets included aircraft that had been built in Europe by British or French companies.

    In August of 1953 Western was serving 38 airports. By June of 1968, that number had only grown to 42 airports.

    Western entered the jet age in 1960 when it introduced Boeing 707 jetliners (B707-139 models) with flights between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, OR and Seattle. In 1967 WAL acquired Pacific Northern Airlines which served the state of Alaska from Anchorage and Seattle. In the late 1960's Western aimed for an all-jet fleet, adding Boeing 707-320Bs, 727-200s and 737-200s to their fleet of 720Bs. The two leased B707-139s had previously been removed from the fleet in favor of the turbofan powered Boeing 720B. Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops were then replaced with new Boeing 737-200s. In 1973 Western added nine McDonnell Douglas DC-10s, marketing their wide-body cabins as "DC-10 Spaceships".

    Western was headquartered in Los Angeles, California. The airline's principal hubs were located at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Salt Lake City (SLC) and Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP). Prior to airline deregulation, Western operated smaller hubs in Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS) and Denver (DEN).[3] By the spring of 1987 shortly before Western was acquired by Delta Air Lines, the airline operated only two hubs with a major operation in Salt Lake City and a secondary hub in Los Angeles.

    At their peak in the 1970's and 1980's Western flew to many cities across the western United States, and to Mexico (Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and Mazatlán), Alaska (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Kodiak), Hawaii (Honolulu, Kahului, Kona, and Hilo), and Canada (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton). New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston were added, Chicago and St. Louis in the midwest, and Texas (Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio). Western also had many flights within California, competing with Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), Air California (AirCal) and Hughes Airwest. In addition, Western operated nonstop "Islander" jet service to Hawaii from a number of mainland U.S. cities in its route system that previously did not have direct flights to the 50th state. The airline also flew nonstop jet service between Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and Honolulu as well.

    One of the airline's smallest destinations was West Yellowstone, Montana, located near Yellowstone National Park. Western operated seasonal service into West Yellowstone during the summer months with Boeing 737-200 jetliners which had replaced Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop service. During the 1970's and 1980's, Western served a number of small cities in the western U.S. with Boeing 737-200 jet service including Butte, MT, Casper, WY, Cheyenne, WY, Helena, MT, Idaho Falls, ID, Pierre, SD, Pocatello, ID, Rapid City, SD and Sheridan, WY.

    In the late 1970's Western Airlines (WAL) and Continental Airlines (CAL) agreed to merge. A dispute broke out over what to call the combined airline: Western-Continental or Continental-Western. An infamous coin toss occurred. Bob Six, the colorful founder of CAL, demanded that Continental be "tails" in deference to their marketing slogan "We Really Move Our Tail for You! Continental Airlines: the Proud Bird with the Golden Tail". The coin flip turned up "heads". Six was so disappointed he called the merger off.

    In 1981 Western Airlines began international flights from Anchorage and Denver to London Gatwick Airport with a single DC-10-30. At one point as an extension of the service to the U.K., Western operated one stop, no change of plane DC-10-30 flights between Honolulu and London via a stop in Anchorage. Another international route at this time was one stop, no change of plane service between Los Angeles and Nassau, Bahamas which was flown with a DC-10 via a stop in Miami. As they extended their network to destinations on the east coast such as New York City, Washington, D.C. and Boston, as well as to Chicago and St. Louis in the midwest and New Orleans in the south, Western Airlines became a prominent sponsor of the Bob Barker television show The Price is Right, to make customers in the East more aware of their new presence.

    Destinations as of March 1, 1987

    The following destination information is taken from the Western Airlines March 1, 1987 system timetable shortly before the merger with Delta Air Lines was finalized. According to the route map contained in this timetable, the airline's primary connecting hub at this time was located at the Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) with a secondary connecting hub located at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

    Revenue Passenger-Miles (Millions) (Sched Service Only)
    Western Pacific Northern Inland
    1951 216 138 41
    1955 514 123 (merge 1952)
    1960 1027 116
    1965 2040 198
    1970 5072 (merge 1967)
    1975 6998

    Delta Air Lines

    In the early 1980s, Air Florida tried to buy Western Airlines, but they were able to purchase only 16 percent of the airline's stock. Finally, on September 9, 1986 Western Airlines and Delta Air Lines, entered into an agreement and plan of merger. The merger agreement was approved by the United States Department of Transportation on December 11, 1986. On December 16, 1986, shareholder approval of the merger was conferred and Western Airlines became a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta. The Western brand was discontinued and the employee workforces were fully merged on April 1, 1987. All of Western's aircraft were repainted in Delta's livery except for ten McDonnell Douglas DC-10 wide body trijets, which Delta decided to eliminate from the combined fleet as they already operated a considerable number of Lockheed L-1011 TriStar wide body jetliners at the time which were a similar type when compared with the DC-10. Western's former Salt Lake City hub has become a major Delta hub, and Delta currently uses Los Angeles International Airport as a major gateway.


    Western contributed to popular culture with their 1960s advertising slogan, "It's the oooooonly way to fly!" Spoken by the Wally Bird, an animated bird hitching a ride aboard the fuselage of a Western airliner, and voiced by veteran actor Shepard Menken, the phrase soon found its way into animated cartoons by Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera. Another famous advertising campaign by the airline centered on Star Trek icons William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Some of their last television ads, shortly before the merger with Delta, featured actor/comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

    During the 1970s, they promoted themselves as "the champagne airline" because champagne was offered free of charge to every passenger over age 21.[4] (As an aside, actor Jim Backus uttered the "It's the only way to fly!" phrase while piloting an airplane, somewhat inebriated, in the film It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)

    Western Airlines was also famous for its "Flying W" corporate identity and aircraft livery. Introduced in the mid-1970s, the unique color scheme featured a large red stylized "W" which fused into a red cheatline running the length of an all-white fuselage. This new corporate identity was the subject of litigation by Winnebago Industries, which contended the new "Flying W" was too similar to its own stylized "W" logo. In their final years, Western Airlines slightly modified its corporate identity by stripping the white fuselage to bare metal, while retaining the red "Flying W" (albeit with a dark blue shadow). This color scheme was also affectionately known as "Bud Lite" due to its resemblance to a popular beer's can design.

    Western Airlines was a favorite first class carrier for Hollywood movie stars and frequently featured them in their on board magazine, "Western's World". Marilyn Monroe and many other silver screen actors were frequent flyers and the airline capitalized on it. Western had a famous flyer out of Seattle: Captain "Red" Dodge. Red worked previously as a helicopter test pilot, and got involved with CIA flying in his later years when he wasn't flying as Captain on the DC-10. The movie "Breakout" starring Charles Bronson was based on his daring airlift of a CIA operative out of the courtyard of a Mexican prison. The Mexican government tried to extradite Dodge back to face charges. Red became wealthy leasing government storage units with unlimited government business but never again flew to Mexico.

    The airline was also promoted in the Carpenters promotional video for the track "I Need to Be in Love", released in 1976. The video shows exterior footage of a DC-10 in takeoff and landing shots, as well as seating promotions for Western's FiftyFair seating product, with shots of a cabin setting depicting what looks like business class of the DC-10.


    In 1986, Western Airlines' fleet consisted of the following types:[5]

    Western Airlines Fleet in 1986
    Aircraft In Service Orders
    Boeing 727-200 46
    Boeing 737-200 19 40
    Boeing 737-300 3 14
    Douglas DC-10-10 10
    Total 78 54

    Fleet in 1970

    In 1970, Western Airlines operated a total of 75 aircraft. Their fleet consisted of the following:[6]

    • 29 Boeing 720 (B720 turbojet engine and B720B turbofan engine models. The B720 aircraft were formerly operated by Pacific Northern Airlines which had been acquired by Western)

    Western also operated a variety of piston-powered, propeller driven airliners over the years including Boeing 247D, Convair 240, Douglas DC-3, DC-4 and DC-6B, and Lockheed Lodestar and L-749 Constellation aircraft. The Lockheed Constellation airliners were formerly operated by Pacific Northern Airlines and primarily served smaller Western Airlines destinations in Alaska such as Cordova, Homer, Kenai, King Salmon, Kodiak and Yakutat from either Anchorage or Seattle during the late 1960's according to the airline's timetables at that time.

    Accidents and incidents

    • December 15, 1936: Seven died when a Western Air Express Boeing 247[7] crashed just below Hardy Ridge on Lone Peak near Salt Lake City, Utah.[8] The major parts of the aircraft were hurled over the ridge and fell over a thousand feet into a basin below.[7]
    • January 12, 1937: Western Air Express Flight 7, a Boeing 247 flying from Salt Lake City to Burbank, crashed near Newhall, California, killing five of the 10 persons on board, including adventurer and documentary filmmaker Martin Johnson of Martin and Osa Johnson fame.
    • December 15, 1942: A Western Airlines transport crashed near Fairfield, Utah, approximately 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah, on the way to Los Angeles, California. The plane took off at 1:05 a.m. and was reported missing approximately 15 minutes later. Of the 19 passengers and crew aboard, 17 died.[9]
    • December 24, 1946: Western Air Lines Flight 44 crashed into the Laguna Mountains while descending towards San Diego. The CAB investigation determined that the pilot misjudged his position relative to the mountains, and flew too low to clear terrain.[10][11][12]
    • April 20, 1953: Western Air Lines Flight 636, flying in the night, on the last leg of a Los Angeles-San Francisco-Oakland itinerary, descended below the prescribed minimum altitude of 500 ft and crashed into the waters of San Francisco Bay, killing eight of the ten people aboard the Douglas DC-6.
    • June 2, 1972: Western Airlines Flight 701 from Los Angeles to Seattle was hijacked by Willie Roger Holder, a black Vietnam War veteran, and his white stripper girlfriend Catherine Marie Kerkow. The hijackers claimed they had a bomb in an attaché case and demanded $500,000. After allowing half the passengers to get off in San Francisco and the other half to get off in New York on a re-fueling stop, they flew on to Algeria, where they were granted political asylum. It was and remains the longest-distance hijacking in American history.[13] Later, $488,000 of the ransom money was returned to American officials.
    • October 31, 1979: Western Airlines Flight 2605 crashed while landing at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City, killing 72.[14] The crew landed the DC-10 on a closed runway and it impacted construction vehicles during the attempted go-around. The closed runway 23L was operationally lighted so that construction workers could see what they were doing; however, this was denied by Mexican officials. This is not done in the U.S. due to safety concerns as it might appear to the flight crew that the runway is open. Another factor was that the captain and co-pilot were known to have been in a contentious dispute throughout their month of flying together.[15] This accident is taught as a CRM (Crew Resource Management) exercise in many airline training programs today.
    • July 31, 1979: Western Airlines Flight 44 departed LAX en route to Denver and Billings via several other intermediate stops and then mistakenly landed at Buffalo, Wyoming instead of Sheridan, Wyoming which was the intended destination. No injuries occurred and the only damage was to the tarmac at the airport which was not designed to support the weight of the Boeing 737-200 jetliner. The incident prompted a legal battle and subsequent landmark aviation ruling of Ferguson v. NTSB[16]


    • Pearcy, Arthur. Douglas Propliners: DC-1 – DC-7. London: Airlife, 1995, p. 14. ISBN 1-85310-261-X.

    External links

    • Historical timetables and route maps
    • Historical timetable covers
    • Salt Lake City International Airport
    • Early Aviators
    • "Right in the Middle of it All" History of the region
    • History of Western Airlines and the planes it operated - copy of now-defunct page

    Template:Delta Air Lines

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