By William Lehman - US Airways Flight Attendant
In 1940, aviation pioneer, air racer, and decorated World War I hero Roscoe Turner and two other partners founded Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation, or RTAC. Turner wanted to start an airline and the new company quickly broke ground on a flight school, dormitory, hangar, and control tower.
With the United States involved in World War II, Turner was awarded a contract to teach basic air training to army students. With it being wartime, he put his airline hopes on hold and, instead, operated charter flights with multiple stops between Detroit and Memphis using the single engine Stinson aircraft.
In 1947, RTAC applied to the Civil Aeronautical Board (CAB) for authority to begin passenger service. At the time the CAB was concerned because there was a lack of scheduled air service in two states, Ohio and Indiana; RTAC seemed to be exactly what the government was looking for.
In February 1948, the CAB issued temporary authority for RTAC to serve cities in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Illinois as a local service carrier. RTAC decided that they would base their new airline in Indianapolis. At first glance, it would appear that RTAC had received a windfall from the government, but in reality the entire route map ran only 500 miles, and most of the cities were well off the beaten path and ignored by other, already established airlines.
A considerable amount of money would be needed to start a scheduled service airline: over two million dollars by Turner’s estimates. The problem was that although RTAC had been awarded a lot of cities, the forecasted passenger traffic would be minimal in many cities and small towns; therefore, potential investors refused to invest in Turner’s new airline.
Finally, two brothers – Paul and John Weesner – agreed to invest in RTAC. They approached Turner and offered to invest, but only if they were granted controlling interest in the new company. Knowing that it was the only way he could get his airline off the ground, Turner reluctantly agreed. The new company would be called Turner Airlines. Turner would continue to hold a minority stake in the airline and would use his popularity and good public relations skills to promote the airline in its new cities.
With the start-up capital, Turner Airlines acquired two Douglas DC-3s and three “v” tailed, all-aluminum Beech Bonanzas painted in dark blue and red with Turner Airlines and “Lake Central Routes” written down the side of the aircraft. Turner Airlines officially launched service on November 12, 1949, using a DC-3. While Turner Airlines heavily promoted the DC-3s, over half the cities were served using the three-seat Beech Bonanzas because many of the cities had runways too short for the DC-3s.
In 1950, the Weesner brothers became frustrated with the CAB’s process of holding continuous hearings and being slow in the process of awarding new cities or routes. However, finally the CAB did award Turner Airlines Richmond and Bloomington Indiana, which required the addition of a third DC-3. In November of the same year, Turner Airlines officially became Lake Central Airlines.
In 1951, several cities that Lake Central served lengthen their runways to accommodate the DC-3s. At the same time Lake Central leased a Curtis Commando C-46 to use for military charters. A fourth DC-3 was also brought in for charter service, although it would be transferred to fly the schedule, as more existing cities were now able to accept the DC-3 for flights.
In 1952, Roscoe Turner sold the Weesner brothers his 25 percent stake in Lake Central. As the year marched on, much to the surprise of the employees, the Weesner brothers decided they wanted to sell the company. North Central Airlines, which was in severe financial distress, was pulled from extinction by the Purdue University Research Foundation. Immediately with fresh financing in place, North Central immediately offered to buy Lake Central. However the CAB was aware of North Central’s financial picture and simply stalled on approving the merger. The CAB would not render a decision for over three years. Still, Lake Central continued to make changes independently and, as 1952 drew to a close, the company phased out the Beech Bonanzas.
In 1953, Dr. R.B. Stewart became Chairman of the Board and President of Lake Central. Since it had only been a short time since the proposed buy out, Dr. Stewart immediately embarked on major changes to improve the struggling airline including changes in several key management positions. He ordered new interiors for the DC-3s that were now called “Centraliners.” He also made several improvements to increase employee productivity, which quickly raised morale. Dr. Stewart also had employees sitting on the doorsteps of the CAB in Washington D.C. to serve as a constant reminder that Lake Central wanted more routes and cities. His strategy paid off, as TWA had requested permission to discontinue service to several smaller cities in Indiana and Ohio. Lake Central jumped at this opportunity and was given authority to immediately begin service. Lake Central was able to gain a foothold in three important cities, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Three former Braniff DC-3s were acquired to handle the routes.
Lake Central was establishing itself as a real player in aviation. It developed important feeder connections with the major airlines and by the end of the year a lot of passengers were transferring to or from the majors. This greatly increased the profitability of Lake Central’s routes.
In addition to climbing profits, time was also on Lake Central’s side. The airline became an industry leader in quick turns at the smaller stations. By leaving the right engine running while passengers, baggage, freight, and mail were unloaded and loaded, the DC-3s averaged four-minute turns, allowing Lake Central to operate its entire route system with just seven DC-3s.
In January 1955, the Weensers sold their Lake Central stock shares to the employees. While the stock was held in trust, Lake Central truly became America’s first “employee owned” airline. This became a great marketing niche, which appeared on timetables and billboards. Meanwhile, Lake Central was able to add Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo, Erie and some smaller, less desirable cities due to Capital Airlines’ request to abandon the routes. Once again Lake Central acquired additional DC-3s from Braniff.
In 1959, one of the most important events occurred for Lake Central, as the United States Supreme Court ruled that North Central Airlines purchase of Lake Central was not in the public’s best interests. North Central had earlier appealed the CAB’s denial to buy Lake Central and had continued the appeal up to the Supreme Court. With the decision in hand Lake Central employees’ stock was released from the trust and given to employees, bringing employee morale and pride to an all-time high.
In 1960, Lake Central was awarded several new routes and one-stop flights from the major profitable cities of Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Due to Capital Airlines’ continued financial struggles, the CAB granted Lake Central additional routes in West Virginia. Incidentally, Lake Central had fought the battle to gain this route authority with its future suitor Allegheny Airlines.
Lake Central continued to shine favorably in the CAB’s eyes and was granted Washington D.C. and Baltimore routes from West Virginia, plus a south run from Erie to Pittsburgh. But, as Lake Central continued to expand, additional capital needed to be raised. The employees made the critical call: they voted to offer a public stock issuance. While this raised critical cash for Lake Central, it would signal the end of the employee ownership.
Since Lake Central was now a public company, the Board of Directors called for a new bold corporate identity. The paint scheme would now consist of a blue and red cheat line with a new logo, which was a stylized aircraft inside two ellipses.
With cash in hand, Lake Central went shopping for aircraft. United Airlines had a large fleet of Convair 340s that were ready to be phased out of their operation. Its 44 seats made it the perfect aircraft for Lake Central’s route system. The First Convair 340 was placed into service in October 1960.
By February 1961 a total of six Convairs were flying. Lake Central called the new aircraft “the radar Convairs” to promote safety, as these were the first weather radar-equipped aircraft operated. Still, the DC-3s were not forgotten even though surveys found that passengers were very fond of the DC-3. Lake Central liked the airplane because of the low cost and reliability. Five more DC-3 aircraft were purchased from Braniff and five from Northeast Airlines.
Lake Central came up with a brilliant marketing scheme of offering DC-3 promotional flights on Saturdays, when the DC-3s would normally be parked because of low demand. This resulted in Lake Central carrying many passengers whom otherwise might not have flown and allowed Lake Central to slowly build the next generation of passengers. As 1961 drew to a close, 23 DC-3s and five Convair 340s flew in Lake Central colors.
While 1962 and 1963 were relatively quiet years for Lake Central, the airline was earning an industry-wide reputation for being the friendliest air carrier in the Midwest. During this time the route map continued to expand with an extensive schedule operating throughout middle America.
Late in 1963, President Lloyd Hartman started a round-the-world search for a replacement aircraft for the DC-3. Hartman was one of the former vice presidents brought into the airline during the North Central merger attempt by Former Lake Central President Dr. Stewart; he soon had the respect of the employees and Board of Directors and quickly became president. In 1964, Lake Central purchased three more Convair 340s from United Airlines to increase flights on existing routes. At the same time, Lake Central entered into a partnership with National Rent A Car. This gave passengers a reason to fly Lake Central since cars could be rented even in the smaller stations.
In March 1964, Lake Central signed a contract with the French Government to purchase eight brand new Nord 262 turboprops, with an option for thirteen additional aircraft. The 27-passenger aircraft with its high wing, twin turbo-prop and large oval windows was the perfect replacement aircraft for the DC-3. This marked the first time that Lake Central bought a brand new aircraft from the manufacturer. The year closed out with a fleet of 18 DC-3s, and eight Convair 340’s. December 1964 also marked the beginning of retirement for the DC-3 fleet.
In March 1965, Senior Captain Val Prose, President Hartman and other senior executives were in Paris to pick-up the first Nord 262. With much pomp and circumstance, Lake Central accepted delivery of the first aircraft, with a lengthy ferry flight across the North Atlantic to bring the baby aircraft home to America. The excitement would be short lived, as teething problems with the new airplane would quickly surface.
As the New Year opened in 1966, the Nord 262 aircraft were already becoming a big headache for the Lake Central, due to constant mechanical delays and cancellations. On-time departures and reliability were quickly slipping, but the worst was yet to come. On July 7, 1966, without warning, one of Lake Central’s Nord 262 engines blew up during a flight, sending parts of the engine into the cabin injuring many passengers. The pilots were able to make an emergency landing without further injury or aircraft damage to the aircraft. Less than a month later was another disintegration of a Nord 262 engine. Incredibly, within a week, a third aircraft blew its right engine, completely disintegrating the third stage turbine. Lake Central had no choice but to ground the entire fleet of Nord 262s, while putting back into service several DC-3s that had been retired. Fortunately, many of the DC-3s that were for sale had not yet been bought. As 1966 came to a close, Lake Central management was at odds with the French manufacturer demanding an immediate fix for the grounded Nords.
Lake Central moved forward with a conversion program to modify the piston driven Convair 340s with Allison-powered turboprops called the Convair 580. Lake Central’s marketing department quickly jumped on the bandwagon promoting the “new” Convairs. This effort was successful in taking the spotlight off the Nord 262s.
As the New Year dawned, engineers in France found that the cause of the engine disintegration was with water methanol (used to boost power at takeoff) and mineral corrosion. By February 1967, the Nord 262s returned to the skies. With his airline back to a full schedule, President Hartman flew to Seattle and negotiated with Boeing for three brand new Boeing 737-200s with first delivery to occur a year later. The announcement to purchase jet equipment stunned analysts, since Lake Central was carrying a heavy debt load and still dealing with the financial difficulties associated with the grounding of the Nord 262s.
In June 1967, Lloyd Hartman was ousted by the Board of Directors and was replaced with Thomas Ferguson who was from Allegheny Airlines. President Ferguson immediately made several changes in upper and middle management. He also started a new campaign called “airline with a heart,” believing that the former marketing theme was old and outdated. He had the tails of the Convairs and Nords painted bright red with a white heart in the middle. The advertising department came up with the phrase “love at first sight,” which was catchy enough to breathe new life into Lake Central.
In October of 1967, the Board of Directors formally announced to the world that they were in formal merger talks with Allegheny Airlines. October 27th marked the retirement of the last DC-3 that had helped build the airline. At the end of 1967, Lake Central was heavily loaded with debt and showing millions of dollars of red ink.
As 1968 opened, flying 11 Convair 580s, 12 Nord 262’s, and one Convair 340, Lake Central’s merger with Allegheny was approved by the CAB.
Shareholder approval followed soon after – on March 12, 1968 – with Allegheny Airlines as the surviving name. The two airlines fully merged operations on July 1, 1968. Allegheny quickly closed many unprofitable stations and realigned and streamlined several routes. Lake Central faded into the sunset to become the first of what would be many more mergers for US Airways.
The Lake Central Airlines Fleet:
Beech Bonanza 3 -- 1949-1952
Douglas DC-3 23 -- 1949-1967
Curtis Wright C-46 1 -- 1951-1951
Convair 340 10 -- 1960-1968
Nord 262 12 -- 1965-1968
Convair 580 11 -- 1966-1968
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