By William Lehman - US Airways Flight Attendant
In 1945, C.S. Robinson founded Robinson Aviation, which was awarded government contracts to perform aerial photography using Fairchild F-24 aircraft with cameras mounted through floor panels. Since World War II was still going on, the planes sat idle most of the time at Ithaca, New York where the company was based. Robinson had picked Ithaca because rail service was non-existent and roads were in poor condition, making driving difficult.
Robinson Aviation’s first passenger flight occurred on April 6, 1945. By the end of the year, the tiny airline carried 900 passengers using a pair of three-seat Fairchild F-24s. After the war ended, Robinson flew two Cessna T-50s, but like the F-24s the aircraft only operated during daylight hours.
As 1946 began, so did demand for reliable air transportation. Robinson Aviation retired both the F-24s and T-50s and replaced the aircraft with Beechcraft D-18s. Robinson chose the Beech 18s because its capacity was double the previous aircraft types. Robinson started advertising Robinson Aviation as the “Route of the Air Chiefs,” which would later become an important marketing strategy.
The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had not yet certified Robinson Aviation. Robinson knew if he wanted government approval, he would have to find some investors. In Ithaca, Robinson called upon a large Farmers Cooperative called the Grange League Federation who was eager to invest in the new company since they were equally concerned with establishing a solid air transportation network out of their community. GLF, who would later become Agway, invested heavily in Robinson Aviation and held most of the stock in the new airline. With financing in place, Robinson submitted his formal application to the CAB and went shopping for aircraft. Because the war was over, there was a surplus of DC-3s that were available for commercial use. Robinson bought three used DC-3s immediately painting them white with an air chief logo in red and blue on the tail, and red stripe running under the windows anticipating that approval was forthcoming from the CAB to start carrying passengers on fixed schedule.
In February 1948, Robinson got his wish as the CAB awarded Robinson Aviation a three year temporary certificate to operate as a local service carrier, The CAB awarded routes within New York including Ithaca to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, Elmira-Corning, Albany, Binghamton and Newark, New Jersey. Binghamton quickly became the city with the greatest passenger loads, so Robinson ensured that as many flights as possible flew through the city. Robinson Aviation was now predominantly serving cities in what was known as the Mohawk valley. Bob Peach--who was the third pilot ever hired at Robinson Aviation--became General Manager of the airline.
In early 1952, C.S. Robinson removed himself from the day-to-day operations of the airline. Because of Robinson‘s removal, the Board of Directors formally changed the name from Robinson Aviation to Mohawk Airlines. Additionally, Mohawk was given a permanent certificate to operate as a local service carrier.
In 1953, small carrier Wiggins Airways abruptly ceased operations. Since this presented a great opportunity for Mohawk, applications were immediately filed with the CAB to be awarded Wiggins routes. The government awarded Mohawk an additional route, north of New York to Boston with stops at Pittsfield, Springfield and Worchester, Massachusetts. During the summer, Mohawk’s Marketing Department hired Onondaga Indian Lynn Smith, who would be named “Little Mo” to serve as the airline industry’s only live mascot promoting Mohawk on television, radio and newspaper ads; plus personal appearances around the route system.
In 1954, Bob Peach, became President of Mohawk Airlines. On June 7 that year,Mohawk became the first local service carrier to offer helicopter service between Newark, New Jersey and Grossinger Field, New York, using a Sikorsky S-55. The helicopter service would only last the summer.
On July 1, 1955, Mohawk inaugurated Convair 240 service and continued to be a leader by being the first local service carrier to offer aircraft with pressurization. Mohawk had purchased the 40 seat aircraft at very reasonable rates from Swissair, American, Northeast and Ozark Airlines. Mohawk found that the Convair 240 “air chiefs” had much greater range than the DC-3s. Subsequently, Mohawk applied for and was granted additional routes to Detroit, Michigan and Erie, Pennsylvania by the CAB Mohawk continued to acquire additional second-hand Convair 240s as they became available.
As 1956 dawned, Mohawk operated a total of 11 DC-3s and 13 Convair 240s to over twenty cities throughout the eastern seaboard. Because of the large number of aircraft now in the Mohawk fleet, the hangar in Ithaca was now obsolete. Peach went to both Ithaca and Utica to try to work out the best arrangement for new Mohawk facilities. Within a short time, Peach signed a long-term lease with Utica to build both a new hangar and corporate offices for Mohawk.
Mohawk started 1957 by retiring the first DC-3. Mohawk continued to shine favorably with the CAB and was awarded new route authority between Syracuse and New York City. For the first time, Mohawk competed directly with American Airlines. The little airline held its own, continuing to build up market share and take away passengers from American. Peach decided that Mohawk needed to bump up capacity on the Convair 240s, so he had maintenance personnel install six additional seats by removing a galley and main deck cargo bin bringing the total capacity to forty six from forty.
In mid-1958, Convair approached Mohawk concerning five white- tailed aircraft sitting in San Diego unsold. Mohawk jumped at the chance to be the first local service carrier to introduce the brand new Convair 440. As the first Convair 440 arrived, Mohawk introduced a new paint scheme which consisted of a gold and black stripe that ran along the length of the fuselage. Mohawk would call the new Convair 440s “metropolitans.” In late 1958, Mohawk finally opened its new maintenance base as the operation moved from Ithaca to Utica.
As 1960 progressed, so did Mohawk as they continued to acquire additional Convair 240s and 440s. Peach received a “black eye” when Mohawk experienced its first strike in March 1960. The airline remained grounded for two weeks until Peach and the flight attendants singed a contract in early April.
The strike lasted until April, but the damage was done. Since a full flight schedule was not achieved until May, the financial crisis deteriorated. Mohawk was an airline in danger of extinction. Mohawk first went to lending institutions but was rejected given the poor shape of Mohawk’s balance sheet. Mohawk next went directly to Allegheny Airlines for help, since they had shown interest in acquiring Mohawk. The Board of Directors at Allegheny made a non-cash offer to Mohawk Board of Directors. Given the rapidly deteriorating financial situation at Mohawk, the Board had no choice but to accept the offer and the tough terms that came with the deal. Allegheny would only give Mohawk stockholders new Allegheny stock. Allegheny would not spend any actual cash for merging Mohawk into its own operations. No key management from Mohawk would transition to Allegheny, although the 23 BAC One-Elevens and 16 Fairchild Hiller FH-227 aircraft along with most of the frontline employees would migrate to the merged airline.
Bob Peach who had been the key person in building and running Mohawk for more than 27 years could not bear to watch his airline disappear. He walked out of the boardroom before the Mohawk Board of Directors took the final vote. He resigned one week later, and less than two weeks after that he would end his own life.
With the Board of Directors of both airlines in agreement, Mohawk and Allegheny went to the CAB and other regulatory government agencies for approval. Since the process was expected to take one year, Allegheny infused Mohawk with enough working capital while the government approval ran its course.
On April 11, 1972, flight 437 would have the honor of making the last Mohawk flight from Washington National to Utica in a Fairchild Hiller FH-227. Just before touchdown, the Captain executed a missed approach and went around the city one last time. After the plane shut down its engines, Mohawk employees swamped the airplane swapping war stories about days gone by.
Mohawk Airlines flew off into the sunset, as it became the second airline to become part of Allegheny Airlines that would eventually evolve into USAir and US Airways.
The Mohawk Airlines Fleet:
Fairchild F-24 2 -- 1945-1946
Cessna T-50 2 -- 1945-1946
Beechcraft D-18 4 -- 1946-1948
Douglas DC-3 11 -- 1948-1962
Convair 240 26 -- 1955-1967
Convair 440 7 -- 1958-1971
Martin 404 18 -- 1961-1965
Fairchild Hiller FH-227 23 -- 1965-1972
BAC One-Eleven 24 -- 1965-1972
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