|Founded||November 1, 1936|
(as Pennsylvania Central Airlines)
|Commenced operations||April 21, 1948|
(as Capital Airlines)
|Ceased operations||June 1, 1961|
(merged into United Airlines)
|Fleet size||See Fleet in 1961 below|
|Destinations||See Destinations in 1961 below|
|Headquarters||Washington, D.C., United States|
Capital Airlines was an airline serving the eastern, southern, southeastern, and midwestern United States. Capital's headquarters were located at Washington National Airport (now Reagan Washington National Airport) across the Potomac river from Washington, D.C. where crew training and aircraft overhauls were also accomplished. In the 1950s Capital was the fifth largest United States domestic carrier by passenger count (and sometimes by passenger-miles) after the Big Four air carriers (American, United, TWA, and Eastern).
Capital merged with United Airlines in 1961.
Clifford A. Ball, a McKeesport, Pennsylvania, automobile dealer and owner of a controlling interest in Bettis Field near Pittsburgh, won airmail contract route No. 11 on March 27, 1926. In April of the following year, The Clifford Ball Airline began operating between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cleveland, Ohio. Clifford Ball Airlines operated from Pittsburgh's first commercial airport, Bettis Field, a former farm field which farmer Barr Peat had allowed to be used for barnstorming. The airplane which flew the first flight from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, a Waco 9 named "Miss Pittsburgh", is currently displayed at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Famed humorist and performer Will Rogers was known to be an early and regular passenger, but scheduled passenger service did not begin until April 28, 1928. The following August, Ball Airline became the first airline to serve Washington, D.C., from the west, offering its flagship "Path of the Eagle" service from Cleveland to Hoover Field across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. A "Path of the Eagle" brochure and schedule are displayed at the Pitcairn Field Web site.
Ball sold his interests in November 1930 to Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corp., and the airline became Pennsylvania Air Lines (PAL). PAL was reorganized as Pennsylvania Airlines after the Air Mail scandal of the early 1930s. In 1934 Pennsylvania Airlines acquired Kohler Aviation.
Central Airlines was founded in 1934 by the men who had formed Pittsburgh Airlines in 1929. Central was notable for hiring Helen Richey, the first female commercial pilot in the U.S. Central Airlines became PAL's main competitor and they engaged in ruinous rate wars with prices well below those charged for railroad seats.
The two companies merged to form Pennsylvania Central Airlines, or PCA, on November 1, 1936.
The merged airlines flew Stinson A and Boeing 247 aircraft. Early in its existence, PCA faced a minor crisis in January 1937 when the Bureau of Air Commerce temporarily grounded the airline's Boeing 247s. The six B-247s were all sold off in 1937. The airline's 15 B-247Ds were all gone by the end of 1942. Two remain in museums today — one at the National Aviation Museum at Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and another, the City of Renton, in flying condition at the Museum of Flight, Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington.
PCA, based at the new Allegheny County Airport near Pittsburgh, continued to add routes, notably to Chicago in 1938, and aircraft, notably the Douglas DC-3, in 1940. In 1941 PCA moved its headquarters to the new Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, becoming one of its three original tenants; PCA had been consulted during the airport's design. The row of office buildings next to its hangars became "mahogany row" and the airline adopted the slogan "The Capital Airline", with its aircraft dubbed "Capitaliners". In September 1943 Pennsylvania Central requested the CAB authorize new routes affecting 23 states indicating plans for a major expansion after the war. PCA even had big trans-Atlantic ambitions. PCA did see expansion as the war wound down. The company signed contracts with Douglas Aircraft for DC-4s, on September 28, 1944, worth $10 million.
In 1946 PCA began flying the Douglas DC-4 but found the airplane was unprofitable on some of its low volume short segment routes. One of PCA's DC-4s had been used to transport President Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference during World War II Ten DC-4s still served Capital at the time of the UAL merger. All were immediately disposed of by United.
By 1946, the combination of expansion and post-war inflation were financially pressing United States airlines. PCA was facing stronger competition on the essential New York to Chicago route. By the end of the first quarter of 1947 Pennsylvania-Central was in such a bad situation that the company president had to seek S.E.C. approval for a refinancing agreement with PCA's bankers.
The crisis led PCA to the election of J.H. "Slim" Charmichael as president, and drastic cuts from 4,800 employees to 3,000. By October 1, 1947, PCA had 25 DC-3s (two cargo only) and 3 DC-4s. "We had a sick airline on our hands, and we had to get it out of bed, but quickly. We figured our best chance lay in leading not just following the others", Charmichael told the New York Times. The cuts were followed by the acquisition of used, but newer, equipment and the situation was saved.
By 1947 PCA's route network no longer reflected its name. On April 21, 1948, the airline adopted a new insignia, colors and the name Capital Airlines.
In 1948 Capital introduced the "Nighthawk", one of the first coach class services, to compete with the railroads between Chicago and New York City, as well as the dominant airlines on the route, United, TWA and American. Each flight left at 1 AM and stopped for ten minutes at Pittsburgh (Allegheny County). Chicago-NY fare was $29.60 plus 15% federal tax; seats on all other flights cost $44.10 plus tax.
Also in 1948 the first airborne television was installed on a Capital airplane.
In 1950 Capital Airlines received its first Lockheed Constellations. In 1955 Capital became the first U.S. operator of the British manufactured, four engine Vickers Viscount, the first passenger turboprop airliner. The Viscount propjets were deployed on the flagship Washington-Chicago route and the airline had planned to fly them on expanded service; however, Capital was mostly stymied by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAB also refused Capital a requested subsidy. Still, Capital's passenger-miles in 1957 were 88% more than 1955.
On November 14, 1956, a Capital pilot reported seeing a blue-white ball in the sky. The pilot, Captain William J. Hull, was a senior captain who was hired by Pennsylvania-Central in April 1941. He was the captain of Capital Flight 67 which crashed turning final to Tri-City Airport, Freeland, Michigan on April 6, 1958. At the time he had a total flight time of 16,050 hours, of which 1,702 were in the Viscount.
In 1958, Capital was operating shuttle service with its Viscount propjets between New York and Chicago, New York and Detroit, and Chicago and Washington D.C. The cover of its April 27, 1958, system timetable proclaimed: "Now! Viscounts every sixty minutes all day long! Chicago-New York, New York-Detroit, Chicago-Washington". The next year, the airline introduced high frequency Viscount service between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul with this message appearing on the cover of its August 3, 1959, system timetable: "First Jet-Powered Service Between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago - 7 Jet-Prop Viscounts Each Direction Daily".
The airline encountered labor difficulties when the International Association of Machinists went on strike in fall 1958. The strike crippled operations for 38 days. On April 1, 1960, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination faulted Capital Airlines for failing to hire Patricia Banks, an African-American woman who had been denied employment as a flight attendant despite meeting all job requirements. She became one of only two Black flight attendants in the country.
By 1961 Capital had begun operating its first and only jet aircraft type: new Boeing 720 jetliners leased from United Airlines. The cover of the airline's June 1, 1961, timetable proclaimed: "New Boeing 720 Jets New York - Atlanta - New Orleans: 2 Round Trips Daily". This same timetable stated that Capital was operating "596 daily flights" and was also flying: "The Only Jets to Miami from Pittsburgh and Cleveland". However, this was not the airline's first attempt at getting jets. In 1960, the airline placed orders for the De Havilland Comet 4 and 4C models. The airline canceled the orders after it realized its declining financial standing.
In the late 1950s, Capital began to struggle financially. In May 1960, Vickers foreclosed on Capital's entire fleet of Viscounts, and bankruptcy for the airline seemed certain. However, on July 28, 1960, a merger with Chicago-based rival United Airlines was announced. The federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) had to approve airline mergers. United wanted Capital Airlines' CAB-awarded routes to Florida. At the time of its acquisition by United, Capital was flying nonstop between Miami and Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh; nonstop between Tampa and Atlanta, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh; and nonstop between Jacksonville and Atlanta. When completed on June 1, 1961, the merger of the second and fifth-largest airlines in the U.S. was the largest airline merger in history at that time. Despite a year of planning, all did not go smoothly on merger day. United continued to operate forty-one of Capital's Viscount propjets as well as three of Capital's Douglas DC-3s. United soon purchased six Viscounts which Capital had returned to Vickers. United operated three ex-PCA/Capital DC-3s for one year after the merger. United had retired its last DC-3s in the 1950s. Because of the need to operate CAB route award AM-34, it suddenly became the last major United States airline to operate the DC-3.
In 1981, former employees formed the Capital Airlines Association to preserve their memories of the old carrier. A retired United Airlines pilot, Milt Marshall, bought the Capital trademark and operated a charter business under the Capital name out of Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut.
In a bizarre final chapter to the brand's story, in July 2004 Capt. Marshall was transporting a passenger in a Capital Airways Piper PA-31 Navajo from Waterbury to upstate New York. The plane crashed as it made an approach in clear weather near Lake George. Both pilot and passenger were killed. Their bodies were mangled and burned in the wreckage. A pistol magazine with two missing rounds was found at the crash scene, but no gun was ever found. Many people believe that the passenger, a businessman who was facing both bankruptcy and indictment for fraud, and who had attempted to buy a large life insurance policy just prior to the flight, killed the pilot and himself, causing the crash. The bodies were so mutilated that no official cause of death was determined and the case was closed. This marked the last chapter of Capital Airlines.
In 1937, PCA's main route was from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., with stops in Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit, Cleveland, Akron, and Pittsburgh. Spurs ran from Detroit to Pontiac and Flint, and from Pittsburgh to Parkersburg and Charleston.
By 1941, new spurs were added from Grand Rapids to Chicago, Sault Ste. Marie and Traverse City; from Pittsburgh to Erie and Buffalo; and from Charleston to Tri-Cities, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Birmingham. New routes ran north from Washington to Baltimore, Harrisburg and Williamsport, and south to Norfolk, then across North Carolina serving Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Greensboro, Hickory, and Asheville. Pittsburgh-New York City service was added by 1946.
By 1950 the network extended south to Atlanta, Mobile, and New Orleans, and west to Minneapolis. Memphis and Huntsville were added by 1953, along with interchange service on National Airlines to Florida.
By 1960, the year before its merger with United, Capital served Florida with its own aircraft on flights to Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and West Palm Beach.
The June 1, 1961, Capital Airlines timetable shows service to the following: (cities in bold had Boeing 720 flights)
Capital was serving these additional destinations in 1955 but had discontinued service to all of these smaller cities by 1961.
The above referenced June 1, 1961, Capital timetable lists flights operated with the following aircraft:
Capital operated Lockheed Constellations until 1960. It also ordered Bristol Britannia turboprops in 1956, de Havilland Comet jets in 1956, Convair 880 jets in 1958, and Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops in 1959. However, none of these aircraft were delivered to or operated by the airline.
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The news of the worst crash in the history of U.S. aviation ended 17 months of safe operation.