Northwest Airlines: From Humble Beginnings to a Global Carrier

Northwest Airlines: A Comprehensive History


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Part I: A Humble Beginning

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One of Northwest Airline’s first aircraft, seen at Saint Paul Downtown Airport
Northwest Airlines traces its roots to the foundation of Varney Speed Lines in 1926 by Colonel Lewis W. Brittin. The company initially operated mail services between Minneapolis and Chicago, providing crucial connections between the two cities. In 1927, Varney merged with Northwest Airways, a mail carrier based in Minnesota. The company was renamed Northwest Airways, marking the true beginning of the airline’s history.

The carrier’s first commercial flight with passengers aboard was from Minneapolis to Chicago, under the command of Charles “Speed” Holman, on July 5th, 1927. An engine failure forced them to make an emergency landing in Hastings, Minnesota. After hours on the ground, and a repair made my local car mechanics, the aircraft was underway around midnight, getting the 2 passengers to Chicago around 2:30 AM.

According to MNopedia.org, “The airline carried 106 passengers in the first year, charging thirty dollars one way and fifty dollars round trip. The airline made its first international flight to Winnipeg in 1928 but discontinued the route after three months due to objections from the Canadian government.”

Northwest Airways expanded its routes in the 1930s, connecting Minneapolis with a series of towns in the upper Midwest. The first destination west of the Twin Cities was Pierre, South Dakota’s capital. This expansion was part of the government’s efforts to develop the nation’s air transportation infrastructure. The airline played an important role in transporting mail and passengers to remote areas, thus facilitating economic growth in the region.

Part II: World War II and NWA


Douglas DC3 at Spokane Airport
The outbreak of World War II led to significant changes for Northwest Airlines. The company played a pivotal role in military aviation, operating routes to Alaska and the Pacific during the war. After the conflict, Northwest expanded its commercial operations significantly. In 1946, it began offering regular passenger services to Tokyo, Japan, making it one of the first U.S. airlines to operate transpacific flights.

NWA’s 10 Curtiss C-46 Commandos were deployed on cargo/crew carrying missions to support the American war effort on both sides of the globe, but more so focused on the Pacific conflicts.

Northwest Airlines played a vital role in transporting military aircraft to the Soviet Union. These aircraft were essential for the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front. The airline’s crews flew a variety of aircraft, including Bell P-39 Airacobras and Douglas C-47 Skytrains, to destinations in Alaska and Siberia. From there, these aircraft were transferred to the Soviet Air Force. They received numerous awards from the Soviets for their work bringing aircraft to them, even in the harsh Siberian winters.

Part III: The Jet Age

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Northwest’s first 747
The 1950s were a period of continued growth and modernization for Northwest. The airline introduced new aircraft, including the Douglas DC-6 and Lockheed Constellation, enabling it to expand both domestically and internationally. Northwest was also among the first airlines to introduce jet airliners, with the Boeing 707 entering service in 1959.

The 1960s brought a new era of rapid expansion for Northwest Airlines. The introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1970 allowed for even longer international flights. Northwest began operating routes to cities across Asia, connecting the United States with destinations like Seoul, Hong Kong, and Manila.

Northwest Airways’ Flight #2, from Minneapolis/Saint Paul International Airport to Seattle/Tacoma International Airport, on July 10, 1970, was the first flight of the 747 for Northwest Airlines. The flight was reported to be “entirely full,” with hundreds of people crowding around MSP Airport to watch it take off.

Despite its growth, the airline faced competition from other carriers, particularly as the industry deregulated in the late 1970s. This led to the development of innovative marketing and pricing strategies. Northwest introduced its “World Perks” frequent flyer program in 1981, which became a model for the industry.

Northwest’s chief meteorologist, Dan Sowa, pioneered the first clear air turbulence forecasting system, which parts of are still in use to this day. Northwest became the premier turbulence forecasting powerhouse, to the point where it sold the data to other airlines (including United, American, and Air France).

Part IV: Merger With Delta

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A Northwest Airlines A320-200 and Delta Airlines 767-300ER at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, around the time of the 2008 merger
In 1986, Northwest merged with Republic Airlines, further solidifying its position as a major player in the U.S. airline industry. This merger expanded its domestic network and introduced new hubs in Minneapolis and Detroit. However, challenges loomed, including labor disputes, economic recessions, and increased competition.

The airline industry underwent significant changes, with many airlines struggling to remain profitable. Northwest faced bankruptcy twice in the 2000s. Despite these difficulties, the airline continued to expand internationally and modernize its fleet. It also strengthened its partnerships with other carriers, such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

In 2008, Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines announced a merger that would create the world’s largest airline. The merger faced regulatory hurdles but ultimately received approval, and on October 29, 2008, Northwest Airlines ceased to exist as a separate entity. The merged airline retained the name Delta Air Lines.

The absorption of Northwest Airlines helped Delta establish their massive operating base out of Minneapolis, which is still their second largest hub. Many of the hundreds of aircraft in Northwest’s fleet were repainted and operated within the Delta fleet, many of which are still around today. A large chunk of Delta’s A320s, A330s, 757s, and CRJs are ex-Northwest planes, as were their 747-400s, before they were retired.

It’s quite possible that, if you’ve flown on an older Delta plane, it was at one point part of Northwest.

Northwest Airlink


A Northwest Airlink BAe Jetstream 31, pictured in Appleton, Wisconsin

Northwest Airlink was the regional carrier wholly owned by Northwest Airways, but operated by multiple other companies. It flew most of NWA’s regional flights across the nation, with both jets and propellor planes. They were infamously involved in Minnesota’s deadliest plane crash, flight 421, a Martin 2-0-2 that crashed just across the Wisconsin-Minnesota border while flying MDW-MSP, killing everyone onboard.

Northwest Airlink was absorbed into Delta Connection. Some of Delta Connection’s CRJs were former Airlink aircraft, as well as a few of their E175s.

Northwest Cargo


Two Northwest Cargo 747s on stand in Anchorage
Northwest Airlines carried cargo from the begining, and for a period, was the largest cargo operator in the country.

In the 1950s, a slow split began of cargo and passenger operations, and Northwest Cargo was formed. They were one of the first 767 cargo operators, and had a thriving fleet of cargo configured DC-10s, 767s, 757s, and, of course, 747s.

Northwest Cargo was completely terminated during the merger with Delta Air Lines.

Memorabilia, Route Maps, and More

Route Maps


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Special Thanks

This all started out as an essay for my social studies class about a Minnesota based organization or company. I chose NWA (obviously), and my first stop was the wonderful Northwest Airlines museum. It’s located in Bloomington (a suburb of Minneapolis), and has a lovely collection of memorabilia like old posters, advertisements, cutlery, uniforms, seats, models, and more. The best part? It’s 100% volunteer staffed by ex-Northwest employees, like mechanics, flight attendants, and pilots.

I met Johnathan and Jessica my first trip. Jessica, now in her late 80s, was a flight attendant on the Boeing 377 “Stratocruiser,” Boeing 707, 747, and DC-10 (at different times). At one point, she was a purser. She has amazing stories about working first class on these luxury aircraft. One of her duties was to carve a steak in the first class section, and artfully dish it out fancy plates, complete with expensive Champaign and real silverware. Definitely no tinfoil wrapped stale sandwiches back then!

Johnathan was an aircraft mechanic, based in Minneapolis. He recalls his early days at the airline, as a cleaner. “I remember going on to clean this plane, after a really long flight, maybe from Osaka or something. It was a 747. I went in with my team to clean up. I looked at the wall and thought ‘what the hell is this?’ it was all gray and nasty looking. Then I realized it’s cigarette smoke! This was back when smoking was allowed on planes, and everyone did it. Took me an hour and a half to scrub that off the walls of the first class cabin. Glad I moved onto the mechanical team!”

They provided a lot of insight into the entire history of the carrier, and then some. The exhibits at the museum added some extra tidbits that I thought were fun.

If you’re ever in Minneapolis, definitely head over and pay them all a visit!

Sources & Additional Reading

All pictures are from the websites I mentioned or Google Images. They all have citations hyperlinked beneath

http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00110.xml

This topic is moderator approved by @tomthetank

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Nice! Your history reports are always amazing!

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Thank you!

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I’m speechless 👏👏👏👏👏

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The good old times, luckily I had the chance to fly Northwest.


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Thanks! I actually enjoyed making this topic quite a bit.

Lucky! They merged with Delta a year before I was born.

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My mom read this and said “Oh yeah I always saw at least one of those things working for em’!” - Her referring to NWA Cargo

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true, The sun country was a blast!

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Quite true, I flew N338NW, an old Delta a320 that used to belong to Northwest

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I’m so glad I got the chance to fly NWA when they were still around. I still greatly miss this airline. Especially flying in their DC-10’s and 747-200’s.

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you should do braniff

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Really fun to read! I had absolutely no idea about the NWA museum, I’ll have to stop there next time I’m down in the twin cities!

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Yeah! Definitely check it out. It’s in a weird place, kinda out of the way. It’s inside a hotel, on the 3rd floor, actually. Small, but awesome. They cycle through stuff, but they always have retro seats, tons of flyers/posters/miscellaneous memorabilia, and even a full 747 engineers station. One of my favorite things is the original gong from the Northwest Orient ads. (Linked a video below).

As I mentioned, it’s totally staffed by volunteer ex-NWA employees. They’re so kind and eager to answer all the questions you may have. Make sure to check the hours though. It’s very wonky.

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Good to know, I’ll be down there next weekend actually!

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If you know you know.

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Ahh, yes. Good ‘ol D.B.

He must have had Aerosmith blasting and a couple grams in his system when he made that jump.

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Real footage of his jump???

I’d actually like to know if he survived more so than his identity. You’d think if he died the Feds would have found his body…

Good stuff! I’ve been flying Northwest planes in IF recently and I must say that the Bowling Shoe livery is one of my favorites out there.
Side note: is there a Northwest VA? If not, then it definetly needs to be created.

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Not that I can find.