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 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).
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 (PIT). 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, they became the first airline to serve Washington, D.C. from the west, offering their 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 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 their 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 28 September 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 Capital 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 their 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 and 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.
A Capital Airlines Vickers Viscount at Allentown, Pennsylvania ABE Airport discharging passengers in 1960.
In 1950 Capital Airlines received their first Lockheed Constellations. In 1955 they 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 also 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.
Acquisition by and merger with United
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 Civil Aeronautics Board had to approve any airlines 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.
The New Capital Airlines
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 in the tragedy-strewn history of Capital Airlines.
A Central Airlines Stinson Model A (NO-15107), forced to land after taking off from Allegheny County Airport when all three engines failed at an altitude of about 50 feet. The pilot made a wheels up landing straight ahead on an unfinished portion of the runway. There were no injuries but the airplane suffered major damage. The cause was fuel contamination.
August 31, 1940
PCA Trip 19, a Douglas DC-3-313 (NC21789), departed Washington, D.C. into an intense thunderstorm. Probable cause was the disabling of the pilots by a severe lightning discharge close to the plane, which caused a sudden dive from 6,000 feet (1,800 m), killing all 25 aboard. The crash was the worst American airline accident to that date.
Pennsylvania Central Airlines Trip 142, a Douglas DC-3 (NC25691), was involved in an accident at the Municipal Airport, Morgantown, West Virginia. After touchdown the Captain allowed the airplane to roll for approximately 1,500 feet and was within 700 feet of the runway end before applying the brakes. At that time the Captain found that the brakes were not working, or had no braking action. Then the captain unlocked the tail wheel and attempted a groundloop. The groundloop did not salvage the situation and the airplane slid sideways over a 25-foot embankment. The landing gear was sheared off and the airplane came to rest on its belly. Subsequent testing showed no problems with the brakes. The probable cause "was the failure of the captain to apply the brakes in time to permit a successful take-off when they were found to be ineffective."
March 2 16, 1942
Pennsylvania Central Airlines Trip 17, a Douglas DC-3 (NC21788), was involved in an accident while landing at Detroit City Airport, Detroit, Michigan. The airplane, approaching fast and high, landed long on a snow-covered runway and bounced repeatedly. The Captain attempted to turn so as not to hit the boundary fence. The airplane went through the fence causing major damage to the airplane. There were no injuries.
April 14, 1945
Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 142, a Douglas DC-3-313A (NC25692), crashed against the west slope of Cheat Mountain near Morgantown, West Virginia due to pilot error, killing all 20 on board.
January 6, 1946
Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 105, a Douglas DC-3 (NC21786), originating in New York City with stops in Pittsburgh and Knoxville crashed while on an instrument approach to Runway 18 at Birmingham Municipal Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. The pilot, first officer, and a check airman who occupied the cockpit jump seat perished; several passengers were injured, none fatally.
September 12, 1946
A Pennsylvania Central Airlines Douglas DC-4 (NX91068), landed safely at Washington, D.C., following an engine fire. The crew received minor injuries and the aircraft suffered major damage.
May 8, 1947
A Capital Airlines Douglas DC-3 (NC11917), on a ferry flight from Norfolk, Virginia, to Washington, D.C., suffered a failure of the left engine. The propeller could not be feathered and there was severe vibration. Leaking oil and sparks were coming from the engine. The crew elected to make a forced landing, wheels up and flaps down. Major damage resulted.
Capital Airlines Flight 19, a Douglas DC-3 (NC25689), collided with a Cessna 140 near General Mitchell Field, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Cessna was destroyed and the occupants killed. The DC-3 lost six feet off the right wing, and a portion of the right aileron. No one aboard the airliner were injured and the airplane landed at the airport. The probable cause of the accident was the failure of the pilots in the DC-3 to observe and avoid the Cessna aircraft.
December 12, 1949
Capital Airlines Flight 500 a Douglas DC-3-313A (NC45379), stalled and crashed in the Potomac River off Washington, D.C., killing six of 23 on board.
A Capital Airlines Douglas C-47 (N88835), which was on a training flight, crashed near Clarksburg, Maryland The aircraft was destroyed and the crew were all killed. The probable cause was loss of airspeed while executing maneuvers, resulting in a stall followed by a spin.
A Capital Airlines Douglas DC-3 (N49553), crashed at Martinsburg Airport, Martinsburg, West Virginia. A trainee stalled the aircraft on takeoff, the instructor failed to monitor the situation and airplane crashed off the end of the runway.
A Capital Airlines Douglas DC-3 (N44993), crashed on landing at Charleston, West Virginia. The pilot lost control and the airplane swerved off the runway and plunged down an embankment. The probable cause of the accident was loss of control following a poorly executed landing.