Guest Editor Dave Nichols
Prop It Up
“What Allegheny Meant To Me”
By Dave Nichols.
The tower controller transmitted to the departing Convair 440 a mile off the end of the runway: “Allegheny 704, your right engine exhaust is much blacker than your left engine.” A static-filled simple answer followed in a gravelly voice: “OK, we’ll watch it.” The sound quality seemed like a transmission from the moon. And off they went to complete the two stops remaining to La Guardia. This was Allegheny Airlines to me.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati. This rare photo of short-lived Martin 202 N172A displays the original 1953 colors (click photo for additional details).
A well-worn and dimpled Martin 202 taxied in briskly with ice clinging to the radome, nose wheel strut bobbing up and down from the uneven ramp asphalt. At the instant of propeller shutdown, a small swarm of Allegheny ground staff would buzz around the airplane. Avgas pumping, bags trundling down the conveyor belt followed immediately by suitcases and mail going into the fuselage and belly bins. Deplaning passengers stepped quickly down the tail cone airstairs. Enplaning people would already be on the tarmac, protecting faces from the sharp wind of winter. The Martin’s big R2800 engines gave off steam into the frigid air. Light snowflakes swirled down from a leaden sky. The engine nacelles were covered in soot. Oil seeped from four places. Half a decal was loose and flapped in the wind. From the fence I could see the captain replacing approach plates and tidying up his half of the cockpit. The captain’s side window opened for a few seconds as two ounces of cold stale coffee dribbled to the ground. Several relaxed sentences passed between captain and co-pilot while, below, the lead ramp agent held up two fingers and made a twirling motion with his hand. This NASCAR-style pit stop of nine minutes was over. It was time to go, again, in a scene that would be played out eight times that day for the two pilots. A foot of flame belched from the exhaust outlet followed by a loud bark as the engine was awakened from its brief nap. When the airliner roared down the runway, its two, large, red rotating beacons mounted on top and below the fuselage gave eeriness to the sight. The Martinliner left the ground crisply and quickly returned to the gray overcast from whence it came. For a few seconds you could see just the two counter-rotating red beacons showing through the dense cloud cover, then just the bellowing of two radial engines at full throttle. This was Allegheny to me.
I was 12 years old and so hooked on the local service airlines. Just witnessing all that made the hairs on my body stand up as if electrified. The grittiness, the against- all-odds determination of the employees coupled with the pockmarked, greasy, wild old airliners were all too surreal for me. Through bad weather, weary airframes, out of date systems and troubling engines, Allegheny made it work. This was normal! They continued to grow.
I can still remember so much of commercial aviation during my youth. I always looked up when any airliner would fly over – always. I got yelled at by my Little League baseball coach for looking up at a Mohawk Convair 240, at the same time a fly ball was heading my way. I missed the catch and was forced to join the spares on the bench. He yelled to the whole team: “Now Nichols can watch all the friggin’ airplanes he wants!”
I also have a passion for Lake Central Airlines and Central Airlines. Allegheny, however, was my first flight and evolved into my hometown’s most dominant airline. My boyhood is permeated with scenes of Allegheny airplanes and its people.
I met Allegheny shortly after they started flying into my city of Erie, Pennsylvania in 1953. I was in the second grade. American Airlines first served ERI in 1938 with one lone DC-2 round-trip from Newark multi-stopping across central New York State, a virtual flag stop at Erie and on to Cleveland. Remember Ernest K. Gann writing that Erie was so boring they seldom looked out the side windows? Erie has this incredible natural peninsula and large harbor – how could that be boring? Anyway, AA got bored with Erie and received permission to drop it in 1953. AL was standing in line to replace them. ERI got 3 total round-trips in return: two Newark-Cleveland with five stops and one Atlantic City-Cleveland with six stops. Capital was the mainline carrier in ERI with service to their hub at Pittsburgh. (When Capital failed in 1961, Allegheny moved rapidly to fill the vacuum at PIT –- “and now you know the rest of the story”). By 1956, AL sported eight round-trips thru ERI, allowing Erieites same plane service to six Pennsylvania cities along with terminuses at Detroit, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Newark and Atlantic City.
Allegheny was the carrier always supplying more flights to more cities, even though Mohawk commenced Erie service in 1956 and Lake Central followed in 1957. Erie was the third largest city in PA at the time but all it offered as an airline terminal was a one-room wooden building. Can you picture a trunk line and three local service carriers all operating in that wooden building? Capital pulled out of ERI in late 1960, just before they ceased business altogether and were acquired by United. Lake Central was awarded the desirable ERI-PIT run. Allegheny management was livid but they got it back in 1968 with the acquisition of Lake Central.
Copyright Photo: Jacques Guillem Collection. Douglas C-47A-DL (DC-3) N151A makes a quick stop at Cleveland (CLE) (click on the photo for additional details).
My first flight on any airplane was ERI-CLE in an Allegheny DC-3. The morning westbound run to CLE in the summer of 1955 found an incredibly excited boy of nine flying unaccompanied to visit a cousin. What a bonus for me to have relatives in Cleveland. I worked on my parents for months to let me fly. “Hey mom and dad, you won’t have to drive the 100 miles to take me and pick me up.” The one-way fare was $7.05. At 10:39 a.m., AL 701 gurgled up to the white wooden building. The green and white DC-3, one of 14, had departed EWR at 7:50 a.m. and flown westward to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then Bradford and Jamestown before landing at Erie. The airplane was plush to me, with thick upholstery, soft seats, curtains in the windows and carpet on the floor. All this fabric made the sounds softer and muted. About 10 people got on; I sat in the last row on the left side. There was a steward on board who offered us individually wrapped Chiclets gum on a silver tray. Now, this 45 minutes of incredible experience was to be mine. I had been at the Erie airport many times with my grandmother Carrie to pick up or drop off my grandfather Carle, who flew Capital weekly. My turn had come; this DC-3 had arrived here for me. The flight was wonderful, sightseeing perfect as we flew parallel to the Lake Erie shoreline and I got to see my first big airport operation at Cleveland.
December 1, 1955 Allegheny Timetable (courtesy of Airlinetimetables.com) showing flight 701 (third column) (click on the timetable to expand the size):
1955 Allegheny Route Map (courtesy of Airlinetimetables.com):
I loved the Allegheny DC-3s, flying in them perhaps a dozen times. I do not remember any mechanical breakdowns. The weather along Lake Erie is up and down on a continual basis. Despite the building cumulus or solid stratus down to minimums, I felt as safe as can be in those DC-3s.
Copyright Photo: Christian Volpati Collection. Martin 202 N93205 is painted in the second “powder blue” 1960 livery which also introduced the “speed wedge” tail logo.
Then one day in 1959, I readied for yet another flight to CLE. (I hounded my parents a lot). Pressing my forehead to the fence at the old terminal, what should roll up but a Martin 202. It was huge, covered in streaked dirty oil and was mean looking. I had seen some Martins in the air on Allegheny’s Detroit route but the DC-3s had exclusively been used on the CLE runs – until now. My stomach sank and my bowels rumbled. I was afraid of this beast. A friend had barfed on a 202 from Harrisburg to Washington so I equated the Martin with easy to get sick on. However, boarding through the tail on the ventral stairs was cool. Holy cow, a really pretty stewardess; not just any stewardess but a genuine French stewardess! She was dressed in a modern uniform with the cutest beret. Claudette — yes, I have always remembered her name — was part of an exchange program between Allegheny and a French airline. I believe there were a dozen women who participated. Hey, if she was brave enough to fly on a 202, I could do it, too. The interior was striking and Allegheny is to be praised: powder blue headliner and side panels, with seat fabrics and curtains in a cream, tan and light blue weave. The airline found a way to tastefully dress up a ten year old heavily used airplane.
The Martinliner sat high off the ground, was noisy, great for short field take-offs and noticeably faster than the DC-3. Alternate runway 2-20 at ERI was only 3500 feet and occasionally the 202s would use it if the wind was up and the temperature down. Being unpressurized, the 202 was limited to a ceiling of 8,000 feet MSL, maximum. By 1961, no Allegheny DC-3s graced the tarmac at ERI or posed next to the new concrete and brick terminal. For three more years all AL flights through my home were 202s. I flew on the “Martin Executives” throughout high school and part of college. After all the years, when I think of Allegheny, the image of a battle-worn Martin pops into my head. I was always half excited and half fearful every time I climbed aboard. It was a rush, though. The only other airliner that gave me the same love/scared feeling was the Lockheed 188 Electra.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. Convair 440-97 N8422H prepares for departure from a crowded Philadelphia ramp (click on the photo for additional details).
The summer of 1964 brought Allegheny Convair 440 service to my hometown. Two years later, the first 580 conversion touched down on the 6500-foot runway 6-24. At the same time, July 1966, AL retired its Martin fleet, save for a standby aircraft and two Cargoliners. I flew as a passenger on one of the last Allegheny Martin 202 revenue flights, captained by Bob Fox.
Copyright Photo: Bruce Drum. The Convair 580 upgrade extended the life of the Convair 340/440 fleet.
In 1968, I would be reunited with a former Allegheny Martin, N93209, and be able to fly it. That was a full circle and emotional experience for me. I was handling the controls and switches that hundreds of Allegheny pilots had done before me. The other pilots I worked with couldn’t understand how I felt. After all, it was just a battered, greasy, noisy and mean looking airplane.
Allegheny Airlines aircraft photo gallery:
Note: Allegheny Airlines became USAir on October 28, 1979 and US Airways on February 27, 1997. Today US Airways, along with US Airways Shuttle and US Airways Express, operates more than 3,200 flights per day and serves more than 200 communities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Central and South America. The airline employs more than 32,000 aviation professionals worldwide, operates the world’s largest fleet of Airbus aircraft and is a member of the Star Alliance network, which offers its customers more than 20,500 daily flights to 1,293 airports in 190 countries. Together with its US Airways Express partners, the airline serves approximately 80 million passengers each year and operates hubs in Charlotte, N.C., Philadelphia and Phoenix, and a focus city in Washington, D.C. at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
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