All of us at North Central were proud of the fact that NCA maintained a completion factor that was at or near the top of the airline industry over the years. Example: 1962 the completion factor was 99% and the on time performance was 81% for 190,000 flight arrivals, according to the company history book, “Ceiling Unlimited”. Coupled with that record, we have to recognize our “reliability” factor and that leads us to the maintenance of all of our equipment. Each fall, beginning in 1961, the airline instituted a winter preparedness program called “Operation Cold Front” that included making sure that our winter associated equipment was in top working condition and ready for immediate use. Being prepared was NCA’s answer to the severe winter weather across our system. We had over-nighting aircraft at most of the route terminating points across the system as well as a few intermediate points. When the flights arrived at these over-nighting stations, the station agents would install engine covers. The CV-440 Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine had an oil dilution system available where fuel was introduced in to the engine oil tanks to thin the oil for cold weather starting, but NCA de-activated that system and to my knowledge, never used it. It was the duty of the flight crew to come to the station at least one hour before scheduled departure time in the morning to conduct the a/c pre-flight and to perform a complete engine run-up. In the case of the DC-3 operation, the captain would preflight the a/c and accomplish the engine run-up while the first officer prepared the flight plan and filed an IFR clearance if one was required. In the case of the CV-440 operation, both pilots would go to the aircraft for the pre-flight and engine run-up operation. At the outlying stations, it was the station agents who really started things rolling every morning. Several hours prior to the morning arrival of the flight crew, the station personnel would be on duty and they would have the a/c re-fueled, de-iced and pre-heat the engines as well as the interior of the a/c using “Herman-Nelson” heaters. Pre-heating the engines was perhaps the key to the success of our winter operation. The areas where heat was applied were the over all engine area and especially the oil tank and feathering pump. When I think of what was accomplished all across our far flung route system in those severe winter conditions... it all pointed to the deep pride that all of the employees had in discharging their individual duties that made for a successful and reliable winter operation. To be sure, it was a real team effort. In the case of the DC-3s, it was up to the captain to make sure that when he made the initial start on those Wright R-1820 engines, that he did not allow the spark plugs to become “frosted” as a result of a false start. The frosting of the plugs might take place when the engine “caught” momentarily and then stalled. The momentary firing of the spark plugs, building heat in the cylinder and then stalling while the engine was still cold, could cause the plugs to frost over. It would then require that the front set of plugs be pulled or a lot of external heat be applied, all resulting in a considerable delay in the flights scheduled departure. This would have a “rippling” effect across the system, not to mention a trip to the chief pilots office for a “discussion” as to how to properly start the R-1820 on cold winter mornings.

At the main maintenance bases of MSP, MDW/ORD and YIP/DTW, where our maintenance personnel were stationed, the aircraft were pre-flighted, including engine run-up, by the mechanics. During the night, the a/c that overnighted at these bases were subjected to maintenance procedures ranging from light to heavy checks. The part that our maintenance department played in keeping our aircraft at a high level of reliability which lead the industry, can not be overemphasized. At ORD I knew many of these mechanics on a first name basis. On many occasions, one of the foremen that I knew quite well, Stanley Statchura, would come to me and ask me to monitor a particular system that they had worked on but could not really duplicate until the aircraft was airborne. I was always glad to help with something like that because it enabled me to know more about the particular a/c that I was flying. Knowing all I could about the various aircraft systems was something I took a real interest in. In the case of a short range turn around, say from ORD to GRB and return, he would send along a mechanic with us to check a system in-flight. That was the dedication of the maintenance department at NCA.

And not to be forgotten were our stewardesses and the part they played in seeing to the comfort of our passengers, whether in the heat of summer or the deep cold of winter. Standing in the open doorway of the DC-3 and Convair aircraft to wish the departing passengers a “good day” or greeting the boarding passengers, these ladies played a very important part not only to the area of safety but also the overall comfort of our many passengers. Many is the time that I knew that our 100+ passengers on the DC-9 would at least receive a beverage on a thirty minute flight from MSN to ORD.

The six minute stop at the ramp, on through flights, kept us on schedule. On the DC-3 and CV-440, if all cargo/baggage could be handled by using “interior” access to the cargo bins by the station agents, the right engine would be left running with the passengers deplaning/emplaning all in a matter of a few minutes. Having the a/c on the ground a very short time also added to the fact that very little, if any, snow would accumulate on the wings at a stop, thus eliminating the need for snow removal from the aircraft.

On origination of the flight, the flight crew would accomplish a complete engine run-up and then at subsequent enroute stations, during warm, non-winter temperatures, the flight crew was authorized by the FAA to accomplish a “rolling” mag check. This procedure took place at some point during taxi to the active runway. The captain would slow the a/c almost to a stop; on the straight away or coming out of a turn, he would then “drag” the brakes a bit while at the same time advancing the throttles to a predetermined RPM point and the F/O would run both mag switches through the left-both and right-both positions. Our line operation was one of keeping the a/c moving and that translated into an industry leading “on time” performance. In colder weather, the crew would stop short of the runway and accomplish a normal run-up first by “running” the props through at least one cycle to assure that warm engine oil was pumped into the prop dome, followed by a mag check.

There was a high degree of “hustle” present in our operation, from the operation of the a/c to the ramp chores being accomplished in a “no wasted motion” atmosphere. Time was money and money was not to be squandered.

At the time that I went to work at NCA, in April 1959, it was common place for the flight crews to fly between ten and twelve legs during a sixteen hour duty day. As an example, from Chicago the early morning originating flights departed between 6:45 and 8:00 AM heading north and east out of the “windy city.” A north bound flight might be flight 573 departing at 7:00 AM with stops at MKE, MSN, STE, AUW, RHI, IWD and terminating at DLH around noon. Time out for a quick lunch in the terminal restaurant and then on to MSP. Leaving MSP on flight 468 about 4:00 PM with stops at ONA, LSE, MSN, JVL and finally back to Chicago arriving about 8:00 PM. In the winter, that “day” could be a long, IFR day, with perhaps two thirds of the arrivals coming from instrument approaches. Our flight crews were quite proficient at the art of making ADF and VOR approaches. The ILS approaches at the termination points of MSP, YIP/DTW and MDW/ORD were a “piece of cake” so to speak. Our crew on that particular trip would fly that sequence of flights ten days out of the month, usually M-W-F one week, then Tue & Thu the next week, racking up 80:00 to 85:00 flight hours and up to 130 takeoffs and landings during the month. Similar trips existed at the Detroit and Minneapolis crew bases, too.

As the aircraft equipment became more complex, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the operation slowed down measurably. Our six minute stops at through stations turned into at least fifteen minutes. But this was also brought about by the fact that our a/c passenger capacity increased from 26 on the DC-3s to 100+ on the DC-9s not to mention the increase in cargo volume. Our average stage length also increased many fold....ah yes, progress was here. With the increase in stage length came a corresponding decrease in the number of legs that the crews flew per duty period and no one complained about that.

At times I have sat back and reflected how our company moved forward in those times of simplicity and the many achievements that the company was able to accomplish as NCA brought air transportation to many small communities across the upper mid-west where rail and bus transportation had long ago vanished. Even today, in the 21 century, there is still airline transportation available at a vast majority of these same stations and it began, in many cases, with North Central Airlines. “Americas leading local service airline”.

copyright 2007 - Captain Richard A. Brown