Monday, April 21, 2008

Northwest Orient Airlines

The possible merger of Northwest Airlines
with Delta Airlines causes us to pause for a
moment to remember Lyman E. Wakefield, Jr.

by Charlie Leck

He was one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew. I loved him deeply, though I was never able to say that to him because he just didn’t operate at that level. It is natural that I am thinking of him a great deal today – the day on which the likely merger of Northwest Airlines (NWA) and Delta Airlines was announced jointly by the two boards of those airlines. I wish Lyman were hanging around, so I could ask him what he thinks of the news about the big merger. From a personal point of view, Lyman would have some sad and sentimental feelings about the announcement; however, he really didn’t function at that level very much and, so, he would have positive feelings about it from a business perspective, which is where he really operated most of the time.

Lyman E. Wakefield, Junior, was my father-in-law. What a guy! For the record, he thought and lived business 95 percent of his waking hours. I tried to squeeze my way in on him during that other 5 percent of the time. When you could get him thinking outside the business box, he was an extraordinary guy.

NWA was one of his babies and he loved talking about those years of its infancy.

Well, that was the beginning of a blog I began fashioning last week. It was going to lead to a little history of NWA. The more I worked, the more boring it all sounded – “NWA began in a modest sort of way toward the end of 1926. There were two planes that carried mail back and forth between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The planes were open cockpit and rented. Twenty years later they were called Northwest Orient Airlines and they were flying to Tokyo, Seoul and Manilla.”

I struggled. How could one write something that might seem beautiful and meaningful about an airline that was important in our family-life. Lyman was invited to serve on the Board of Directors of NWA in the early fifties. It needed some big-time money to “stretch its wings” (if you’ll forgive a terrible pun). As a Vice President of First Bank Corp (a company his father help found and served as President for 20 years), Lyman had connection to solid credit for NWA. He began a very close friendship with Don Nyrop, the CEO at NWA. They worked over-time to bring NWA into the grand world of fabulous flying.

As a teenager in the fifties, living on the east coast, I can remember listening to pop music on the radio and hearing the NWA commercials and that magnificent jingle – Northwest Orient… Airlines! Never dreamed I’d end up being the son-in-law of one of the guys who put the airline on the map. And he was proud of it. Lyman served on the board for nearly 35 years. We got some benefits out of that because our coach tickets, while Lyman was on the board, were always converted to first class. We’d fly with the kids to Europe and we’d be up there with the big-timers and Mark would be screaming and running around and driving the businessmen crazy!

Well, as you can see, this blog is stalling-out big time at a high altitude and the crash could be awful. I won’t go on.

I was upstaged anyway, by Garrison Keillor’s extraordinary column in this Sunday’s newspaper. He writes about the merger and the end of a grand airline name and history that was special in our part of the world. Go there and read his lovely rambling.

“The company used to be called Northwest Orient and was founded in Minneapolis in 1926 to carry mail to Chicago. I used to live in a house in St. Paul once owned by Croil Hunter, a president of Northwest Orient, who, when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was stranded at the airport by a blizzard, put her up in the guest room of his house.”[Garrison Keillor]

Here’s some final tid-bits about NWA that I find interesting.

Northwest Airlines has operated continuously under one name longer than any other U.S. airline.

Camille "Rosie" Stein was a director and assistant secretary at NWA in the thirties and, as such, she was the first female executive in U.S. commercial aviation history.

In the early fifties, NWA pioneered the "Great Circle Route" across the Pacific Ocean to Asia when other airlines said it couldn't be done.

Northwest Airlines was the first airline to prohibit smoking on its flights.

The story of D.B. Cooper is about one of the great legends in U.S. aviation history. Remember him? On November 24, 1971, he demanded and received 200 grand and then parachuted out of the tail exit of a 727 into a very cold, dark night near Mount Saint Helen’s – either into a much richer life or to his death. No one knows. It’s the only unsolved sky-jacking case in the U.S..

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