Capital Airlines and the Vickers-Armstrongs Viscount

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Capital Airlines, along with Eastern and US Airways, were the three major carriers to have been incubated in Pennsylvania.

Fathered by Clifford Ball, an automobile dealer in Hudson-Essex, it was conceived as far back as 1919 when the Stinson airplane he had viewed during an exhibition flight had sparked his interest in aviation. Jointly purchasing 40 acres of land already used for aerial sightseeing purposes in Dravosburg with D. Barr Peat in 1925, he invested $35,000 to establish the Pittsburgh McKeesport Airport, clearing the land and building a small hangar with a machine shop before it officially opened in June.

Conducting his own sightseeing flights, for which passengers paid $5.00, he started a flying school and periodically held air shows, renaming the grass airport Bettis Field the following year in honor of Lieutenant Cyrus Bettis, an air service pilot who had been killed in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Ball's leisure service, however, was quickly upgraded. After President Coolidge had signed the Kelly Air Mail Act on February 2, 1925-thus allowing the postmaster general to conclude private contracts for the carriage of mail-he was awarded the shortest, 121-mile route for this purpose. Extending from Pittsburgh to Cleveland via Youngstown, Ohio, the route, designated CAM (Contract Air Mail) 11, it was characterized by low operating costs; the maximum, $3.00-per-pound allowable rate; the highest ton-mile compensation; and a significant mail volume, and therefore made it the most profitable.

Employing three Waco 9s, he inaugurated service on April 21, 1927, carrying 20,000 pounds of mail and flying more than 70,000 miles during the balance of the year. By 1928, these figures had respectively increased to 55,000 pounds and 85,000 miles.

An expanding fleet, comprised of Fairchilds, Ryans, Travel Airs, and Waco 9s and 10s, enabled him to earn incremental revenue, at a $20-per-passenger rate, from the increased cabin volumes they offered on scheduled mail runs.

Unlike other contemporary airlines, it enjoyed positive growth, earning $291,000 of government revenue, transporting almost 100,000 pounds of mail, and operating night flights between Pittsburgh and Cleveland in 1929, themselves aided by the recently-installed lighted airway.

Spurred by this success, and the needed revenue from his sale of Bettis Field to Aircraft and Airways of America, Inc., to do so, he transformed his company into a full-fledged air transportation carrier, stretching the wings of its hitherto minuscule route network easterly from Pittsburgh to Washington on August 14 of that year.

The mail-accompanying passenger service was upgraded with the acquisition of a single, 12-seat Ford Trimotor in 1930, enabling him to create a combination mail-and-passenger company designated Pennsylvania Air Lines, and a reduction in fares attracted a 2,323 total flown over 209,000 miles.

The expanded operation was short-lived. Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown, intent on creating a nationwide airmail system, sought to connect its current fragments, and therefore granted Ball a six-month contract extension in April of 1930 for his Pittsburgh-Cleveland route until he could sell his fledgling carrier and have it integrated with the larger operation.

The solution came in the form of the Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corporation (PAIC), the holding company formed in 1928 to oversee aviation interests. Agreeing to acquire 8,000 shares of stock at a $10.00-per-share price, and placing an additional $57,500 worth in escrow, PAIC took over Pennsylvania Air Lines on October 24, 1930 which, in the event, was guaranteed its founding route to Cleveland until May of 1934. Clifford Ball, at least temporarily, remained its vice president and operations manager.

The post office's newly created space-volume compensation scheme, replacing the previous weight payment plan, prompted the purchase of larger, multi-engine Stinson and Ford transports. Their increased space, coupled with fare reductions, enabled it to increase the number of passengers carried in 1931 by 100 percent.

In fact, its new owners charted a successful course. When its coveted airmail contract for the Pittsburgh-Washington sector was awarded, it commenced service over it on June 8, 1931, introducing three daily round trips all the way to Cleveland in August. A fourth frequency was added two years later and a route extension saw its aircraft land in Detroit.

But acquisition and merger, once initiated, only propagated. Indeed, progressive PAIC stock purchases ate away at the formerly independent carrier until it became a wholly owned subsidiary on October 1, 1933, sparking the resignation of its very founder.

Following the unsuccessful and accident-plagued Army assumption of airmail service, the postmaster general, under the Black-McKellar Law, once again requested bids from private companies to re-serve it, many of which did so as "new airlines." These, in effect, were the original ones brandishing new names. The former Ball creation, redesignated Pennsylvania Airlines and Transport Company, Inc., followed suit, but was only granted the short, Detroit-Milwaukee segment, while Central Air Lines, itself the renamed Pittsburgh Airways, settled onto its former turf, from Cleveland to Washington, because of its five-cent-per-mile lower bid.

However, winning bids and profitable bids were not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, John D. and Richard W. Coulter, sons of a Greensburg coal operator, had to inject it with a half-million dollars of life-sustaining capital.

Like its predecessor, it also carried passengers between Pittsburgh and Washington.

Sparks, as well as airplanes, flew on the routes where the two competed, as they tried to counterbalance the scales sinking on one side because of declining mail revenues with those rising due to passenger earnings.

Pennsylvania Airlines, at least from its statistics, appeared successful. In 1935, for instance, it carried 44,855 passengers and flew more than 1.6 million miles. By lowering its fares and replacing its rapidly outdated Stinson and Ford aircraft with ten Boeing 247Ds acquired from United Airlines, it enticed ridership from surface transportation forms, such as trains, and enjoyed explosive growth, with 83,199-passenger and 2.9 million-mile totals in 1936.

Central had carried 11,604 with a five-Stinson fleet in 1935. But these figures only told one side of the story.

A faltering financial foundation, created by declining airmail revenues and dilution of a single market by two competing carriers, resulted in both their losses.

Consolidation of the two, the only envisioned remedy, became effective on November 1, 1936, after Pennsylvania had acquired Central's shares, and the resultant company, using Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Airport as its operational base with fight control, meteorology, and maintenance capabilities, was redesignated Pennsylvania-Central Airlines.

The momentum initiated by the two independent carriers continued. Two routes were granted the followed year-Pittsburgh-Parkersburg-Charleston (West Virginia) on April 8 and Washington-Baltimore-Harrisburg-Williamsport-Buffalo on October 26.

Indeed, its aerial momentum, once set in motion, was unarrestible. Four more routes, on which it earned a 33.3-cent-per-mile subsidy, were awarded the following year: Pittsburgh-Buffalo, Washington-Norfolk, Grand Rapids (Michigan)-Chicago, and Detroit-Sault St. Marie. A permanent certificate of convenience and necessity protected it from potential competitors.

Now touching down in key, industry-concentrated cities in the northeast, it quickly became one of the country's largest regional airlines and posted a profit in 1939.

Along with its ever-expanding network, which soon also encompassed Erie, Knoxville, and Birmingham, came new equipment. Receiving the first of ten Douglas DC-3s that same year, it was able to offer increased capacity and comfort, yet generate a passenger-only, mail-independent profit it had been unable to do with the Boeing 247Ds they replaced. Carrying 342,872 passenger in 1941, it flew almost 6.5 million miles.

World War II made a significant, albeit temporary, imprint on its operation, the CAA requisitioning 16 of its 22 aircraft for military personnel and supply flights, while an agreement with the Air Transport Command saw it operate military cargo services from Washington to Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans. On December 21, 1943, it established the Roanoke Naval Transitional Flying School to provide pilot training.

It emerged from the war clouds through which its DC-3s and Lockheed Lodestars had flown having transported 19,000 military personnel and more than 26 million pounds of cargo.

Propelled by profitability and airliner advancement, it placed a $10 million order in September of 1944 for 15 larger-capacity, quad-engined DC-4s, which would signal the transfer of its new headquarters and operations-maintenance base from Allegheny County Airport to Washington and reflect its new name, "PCA - The Capital Airline," emphasizing its now-outgrown regional carrier status. This was equally cemented when it became the fourth Civil Aeronautics Board-designated carrier, after American, TWA, and United, to serve the coveted New York-Chicago route, although initially via Pittsburgh and Detroit, on December 16, 1945. It inaugurated service between the two the following July.

The service also marked a strategy change. In order to remain competitive with lower-cost airlines and thus retain passengers, trunk carriers were pressured into lowering their fares. Pennsylvania Central, officially rebranding itself "Capital Airlines" in 1948, justified this practice to the CAB by operating its unpressurized DC-4s with 60 higher-density, single-class seating configurations at off-peak, ordinarily idle times to increase aircraft utilization, and, coupled with reduced in-flight amenities, was able to reduce the standard six-cents-per-mile tariff to four. Dubbed "Nighthawk," these flights to the Windy City began on November 4 of that year at an initial, $33.30 one-way fare.

Now the fifth-largest US airline, Capital strove to play catch up to the "Big Four" by differentiating itself with innovation and sought to do so with new powerplant technology mated to a British design. Called the Vickers-Armstrongs Viscount, it would give it a significant competitive edge by offering increased speed, improved passenger comfort, and reduced block times. It would, in effect, create the standard other carriers would aspire to achieve in order to remain competitive-in other words, it led and the others would now have to follow. But its strategy could only be successful if it operated significant numbers of them to blanket its route system.

And the numbers, like the altitudes of a climbing airplane, rapidly increased: three were ordered in May of 1954, 37 followed in August, and another 20 joined the queue in November. It would not only herald a new engine type, it would be the first time that a British aircraft would be operated in the US since the days of the de Havilland DH.4 biplane.

Originally designed to fulfill the Brabazon Committee's Type IIIB requirement, issued in March of 1945, for a quad-engined, gas turbine airliner to transport 24 passengers on short- to medium-range, inter-European sectors, the aircraft, designated V.609, was subsequently revised to accommodate 32 in order to meet British European Airways' needs after it had placed the launch order for it.

The low-wing airliner, sporting pencil-thin nacelles and oval windows, first took to the skies on July 16, 1948, but was once again modified. Powered by four, 1,550 shaft horsepower Rolls Royce Dart RDa3 engines and redubbed the Viscount 700, it incorporated a five-foot wingspan increase and a fuselage stretch to carry between 40 and 53 passengers, first flying in this guise on August 28, 1950.

Nevertheless, it was the prototype, renumbered V.630, which operated the world's first scheduled turbine-powered flight that summer with BEA, serving London, Paris, and Edinburgh.

Powered by 1,780-shp Rolls Royce RDa6 Dart 510 turboprops, the V.700D, with an 83.10-foot overall length and a 93-foot, 8.5-inch span, featured a 64,500-pound gross weight. Speed was 310 mph at 20,000 feet and range, with its maximum fuel, was 2,000 miles.

Then Britain's best-selling airliner, the Viscount series, including the higher capacity, stretched-fuselage V.800, achieved 444 sales.

Capital took delivery of its first Viscount on June 16, 1955 and inaugurated it into service on July 16, operating two daily nonstops and a single direct frequency on the Washington-Chicago route. As envisioned, its advanced engine technology, higher speeds, and shorter sector times served as a magnet, increasing its market share between any cities it connected.

And it capitalized on this fact by boasting of the aircraft's advancements in its very ticket jackets, pointing out, "On your flight... the pilots will be flying with Bendix radio equipment. For many years, Bendix Radio navigation and communication equipment has flown with the world's great airlines. These electronic devices are used by the pilot to guide him on a 'true as an arrow' course or to maintain instant radio contact with the ground... "

The Viscount, however, was only one catalyst of the airline's explosive growth. For reasons cited as "the strengthening of an individual carrier... for the sound development of the national system of which it is a part," the Civil Aeronautics Board granted Capital Airlines a treasure-trove of route awards in 1955, allowing it to shed the predominantly short-range northeastern network with which it had been associated since its early expansion and offer nonstop segments from New York to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Detroit, and Chicago. As the largest airline in terms of passenger boardings in Pittsburgh, it enplaned more than 600,000 passengers per year.

By mid-1957, three-fourths of its route system was operated by Viscount aircraft, and the following year, some city pair frequencies had reached shuttle proportions: New York-Chicago (16 daily, ten nonstop), New York-Detroit (15), New York-Pittsburgh (ten), and Washington-Chicago (ten).

However, while the fifth-largest trunk carrier was buoyed by the wings of its Viscounts, it was forced into a nose-dove by its revenue, having overestimated the cash flow they were to generate-and with which it could repay its debt to Vickers-Armstrongs. Operating 46 of them in 1956, it ordered another 15, now well on the way to its targeted 75. But it only produced a loss for that year-and the one after that.

Once initiated, its strategy of attracting passengers with advanced technology and superior speed seemed unstoppable-and narrowly focused. Virtually plunged into bankruptcy in 1958 by a mechanic's strike, it persisted in its purchasing strategy, ordering 14 of the world's first pure-jet airliner, the de Havilland DH.106 Comet- again designed by the British-and then entered into negotiations with Convair for the quad-engined CV-880, both a higher-capacity and -speed jetliner (by some 100 mph) than even the Comet.

Yet, for all the elements that caused Capital to shine, there was an equal number that caused it to tarnish: mounting debt, four Viscount accidents, and the CAB's delayed granting of lucrative Florida routes as a potential solution. Although it leased 11 DC-6Bs from Pan American for this purpose, it was unable to reverse its dwindling spiral, forced, instead, to accept the lifeline cast out to it by United Airlines.

The CAB, approving its acquisition application on June 1, 1961, gave United a Pennsylvania presence and created the western world's largest carrier, which served 116 destinations with 267 aircraft, in the process.

As the Viscounts were repainted in its livery, the Capital Airlines name disappeared-one aircraft at a time.