Remembering the Red Tails

On January 31, 2010, when Northwest’s final flight landed in Amsterdam, NWA joined TWA, Pan-Am, and other vaunted airlines on the long list of defunct fliers. Minnesotans no longer have a hometown airline. And we have a little less in common with Cary Grant, who rode one of NWA’s gorgeous, twin-tailed Lockheed Constellations in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece North by Northwest.

Too bad the airline ended in a humiliating bankruptcy. Because it had a good run, beginning in 1926 when a fellow named Colonel Lewis Brittin started flying mail from Minneapolis to Chicago as Northwest Airways. In 1931, Northwest sent Charles Lindbergh on a test flight to Japan, proving that flying north, through Alaska, could shave hours off a trans-Pacific flight and scouting what would become the first direct flights from America to the Far East—the eventual feather in Northwest’s cap.

By the 1960s, the airline’s red tails were emblems of the jet age; flying as Northwest Orient, the planes roared across the Pacific to Japan, Hong Kong, and beyond as passengers sipped martinis. They rarely spilled, thanks to NWA’s innovations in turbulence avoidance.

A decade ago, when other airlines steeply raised fares, Northwest resisted. It held out until after 9/11, but by then it was too little too late. Northwest filed for bankruptcy in 2005, just minutes after Delta did the same. They would join forces three years later, though it was clear from the start who would come out on top: Delta’s Atlanta hub was by then the busiest airport in America.

According to avid plane-spotters, a few aircraft still sport the Northwest name and red tail. But they’re apparently only used, as in the beginning, for hauling mail.

For more on Minnesota airlines and the status of Delta, read “Delta Blues” and “Grounded.”

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