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Review: Non-Stop: A Turbulant History Of Northwest

Tue Jan 14, 2014 1:04 am

Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
By Jack El-Hai
November 2013
Published by University of Minnesota Press
328 pp., hardbound, $39.95

Review by Bill Hough

This new offering from University of Minnesota Press examines the 80-year history of Northwest Airlines (NW), whose red-tailed aircraft dominated Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) for generations. In the words of the publisher, author Jack El-Hai “captures the broad context and the intriguing details as it weaves together the accounts of individuals who gave the airline its unique character.” He writes this story with help from the Minnesota Historical Society’s holdings on NW corporate archives and other related documents. He also acknowledges earlier books on the carrier, as well as various people involved in the story; and other publications such as newspapers and magazines.

The book is a landscape format, 328 page volume with a 1950s-looking cover featuring an illustration of a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, probably from an airline brochure.
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Photo © Mel Lawrence

That aircraft is singled out for attention in one of the book’s many sidebars, which appear throughout the book. One of the less common, but popular, aircraft from the 1950s, the double-deck “Strat” was even equipped with an organ as a publicity stunt, some two decades before another airline experimented with piano bars in its 747s.

The book is organized into nine chapters, each containing between three to five sidebars. Over 260 illustrations are included, featuring many important individuals from NW’s history, as well as aircraft and miscellaneous items. On a whole, this reviewer found that the pre-jet age illustrations to be of greater interest as there were more photos of aircraft operations, facilities and illustrations of promotional material, whereas the more recent photos tend to show people mentioned in the text. Overall, El-Hai keeps the story moving, although the author’s use of frequent sidebars is initially distracting since much material could have been woven into the main text.

For those unfamiliar with how Northwest Airlines got started, it was established by Colonel Louis Britten in 1926 to take over another failing air mail operator. Initial start-up funding for the new airline came from a group of Detroit investors led by Ford engineer William Mayo. Although Minnesota investors would soon buy out the Detroiters, the Motor City wound up playing a significant role in Northwest’s later development, becoming the one of NW’s three major hubs, along with MSP and Memphis, TN.

Although NW began carrying passengers in 1927, air mail continued to be an important part of the revenue stream. And in the early years, NW was involved in an agreement with several railroads to expiate mail and passengers at night. Later, Northwest got caught up in the political fallout from the Walter Brown “spoils conferences” after the Roosevelt administration came to power in the 1930s. Founder Louis Bitten, caught destroying non-pertinent documents, served a brief jail term and was forced to resign his position at Northwest.

Bitten was followed by Croil Hunter, who lasted until 1953. After a brief interlude, Donald Nyrop ran the airline for over two decades, after which there was more instability and turnover in the executive suite until the ultimate the merger with Delta Air Lines. This isn’t a whitewashed corporate history as El-Hai also covers less favorable aspects of NW’s history such as the sometimes contentious notorious labor relations, skyjackings and attempted terrorism. The book also touches on Twin Cities airport history, as the airline consolidates operations at Wold-Chamberlain Field which became MSP. At one time, Northwest also had maintenance facilities at St. Paul’s Holman Field, but frequent flooding from the adjacent Mississippi River dictated a consolidation at MSP.

Unfortunately, several mistakes crept into the text. A 1930 incident was described where a NW pilot stopped a “Burlington Northern” train from rolling onto a burning bridge; most likely it was a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy train since BN was not created until 1970. And, in the early 1970s, it was not United but Delta that absorbed Northeast Airlines after Northwest lost interest.
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Photo © Ralph M. Pettersen

And a curious item on page 154 says that NW operated one stop flights from New York to Tokyo with L-188 Electras,
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Photo © Mel Lawrence

although to this reviewer’s knowledge NW never flew the Electra on trans-Pacific routes. Northwest Electra Ops (by Jackbr Dec 20 2011 in Civil Aviation)

Four years after the Delta-Northwest merger, the red tail is but a memory. This book provides a useful retrospective on a unique air carrier that flew for over 80 years and left its mark on its Minnesota headquarters. The Northwest Airlines story is interesting and this book is an interesting read.
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Photo © Bill Hough

[Edited 2014-01-13 17:05:34]

[Edited 2014-01-13 17:06:13]
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RE: Review: Non-Stop: A Turbulant History Of Northwest

Fri Jan 17, 2014 4:33 am

Thanks for the review! I have been going back and forth on getting it. My dream since I was about 6 was to fly for NW but after the mechanics strike in 2005 my view of the company was soured.
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