Some Reflections on Northwest Airlines
I've worked intimately with a lot of airlines over the years - big and
small. Of the Bigs, I can honestly and easily say that Northwest was by
far the best. Something about that Norwegian Minnesota heritage. Lots
of people made fun of Northwest. "Northworst" they used to call it.
"Their stews were farmers from N. Dakota and all hired on the phone" was
another one I remember. Their cabin interiors could not be called
"ritzy." Maybe, but check their safety record. Compare it to the other
majors. That doesn't happen by accident - no pun intended.
They were a no-nonsense airline, especially in the good old Don Nyrop
days, when they had no debt and paid for all their airplanes in cash.
They made a profit, as I recall, for 20 years in a row, when most of the
others were struggling to stay afloat. Their labor relations were
always rocky, and they were rough around the edges. But that was
Northwest. Other airlines used to have a team of factory reps checking
everything Boeing did, and did a lot of acceptance test flights. That's
AFTER the Boeing test flights. I remember one TWA 707 that had 17 - yes
they finally accepted the plane after the C-17 (Customer 17) flight! NW
took Boeing's word for it, and never did any acceptance flights - they
had a deal with Boeing whereby Boeing would pay for fixing all the
squawks in the first 50 hours in-service.
I vividly remember working on
a 707-320C at the Flight Center one summer's evening. It was "bought
off" on the first Boeing test flight (B-1) - somewhat unusual. I
remember the NW crew coming on board at Boeing Field - they ferried the
airplane the 4 miles to Sea-Tac and put it on the Gate. It departed for
Tokyo with a full load of passengers shortly thereafter, with a grand
total of 2 landings and maybe 2:30 flying time total.
Northwest always sold their airplanes "early." They never seemed to
have any going to the scrappers or the boneyard. They didn't drive them
until the wheels fell off. Sort of like Singapore Airlines does today.
They sold them young with a lot of miles still in them. I think Don
didn't like doing D checks. Too expensive.
worked with NWA at many locations - JFK, MSP, HNL. In Honolulu,
they and Pan Am used to each have 8 flights a day. PAA would not
work a flight with less than 8 mechanics. If they had only
7, they'd let the airplane sit, until they could move people over from
another departed flight. They had regular airframe mechanics, and
R&Es (radio and electronics mechanics), and Storesmen. They
had Leads, and Maintenance Supervisors, and a Maintenance
Manager. To change a faulty part, say, an anti-icing valve, the
Maintenance Supervisor, having read the logbook, would tell the
Lead Mechanic to change the valve. The Lead would then have the
mechanics open the access panel. Leads didn't do physical
work. An R&E would then come and remove the electrical Canon
plug. The mechanic would then remove the valve and call for the
Storesman, who would then take the valve and obtain a new
one. The installation was the reverse daisy chain.
NWA, with the same number of flights ---- had 8. That's 8 total station mehanics. And one Storesman. No
supervisors. One Maintenance Manager - Mike Joyce. To change the same
valve, a NW mech, after talking to the pilot himself, reading the
logbook, checking the Maintenance Manual, would usually get the valve
from Stores, and then, after doing all the engine checks, oil
servicing, and a walk-around, etc - change the valve himself, and
then sign-off the logbook. Then he'd sit down at the teletype and send the
maintenance message back to home base in Minny.(MSP.)
"Ramp people" at Pan Am (baggage loaders, cleaners, water truck and lav servicers, etc)
NEVER touched an airplane.
At NW, Ramp guys
worked side by side with the mechs, when necessary. A wheel or
brake change could be done with one mech because the Ramp folks
helped. Many of the pushouts were done with one mech and one Ramp
guy, unlike, say PAA, where only mechs could do pushouts. I did
quite a few pushouts myself with a mech. Quite against
everybody's rules and regulations. I really enjoyed those -
sitting under the nose on that giant tug and then watching
that huge 747 - close to a million pounds -
moving smoothly away from the terminal and out onto the vast expanse of
ramp. Starting engines and taxiing away for a flight across the
Pacific. Night time was even better - out into the vast sea of
blackness, away from the glare of the terminal's lights, with a
kaleidescope of blue, green, and white runway and taxiway pinpricks of
light in the darkness. I wish they had camcorders in those days -
I'd have some great shots.
time I was watching Pan Am's mechanics do something in the leading edge, when the
mechanic on a ladder, dropped his flashlight. I picked it up for him
and passed it up. After a while, I noticed that there was nobody
around. This was not abnormal - lunch break or whatever - they'd just
let the airplane sit. Eventually, I got tired of waiting and went into
the maintenance office to see where everyone was. Well, they were on a
"job action." They had quit working and got hold of the shop steward.
Why? Because of me! Yes, you see "the Boeing rep was working!"
Picking up the guy's dropped flashlight constituted "working!"
not trying to badmouth Pan Am - actually, I think they were the
greatest airline ever. But the above labor/management activities,
with other factors, sunk their ship. It was frustrating to work
with them. No pushouts - that's for sure! If I
recall, Pan Am had 160 station mechanics at HNL
compared to Northwest's 8. It was 'no-contest', and little wonder that PAA lost the survival battle early.
Northwest's President Don Nyrop was "in charge" and his close control of the airline was
astounding. Many times Purchase Requests would get returned
"Disapproved" signed by Don himself. I recall one where they requested
some nominal sum to purchase some steel parts racks for DC-10s due to start
flying into HNL. It was returned disapproved with a scrawled note from
Don - "We've changed the plan, no DC-10s into HNL - you don't need the
Whenever I or my wife flew back to Mainland, NW always bumped us up to
First Class. The others? Fat chance! When I moved back to Seattle,
they put half my household stuff, boxes and boxes of stuff, including
three big 100 lb. dogs in kennels, on the airplane for nothing. I became close
personal friends with all the NW people I worked with, and have
maintained that friendship to this very day. Even though they're all
over the country.
Of course, NW eventually succumbed to the great American system. A LBO
(Leveraged Buy Out) with a lot of dumb bean counters and non-airline
people taking over. That's where you buy the company with their own
money and then mortgage everything to the hilt. You loot the Treasury,
pay yourself obscene amounts of money, and then bail out or "flip" the
property before the huge debt load sinks the ship.
It's sad to see what NW has become, and sadder still to see it
disappear. They call that "progress" these days. I think it sucks.
Northwest in pictures and song:
What a great song by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli - unfortunately,
it is being appended now to the disappearance of many airlines. It does
seem appropriate though, and I fear it's use is only going to grow. It
will become the Theme Song used for others in the future. Sound on for the
great music, and views of Northwest's past.
Copyright 2008 Robert A. Bogash. All Rights Reserved