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.

I 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.

One 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!"

I'm 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 racks."

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.


Bob Bogash

Copyright 2008 Robert A. Bogash.  All Rights Reserved

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