It took five years to get off the ground, but it kept its wings in the air for eighteen years. During that time Central Airlines of Fort Worth flew more than one million passengers between forty-one cities in six states.
Not bad for an airline that began by carrying four passengers per flight.
Keith Kahle was an aviation writer and a leader of the Civil Air Patrol in Oklahoma during World War II. He had long wanted to found his own airline.
So, in 1944 he began Central Airlines as a charter and nonscheduled feeder service in Oklahoma. The airline owned one single-engine, four-passenger Stinson Reliant airplane, which flew between Oklahoma City, Duncan, and Lawton. The airplane was based at the Oklahoma City Country Club airport.
Two years later Central was granted Civil Aeronautics Board certification to expand service to Texas cities, including Fort Worth.
Meanwhile, in 1947 the city of Fort Worth bought the site of Midway Airport, located on 1,400 unincorporated acres east of town. The city planned to build a “superairport”: Greater Fort Worth International Airport. In 1948 the city annexed roads leading from Fort Worth to the airport site. On December 1, 1948 construction of the airport began.
Meanwhile back in Oklahoma, in 1949, just as Central Airlines’ CAB certification was about to expire, the airline won its wings. Keith Kahle secured financial backing from a group of Fort Worth men led by oilman F. Kirk Johnson. Central moved its headquarters to Fort Worth’s Meacham Field and began serving twenty-four cities in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas with a total of 1,355 route miles.
Among Central’s board members was actor Jimmy Stewart, who was a friend of Johnson.
On September 15, 1949 the reborn airline flew its first flight—to Oklahoma City.
Central’s fleet consisted of eight four-passenger Beechcraft Bonanza A35s.
Central flew fifty-four passengers in its first month.
“Most of them were my relatives,” Kahle recalled.
But within six months Central had graduated from four-passenger Bonanzas to twin-engine, twenty-one passenger Douglas DC-3s.
Early Central Airlines pilot Harry Logsdon recalled that Central’s first flight attendants were male. Not until 1952 were attendants female, dressed in pillbox hats and pleated skirts.
The year 1953 brought a big change for Fort Worth and for Central Airlines. Greater Fort Worth International Airport (also known as “Amon Carter Field”) opened. The Star-Telegram reprinted President Eisenhower’s telegram of congratulations to airport namesake Amon Carter.
Note that the B-36 City of Fort Worth was on display at the new airport.
The 1953 city directory shows that Central Airlines flew from new Carter Field (Fort Worth Air Terminal Building) but also continued to fly from Meacham. (Trans-Texas Airways and Pioneer Air Lines were regional airlines based in Houston.)
In 1959 Central celebrated its first ten years with a new hangar and office building at Carter Field. Note that the ad says the airline had flown twenty-two million miles since 1949.
The map in this January 1960 ad shows Central’s existing routes (3,661 miles) and proposed routes.
This February 1960 ad reminded Star-Telegram readers that Central flew to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
At the end of 1960 Central took delivery of its first forty-four-passenger Convair 240 airliner to fly its new Tulsa-St. Louis route. Central enjoyed its best year to date in 1960, flying 169,000 passengers.
The 1960 city directory shows that between 1953 and 1960 Fort Worth had lost Pioneer Airlines but added Continental Airlines. All airlines flew from Carter Field by 1960.
Central Airlines added eleven cities in 1961, bringing its route total to about five thousand miles.
Central’s Convair 240s had pressurized cabins and were equipped with radar. But Central was still flying seventeen DC-3s.
Note the BUtler telephone prefix.
In 1962, seven years after Amon Carter died, the name of Amon Carter Field was changed to “Greater Southwest International Airport.”
In 1963 and 1964 Central Airlines advertised with the slogan “Take the highroad . . . fly Central Airlines.”
But in 1964 Central’s high road was paved with low revenues: Earnings fell “sharply.” In response the board of directors hired commercial aviation veteran Marion Lamar Muse as president of Central Airlines.
Soon after Muse took over, Central added the first of ten forty-eight-passenger Convair Dart 600 turboprop airliners.
As Central modernized its fleet with turboprop airliners, it hired an industrial designer to make over the airline’s image with new logo, new flight attendant uniforms, and new airplane colors.
In 1966 Central introduced its new look for flight attendants.
Among the best-remembered Central pilots was Emmett Spinks of Fort Worth. He had learned to fly in a fighter plane in World War II. And he learned psychology at TCU.
For sixteen years Spinks was known for putting his passengers at ease with lines like these:
“Good morning. This is your captain speaking. We’ve been going to Kansas City for six years. I thought we’d run out to Las Vegas today.”
“Take your shoes off, if you don’t have holes in your socks, and relax.”
“Some airlines have Champagne flights to Miami. This is the hot chocolate flight to Tulsa.”
But the laughter ended in 1967. Central Airlines was still flying sixteen DC-3s—an airplane introduced in 1936. In September Central Airlines was absorbed by Frontier Airlines and, after eighteen years, consigned to the hangar of history.
Some loose ends:
In 1967 Marion Lamar Muse left Central Airlines but in 1971 was hired by Herb Kelleher to be CEO and president of Southwest Airlines. In 1981 Muse founded Muse Airlines, which operated until 1987, when it was bought by Southwest.
In 1973 Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened.
In 1974, after Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened, Greater Southwest International Airport closed. The city of Fort Worth sold off bits and pieces of Greater Southwest in the newspaper classified ads: a 1,400-acre estate sale.
Today the northern end of GSWIA’s north-south runway survives north of Texas Highway 183. Amon Carter Boulevard was laid over most of the runway.
In 1985 People Express Airlines acquired Frontier Airlines, although People Express operated Frontier as an independent company. But in 1986 Frontier filed for bankruptcy and shut down.
Later in 1986 Continental Airlines ate People Express Airlines.
Central Airlines founder Keith Kahle died in Fort Worth in 1997 at age eighty-eight.
Ten years later Marion Lamar Muse died.
In 2012 Continental Airlines, which had eaten People Express, which had eaten Frontier Airlines, which had eaten Central Airlines, was eaten by United Airlines, which, as of 6:27 a.m. today, is still flying.