The proud bird

Published 11:11 am Saturday, December 20, 2014

I begin class this sunny June day; according to some, every day is sunny in southern California. The freeway drive didn’t seem too difficult and I am anxious to get started.

My class is about split evenly between civilian and military backgrounds. I thought military training would be the prime source; I will have other thoughts dispelled during this training session. The oldest trainee is 33; I suppose his background as a member of the U.S. Navy “Blue Angels” flight demonstration team had something to do with the departure from the age 30 limit. A couple of my military classmates are still on active duty, having taken leave to begin training. They will complete the discharge process while learning a new aircraft and company.

Continental is the airline that aviation pioneer Robert F. Six built. Begun in 1934 as Varney Speed Lines, the airline received air mail contracts for new southwest service and needed investors for expansion. All routes and contracts were awards from the US government, after a presentation and public hearing process. Six bought into the southwest division, became general manager and soon after, chairman of the Board of Directors, and moved the headquarters to Denver, Colorado.

U.S. Army maintenance and modifications contracts during WWII gave the airline enough money to expand afterwards, using modified surplus military aircraft. Close relations with the U.S. military continued, with maintenance contracts for a variety of aircraft and personnel training. Route expansion continued; new aircraft were purchased. When the Vietnam conflict expanded, Continental was a major provider of personnel transport and contract services. Some of those “services” were not well known outside the military. Continental Air Services provided pilots, aircraft and mission support for a huge shadow airline in southeast Asia.

Directly across the street from our training center is the headquarters of Flying Tiger Airlines. They operate mostly cargo flights around the world. During lunch, we sit in the break room and watch their ramp traffic. Their newest aircraft, the DC 8-63F (the longest version, with a cargo door added) is a wonder to behold. Currently it’s the largest passenger and cargo airplane in the skies. The characteristic narrow body and large engine cowlings make it seem like a monster just waiting to leap. It’s maximum gross weight is over 350,000 pounds. We can only stare at this marvel of technology.

It seems that U.S. military contracts have bode well for both Flying Tiger and Continental. The profits have permitted Continental to purchase 12 Boeing 727-200 series aircraft. They are the newest, stretched model of the popular three engine aircraft; our configuration will carry 107 passengers total first class and coach. The aircraft is operated by a three pilot and four cabin attendant flight crew.

As each aircraft is received a new schedule is generated to increase capacity to an ever increasing demand. Actual route segments are regulated, but frequency of service on those routes is not. Continental finds itself in a rapidly expanding market. New passenger counters and boarding gates are struggling to keep up with demand. Airports in large and small market areas are building new runways and terminal facilities.

Continental’s headquarters are only recently moved to Los Angeles from Denver; the training center is across the parking lot from the remodeled office and hangar complex at the west end of Los Angeles International Airport, commonly known as LAX. We sometimes venture over to the employee’s canteen in the headquarters building. On many occasions, Robert F. Six appears in the cafeteria, goes through the serving line and sits at tables with other employees. He is a much-respected leader with a huge presence. Physically over six feet tall, he’s hard to miss among the crowd.

Along with the new headquarters, training center, and hundreds of other recent changes, the totally new logo design and aircraft paint scheme is a white fuselage with broad orange, red and gold stripe that sweeps up and covers the tail section. Centered on the vertical stabilizer is a large black ball with speed lines. The scheme and logo is by designer Saul Bass and is destined to become an internationally known symbol, identifying our airline.

The marketing program for the airline’s new paintjob calls it “the proud bird with the golden tail.” All stationary, memo pads, tablecloths, cutlery and myriads of publicity items carry the logo. Among the more earthy folk, the round circle becomes the “clawed ball” and other, not flattering, humorous names.

The publicity campaign is successful and I, along with my classmates and other new hires are grateful for it. The future shines very bright for this airline that I knew so little about just a few weeks ago.

I am pleased to be among the Proud Bird’s progeny.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at