Throughout aviation history, two primary purposes are well established established: travel and warfighting. Sometimes, there has been a significant crossover between the two. In the case of air travel, dozens and dozens of air carriers have come and gone, start-ups absorbed or dissolved, and sometimes major legacy air carriers (TWA is not the least of these) went the way of the buffalo. Today we’ll be taking a look at Hughes Airwest, a long-defunct regional airline that was owned and operated by the iconoclast Howard Hughes.
The Early Years
Before becoming Hughes Airwest, Air West was a conglomerate that was formed in April of 1968. It was made up of three regional airlines, which all served a rapidly growing market along the west coast. These were Pacific Air Lines, Bonanza Air Lines, and West Coast Airlines. Rather than compete over limited routes along the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts, the three airlines form Airwest and operate a mixed fleet of Boeing 727s, Douglas DC-9s, Fairchild F-27s, and the smaller end, Piper Navajos.
Enter the Titan
Right after the merger and formation of Airwest, the former TWA owner and legendary Howard Hughes was sniffing around for another business venture, as so many serial entrepreneurs want to do. Hughes bought Air West in 1968 and finalized the purchase in 1970.
The Biggest Banana
So why the banana reference? Just a nod to the warm, tropical climate that Airwest serviced? Not even close, partner. No, it was just a reference to the obvious: Hughes Airwest airplanes looked like gigantic bananas, and there is no way of getting around it. The Boeing 727 was the biggest banana of the bunch.
A Profitable Venture and Famous Incidents
Hughes Airwest and their fleet of banana-Esque DC-9s et al. was a reasonably short-lived endeavor, lasting right at a decade from 1970, with operations ceasing on October 1st, 1980.
During their era, they operated a mixed fleet of 48 bananas out of their central hub in San Francisco, with eight secondary hubs in the pacific region spanning from California to Idaho, Nevada to Washington.
Ultimately, Hughes Airwest flew into an equally-yellow sunset in 1980, being purchased by Republic Airlines, where their infamous livery was stripped. By the time their services had ended in a merger with Republic, Hughes Airwest was a successful regional airline with services to include international travel into Mexico and routes reaching all across the western states and to Iowa.
Hughes Airwest enjoyed a good safety track record but did have noteworthy incidents.
Early in the tenure of Hughes Airwest, a DC-9-31, N9345, was involved in a midair collision with an F-4B Phantom from the USMC, MCAS El Toro, just outside of LA. Due to the inability to see and avoid and a faulty radar system on the Phantom, the Phantom struck N9345 over Duarte, California.
There were several contributing factors, and this accident ultimately led to legislative reform and review.
In 1972, a banana was targeted for hijacking in a copycat incident of the famous (and successful) hijacking and robbery by D.B Cooper. Flight 800 was in the process of departing McCarran airport in Vegas when a young former army private and paratrooper, Richard LaPoint, claimed to have a bomb and demanded cash, parachutes, and a helmet. Once his demands were met, the jet took off and was trailed by a pair of F-111s. LaPoint didn’t do much homework because the chutes were hi-viz and had ELTs built-in. He decided to punch out over the highly inhospitable plains of eastern Colorado (did I mention it was in January?), without a coat and wearing unlined cowboy boots. He was promptly picked up and likely was thankful that eastern Colorado’s plains are unpleasant enough in the winter with appropriate clothing.
Hughes Airwest, aka the top bananas in the west, had a pretty good run. It was an exciting storyline, if nothing else, from a marketing perspective, branding themselves as the best banana. They enjoyed a healthy reputation over their time as a regional air carrier, with a modest fleet servicing the entire western half of the states and Mexico. We can look back in a historical perspective to a better time and enjoy their bright livery and 70’s branding.