Northwest Airline’s executives went to bed downtrodden on July 14, 1938. Their plans to meet and refuel Howard Hughes’ twin engine monoplane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport had been dashed when his crew wired that they would land in Winnipeg instead. And this wasn’t just any old pit stop — this was the last stop on Hughes record-shattering round-the-world speed race. His previous stop was Fairbanks and Hughes was streaking more than 3 days ahead of Wiley Post’s previous world record.
To make matters worse, both of Hughes’ radio transmitters were broken, an antenna lost and he had been missing more than six hours. An ominous sign considering Amelia Earhart’s faulty radio signals left her missing in the South Pacific and now presumed dead. So when the silver aircraft was sighted north and west of Minneapolis at dawn that Friday, the city awoke surprised and relieved. And just as quickly, hundreds of fans streamed toward Wold-Chamberlain field. Who could blame them? After all, Hughes was dating Katherine Hepburn and churning out Hollywood big screen hits like Hells Angels and Scarface.
The Minneapolis Tribune reported: “As the ship taxied to a stop, and crowds on the side broke away from police and started across the field, Hughes led his crew from the ship with a wide grin and wave of his soiled brown hat.”
With the bone weary crew leaning against the plane for support, Hughes looked ahead to the final leg to New York exclaiming: “We’re going to give her all we got!”
Hughes ground-breaking feat immediately made the world a whole lot smaller for travel and put Northwest Airlines, Pan Am and later his own TWA on notice that the next frontier would be international travel.
For her part, Amelia Earhart and Northwest Airlines had begun that transformation four years earlier at the same, Minneapolis-St. Paul airfield. Northwest’s ambitious General Manager Croil Hunter was convinced that Northwest could make money flying a northern intercontinental route from Minneapolis-St. Paul, transiting Bismarck, Billings, Spokane and then reaching Seattle. A commercial aircraft had never made such a crossing before. Hunter believed that Earhart would be an invaluable crew member and convinced Earhart to join him in this daring flight effort.
Their Ford Trimotor aircraft left the Twin Cities, in the throes of winter on January 28, 1933. Amelia joined one of Northwest’s best pilots, Captain Hugh Rueschenberg and up and coming young co-pilot Joe Kimm. The flight legs from MSP to Bismarck and then on to Billings went smoothly under sunny flying conditions.
As morning broke the next day at the foot of the Rockies, co-pilot Kimm told the Northwest (NWA) History Center:
“Then came the dicey part of the flight. Up to now we had been blessed with beautiful sunny but cold weather. We encountered numerous snow squalls shortly after takeoff from Helena. Flying VFR (visual flight method) we carefully made our way to Mullan Pass in Idaho, the lowest point across the Great Divide. It was impossible to proceed farther, the clouds obscured the mountains and we had no idea what was on the other side. But, to give up now would have doomed the venture.”
Talk about a white-knuckle flight? Kimm continued:
“(Captain) Hugh Rueschenberg was not one to give up. He made his way back to Missoula and climbed up and flew through a gap in the mountains north of town. In essence, without being aware of it, he had crossed the Great Divide. We found ourselves over the Clark Fork River that originates from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille. We followed the river, then turned southward and arrived in Spokane tired but happy.”
A testament to Earhart’s fortitude, she barely peeked her head into the cockpit during this harrowing adventure.
“No one was expecting us. They didn’t know we were around. So I went down to the Davenport Hotel to see about some rooms. I told the clerk we had a special guest along and we wanted something extra nice for her. He said he had a suite available – two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a bath for $75. I took it. When Croil Hunter saw it he said something to the effect “Hey, we’re going to have a party.” And we did. Just the six of us. Beverages and a big turkey dinner. I remember we started with Olympia oyster cocktails with hot sauce. I’d never seen an oyster before much less tasted one. It was quite an evening. We’d made it to Spokane. I took a picture of Amelia with my little Brownie camera, I still have it.”
The proof of flight paved the way for the airline’s expansion through Seattle and then via Alaska to the Orient. In 1947, Northwest flew this “Great Circle Route” delivering the first U.S. commercial air service to Japan. Following the Spokane adventure, Earhart would go on to shatter seven aviation speed records and then effortlessly achieved the first solo flight between Honolulu and Oakland in 1935. Her fateful and infamous South Pacific disappearance occurred in July 1937.
Unlike Amelia Earhart’s anonymous arrival on Northwest’s landmark flight, Charles Lindbergh’s landing in the Twin Cities on August 23, 1927 was one of the most anticipated in history. Artillery guns fired to salute his approach. It had been two months since his return from the world’s first nonstop transatlantic flight. And despite a diversionary flight approach from the north, more than 20,000 fans stormed the Wold-Chamberlain tarmac to get to Lucky Lindy and the fabled Spirit of St. Louis monoplane. During the festivities St. Paul Mayor Laurence Hodgson called him the best known man in the world and the parade through Minneapolis and St. Paul bore that out. According to the Minneapolis Tribune, 250,000 onlookers packed the parade route.
Lindbergh was barnstorming the country to promote commercial aviation. He joined up with Juan Trippe at Pan Am as principal aviation advisor and forged new air travel routes in the Caribbean, South America and even Greenland. Moreover, Lindbergh was instrumental in designing and selecting Pan Am aircraft that revolutionized global travel.
Tragedy at Minnehaha Creek
On March 7, 1950, the snow and wind howled. Howard Huber was tending bar at his tavern near the airport. The regulars heard an aircraft that was too low and too close. When they heard it a second time, apparently making another approach, Huber said, “That plane is in trouble but he’s not going to make it this time.”
The plane was a Martin 202, a sexy model for Northwest in 1947. It was new and fast and quickly set some impressive speed records. It brought the age of air travel to cities such as Eau Claire, Sioux Falls, Bismarck, Rochester, and Helena. Within a short time, the company was flying twenty Martin 202s — more than forty percent of its total fleet.
On that March day, Mrs. Patricia Knowles was shoveling snow and wanted to stay ahead of the snowfall. She glanced up at the Washburn Park Tower and noticed an airplane wing “floating down like a feather.” In seconds, Northwest’s problems would come crashing down into three Minnehaha Parkway residences.
The Martin 202 crash claimed the lives of all thirteen passengers and two children on the ground.
From August 29, 1948, until January 17, 1951, Northwest endured six fatal crashes and, astonishingly, lost five of its 20 new Martin 202s. In other words, 20 percent of the fleet was destroyed in crashes.
The spring of 1951 was indeed a perilous time for Northwest. With its planes grounded, its crews and the general public afraid to fly, the government agency conducting the comprehensive investigation was led by a man named Donald Nyrop. His top-to-bottom review of the carrier’s safety record, maintenance, and pilot training made a profound impact on Northwest’s board of directors. They began a determined three-year courtship to secure Nyrop as their president. His hiring in 1954 was a bold strike of fate and he would go on to lead Northwest into the jet age and world prominence over the next three decades.
Forever in Blue Jeans
The arrival of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s huge red white and blue Aeroflot plane at MSP on June 3, 1990 was greeted by large crowds chanting “Gorby, Gorby.” Gorbachev’s seven city U.S tour highlighted his liberal policies of glasnost and perestroika that were quickly defrosting the Cold War. I am not sure his day trip could have been any more dramatic and personal. He visited a Minneapolis middle class home eight blocks from mine on Garfield Avenue South while his wife Raisa popped in for lunch at a south Minneapolis favorite — Pepitos on 48th and Chicago. The Star and Tribune reported that his advance KGB secret service detail was busy hitting garage sales in north Minneapolis to stock up on jeans and bicycles that would be worth a fortune once they returned to Moscow.
Gorbachev was welcomed by iconic Minnesota leaders Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Governor Rudy Perpich and Senator Dave Durenberger. It was telling that Gorbachev’s policies would lead to a full meltdown of the Soviet Union within 18 months. In December 1991, Gorbachev signed a treaty with the Commonwealth of Independent States that facilitated 14 of the 15 republics leaving the Soviet Union. On Christmas Day he resigned and the next day brought the lowering of the Soviet USSR flag for the last time.
Now keep in mind that those five flights top my list as the most compelling. Don’t let that deter you. Twin Cities history is littered with star-studded flight arrivals ranging from Dwight Eisenhower to the Rolling Stones, from the Gopher Final 4 basketball team to Barack Obama. Feel free to share your own distinctive memories.
Industry visionaries like Hughes, Earhart and Nyrop made indelible marks on Minnesota aviation and spurred the inexorable growth and success of the MSP hub– a global transportation engine with facilities that have been named Airport Council International’s best-in-class airport many times. For the audacious leadership that made it possible, I think we can all be thankful.
Photos courtesy of: University of Nevada Las Vegas — San Diego Air Space Museum — James Borden