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'We were family' - Delta celebrates 75th year

By Tamara Boatwright

Delta Air Lines celebrates its 75th year of service this year. Here is a look back, through the eyes of some Delta pioneers, at what went into helping Delta reach this milestone.

Frank Dunn proudly looks over a dining table covered with memories. There are photographs, pins, books and other items all memorializing his 33 years with Delta Air Lines.

Dunn is a member of a special group, pioneers who dedicated their lives to taking Delta from its humble beginnings as a crop dusting outfit to the international carrier it is today.

Delta began transporting passengers in 1929 between Dallas to Jackson Miss., via Shreveport, La. and Monroe, La., according to the airline's Web site. The Travel Air S-6000B carried five passengers and a pilot.

Dunn joined the company in 1941, the same year Delta moved its headquarters from Monroe to Atlanta. He had been attending radio school in Atlanta but had yet to earn his FCC license.

"Delta said they wouldn't talk to me until I got my license," he said. "So I got my license, went back and they hired me."

A photo on his dining room table shows a very young Dunn receiving his 10-year anniversary pin from Delta Air Lines founder C.E. Woolman, then Delta's president and general manager.

"I just really enjoyed my job," he said. "I liked working on radios and it was a really good company."

He recalls one year when he and a crew were dispatched to Venezuela to help radio crews with Viasa, then Venezuela's national carrier, figure out what was going wrong with their radios.

"They spoke no English, we spoke no Spanish, but we made due," he said.

Jerry Holloway, who worked in the pneumatic shop for 30 years starting in March 1959, knows Frank Dunn even though they had different jobs in different areas of the maintenance base.

"We really all worked together, with the same goal," Holloway said.

Holloway had just gotten out of the U.S. Air Force and was looking for a job when his aunt got a telephone call from someone at Delta.

"She said they were hiring and could I be there Monday morning," Holloway recalls. "I laughed and told her that I could be there tomorrow morning."

Holloway repeats a common refrain of Delta pioneers, "It was an excellent place to work, we were family."

"If someone had problems, ran out of sick time we thought nothing of donating our time and money to help someone out," he said.

Between Dunn joining the company and Holloway coming aboard, Delta had made many changes itself. In 1945 the official corporate name became Delta Air Lines and by the next year, the fledging airline had boarded its 1 millionth passenger. In 1947 Delta's fleet totaled 644 available seats and in 1948 it joined the first U.S. interchange service with TWA which flew Delta aircraft from Cincinnati to Detroit while Delta crews flew TWA aircraft south to Atlanta, Miami and Dallas, according to Delta's website.

Delta began flying from Atlanta to New York in 1955, the same year it developed the hub and spoke system that brings travelers to a hub airport where they connect to other flights to other cities. The next year, Delta installed radar in the noses of all its aircraft. The year Holloway joined the company, 1959, is the first year of the red, white and blue widget, the company's long-standing logo that is supposed to resemble the swept-wing appearance of a jet. Its sharp edges were rounded for a more "contemporary" look in 2000. Now plans call for it to return to its original sharpness.

Travis Cantrell was 31 when he went to work at Delta in 1961?on the advice of friends -- after five years with Lockheed. He, too, recalls Woolman with fondness.

"There was an open door policy," he said. "As a mechanic I had as much right to go over to see Mr. Woolman as anyone. There was very little chain of command."

"I remember him coming to the maintenance base and everyone gathering around to hear a speech," Cantrell said. "Mr. Woolman was asked how many people he had working for him and he replied, ?About half.' He was a friendly man with a dry sense of humor."

Cantrell "worked on just about every jet" and recalls when Delta went "pure jet" with the launch of the Convair 880 which could fly across the country in about three and a half hours.

"I never really had a favorite airplane," he says. "I liked all of them. Our responsibility was to rig the flight controls. Pilots always talk about their responsibilities, what about the person who rigged the controls. How far could a pilot get without rigged controls?"

The 60s saw Delta launch its first non-stop flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, an instant reservation system and DC-9 service. In 1966 the beloved C.E. Woolman died and Charles H. Dolson was named Delta's second CEO. A 1925 Huff Daland Duster was given to the Smithsonian Institution as a memorial to Woolman.

In 1971 W.T. Beebe was named chairman and CEO and Delta began 747 service.

Then the "yellow birds" began to fly south as Delta and Northeast Airlines – which had a yellow bird as its symbol -- merged. The merger helped Delta become a major carrier in New York and Boston.

George Siggins recalls how some of the Northeast employees were not happy with the merger.

"I was responsible for changing the corporate logo from Northeast to Delta. We had to take off the yellow bird that was painted on the tail of the airplanes and behind the ticket counter. The one behind the ticket counter was a big wooden thing, maybe 3 feet across. I had to pull it down and put up the Delta triangle. A large crowd of Northeast employees gathered there while I was taking it down and it was obvious that they had spent a few hours in the bar and they were not happy that Delta had bought Northeast. I was really worried about what might happen. They wanted to take the yellow bird from me. They were unruly."

Then something happened.

"They started singing the yellow bird song that was used in Northeast advertisements," he recalls. "At that time I realized I was quite all right."

Later that decade, the Boeing 727 joined Delta's fleet and a year later Delta's workhorse for nearly 30 years, the L-1011, is introduced.

The decade closes with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, David Garrett replacing Beebe as CEO, Delta beginning routes from Atlanta to London and Delta celebrating its 50th year in service.

The 80s saw Delta employees rally around their financially strapped airline and raise $30 million in payroll deductions to buy the first Boeing 767 dubbed "The Spirit of Delta." All employees are given bits of the red ribbon that had surrounded the aircraft and a framed photograph. Delta merged with Western Airlines and becomes the fourth largest carrier and fifth largest world carrier, according to its website. Trans-Pacific service begins and Ron Allen is named chairman and CEO. Frank Dunn retires in 1984.

Things really began to change in the 1990s as Delta became the first airline to offer MD-11 jet service and Pan Am, one of the pioneers of commercial air travel, was bought by Delta. The hard times came to an end as Delta showed profitability in the fourth quarter of the 1995 fiscal year, according to its website. Delta was the official airline of the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta. Leo Mullin succeeds Ron Allen as President and CEO. Delta is honored by both Air Transport World and Aviation Week and Space Technology magazines.

And it was during the 90s that most of the old guard, those who started with the airline in the late 40s and during the 1950s – and were present for the carrier's tremendous growth -- began to retire.

Jerry Holloway retired from Dept. 361 in March 1989 and has done a lot "of piddling" and tinkers with his "yard full of RVs" since then. His son, Keith, went to work for the airline that same year.

"That made me so proud," he said.

Bob Anderson, who worked for the carrier as a customer service agent from 1960 until he retired in Sept. 1994, says he made friends from Russia to Honolulu because of Delta Air Lines.

"It was the only real job I ever had all my life," he said. "We worked together, partied together, raised our children together, and now we're dying together."