Clifford A. Ball, a McKeesport, Pennsylvania, automobile dealer and owner of a controlling interest in Bettis Field near Pittsburgh, won airmail contract route No. 11 on March 27, 1926. In April of the following year, The Clifford Ball Airline began operating between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Ohio. Famed humorist and performer Will Rogers was known to be an early and regular passenger, but scheduled passenger service did not begin until April 28, 1928. The following August, they became the first airline to serve Washington, DC, from the west, offering their flagship "Path of the Eagle" service from Cleveland to Hoover Field across the Potomac River.
Ball sold his interests in November 1930 to Pittsburgh Aviation Industries Corp., and the airline became Pennsylvania Air Lines (PAL). PAL was reorganized as Pennsylvania Airlines after the Air Mail scandal of the early 1930s. Central Airlines, otherwise notable for hiring Helen Richey, the first female commercial pilot in the U.S., became PAL's main competitor after their founding in 1934. The two companies merged to form Pennsylvania Central Airlines, or PCA, on November 1, 1936.
In 1941 PCA moved their headquarters to the new Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, becoming one of its three original tenants; PCA had been consulted during the airport's design. The row of office buildings next to its hangars became "mahogany row" and the airline adopted the slogan "The Capital Airline," with its aircraft dubbed "Capitaliners." By 1947 their route network no longer reflected their name, and on April 21, 1948, the airline adopted a new insignia, colors and name: Capital Airlines.
In 1946 PCA began flying the Douglas DC-4. In 1948 they created the "Nighthawk," one of the first coach class services, to compete with the railroads between Chicago and New York City and the dominant airlines on the route, United, TWA and American.
Capital's last decade
In 1948 the first airborne television was installed on a Capital airplane.
The airline also encountered labor difficulties. Maintenance personnel went on strike in 1958, crippling operations for 38 days. On April 1, 1960, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination faulted Capital Airlines for failing to hire Patricia Banks, an African-American woman who had been denied employment as a flight attendant despite meeting all job requirements. She became one of only two black flight attendants in the country.
These problems compounded slow revenue growth in the late 1950s, and the airline began to struggle financially. In May 1960, Vickers foreclosed on Capital's entire fleet of Viscounts, and bankruptcy for the airline seemed certain. However, on July 28, 1960, they announced a merger with Chicago-based rival United Airlines, saving them from that fate. When completed on June 1, 1961, it was the largest airline merger in history. United continued to operate the British-built Viscounts that had been flown by Capital. In 1961 Capital had begun operating new Boeing 720s owned by United. The cover of the airline's June 1, 1961 timetable proclaimed: New Boeing 720 Jets New York - Atlanta - New Orleans: 2 Round Trips Daily.
In 1981 former employees formed the Capital Airlines Association to preserve their memories of the old carrier. A retired United Airlines pilot, Milt Marshall, bought the Capital trademark and operated a charter business under the Capital name out of Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut.
In a bizarre final chapter to the brand's story, in July 2004 Capt. Marshall was transporting a passenger in a Capital Airways Piper PA-31 Navajo from Waterbury to upstate New York. The plane crashed as it made an approach in clear weather near Lake George. Both pilot and passenger were killed. Their bodies were mangled and burned in the wreckage. A pistol magazine with two missing rounds was found at the crash scene but no gun was ever found. Many people believe that the passenger, a businessman who was facing both bankruptcy and indictment for fraud and who had attempted to buy a large life insurance policy just prior to the flight, killed the pilot and himself causing the crash. The bodies were so mutilated that no official cause of death was determined and the case was closed. This marked the last chapter in the tragedy strewn history of Capital Airlines.
Destinations in 1961
The following destination information is taken from the June 1, 1961 Capital Airlines timetable:
August 31, 1940 – Douglas DC-3A NC21789, operating under the PCA name, departed Washington, DC into an intense thunderstorm. Probable cause was the disabling of the pilots by a severe lightning discharge close to the plane, which caused a sudden dive from 6,000 feet (1,800 m), killing all 25 aboard. That Lovettsville Air Disaster was the worst American airline accident to that date.
April 14, 1945 Pennsylvania Central Airlines DC-3 crashed on Coopers Rock Ridge near Morgantown, West Virginia killing 20 people (all on board)
On January 6, 1946, a Pennsylvania Central Airlines Douglas DC-3 (Registration NC21786), flying as Flight 105 originating in New York City with stops in Pittsburgh and Knoxville crashed while attempting to make an instrument approach to Runway 18 at Birmingham Municipal Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. The pilot, first officer, and a check airman who occupied the cockpit jump seat perished in the crash; several passengers were injured, none fatally.
June 13, 1947 – Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 410, NC 88842, crashed near a point known as Lookout Rock, West Virginia, approximately eight miles southeast of Charles Town, West Virginia, while enroute from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D C. All 50 occupants were killed on impact and the Douglas DC-4 was destroyed as a result of the crash and subsequent fire.