When I got out of the Air Force, I relocated to the Washington DC area, and Washington National Airport became my new “home airport”. The DCA of the late 70s was barely recognizable from the DCA of today. Back then, there was a short-term parking lot overlooking an open ramp in between the Piedmont Airlines terminal and the commuter ramp. I met a group of other airline enthusiasts and together, we formed the Washington Airline Society. It was not unusual for me to run into other members of the WAS up on that hill, which we christened Hill 13. From about 2pm on, Hill 13 was the place to be at DCA. There was really no good reason to go all the way out to Dulles Airport, a,k,a, “Dull-Ass Airport”, where “busy” meant TWO Pan Am 747s on the ground, parked far enough away from the observation deck to make photography pretty much useless anyway.
Then, in 1981, my life changed. I was hired by Piedmont Airlines at DCA and the door opened to a whole new world. Not only did I now have the capability to travel around the country, but I also gained ramp access at DCA. The world was my oyster, and I dove into my new world with both hands and feet. At the same time, I began my photojournalism career by growing the “Commuter Corner” section of Professional Pilot magazine. Life was pretty darn good.
As my interest in commuter airlines grew, I found myself focusing my camera on the commuter activity at DCA. Those were dynamic days, with the commuter industry stepping out of its 12,500 lb restrictions and rebranding itself as the regional airline industry. With the exception of the Allegheny Commuter system, the regional carriers were still unaligned, which made for a kaleidoscope of color at the commuter terminal.
Allegheny Commuter, where it all began.
In the beginning, there was Allegheny Commuter, a creative use of code-sharing to permit smaller regional airlines to sell their seats under the banner of the major airline partner, and fly in the colors of the major airline.
Henson Airlines was the original Allegheny Commuter carrier, offering replacement between Hagerstown MD and DCA with a Beech Queen Air. It was quickly replaced by the first plane designed for the commuter airline industry, the Beech 99.
N396HA, Beech 99A, Henson Airlines
Southern Jersey was one of the smaller Allegheny Commuter carriers. Here is a DHC-6 sitting on the ramp just before heading off to Atlantic City.
N102AC, DHC-6-300, Southern Jersey Airways
Crown Airways, based in Dubois PA, was one of the earlier operators of the Shorts 330. The company was bought by Mesa Airlines in 1994.
N241CA, Shorts 330, Crown Airways
Once upon a time, the Fairchild F-27 was used by Allegheny Airlines. But by the late 1980s, the Fokker F-27 was used by Allegheny Commuter, leased from Air Wisconsin.
Aeromech was an Allegheny Commuter based in Clarksburg, WV. It was an early operator of the Embraer EMB-110 Bandeirante. Aeromech was also the first airline that I interviewed with for a job. In retrospect, I guess things worked out for the best.
N615KC, EMB-110P1, Aeromech, Allegheny Commuter
The DHC-7 was one heck of an impressive plane. It can takeoff and land on a postage stamp! The FAA, in cooperation with Henson Airlines, developed a special STOL approach for DCA, which brought the Dash 7s on approach over the Potomac to land on Runway 15 and hold short of what was then Runway 18. If you haven’t seen it do its thing, you must!
N901HA, DHC‑7‑102, Henson Airlines,
Allegheny acquired a fleet of Nord 262s when it merged with Lake Central Airlines. They found their way into the Allegheny Commuter system, operating with Pocono Airlines.
N26225, N.262A‑26, Pocono Airlines, Allegheny Commuter
Here is another Pocono Airlines Nord 262 after being repainted in the updated Allegheny Commuter color scheme.
In the 1975-77 time frame, Frakes Aviation converted nine Nords to meet United States FAR 298 regulation. The original Turbomeca engines were replaced with PT-6As, and the modified aircraft was called the Mohawk 298.
N29817, Mohawk 298
New Haven Commuter was another early operator of the Embraer EMB-110 Bandierante
N711NH, EMB-110P1, New Haven Commuter Airlines
Commuter Airlines served the Northeast with a fleet of Swearingen Metro 1s and ex-Allegheny Convair 580s
N5811, CV‑580, Commuter Airlines
N5811 was eventually transferred to Freedom Airlines in 1981.
N5811, CV‑580, Freedom Airlines
N7099N floated around among several airlines in the Northeast before ending up with Ocean Airlines. This was the very first production Beech 99, MSN U-1
N7099N, Beech 99, Ocean Airlines
Empire was a small commuter carrier with a hub operation in Syracuse NY. The carrier served DCA with its fleet of Metro IIs.
N104UR, Swearingen Metro II, Empire Airlines
Empire started operations with a single Piper Navajo, N546BA. Tragically, this plane crashed on approach to Ithaca on 5 January 1982, killing both pilots.
N546BA, Piper PA-31-310,
Empire also flew a Navajo Chieftain. Occasionally, these two Pipers would be pressed into service to replace a Metro.
Air North was one of the very few airlines to fly one of the very few Gulfstream 1-Cs. In an effort to capture the fast-growing market for airplanes in the 35-50 seat market, Grumman took its original Gulfstream I and stretched it to seat 37 passengers. Unfortunately, nothing was done to stretch the baggage compartment, and the Gulfstream 1-C (C for Commuter) was not a success.
Having said that, N159AN has a special spot in my heart, since one of my photos was the first of my photos used by Professional Pilot magazine. I’ll never forget the thrill I felt the very first time I saw “Photo by Jay Selman” in a magazine!
N159AN, Gulfstream 1-C, Air North
Altair began operations with Beech 99s, and soon moved up to Nord 262s. The carrier operated a busy schedule out of DCA.
N274A, N.262A‑27, Altair
Along about 1982, Altair upgraded its color scheme.
In 1981, Altair took a great leap and added Fokker F-28-4000s to its fleet.
As the regional airline industry started to explode due to raising the 12,500-lb limitation, airplane manufacturers rushed to fill that gap. British Aerospace elected to take the approach of upgrading a tried and proven aircraft. The original Avro 748 design dates back to the late 1950s, and Hawker Siddeley Aerospace decided that this aircraft was just what the industry needed. The manufacturer’s optimism was short-lived.
N748AV, HS.748‑2B/FAA, Air Virginia
Look for further posts that will cover the mainline airliners from DCA, from over 35 years ago.
One thought on “026 – DCA, 1977-1987. Commuters”
What memories Jay. I was with Beech and sold the first 99s to Dick Henson in 1968 and then got recalled to fly F-100sin Nam. Got back in 1970 and was involved in the middle of the commuter expansion. A great time with some of the great people who started the industry. Much work……much fun.