Bridges: Tom Braniff's airline provided memorable chapter of Texas history

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It started with an insurance salesman and one small airplane.  From there, it became an aviation empire and one of the most noted names in Texas aviation.  From Braniff Airline’s humble beginnings, Tom Braniff’s story became one of many colorful tales of Texas pilots and businessmen and the quest to conquer the skies.

Thomas Elmer Braniff was born in Salina, Kansas, in December 1883 into a farming family.  His father, John Braniff, soon moved into the insurance business and moved the family to Kansas City in the 1890s.  The Braniffs were devoted Catholics.  The younger Braniff worked a series of jobs while he completed school, including working in a meat-packing plant and working for the Kansas City Star.  In 1900, the family moved to Oklahoma City where John Braniff began working for a new insurance agency.

Bridges
Bridges

The younger Braniff soon wanted to branch out and soon started his own insurance agency west of Oklahoma City at the age of 17.  However, his firm went bankrupt when a tornado wiped out a nearby community where Braniff had sold tornado insurance and was unable to pay the claims.  He soon returned to Oklahoma City and started a new firm with a partner.  The new firm struggled in its early years, but by 1917, he was able to buy out his partner.  He expanded into Braniff Investments shortly afterward and soon had one of the most successful insurance agencies in the region.

By the 1920s, Braniff was looking to the future.  In 1923, he built the T. E. Braniff Building in Oklahoma City, a 10-story building that was the first skyscraper in Oklahoma.  He also became fascinated with aviation, and his younger brother Paul already had a license and his own airplane.  In 1927, Braniff and a group of investors bought a used airplane and began the Oklahoma Aero Club, beginning a flight school, air taxi service, and selling aircraft parts.  In 1928, he bought out his partners and started an airline, with his brother Paul as president and the main pilot and himself as vice president, calling it Paul R. Braniff, Inc.  It served a single route between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

The next year, the first Braniff Airlines was sold, but in 1930, the two started again, with Braniff Airways serving routes from Oklahoma City to either Tulsa or Wichita Falls.  In 1935, he expanded deeper into Texas by buying Long and Harmon Airlines, a small airline based in Dallas that also had routes to Amarillo, Brownsville, and Galveston. More importantly, this smaller airline also had a lucrative air mail contract, guaranteeing paid service to these different cities.  In 1936, Braniff bought Bowen Airlines, a small company operating out of Fort Worth.

In spite of his growing success, he met with tragedy.  In 1938, his son died in an airplane crash.  He continued to move forward nevertheless.  By the late 1930s, the airline was now based in Dallas, offering up to eight flights per day out of Dallas Love Field, contributing to the airport’s growing success.  Most maintenance operations were also conducted in Dallas by this point.

When World War II started, the Braniff brothers stepped up.  Paul Braniff, now in his 40s, would serve as a pilot during World War II, while his brother, too old for the military at this point, controlled the airline and his other business interests at home.  Tom Braniff donated all of the airline’s DC-2 aircraft to the military, which were older but still reliable aircraft, as the airline switched to the DC-3.  Braniff also arranged to share their Love Field facilities with the military for maintenance and training of pilots and mechanics.

After World War II, Braniff began routes throughout Central America and the Caribbean.  They also expanded steadily across the Midwest.  In 1952, he bought Mid-Continent Airlines.  By this point, the airline dream that had started with one used plane now had a fleet of 75 aircraft, 400 pilots, and 4,000 employees.  By the mid-1950s, it was the 10th largest airline in the country.  However, Thomas Braniff died tragically in a private plane crash near Shreveport in 1954 at the age of 70.  His brother Paul died a few months later from cancer.

The airline he founded continued for several more years and was a staple in Dallas aviation. By 1955, the company’s payroll reached $22 million (more than $240 million in modern dollars), and the airline built a new terminal at Love Field in 1958.  The number of passengers and the miles flown by passengers increased steadily into the mid-1960s.  The company went through a series of buyouts in the 1960s but remained profitable well into the 1970s.  In 1978, when the federal government deregulated airline routes, Braniff executives attempted to take advantage of it by buying a series of new aircraft and starting new routes.  However, the new routes were not as profitable, and the company started losing money rapidly.

Braniff Airlines ultimately went bankrupt by 1982, a victim of increased competition, fuel prices, and a botched expansion attempt that left it deep in debt.  New buyers attempted to resurrect the airline in 1984, mostly with staff from the old Braniff, but this effort failed by 1989.  A second attempt to revive the airline started in 1991 but failed the next year. Braniff Airways Foundation, a charity started by the airline, still works to promote the history of aviation.

Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Ken Bridges Tom Braniff airline provided memorable page of history