An Avgeek Story – Herman the Duck, North Central and Republic Airlines
July 1, 2019, will mark the 40th anniversary of the formation of Republic Airlines. Told from a ‘hometown’ perspective, this is a story of that airline and its famous duck logo named Herman.
It was the early Seventies, and like most young kids looking skyward, my fascination with aviation started with my first trip to the airport.
Entering the sparkling new terminal at Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) felt like an adventure. Never mind that the intimate terminal was little more than hotel lobby in size; to me this was where exciting things were happening.
Though sad to see my grandparents fly off to Florida for the winter, the liveliness of the airport setting made me forget any such unpleasantness.
I wanted to see a plane, and CWA put on a display that I would never forget. I was about to meet North Central Airlines and its lovable duck logo, named Herman.
Moving towards the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the tarmac, I saw it – a big beautiful jet. Decorating its fuselage, a bright aqua stripe – a splash of vibrant color in what was otherwise a grey Wisconsin morning.
The DC-9-31 was parked parallel to the terminal, as if to show off its graceful lines. A handsome duck logo decorated the Douglas jet’s impressive “T” tail, which stretched high above the ground.
“Is that your plane?” I asked my grandparents. “It is,” my grandpa responded, as we both admired the sleek jet. Casually, grandpa pointed out the blue duck on the tail.
Boarding soon began. In those years, there were no jet-ways at Central Wisconsin Airport. I watched as my grandparents walked across the tarmac, boarding the DC-9 via a small metal staircase. Reaching the top step, they turned, and with a wave good-bye, they entered the plane.
Soon, as if by magic, the little stair-case rose from the ground, folded up, and stowed itself within the fuselage. What a magnificent aircraft I thought.
From that day on, North Central’s blue duck was etched in my brain. Perhaps it was the logo’s sleek lines and swept back tail that dazzled me; whatever it was, the image stayed with me for years.
Fast forward to 1982, when I too, had the chance to fly with Herman the duck. By then, it would be a nationally recognised airline logo, flying coast to coast, under the Republic Airlines name.
An Icon is Born
Returning to my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin after that first flight, I went straight to the Wausau Public Library, looking to find all the information I could on this airline and its duck logo. This was 1982 after all, long before the internet age, with its search engines, aviation blogs and social media connections.
What I found, excited me nearly as much as the flight itself. To my surprise, North Central and Herman the duck, were born right in Wisconsin. I found the story thrilling.
Founded in 1944, just 50 miles from my hometown, in a place called Clintonville, the fledgling airline would be called Wisconsin Central Airlines. The name of course, was a nod to its birthplace, and to its intra-Wisconsin route system.
Three years later, in 1947, the Milwaukee industrial designer, Karl Brocken, would design a flawless airline logo, a silhouetted mallard duck, encircled by a ring that symbolised the sun and the moon. Conceived in Wisconsin, it was the perfect representation of the airline, and of the beautiful Great Lakes state from where it came.
According to Robert Serling, author of the 1973 book, Ceiling Unlimited – The Story of North Central Airlines, an international survey was taken in the 1950s, to study the “recognition effectiveness” of every airline symbol in the world. North Central’s duck logo would come in second, only after Pan Am’s famous blue globe.
In 1952, to reflect its growing route network, Wisconsin Central changed its name to North Central Airlines. That same year, the company moved its headquarters out of Wisconsin, to nearby Minneapolis.
The Jet Age comes to Wisconsin
In the 1950s and 1960s, North Central DC-3s, and Convair prop-planes were daily visitors to my hometown, at what is now Wausau Downtown Airport. By the late 1960s however, airports would need to accommodate a new breed of North Central aircraft, the sleek new passenger jet known as the Douglas DC-9.
To accommodate the shiny new North Central “Nines,” new airports with longer runways and bigger terminals would be needed. These larger terminals would be instrumental in keeping, and attracting airline service.
Not to be left behind, the communities of central Wisconsin banded together, with Marathon and Portage counties building the new Central Wisconsin Airport. Serving Wausau and Stevens Point, it would open in October of 1969.
Thanks to CWA’s long runway, North Central could for the first time, offer pure-jet service to the Central Wisconsin area, and the airline wasted no time in promoting their new jets and the 24 daily flights at CWA in the local Wausau paper. Not surprisingly, local passenger numbers increased considerably in the years after the airport opened.
Herman Spreads His Wings
By 1974, around the time I first met Herman at CWA, North Central would have a sizeable fleet of Douglas jets flying their route system. Herman the duck could be seen as far west as Denver, and east to Toronto and New York.
Even bigger things were on the horizon as the 1970s came to a close. North Central would combine with Southern Airways on July 1, 1979 – making it the first airline merger in the post deregulation era. To reflect its larger national presence, the combined airline changed its name to Republic Airlines. As the dominant carrier in the merger, North Central retained Herman the duck as Republic’s logo.
Republic would have a huge presence in the Midwest, Great Lakes and the South, with plentiful routes heading out east and to Florida. It’s reach out west however was far more modest. In the first half of 1980, Republic’s limited western service extended only to Denver, Las Vegas, Houston, Tucson and San Diego.
Aware of this gap in its route system, Republic decided to purchase San Francisco based airline, Hughes Airwest. The merger would be finalised on October 1, 1980.
Gaining an extensive west coast network with the Hughes Airwest buyout, Republic would fly to more U.S. cities than any other airline. Republic would also become the largest operator of the DC-9 in the world, thanks to the aircraft type being operated by all three of the merged airlines.
From its days flying intra-Wisconsin routes in the 1940s, to becoming a full-fledged major airline in 1979, Herman the duck could now be seen coast to coast, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
North Central’s Legacy Lives on at Republic
To my delight, Republic never forgot its central Wisconsin roots.
Republic continued to fly their bigger DC-9s – from the 10 and 30 series to the 50 series – into Central Wisconsin Airport. The sturdy Convair 580s, with their powerful turbo-prop engines, were there too.
In another nod to its past, Republic would continue to hold its annual shareholders meeting in my hometown of Wausau, just as North Central had done.
North Central’s spirit was very much alive at Republic. Boarding my first flight in April 1982, I was thrilled to see dozens of the navy blue and aqua striped Republic planes on the tarmac in Minneapolis.
Settling into my seat on the DC-9-50, I glanced over to the gate next door, and there was Herman adorning a sleek Boeing 727-200, my first real view of that aircraft type in Republic colors.
With my face plastered against the DC-9 window, I watched as a Western Airlines DC-10 slowly taxied by (at that time, no one could have known that Western and Republic would one day become part of the same Delta Air Lines family). Following the Western DC-10 on its taxi to the runway, was a Braniff International 727 in two-tone blue. This would be the only time I would lay eyes on the flashy Texas airline, as one month later, it would declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and close its doors.
As a teenager, I was lucky to fly with Republic dozens of times. Every flight was thrilling. I was just as eager for the time spent changing planes in Milwaukee or Minneapolis, so that I could watch all the airport action from the terminal.
Destinations like Grand Cayman, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. seemed like faraway places for a kid my age, but Herman the duck, the proud hometown icon, was always there to fly me home.
It was Republic’s popular Milwaukee to Tampa route however, that I flew most often. Republic typically operated the route with a DC-9-50. On one flight though, something new awaited me at the gate.
Boarding in Tampa for our flight to Milwaukee, I was thrilled to step on board a brand-new DC-9 Super 80. Long and sleek, the Super 80 was at that time, the largest plane I had been on. It quickly became my favorite Republic aircraft.
In addition to the planes, Republic’s employees made every trip a memorable one. I have especially fond memories of the Republic flight attendants – to me, they were like celebrities – as were all Republic employees.
In 1986 however, with merger fever gripping the airline industry, Minneapolis based Northwest Orient Airlines would purchase Republic. At the time, it was the largest merger in airline history. Sadly, with this merger, Herman the duck would disappear completely from the skies, replaced instead, by the familiar red tail of Northwest Orient. (Northwest itself, would merge with Delta in 2010).
Not surprisingly, Delta still operates many of the original North Central and Republic Airlines routes from Minneapolis and Detroit, and on similar McDonnell Douglas aircraft. You have to know where to look, but the heritage is clearly visible.
How great it would be, to see a Delta aircraft today, painted in a Herman the duck heritage livery, flying those same routes.
A Symbol of Home
Born in Wisconsin, Republic’s duck logo perfectly represented my home state, and the little, out-of-the-way town where I grew up.
Eventually spreading his wings across the country, Herman would be seen in national TV commercials and in hundreds of places around North America. Our hometown icon had made it big, and it was a thrill to see.
In actuality, it was the people of Republic Airlines that made Herman the duck so great. I flew with them many times and they inspired me with their friendliness, humor and professionalism. Because of them, I would pursue my own career in the airline industry.
I was only 18 years old when Republic and Northwest merged. And while I didn’t have the pleasure to work under Herman’s proud wings, I did have the great fortune to work for two wonderful international airlines.
I left the airline industry after an almost 20 year career, but the travel bug is still in me. As they say in the airline industry, ‘the jet fuel still runs through my veins.’
I have traveled around the world a hundred times over, probably more. I have lived overseas, I am a citizen of two countries. My love of travel began as a kid with North Central and Republic, and it will continue for as long as I live.
And when I fly, I do it with a Herman the duck luggage tag strapped to my bag! So yes, Herman the duck is still out there flying.
This year (2019) marks the 40th anniversary of the merger between North Central Airlines and Southern Airways. Also in 2019, Delta Air Lines will celebrate 50 years of service at Central Wisconsin Airport. The service began in 1969 with Delta heritage carrier North Central Airlines.
Todd Sturm is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN and Brisbane, Australia.