During the 1970s and 80s, the regional airline market was filled with airlines named after their respective states. These included large, successful airlines, such as Air California, as well as many smaller airlines, such as Air Indiana. Neighboring Illinois was home to one of these small, intrastate carriers: Air Illinois.
The airline was founded in 1970 in Carbondale, Ill., located in the southern half of the state. The city would remain the headquarters for the airline during its entire time of operations. Air Illinois started operations with the de Havilland Twin Otter as its primary aircraft, focusing on short routes within the state. By 1974, however, the airline’s route map expanded out of the state to nearby Missouri and Tennessee.
The airline’s route network stretched from Meigs Field in Chicago to Memphis, Tenn. While the Twin Otter remained the workhorse for the airline, the airline also added the Hawker Siddeley HS 748 turboprop in 1978. Air Illinois used the larger aircraft on its route between Chicago and the state’s capital of Springfield.
The year prior the airline acquired the HS 748, it had also added another aircraft type to its fleet. Air Illinois purchased a fleet of Handley Page Jetstreams from South Central Air Transport, as the Mississippi-based airline was having trouble trying to compete with Southern Airways. By 1979, however, the airline’s routes had stagnated, with no new additions. The new decade, however, would see a major expansion of the carrier.
In 1982, the airline leased its first and only jet aircraft, the British Aircraft Corporation One-Eleven or the BAC 1-11. The faster jet aircraft was used on the airline’s new routes from Chicago-O’Hare, the largest airport in the state. The 1-11’s serviced St. Louis, Evansville, Ind., Waterloo, Iowa and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. However, the positive growth for the airline would not continue as tragedy would strike the airline the next year.
On October 11, 1983, Air Illinois flight 710 was on a scheduled flight from Chicago-Meigs Field to Carbondale, via Springfield. After completing the leg to Springfield, the flight took off for the next leg to Carbondale. Shortly after takeoff, the crew reported an electrical fault to air traffic control, keeping them advised of the situation.
Due to crew error, the aircraft eventually lost electrical power. Disoriented in the cloudy weather and nighttime conditions, the plane descended into the ground and crashed, killing all ten people on board. The crash rocked the airline, grounding the fleet indefinitely.
Air Illinois began reforming and redeveloping its safety standards after the crash. The airline also lost one million dollars in the aftermath of the crash, a crippling loss. The airline resumed operations using the BAC 1-11, however, operations using the smaller Twin Otter continued to be suspended. A deal was reached with Air Midwest for the purchase of Air Illinois in the beginning of 1984, possibly saving the company from extinction.
Four months later in April 1984, however, the airline declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The deal with Air Midwest fell through earlier in the year, which left the airline with little options but to declare bankruptcy and cease operations. The bankruptcy ended 14 years of operation in the Midwest and the state of Illinois.
Although short-lived in operation, the airline held the distinction of operating the largest aircraft into Meigs Field, the Hawker Siddeley HS 748.