North Central Airlines was founded in 1939 as the aviation arm of the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company. Based in Clintonville, Wisconsin, the airline started by using a small Waco biplane for company use. In 1944, however, the automotive company decided to start public air service and began operations in 1946. The airline was named Wisconsin Central Airlines and initially operated the Cessna Bobcat to six cities in Wisconsin.
The airline proved to be successful, eventually adding the Lockheed Electra and the Douglas DC-3 to its fleet. The DC-3 would become the backbone of the growing airline’s fleet. In 1952, the airline shifted headquarters from Wisconsin to Minneapolis, Minnesota, one state over. The move to Minneapolis also came with the change in name to North Central Airlines.
The airline continued to expand across the Midwest from its new Minnesota headquarters. The number of DC-3s expanded to 32 of the piston aircraft. At the time of the move, the airline had 28 destinations, all west of Lake Michigan. The year after the move, Detroit was added to the route map followed by Omaha, North Dakota and South Dakota in 1959.
The same year, five Convair 340’s were added to the fleet from Continental Airlines. The next year, the airline surpassed one million passengers carried. Growth continued throughout the 1960’s, helped with the addition of the larger Convair 440’s. By the decade’s end, the airline served 68 cities, including service east to New York’s LaGuardia and two Canadian destinations.
The decade also saw the airline enter the jet age. In 1967, North Central added the Douglas DC-9-31 twin-engine jet. At the same time, the piston Convair 340’s and 440’s were converted to the turboprop Convair 580. The faithful DC-3 had also been completely phased out by 1969, leaving the airline with a fleet of jet-powered DC-9’s and turboprop Convairs. For most of its history, North Central was considered a local service carrier, focusing on service to the Midwest, with some routes outside this area to locations like New York, Boston, and Denver.
Moving into the 1970s, the airline continued to see success. This was boosted by the deregulation of the industry in 1978 and coinciding with this was the introduction of the larger Douglas DC-9-51. In 1979, North Central purchased Atlanta-based Southern Airways. The combined carrier was renamed Republic Airlines.
Republic continued expansion purchasing Hughes Airwest in 1980. However, the mergers and new aircraft proved to be a burden for the airline, dismantling most of the Hughes Airwest network in the process. In 1986, Republic and Northwest-Orient merged to form Northwest Airlines, eventually merging with Delta Air Lines in 2008. This merger brought an end to the 49-year history of North Central.