The 'Flying Bananas' of Hughes Airwest...

Hughes Airwest was a California-based airline that operated regional flights in the 1970's. Its owner was the famous businessman (and later perhaps the world's most recluse) Howard Hughes, and its banana-yellow liveried planes were a familiar sight at west coast airports.

The company's strap line was 'Top Banana in the West' and it's banana-themed advertising was enough to thrill me as a kid when I was living in California. I was about seven and living in Palmdale, California, when my parents treated the family to a return Hughes Airwest flight to Los Angeles - it's a journey of under 100 kilometres, so it was more of a treat than anything. 

The airline's forerunner was Air West, which came into being in 1968 with the merger of Pacific Air Lines, Bonanza Airlines, and West Coast Airlines, until Howard Hughes - also the owner of TWA (Trans World Airlines)- bought the airline in 1970. The bright yellow paintjob was the brainchild of Mario Armond Zamparelli and first appeared in September 1971.

Zamparelli had a long association with Hughes and created the corporate identity of TWA and Hughes Airwest, plus designed the interiors of many Hughes-owned hotels; including the Desert in and The Sands in Las Vegas.

Nowadays it's become absurdly normal for airlines to be named after fruit - think Peach and Vanilla of Japan, and Mango of South Africa for example - and other banalities like Hop! (a low cost carrier from Air France), Up (part of El Al), Level (a long haul low cost airline owned by IAG), Wizz (Hungarian low cost carrier) and WOW (an Icelandic carrier).

But back in the 70's, airline names generally had a bit more gravitas - many were official national airlines that carried their flags to far off lands, like BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services), and SABENA (Societé Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne). Their aircraft weren't generally painted in bold and amusing liveries - as with the 'flying bananas' of Hughes Airwest, which evolved an entire bendy fruit corporate universe to match. 

Naming an airline after a person goes back further that fruit-based monikers though. Still flying is Austria's Niki, named after its founder, the racing driver Niki Lauder, and of course Ryanair, which was founded by three men, two of whom had the surname 'Ryan'. And before that there was Ansett, an Australian airline named after its founder Reg Ansett; Wardair, a Canadian airline named after its founder Max Ward, and Laker Airways, started by Sir Freddie Laker in 1966. 

When I flew Hughes Airwest in the early 70s I travelled on a Fairchild F-27 twin turboprop, but these were phased out before the end of the decade, leaving the airline with Boeing 727s and McDonald Douglas DC-9s. 

The livery came about following the crash of flight 706, in which a Hughes Airwest DC-9 suffered a mid air collision with a US Marine Crops F-4B fighter jet. All 49 people on both aircraft were killed. It was decided that a new corporate identity would be a good idea to refresh and reinvent the brand, and so cue the 'flying banana' concept.


It's unclear as to just how far the design agency foresaw the marketing and PR link with bendy fruit at the outset, but for sure the ad men pounced on the slogans and humour of the colour scheme soon enough. Printed and TV adverts used the Top Banana line repeatedly, with the above TV advert being the most bonkers in its banana theme and banana placement. Did those poor crew/extras really have to sing whilst holding a banana? 

Even by the fickle standards of the airline industry, Hughes Airwest wasn't long lived, and after slipping up on a disastrous strike by ticket agents - that closed the airline for two months in 1979 - the airline was vulnerable to closure or takeover. The end came just four months after the strike when Hughes Airwest the was bought by Republic Airlines. In time Republic was bought by Northwest Airlines, which was them merged into Delta.

One More Thing...Ronald Reagan chartered Hughes Airwest aircraft to fly him around the US as part of his presidential campaign in 1976. The former Governor of California clocked up some 50,000 miles on Hughes Airwest, visiting 62 cities in 19 states.

Reagan making a banana look like a plane while flying in a plane looking like a banana. Photo