For Continental's 75th Anniversary: Five Not-So-Great Highlights

Houston's Continental Airlines announced today it's taking delivery of a plane done up in "retro livery," which to the rest of us means an old-school paint job and decoration, to celebrate the 75th anniversary.

It's "The Blue Skyway" design from 1947, in case you're interested, and was chosen by current and retired employees in a poll. We would have gone for a 1970s look that included hot pants, but we had no vote.

Continental is the only major airline based in Houston, of course, so we should honor its Diamond Jubilee.

To do so, here are five facts you might not know about Continental.

1. Continental was the first major American airline to hire a black pilot. Marlon Green , an Air Force vet, had been rejected by 10 other airlines before Continental hired him in 1965.

(Stop reading here if you're a big Continental fan.) He was hired only because he left blank the "race" box on his application, and didn't submit the asked-for pictures. He clearly was the most qualified applicant, documents proved, but didn't get the job until he won a lengthy court battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

2. The airline's longtime boss was married to both Ethel Merman and Audrey Meadows from The Honeymooners. (At different times.) Bob Six was his name, and he saw himself as quite the charismatic ladies' man. At the time he married Merman she was one of the biggest names in show business; she quickly learned two things, according to a recent biography: a) Six pretty much saw her as a publicity prop for the airline, and b) Social life in Denver, where the airline was then headquartered, was somehow not as lively as Broadway. The two divorced after seven years. (She then went on to marry Ernest Borgnine, divorcing him after 32 days.)

3. Continental was indirectly responsible for the Airplane! movies. Well, it's a bit of a stretch, but on 1962 a Continental flight from O'Hare Airport in Chicago crashed when a suitcase bomb exploded; it had been carried on by someone hoping to collect insurance for his wife. Author Arthur Hailey used the plot device for his Airport novel and movie, with Van Heflin playing the nervous guy who takes off from a thinly disguised O'Hare with a bomb. The Airport movies, along with the film Zero Hour, were prime inspirations for the Zucker Brothers in making Airplane!

2 4. Continental at one point had perhaps the most-hated boss in America. Frank Lorenzo was an infamous Wall Street pirate famous for buying companies, cutting them to the bone and selling them. Even the federal government's Commission on the Centennial of Flight called Lorenzo "one of the most notorious players in the history of commercial aviation in the United States." And that was during W's administration, when it took a lot to get the feds to criticize a businessman.

1 5. Continental helped bring about the death of the Concorde.  In July 2000, a Continental jet taking off from a French airport lost a part of its thrust reverser. The piece of titanium was on the runway as a Concorde was taking off; it punctured a tire and set off a series of events that blew up a fuel tank and killed all 100 passengers. It was the only crash involving the supersonic jet, but the Concorde never recovered. After a tentative comeback, company officials said the crash -- and the economy and security concerns after 9/11 -- had hurt business too much. By 2003 all Concorde flights were a thing of the "space-age" past.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly