While rounding out his aerial education with flying lessons from the famed aerobatic flier Ray Hunt, Six broke a crankshaft on his OX-5 Travelair in a race over Salinas, California, and landed in a bean field. He walked away from the accident without injury, but when he returned to pick up his airplane it was chained to the fence and guarded by the annoyed farmer who owned the field. He only retrieved his plane after paying for a swath of defoliated beans.
- Formed the Valley Flying Service in 1929 after earning his pilot’s license.
- Invested in the Southwest division of Varney Speed Lines in 1936, later moving the headquarters to Denver, Colorado and renaming it Continental Airlines.
- During World War II, he contracted for Continental Airlines to modify warplanes, operate military cargo routes, and train aircrews.
- After World War II he merged Continental with Pioneer Airlines, expanding its routes.
- In 1955, he introduced jetliners and initiated economy jet fares.
- In 1962, he expanded service to military bases in the Pacific and then formed air service to Southeast Asia, Europe, Micronesia, and Hawaii. It became a true international airline.
Six was one of the last of the colorful group of innovators, pioneers, and visionaries who built the airline industry into what it is today. He saw his own line grow from a tiny, three-stop operation into a major trunk carrier.
Six, who was born June 25th, 1907, in Stockton, Calif., learned how to fly in a single-engine OX-5 Alexander Eagle Rock bi-plane. After about 10 hours aloft, he received pilot’s license number 5772 in 1929, at the age of 22. He bought an OX-5 Travelair from Walter Beech, founded the Valley Flying Service, and proceeded to sell scenic rides to passengers and race on weekends. To earn his full transport rating, Six moved to San Francisco and enrolled in the first flying class given by Boeing Air Transport (now part of United Airlines). He was expelled for keeping trainees in the Boeing mechanics’ school up late at night working on the hot-rod airplane which he raced on weekends.
Six rounded out his aerial education by taking lessons from Ray Hunt, the famed acrobatic flyer. It was during this period that Six had his only close calls. While flying in a Pitcairn borrowed from United test pilot Mike Casserly, Six side-slipped in and undershot a sand runway at Alameda Airport, outside of Oakland. On another occasion, Six broke a crankshaft in his own Travelair in a race over Salinas, California, and had to land in a bean field. The bean field incident was actually more perilous than one might think. Six walked away from it without injury, but when he returned to pick up his airplane, he found it chained to the fence and guarded by a very annoyed farmer. Six retrieved his plane only after paying for a swath of defoliated beans.
When the Great Depression descended over the nation, the Valley Flying Service folded and Six spent the next several years traveling in China, France, and Spain. When he got back from Europe, he obtained a job as district circulation manager for the San Francisco Chronicle. But the pull of aviation was strong, and after two years on the newspaper, Six joined with Money Mouton to form Mouton & Six, the first Beechcraft distributor for Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Six was doing fairly well in his new business when, in 1936, he met Tommy Fortune Ryan III, who had just bought Hanford Airlines (later Mid-Continent and now a part of Braniff), following cancellation of the airmail contracts. Ryan informed Six of an opportunity to buy into the Southwest Division of Varney Speed Lines, which needed money to handle its newly-won Pueblo-El Paso route, and then introduced Six to Louis Mueller (Chairman of the Board of Continental until February 28th, 1966). Mueller had helped found the Southwest Division of Varney in 1934 with Walter T. Varney. As an upshot of all this, Six bought into the line with $90,000 and became general manager on July 5th, 1936.
Varney was operating one round-trip per day over the route with three single-engine Lockheed Vegas, at a mail rate of 17 cents per mile. Six’s first job was to go to Washington and get the airmail division of the Interstate Commerce Commission to raise the rate to the maximum of 33-1/3 cents per mile allowed by law. Together with Mueller, Six talked Lockheed into selling the little line three twin-engine $39,500 Lodestars for a down payment of only $5,000 each. Six and Mueller put up their homes and other personal property to secure the loan. The two men knew the line had to get into Denver and made a deal with W.A. Patterson, President of United Airlines, to jointly buy the route of Wyoming Air Services for $50,000. United took the Cheyenne-to-Denver portion, and Varney, the Denver-Pueblo section. A few days later, in October of 1937, Six moved all 16 employees to Denver, where the headquarters remained until July 15th, 1963, when they moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after moving to Denver, the airline changed its name to Continental Airlines, Inc., and on February 3rd, 1938, Six was named president.
When a Federal Court threw out all airline bids for the last airmail route in the country (Wichita-Pueblo) in 1938, Six filed an official application for the run with the Civil Aeronautics Board. The application was the first ever filed with the Board. The new CAB Chairman, Ed Nobel, acknowledged it on stationery of his former firm, the Life Saver Corporation. Six spent part of World War II in the Army Air Transport Command as a lieutenant colonel and the remainder as a reserve officer in charge of Continental Airlines’ bomber modification center in Denver. In 1944, Six returned to Continental and began the company’s post-war expansion by winning a series of routes from the CAB which let Continental spread through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
In 1967, Six won for his airline a five-year contract to supply air service to, from, and within the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The service linked Hawaii, Johnston Island, Kwajalein, Majuro, Ponape, Truk, Guam, Yap, Palau, Rota, Saipan and Okinawa. This authority became permanent when on August 11th, 1971, the Civil Aeronautics Board awarded Continental/Air Micronesia rights between Hawaii, Guam and Micronesia, plus a route from American Samoa through the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and the Trust Territory and Guam to Okinawa. Also in 1967, the Civil Aeronautics Board authorized Continental to link the Gulf states of Louisiana and Texas with Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, bringing three new key destinations into the airline’s route structure New Orleans, Seattle, and Portland.
The year 1969 saw Continental finally win authority to fly from the U.S. Mainland cities of Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Phoenix, Seattle/Tacoma, Portland, and Los Angeles/Ontario/Long Beach to Honolulu and Hilo, in Hawaii. Six had been seeking Hawaii routes since the late 1950s. In 1969, Continental was awarded routes between Chicago and Albuquerque, Albuquerque and San Francisco, and Los Angeles and Dallas.
In 1970, the Civil Aeronautics Board awarded Continental routes from the neighbor airports of Long Beach, Ontario, Santa Ana and Hollywood/Burbank to the neighbor airports of Oakland and San Jose and on to Portland and Seattle/Tacoma International Airports.
On February 1st, 1974, after many delays and long legal proceedings, Continental implemented service between Houston and Miami, and on May 21st, 1976, also after much delay and legal activity, Continental was authorized to operate between San Diego and Denver.
1977 was an important year for Continental. The airline began flying daily round trips between Saipan, Mariana Islands and Japan. Service from Denver to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa/St. Petersburg was inaugurated and President Carter approved a route for Continental from Los Angeles to Australia via Honolulu, American Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. Service began May 1st, 1979 after completion of arrangements among the various governments involved.
In October of 1978, Continental inaugurated DC-10 service between Los Angeles and Taipei, via Honolulu and Guam and also began flying between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Service between Houston and Washington D.C. was inaugurated in January of 1979. In June, Continental linked Denver with Washington D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Jose and also began Houston-Tampa service. October saw Continental begin flights from the Newark/New York area to Houston and Denver, from Denver to Phoenix and from El Paso and Albuquerque to Mexico’s west coast destinations of San Jose Del Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Acapulco.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Six clearly established himself as the airline industry’s leading lower-fare advocate. He correctly prophesized that increased traffic, not higher rates, was the answer to the industry’s problem. Six stunned the industry when he introduced the economy fare on the Chicago-Los Angeles route in 1962. He later pioneered a number of other low or discount fares which brought air travel to many who otherwise could not have afforded it. One of these innovations was a system-wide economy excursion fare which cut the standard coach fares by more than 25 percent.
Six’s knowledge of equipment and his experience in the operations end of the airline business kept him in good stead over the years. Continental has consistently been the most efficient operator of jets since they came on the aviation scene. The company’s daily aircraft utilization is usually at the top of the industry. Six’s airline has considerable experience in the Pacific and Asia. From 1964 until June of 1973, Continental flew between the West Coast and the Pacific and Asia for the Military Airlift Command, and from 1965 to 1975, a wholly owned subsidiary in Southeast Asia called Continental Air Services provided aviation service for the U.S. Agency for international Development and for private contractors in the area. Under Six’s guidance, Continental went into the hotel business in the Pacific and built hotels on Guam, Truk, Palau, and Saipan.
In May of 1975, at Six’s recommendation, the airline’s board of directors named Alexander Damm as president and chief operating officer of Continental. Six was elected chief executive officer and chairman of the board. Today, Six’s airline duties kept him crisscrossing the nation and flying frequently overseas to remain abreast of developments in air transportation and aircraft technology. He married television and motion picture actress Audrey Meadows, an enthusiastic traveler, and she accompanied him on all his trips. The modest carrier that Six started became a major trunk airline with 12,000 employees, 67 jets and more than nine million passengers a year.
Robert Six died on October 6th, 1986.