Come Fly With Me

A look back at pioneering Braniff Airlines — and inside the battle to save its Dallas operations center

Braniff Airlines ad in Life magazine, 1966
Photo from Life magazine, 1966
Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston in Life magazine ad, 1969
Photo from Life magazine, 1969
Braniff Airlines "Jellybeans"
Photo from Life magazine, 1965
Braniff Airlines air base rendering by Pereira & Luckman
Rendering courtesy of Preservation Dallas
Architect William Pereira, Tower Pyramid, Time magazine
Time and Daniel Schwen
Braniff Airlines operations center, before and after
Photo courtesy of Preservation Dallas

American Airlines may be in the news today, with its rebranding and merger, but it was Braniff Airlines that led the way with cutting-edge design in the 1960s. 

Headquartered in Dallas, Braniff was a big part of what turned Dallas-Fort Worth into a center for aviation. Braniff’s former operations center at Love Field, now owned by the City of Dallas, is in danger of being demolished (sign the petition to save it!), so it’s a good time to look back at the company’s outstanding record of design innovation.

Braniff, which shut down in 1982, made waves with its 1965 advertising campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” (Watch the over-the-top 1965 TV ad on YouTube.)

Braniff redesigned its logo, uniforms, offices and planes inside and out in one of the most spectacular corporate rebrandings ever accomplished.

The coyly named “Air Strip,” a flight attendant’s uniform designed by glamorous Italian designer Emilio Pucci, allowed Braniff’s “air hostesses” to go from the tarmac to hospitality in three easy steps, stripping off the amazing plastic space helmet and reversible coat to reveal a raspberry suit and blue lounging gauchos beneath.

It’s shown here in a double-page advertising spread from Life magazine in 1966, exploiting the era’s sexism in a playful – but professional – strip-tease.

Braniff’s excursion into high fashion didn’t stop there. Its new ad campaign had a combination of style and swagger, proclaiming “When you got it – flaunt it.” Celebrities, from Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston to Playboy Playmates and high-flying CEOs, got the Braniff treatment.

The rebranding was the brain child of Mary Wells, head of the Madison Avenue ad firm Wells Rich Greene. In the era of Mad Men, she was a Mad Woman, spearheading major ad campaigns for IBM and PanAm. Braniff liked the campaign so much that Harding Lawrence, its CEO, married Wells in Paris in 1967.

Braniff’s planes got a makeover too. Gone were the boring red, white and blue of the old Braniff; in came a pop art palette of brilliant colors: green, blue, yellow, orange, red.

It was dubbed the “jellybean” fleet and brightened up runways from New York to Peru. Sadly, the rainbow hues lasted only about five years, when Braniff switched to a less-appetizing orange.

In 1973, Braniff hired the artist and sculptor Alexander Calder to paint a plane, and he playfully replaced the “Braniff” on the fuselage with “Calder” and painted birds, beasties, and waves along its side.

The plane was a huge success – Braniff reported bookings on its South American flights went up 80 percent after the plane was introduced – so Calder was brought back in 1975 to create the Flying Colors series to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.

These planes were festooned with streams of red, white and blue paint and earned Calder a reported fee of $100,000.

All that repainting had to be done somewhere. Braniff’s operations center at Love Field, completed in 1958, was where the magic took place. Just like the uniforms and planes, the operations center took its cues from cutting-edge design.  

As show in this rendering, at its heart is a huge butterfly roof, intended by the architects to reflect flight, optimism and progress. The hangars were built with 2,500 tons of steel and hangar doors 35 feet high to accommodate the larger planes that began to dominate the skies by the late 1960s.

We take computerized airline reservations for granted now, but the first system was actually housed here, bringing commercial air service into the digital age.

Back in 1957, when it first opened, the city was ecstatic. Headlines in the Dallas Morning News proclaimed that the “Jet Age” had arrived in Dallas and that the operations building was its “nerve center.” Braniff held an open house in January 1959, inviting “Mr. and Mrs. Dallas Q. Citizen” to witness the marvels inside.

Today the operations center is in danger of being demolished by the city despite efforts of fans to save it by finding a new use. It’s a major landmark for Dallas architecture and aviation. Losing it would be short-sighted and a real disservice to the spirit of innovation that brought it to life.

The operations center was huge — more than 400,000 square feet — and designed by William Pereira of the Los Angles firm Pereira and Luckman. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1963 and is a key figure in the development of midcentury modern architecture.

The sculptural forms of his TransAmerica Tower pyramid in San Francisco and the simple wings of the Braniff building come from the same drafting table. Pereira and Luckman made a specialty of high-tech aviation facilities and they designed the iconic Theme Building at LAX. Pereira even won an Oscar for Best Effects for his set design work on the 1942 film Reap the Wild Wind

Dallas architect Mark Lemmon collaborated on the project. He had spent much of his career building the campus of SMU and beautiful cottages in Highland Park, and this project helped complete his conversion to modern architecture.

It may be hard to see all this glamour in the operations center today, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t embody those same powerful ideas.

The building has been vacant since 1993 and needs TLC. Too often we lose iconic structures because of a lack of imagination – just browse through the pages of Mark Doty’s Lost Dallas, and you’ll see page after page of buildings that could have found new uses rather than falling to the wrecking ball.

Tearing down and building new isn’t always the most forward-looking way to make a city. For the home of a company that touted design and color – the end of the “plain” as seen in these pictures from Preservation Dallas – to be replaced by yet another car dealership suggests a lack of vision.