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Flying to Nevada in the 1940s? Book a seat on Bonanza Airlines

Douglas DC-3, Orange County Airport, circa 1958
By Orange County Archives - Flickr: Bonanza Airlines, Orange County Airport, circa 1958, CC BY 2.0,

For longtime Las Vegans—indeed, for longtime westerners—Bonanza Airlines is a cause for nostalgia. It was founded in 1945, and began operations in 1946.

Bonanza’s founder was Edmund Converse. He had been a lawyer and then a naval intelligence officer during World War Two, when he visited Las Vegas. He liked it and decided to come back when the war ended. He started the airline late in 1945 with one single engine Cessna Skymaster and a ticket counter at the El Rancho Vegas. The next year, he hired Nevada’s first female licensed pilot, Florence Murphy, who pretty much ran the place for more than a decade. They expanded the airline, and benefited from shipping produce, leasing government surplus planes, and providing regular service between Reno and Las Vegas. Before long Bonanza added Tonopah and Hawthorne to the list. By the time Murphy departed in 1958, Bonanza had extended into four states and twenty cities. It went public, and Converse added newer, more modern planes that could carry more passengers.

Bonanza also had a little help, and it’s quite a story. The airline needed a certification from the Civil Aeronautics Board, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration. The author of the original CAB legislation was a Nevadan named Pat McCarran—yes, the state’s powerful, controversial U.S. senator. McCarran was on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and chaired its subcommittee for the board. When the CAB hadn’t acted on Bonanza, McCarran was going to hold a regular hearing on the agency’s budget. Right before it, he mentioned to the CAB’s board members that Bonanza was still waiting on certification. They said they hadn’t gotten to it. McCarran said he had reserved the room next door, so why didn’t they just go over there and meet on the matter? Then they could come back and he would hold their budget hearing. For some reason, they approved what Bonanza Airlines wanted.

Interestingly, McCarran belonged to the Democratic Party and Converse was one of a then-much smaller number of Republicans in Nevada. But that mattered a lot less to the two of them than it might today.

Bonanza’s bosses didn’t mind trying different things. Bonanza had the first all turbo-propeller fleet, and had radio phones on planes so that passengers could make phone calls from the air … and you thought airplane wi-fi was revolutionary. Some who called the airline for reservations might recall hearing the operator hum the theme from the television show Bonanza.

There are some local connections here still. Florence Murphy and her husband and their business partner built the original airfield that is now North Las Vegas Airport. Murphy left Bonanza to go into real estate with Larry McNeil—you may have heard of the McNeil Estates development locally.

If you want to trace what happened to Bonanza, it merged with Pacific Airlines and West Coast Airlines in 1968 and became Air West. Then it became Hughes Air West, owned by Howard Hughes, who of course had vast experience with aviation. Through a series of sales, the company became part of Northwest and finally Delta Airlines in 2008. But for its owners, and for Nevadans who needed to fly the West, Bonanza was truly Nevada’s airline, and it was truly … a bonanza.