William Nyrop was born on April 1, 1912 on a farm in West Cedar Creek, NE. He grew up in Elgin and graduated from Elgin High School in May of 1930. He graduated from Doane College in Crete, NE in 1934 with a degree in history. He then completed a law degree from George Washington University Law School.
Nyrop joined the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in the spring of 1939 as a staff attorney. He was involved in the legal agreements when new routes were established for airlines. A few months later, he was transferred to the section that dealt with legal issues concerning aircraft accident investigation. This is where Nyrop developed his interest in aviation safety that would stay with him for the rest of his career. In 1940, President Roosevelt created the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAB was given power to control airlines routes, airfares and subsidies. It was also responsible for safety rule making and airline accident investigation. Nyrop was asked to be the Executive Assistant. A position he accepted but had to resign later that year, when he joined the Army Air Force.
After the war, Nyrop worked with the Air Transport Association, which was responsible for establishing peacetime overseas routes for US airlines. He also served as a delegate to the International Civil Aviation Organization Assemblies, an international advisory body endorsed by 26 countries.
In October of 1950, Nyrop became Administrator of the CAA. This federal agency employed more than 18,000 people and had an annual budget of over $187 million. As administrator, he had a hand in everything that went on in the CAA. He constantly questioned his staff to know what was going on in each department so that he could make the most educated decisions. Nyrop made it mandatory for aircraft flying within designated air defense identification zones to file flight plans with the CAA. He also made it mandatory for all licensed pilots to obtain identification cards through the CAA. President Truman asked Nyrop to be chairman of the CAB in 1951.
Northwest Airlines was in trouble in the early 50’s and Nyrop was aware of it. They had safety problems and averaged a plane crash every 45 days. They usually didn’t have enough cash on hand to meet the payroll for more than 40 days. Members of Northwest’s Board offered Nyrop the presidency but he declined in order to join a private law practice., Later he reconsidered when asked again.
Nyrop’s first move as head of Northwest Airlines was to restore their financial credibility. He began paying off debts and nine months later the company didn’t owe anything. He standardized the existing fleet of airplanes ultimately ending up with just three types of aircraft.
Frequent strikes cast shadows on his record. From 1961 to 1978, there were 378 days of employee strikes. Union members were driven to strike by dislike for the same qualities that had made Northwest successful. While Nyrop and the unions fought bitter battles, many individual pilots had great respect for their boss.
Nyrop served as Northwest’s president and CEO from 1954-1976 and as chairman and CEO from 1976-1978. Nyrop had reached retirement age in 1977 but the board of directors asked him to stay on to deal with some labor problems that were going on at the time. But by 1978 Nyrop had lost control over the directors and the ducks stopped lining up at his command. Nyrop announced his retirement at the end of the company’s fiscal year. He had served 24 years and had the longest tenure in airline history. He served on the board of directors until 1984, making his total service thirty years.
During those thirty years, Nyrop transformed the struggling Northwest from a $27 million company to one worth $800 million, an industry leader in safety and one of the most financially sound airlines. Northwest turned a profit for 24 straight years with Nyrop in charge and ranked first in operating efficiency with its low break even load.
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