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Continental Airlines Founder R. F. Six Dies

October 07, 1986|EDWARD J. BOYER | Times Staff Writer

Robert F. Six, the brash, tough-talking and hard-driving aviation pioneer who built a tiny "puddle-jumper" air carrier with one daily round trip into Continental Airlines, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, a family spokesman said. He was 79.

A hulking bear of a man who stood 6 feet 4 and weighed over 200 pounds, Six was a colorful throwback to an earlier era of scarf-and-goggle pilots. He was an awesome figure at Continental and in the industry, stalking his office in dark glasses with his shirttail hanging out.

For all of his bulk, Six loved playing David against the industry's giants, once using discount air fares as his stone and slingshot. In the early 1960s, against the opposition of United, American and Trans World Airlines, he won approval for a 20% cut in economy fares between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The big three airlines collectively bit their lips and matched the Continental fare cut, groaning all the while that the move would lead to disaster for them all. Six, however, was convinced that lower fares would lead to an increase in passengers and revenues, and Continental revenues did show increases between 10% and 15%.

The same swashbuckling approach to life that led him to the cockpit (he once crash-landed a biplane in a bean field) was only enhanced in fast-draw contests where he regularly outdrew and outshot all comers. He hunted grizzly bears with the same determination he used in taking aim at competing companies, and he once graced his office with a pet jaguar.

His virtuosity with obscene expressions would have done justice to any waterfront dive, yet he was a knowledgeable collector of Oriental and French art and a connoisseur of fine wines and food.

He and his third wife, Audrey Meadows, the actress who once played Alice Kramden on Jackie Gleason's television show, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in August. He had been married earlier to pharmaceutical heiress Henrietta Erhart and to Broadway star Ethel Merman.

Six's career began in 1936 when he persuaded his then-father-in-law to put up $90,000 to buy shares in the Southwest Division of Varney Speed Lines, just after the 16-employee company with three single-engine planes had been granted a route between El Paso and Pueblo, Colo.

Six, however was given voting rights to the stock, and within months he was named general manager. Six and his partner, the late Louis B. Mueller, bought a route connecting their airline to Denver in 1937. The partners then moved their company to Denver, where Six renamed it Continental Airlines and was named president in 1938. He served as Continental's chief executive until his retirement in 1980--the longest such tenure for any airline executive--personally supervising operations from administration to marketing, from maintenance to flight operations.

At Continental's offices, he was just as apt to have his hand in everything from tasting the food to deciding the length of stewardesses' skirts. Aboard a Continental flight, he counted the blankets, checked to see if dinner rolls were hot, invaded the cockpit to chat with the crew.

Continental's headquarters remained in Denver until 1963, when Six moved the company to Los Angeles and into transcontinental and international service to several Pacific countries.

With the coming of airline deregulation, soaring fuel costs and a slump in passengers in the 1970s, however, Continental found itself a deeply troubled company awash in a sea of red ink.

In 1980, Six turned chief executive responsibilities over to A. L. Feldman, former president of Frontier Airlines. The next year, Texas Air Corp. came out on top in a bare-knuckled, eight-month takeover fight, gaining a majority interest in Continental and removing Six as chairman a few months later.

Texas Air President Francisco A. (Frank) Lorenzo became Continental chairman in 1982 and moved the company's headquarters to Houston. The puddle jumper become major airline had, geographically at least, come full circle.

The son of a surgeon, Six was born June 25, 1907, in Stockton. Too restless to sit still for a high school education, he left after two years and began work as a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. bill collector in rural areas.

When a farmer was too slow with his payments, Six would climb a utility pole and disconnect the debtor's service. He would also take off from his collection rounds to take flying lessons, a practice that led to his being fired when his boss found out. In 1929 at age 22, he received his pilot's license and became a $1-a-ride stunt pilot.

During the Depression he went to China, where he was a co-pilot for a Shanghai-based airlines before returning to the United States to work briefly for a cement company, a newspaper and as a San Francisco dealer for Beechcraft, the airplane manufacturer.

While at Beechcraft, he heard about the investment opportunity at Varney Speed Lines and began boldly writing his own chapters to commercial aviation history. Six "picked up the responsibilities of being an executive very rapidly," Varney founder and later Continental Chairman Mueller once said. "He had a lot of imagination."

Funeral services are pending.

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