American Trans Air was founded in 1973 as a travelclub airline (Ambassadair). Its initial equipment was a single ex-Eastern and AeroAmerica Boeing 720-025, N8711E, named 'Miss Indy'. This was joined by another ex-Eastern aircraft, N10VG 'Spirit of Indiana', in June 1978 and an ex-Aer Lingus 720-048, N8790R, in November 1978. These operated from its Indianapolis base but unlike many of the travel club airlines which were under-financed and failed to survive Ambassadair made the successful transition to a full common air carrier in March 1981 and renamed itself American Trans Air.
Initial operations were focused purely on charters with 5 newly acquired ex-American Airlines Boeing 707-123Bs, which were joined by a pair of also ex-American 707-323Cs in 1983. All the 707-123Bs were sold to Boeing in late 1984 and were followed out the door by the larger 707s in 1985 - both went to Transbrasil. The 707s were replaced by 727-100s which themselves gave way to larger 727-200s in the mid-1990s.
Despite ATA's later fondness for Lockheed's Trijet, initially they acquired its competitor the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. In February 1983 a single ex-Laker Airways DC-10-10 was bought and registered N183AT. She was joined by a DC-10-40 acquired from Northwest Orient in June 1984 which became N184AT. Sadly the latter frame was written off on the ground at Chicago O'Hare on August 10, 1986 due to an onboard fire.
ATA found it hard to source further DC-10s and so before N184AT's loss had instead decided to standardise around the Tristar. N183AT went briefly to Air Hawaii before sale as C-GCAL to British Caledonian's charter subsidiary Cal Air International by 1986.
ATA began to acquire a fleet of ex-Delta Tristar 50s with eight in service by the end of 1985. The airline's first scheduled flights began in 1986 connecting Indianapolis with Fort Myers and gradually the airline began to build up a leisure oriented scheduled network. Alongside these operations the airline also always had strong ties to the Military. The Tristars could frequently be seen operating transatlantic charters or personnel transport services for the US military.
Boeing 757s joined the fleet in 1989 and became increasingly important however 'new' Tristars were still being added. Two more Delta birds arrived before 1990 and were followed by a selection of other Tristar 1s from major Tristar operators like TWA, Eastern and LTU. Several of the ex-LTU aircraft saw only very limited service and were not fully repainted.
During the 1990s many of the Tristars served leases to foreign airlines as diverse as Aer Lingus, Egyptair and Air Afrique.
Here's ATA's full Tristar fleet in acquisition order (not including N31001 and N11002, two aircraft leased from TWA and operated for Five Star in the early 90s):
In 1995 the airline adopted a new corporate identity and livery using the slogan "On ATA, You're on Vacation." to bolster its appeal as a leisure based scheduled operator. This livery is displayed below by N197AT 'Big Ed'. This aircraft was originally JA8507 with All Nippon, delivered in June 1974, and went to Boeing in 1985 for onwards sale to Hawaiian as N763BE. She joined ATA in 1991, was re-registered in 1994 and named 'Big Ed'. Big Ed was withdrawn after operating an Indianapolis-San Diego service in 2003 and ferried to Roswell for scrapping.
In Part 2 of this story we'll look at American Trans Air's expansion into a scheduled hub airline at Chicago Midway.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: