A nostalgic look back at the Northwest Airlines livery

By Norebbo •  4 min read

As a visual designer, one of the things I liked best about the Northwest livery (all versions) was the signature red tail. It was certainly the brightest color choice among the US majors, which made it easy to spot and identify Northwest aircraft at any busy airport.

I also liked their final logo (which you can see at the bottom of this post) – which consisted of a simple ring with an arrow pointing to the Northwest. Simple. Clean. Good.

Anyway, I grew up about an hour away from a Northwest Airlines hub (DTW) so they will forever be my “hometown” airline (even though they don’t exist anymore). Maybe that’s why it hurts me to admit out lout that they were never known for being one of the world’s best airlines? They did have a rather respectable route network by the time they were absorbed into Delta Airlines in 2010 though.

As a matter of fact, they were the world’s sixth largest airline prior to that merger – and the top US carrier in for international passenger traffic and domestic cargo operations. I’ve personally logged tens of thousands of miles with them to points all over the world, and it was a total bummer to see them (and their livery) disappear from the skies for good.

The pre-merger Northwest Orient livery

Airline livery design is a fascinating subject for me, and the pre-merger “Orient” livery was the one in use when I first started becoming interested in airplanes as a young boy in the 1980’s. The Northwest Orient name was created just just as the airline started transpacific service in 1949.

The name lasted until just shortly after the merger with Republic airlines. FYI, the merger was in 1984, and they dropped the name by 1986.

debut northwest airlines 747-400 livery

Northwest Airlines 747-451 in the original bare metal “Northwest Orient” livery. It’s a shame they didn’t keep at least one of these around!

One interesting thing to note about this particular Northwest Airlines livery is that it was the launch color scheme for their 747-400. There were only a few of these painted in these colors, since the “bowling shoe” (described in the next section) was unveiled shortly after Northwest introduced the -400 series into the fleet.

The Bowling Shoe livery

This particular livery is better known in the aviation circles as the “Bowling Shoe”. Does it really need to be explained? I didn’t think so. Designed by Landor Associates, it was introduced in 1989 as a clean and modern evolution of the previous color scheme. IMHO, it’s a well-done red and gray version of the iconic KLM livery.

northwest airlines 747 bowling shoe livery

Northwest Airlines 747-451 in the Bowling Shoe livery. These 747’s were eventually painted in the Delta Air Lines livery when they merged with them in 2008.

The red and gray colors of the Northwest brand were retained, but they were arranged in a slightly more stylish way which accentuated the circular cross section of the airplane. An example of this would be the dark blue “cheat line” which extended the entire length of the aircraft.

NW DC-10 drawing

There’s a lot less red on other aircraft types such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10

Instead of keeping the dark blue line constant width all the way across, the designers chose to increase its thickness towards the rear. This created a nice wrap-around effect on the tail section and it was a very nice detail. It’s basically a more stylized version of the TWA livery of the time.

Northwest Airlines Airbus A320 bowling shoe livery

The Northwest Bowling Shoe livery even looks great on smaller aircraft like this A320 as well.

Also unveiled with this livery was a new Northwest Airlines logo, which featured a stylized “N” in a circle with an arrow pointing in the “northwest” direction. Clever, eh?

The Silver livery

This was their last livery, and the best looking of them all IMHO. The only thing that might have made it look better would have been to have a polished aluminum fuselage instead of painted silver. I get why they did that (many aircraft these days are made of composites, not metal), but it really could have been stunning with a bit of polish and shine.

the final northwest airlines livery

Northwest Airlines 747-451 in the final Silver livery


My name is Scott, and I started in the design industry over 20 years ago with a bachelors degree in Industrial Design from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. I have an extensive background in both 2D and 3D illustration, and these days, I spend a majority of my time creating aircraft templates and airliner art. I’m basically an airplane dork.

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