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.

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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

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  1. I was never a fan of the painted silver NW livery, nor the “nwa” titles. Made no sense and looked awful. The first livery was still the best. I always wondered what the logo represented and who designed it. It looked great at their ticket counters, on ticket jackets and at gates, even though it was represented in a small fashion on the planes themselves. Very unique.

    1. I tend to agree about the silver livery. Although it may still be my favorite to this day, it was a HUGE departure from the NW branding I grew up with. It definitely took a while to get used to.

  2. I find it interesting to hear different points of view on a livery. I thought the bowling shoe design was really clever and made their airplanes stand out on dull gray airports around the world.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I love talking about this kind of stuff. Especially the old Northwest liveries (as I grew up just north of DTW in the 80’s).

  3. In your comments on the ” bowling shoe” liberty, you mention the colors red, grey and black. There was no black. It was a dark blue

  4. One of my favorite parts of the bowling shoe livery is the logo – the stylized N and the arrow in the corner came together to almost form a W. It’s a shame that part got lost with the ‘nwa’ livery

  5. Can you show me what the display on the nose cone of the NW Flight N95425 , Flight 2501 that is missing in Lake Michigan? I have a debris image that shows the numbers that add up to 95425 but, very distorted . I will be happy to email the image to you. Thanks

    1. Hi Alan! I guess I’m not totally understanding what you’re asking for, but yes – you can reach out to me at norebbo @ gmail dot com and I’ll have a look.

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