The end of Braniff International airline came in a desperate midnight race by the company's top executives to the Fort Worth home of a federal bankruptcy judge.

Braniff's cash register was empty. More than half the seats on its flights were empty. Paychecks were about to bounce. The airline owed bills it could not pay for food, maintenance, and landing rights.

The airline's chief assets--its fleet of brightly colored planes--was scattered around Braniff's far-flung routes and the only way to prevent creditors from seizing the planes and liquidating the company was to seek the court's protection in a federal bankruptcy proceeding, Chairman Howard D. Putnam said today. M. Philip Guthrie, Braniff's chief financial officer, told him on Tuesday that the airline could not make it through this week, Putnam said. Putnam ordered the fleet grounded Wednesday night and then outran the creditors to the shelter of bankruptcy court.

At 12:01 a.m. today Judge John Flowers signed Braniff's request putting the airline under Chapter XI of the Bankruptcy Act. Its planes are now protected from attachment by Braniff's creditors and may fly again at some time in the future if Braniff can produce an acceptable plan for future operations.

For now, however, there is an air of finality about Braniff's demise. The "flying colors fleet" of blue, brown, and green planes, parked wingtip-to-wingtip in gay profusion under the rain-sodden sky at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, are the only cheerful touch in a picture of unrelieved bleakness.

In Braniff's wing of the terminal, escalators are motionless, lights are out, parking lots are nearly empty. Signboards on approach roads still list scheduled arrivals and departures, but the only movement through the terminal today was a few "Pronto Packages" left undelivered when Braniff suddenly brought its planes home Wednesday night.

All but 225 of Braniff's more than 9,500 employes are gone, as if they had never worked here. Today they flooded their credit union with anxious calls about their savings and lined up at field offices of the Texas State Employment Commission to file for jobless benefits that won't start flowing for about three weeks.

"What we had to do to the employes was very difficult, very painful," a subdued Putnam told a crowded news conference. "But there was more at stake here than just their dollars."

To continue operating as losses mounted, he said, would have opened the way for creditors to force Braniff into involuntary bankruptcy and end any possibility that it could be revived to fly again. To have notified workers and passengers before the grounding of the fleet, Putnam said, would have "touched off the very thing we were trying to avoid," a bankruptcy petition by creditors.

The death of Braniff was a bitter blow to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, which had supported the airline in an outburst of boosterism and home-town loyalty. Cars at the airport today still bore bumper stickers saying, "I Love Braniff," and signs on the airport buses still read, "Join the Fight for Braniff."

On bulletin boards at Braniff's deserted offices, posters still promote a "toast to Braniff" to be held Saturday night at "Racquet Time" athletic club. Anyone with a Braniff employe identity card gets free drinks and free court time. That is about all their cards will get them now, because Braniff executives held out no hope of reemployment for the workers who were let go even though they had accepted pay cuts in an attempt to save the airline.

Where Braniff employes had struggled to keep the airline going, only security guards and a few airport janitors were on duty today.

Putnam said he did not blame anybody in particular for what happened to Braniff. The final nail in the coffin, he said, was the defection of travel agents who stopped booking clients on Braniff for fear the airline would leave them stranded. In the end, Putnam said, that became "a self-fulfilling prophecy."