The Key brothers, Al and Fred, of Meridian, Miss. are remembered by aging aviation buffs as barnstormers in the long ago when flying was a sideshow to circuses and county fairs. They were aerial performers ready for anything, but their place in air history is important beyond mere showmanship. They proved some things about aviation and human endurance that are still applied in this age of moon flights and rendezvous in space.
When the economic pressures of the Depression hit Mississippi in the early 1930s, residents started talking about turning the airport at Meridian—for almost a decade the Keys' chief source of income—into a cotton patch. The brothers seized upon the idea of an endurance flight as a means of saving the field from the weevils.
Endurance flights were far from unknown. In 1929 two pilots named Dale Jackson and Forest O'Brine flew over St. Louis for 420 hours. The following year the Hunter brothers of Chicago set an official record of 554 hours. Jackson and O'Brine came back with a 647-hour flight that, for technical reasons, was not officially recognized. The Key brothers felt they could beat all the marks, official and unofficial
They arranged to use a Curtiss Robin monoplane belonging to W. H. Ward, an aerial photographer from nearby Oxford. A welder, Dave Stevenson, designed and mounted a catwalk of aircraft tubing on both sides of the engine. A friend, Frank Covert, designed an oversized fuel tank that fit snugly in the cabin, its front fashioned to form a seat for the pilot. Behind the tank, in the baggage compartment, a small mattress was installed for a bed. The sleeper would have to lie with his legs atop the gasoline tank and crawl through a tight passageway to get back into the cabin.
November 6, 1972
A. D. Hunter, a self-taught machinist, designed and built a nozzle that would automatically stop the flow of fuel when it separated from the neck of the gas tank. Al Key now calls the device the grandparent of all midair refueling nozzles. Military jets today use essentially the same design, with an electronic solenoid replacing Hunter's gravity-operated valve.
The Keys scraped up money to pay for a few other modifications: a radio code transceiver, removal of the cowling and nacelle covers for in-flight servicing, an oversized battery and generator. The pitch of the propeller was increased for greater power. (The plane would be lugging twice its normal load of 925 pounds.)
On June 21, 1934 the plane was ready. Named Ole Miss, the aircraft was painted silver and decorated with a Mississippi state flag on each side of the fuselage. Genevieve Lynn, a pioneer aviatrix, did the honors at the christening. The ceremonies went pleasantly—but almost everything else went wrong. Indeed, it looked for a while as though the Keys would never have to endure anything more than a series of disappointments and breakdowns.
Their first flight ended after 123 hours when flames began erupting from two of the cylinder heads and their batteries refused to take a charge from the slow-turning generator. They began repairs the next morning. They replaced the engine and radio, the latter with a compact, two-way, five-meter transmitter, and a month later were ready for the second flight. More than a thousand people were on hand to see them off this time. Four days into the flight an enormous thunderhead piled up east of Meridian, and Al edged the Robin away in a search for clear air. Wind, thunder and lightning chased the plane into Louisiana but not out of the storm.
During one particularly severe squall an oil can tore loose from its moorings and hit Fred in the face. Al, struggling to keep the plane upright, shouted, "Get your chute on!"
"What the hell do you think I've had on for the last hour?" Fred yelled back.
Just when the storm seemed inescapable, Ole Miss plunged through a cloud bank and the brothers found themselves over the Mississippi River near Vicks-burg. Al headed them back toward Meridian and—after a rendezvous with their fuel plane—resumed their interrupted flight schedule.
They continued to encounter weather and mechanical difficulties, however, and on the night of July 27 they ran into another storm that apparently jarred loose their exhaust pipe. If it had fallen, its flames would probably have ignited the oily underside of Ole Miss. And so, frustrated again, they landed back at Meridian after 169 hours.
Still determined, however, the brothers got busy strengthening the newly discovered weaknesses in the plane. A friend, Army Air Corps Major Claire Chennault, gave the Keys a gyro compass and horizon indicator. A. D. Hunter and Willie Sullivan overhauled the engine, fashioning new exhaust pipes of aluminum. A team of doctors heard about the flight and came up with a series of exercises, similar to those used by modern astronauts, to keep the marathon fliers in condition.
Enthusiasm had flagged, however, by the time the Keys were finally ready for their third attempt a year later. Newspapers paid scant attention to the latest preparations, and the crowd at the airfield when they took off numbered barely a hundred. Some of the spectators looked suspiciously like anxious cotton farmers.
The ones who were entitled to be genuinely anxious that day were the Keys, who had plunged every cent into the project. And if anyone needed a little luck about this time, they did. Failure would almost certainly doom the tiny airport, not to mention the Keys' financial rating, but they took off at 12:32 p.m. on June 4, 1935 for their third attempt.
For a change, things began almost routinely. The brothers slept in short takes, averaging about four hours a day each. Ole Miss burned up 10 gallons of gasoline per hour, and took four refueling rendezvous every day to keep them aloft. After the fuel was taken aboard, oil was lowered in a canvas bag, and another canvas bag, weighted with 30 pounds of buckshot for stability in the prop wash, held hot food and great quantities of orange juice from Henry Weidmann's restaurant.
Thunderstorms spoiled several refueling rendezvous. At these times the Keys relied on their wing tanks, with an extra 16 hours of gasoline, to carry them through. Both brothers developed muscular right arms from operating the wobble pump that transferred fuel from one tank to another. They also lost 20 pounds each during the flight.
When they had been in the air for 10 days the press decided their challenge was serious, and after two weeks reporters began checking in at Meridian's hotels. European newspapers began to post reports of the flight on bulletin boards outside their offices. On June 14 the Hunter brothers, holders of the official record, sent the Keys an encouraging telegram. Eight days later they flew through their 421st hour, passing Jackson and O'Brine's old official mark. Now they began the countdown on the Hunters' record.
To pass the time, they read fan letters dropped to them with their meal pouches. The noise of the unmuffled engine discouraged small talk, but the maintenance and refueling schedule—not to mention the danger—kept them from being bored, and despite the minimal exercise, they found no difficulty in sleeping.
Ole Miss flew at a steady 90 to 100 mph in a general circle around Meridian. A friend asked them by radio to pass over his house at five o'clock each morning to let his wife know things were O.K. But the Keys altered course only to escape foul weather.
Their first major crisis came on June 24, in the 485th hour of the flight. An abscess had developed under one of Al's teeth, and the pain soon became acute. Their father, Dr. E. B. Key, radioed medical advice, but the abscess—aggravated by lack of sleep—failed to improve. Finally Dr. Key called in a dentist who took over the radio and gave the brothers instructions on lancing the abscess. The requisite equipment—cotton, iodine and a curved surgical needle—were already aboard. So Al wrapped cotton around the needle, saturated it with iodine and plunged it into the abscess. The result was immediate relief, followed by almost a full day of sleep.
Meanwhile, Fred had two mishaps while acting as crew. Once he was momentarily stunned when the heavy refueling hose slipped out of his hands and struck him in the face. Later, when he was on the catwalk greasing the engine rocker arms, Ole Miss hit a pocket of turbulent air, bucked and tossed him overboard. He was fortunately rigged with an electrical lineman's harness that saved his life, but Al was shaken to see his brother dangling by a single strap. Fred pulled himself back into the plane hand over hand. From there on, things were smoother.
At 3:13 p.m. on June 27 the Keys broke the Hunter brothers' record. Several thousand people gathered at the airport, and a band played Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow. Fred Key's wife and son went up in a plane to fly alongside the record setters. Al radioed the crowd that the flight would continue until the Fourth of July.
With the record safely in hand, a playful friend almost ended the flight tragically. As a gag, Jimmy Haizlip approached the Keys' plane in his own craft one night, with all lights extinguished. When he was nearly upon the Ole Miss, Haizlip suddenly flashed on his landing lights. Al was at the controls and put Ole Miss into a desperation dive that spread their evening meal all over the cabin. When the brothers got themselves together again, they let Haizlip know their opinion of his joke.
On June 29 Chennault and the Air Corps' Flying Trapeze team saluted the Keys with one of their performances. On the same day the airport—now saved from mules and plowshares—was renamed Key Field. On the 30th Jimmy Keeton (retired recently after years as a United Air Lines pilot) took a newsreel cameraman up early in the morning, hoping to get some good footage of one of the brothers asleep. Again Al thought a collision was imminent and put Ole Miss into a steep dive. This time an oil can sailed through the cabin and shorted the radio wires, igniting the insulation. Al quickly cut the battery switch and the blaze was smothered with a fire extinguisher. New wire was sent up and the damage later repaired.
Shortly afterward Fred discovered the right tire was flat. A stunt parachutist from New York volunteered to transfer to Ole Miss, repair the tire and parachute to earth. This notion was rejected, however, and the Keys flew on with their deflated wheel.
The flight finally ended three days early, over another problem. The left stabilizer fittings and bells had worn away, making control during refueling difficult. Also, the brothers worried that the stabilizer might fail while one of them was asleep, making escape from the cramped bunk impossible. And so, on July 1, Al Key radioed the ground crew to prepare for a landing late in the afternoon. Word spread quickly and by six p.m. 30,000 spectators crowded the field for the set-down.
At 6:06 p.m. the Key brother's, soaked through with oil, landed at Key Field. They had been in the air for 27 days, almost 654 hours, which was seven hours longer than the Jackson and O'Brine unofficial record. They had used 6,000 gallons of gasoline and 300 gallons of oil; had made 438 midair refuelings and supply contacts. The 165-hp, Wright J-6-5 engine had turned the propeller a total of 61,217,700 times and carried the Keys 52,320 miles.
Afterward, an oil company sponsored a national tour for Ole Miss. When World War II erupted, the Keys joined the Air Corps and the plane was dismantled and stored away. Fred Key died last year. Al, who has been mayor of Meridian for seven years, flies 30 hours a month in his single-engine Comanche. In 1965 the Smithsonian Institution put Ole Miss on display around the corner from the Wright brothers' spindly craft and Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.
They made a nice set.