Everybody knows the story of Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. The story of Al and Fred Key, two barnstorming brothers from Meridian, Mississippi isn’t as well known. That’s unfortunate, because their aviation legacy continues today. As young men, a WWI Air Corps plane made a nearby emergency landing, and spawned their fascination with aviation.
Their endurance flight was born of necessity during hardscrabble days of the Depression. Bad economic times hit the Meridian area hard. There was talk of turning the Meridian airport property into a cotton field.
…For almost a decade [the airport] had been the Key’s chief source of income. The brothers seized upon the idea of an endurance flight as a means of saving the field from the weevils.
Endurance flights weren’t anything new–the brothers felt they could beat all existing records. They set about to prove it with a borrowed, Curtiss Robin monoplane in the summer of 1934. Several modifications had to be made. The plane needed to be refueled and serviced in flight. Minimal accommodations were built-in for the marathon flight.
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.
A. D. Hunter, a self-taught machinist, designed and built a nozzle that would immediately 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.)
The plane was silver with a Mississippi state flag painted on both sides. It was christened the “Ole Miss” and the ceremony went as planned. The brothers first two attempts to break the record didn’t go well. “…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.
A month later their second attempt was plagued with bad weather and more mechanical problems.
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.
…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.
The brothers were disappointed, but not discouraged. More repairs and improvements were made. Help came from Army Air Corps Major, Claire Chennault, of “Flying Tiger” fame, who provided a gyro compass and horizon indicator.
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 fliers in condition.
The brother’s third attempt came on June 4, 1935. This time the crowds of reporters and spectators weren’t there. What they needed this time was some good luck, because their money was just about gone. The fate of the airport was in their hands.
For a change, things began almost routinely. The brothers slept in short takes, averaging about four hours a day each. “Ole Miss” burned about 10 gallons of gas 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.
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 June 14 the Hunter brothers, holders of the official record, sent the Keys an encouraging telegram.
To pass the time, they read fan letters dropped to them with their meal pouches. …The maintenance and refueling schedule… Kept them from being bored… They had no difficulty sleeping. …They lost 20 pounds during the flight.
“Ole Miss” flew in a steady circle around Meridian, made between 90 and 100 mph. …The course only altered to avoid rough weather. There were more dramatic moments to come.
Their first…on June 24, in the 458th hour of the flight. An abscess had developed under one of Al’s teeth…the pain became acute. Their father, Dr. E. B. Key, radioed medical advice, but the abscess …failed to improve. Finally, Dr. Key called in a dentist…gave the brothers instructions on lancing the abscess. …Requisite equipment was already on board. So, Al wrapped cotton around the needle, saturated it with iodine and plunged it into the abscess. The result…immediate relief, followed by almost a full day of sleep.
Fred’s two near misses:
Once…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…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.
On June 27 at 3:13 p.m. the Hunter brother’s record was officially broken. Al radioed his intention to keep flying till the Fourth of July.
With the record safely in hand, a playful friend almost ended the flight tragically. As a gag, Jimmy Hazlip approached the Key’s plane in his own craft one night, with all lights extinguished. When he was nearly upon the “Ole Miss,” Hazlip 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 Hazlip know their opinion of his joke.
Another nighttime close call:
On the 30th, Jimmy Keeton [See notation on refueling photograph] 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 was repaired.
Al and Fred’s “flight to remember” ended three days early. The official and unofficial records were broken; mechanical complications couldn’t be overcome.
…Fred discovered the right tire was flat. The left stabilizer fittings and bells had worn away, making control during refueling difficult. …The brothers worried that the stabilizer might fail while one of them was asleep, making escape from the cramped bunk impossible. …On July I, Al Key radioed the ground crew to prepare for a late afternoon landing. …By six p.m. 30,000 spectators crowded the field for the set-down.
It officially ended at 6:06 p.m. after 27 days–seven days longer than the unofficial record of Jackson and O’Brine. They’d used 6,000 gallons of gasoline, 300 gallons of oil, and travelled 52,320 miles. Meridian field was renamed Key Field in their honor.When WWII broke out, both brothers served in the Army Air Corps. The plane was dismantled and stored away until 1965, when the “Smithsonian Institution” put the “Ole Miss” on display near the Wright brother’s aircraft, and Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.”
Italicized quotes are from the “SI Vault,” November 6, 1972 article by Charles Gillespie, entitled, “The High (and Long) Flying Brothers Key.”
- KC-135 Returns to Key Field (wtok.com)