By Anne McKee
The Meridian Star
Kemper County natives, Fred and Al Key, became interested in aviation after WWI and with great tenacity, sought and received positions as managers of the Meridian Municipal Airport. All was going well for the enterprising brothers until the Great Depression hit the city, and due to the lack of funds, or an attempt to save money, the city decided to close the airport.
Fred and Al had a different idea. The airport must stay open, and they reasoned, worldwide publicity would make that happen. With that unimaginable goal in mind, the brothers sought to break the flight endurance record at that time of 23 days. In order to accomplish this feat, Fred and Al knew the air-to-air refueling technique must be perfected. The only technique used prior to this time was dangerous. If the gasoline was spilled, which often happened, the hot engine could ignite a fire that could engulf the airplane, and all would be lost.
The Key brothers, along with local inventor and mechanic, A. D. Hunter, began to work in earnest to invent a spill-free-fueling-system. This consisted of a valve on the end of the fuel nozzle, which was opened by a probe in the neck of the fuel tank. The new type valve would not allow fuel to flow, unless it was inserted into the fuel tank. During refueling, if the nozzle was removed from the tank, the fuel would automatically stop flowing.
Genius at work – that’s our Mississippians!
Later, the U.S. Army Corps adopted the new invention, and it is still in use today, with some modifications. Also, today, NASCAR primarily uses the same technique. Wow!
Back in 1935, there was one more problem for the brothers … the engine needed regular maintenance during the flight in order to stay in good running order; therefore an additional invention was needed to create a catwalk so that Fred could walk around the plane, while it was airborne.
Courage at work – that’s our Mississippians!
By June 1935, the brothers were ready. The Flying Keys, as the brothers were later known; hit the airways from the Meridian Municipal Airport on June 4 in a borrowed Curtiss Robin monoplane by the name of “Ole Miss.” For the next 27 days, they flew over the Meridian vicinity. For food and supplies, a similar plane flying above would drop the items to the brothers on the end of a rope, as well as supply fuel via a long flexible tube. The landing was July 1. They had traveled an estimated 52,320 miles and used more than 6,000 gallons of gasoline.
The Meridian Municipal Airport did not close!
It was the talk of the world! Yes, the brothers garnered the worldwide attention needed to put the little Meridian Municipal Airport on the map! Their non-stop endurance flight lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes. The “Ole Miss” is permanently displayed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C.
Because of this historic flight, the joint airfield, used by the Meridian Municipal Airport and the 186th Mississippi Air National Guard, was renamed Key Field in honor of the brothers. Later, the Key brothers served as bomber pilots in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.
Fred was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (USA), and Al earned a Distinguished Flying Cross (USA), Distinguished Service Cross (USA), a Distinguished Service Cross (UK), and seven Bronze Stars for participating in combat. Talk about heroes – these are true American heroes, but best of all, they are Mississippians!
Just as an aside – in later years, at Key Field, the 186th Mississippi Air National Guard Unit was assigned the air-to-air refueling mission (KC-135 Stratotanker). With the assignment of this mission and recently the reassignment of the mission, memories of June 4, 1935 became full circle (no pun intended) —again putting Meridian, Mississippi on the worldwide map of aviation — all because of two enterprising brothers, with an unimaginable goal in mind.
So today when you see the huge tankers as they fly across our Meridian/Lauderdale County skies, remember our heroes, Fred and Al Key, and a Meridian moment in time.
Anne B. McKee is a writer and storyteller. Visit her website: www.annemckee.net