By Nathan Martin / The Meridian Star
If Andy Warhol was right, then Meridian was lucky — because in 1935 Al and Fred Key managed to stretch their 15 minutes of fame into a 27-day record breaking extravaganza that injected new life into a struggling airline industry and left Meridian at the forefront of aeronautic experimentation.
Before June 4, 1935, Meridian was simply known as a thriving railroad town. When Fred and Al Key landed the “Ole Miss” on July 1, after 27 days of continuous flight, 35,000 observers ensured that Meridian’s future would be defined by the air.
For area residents this story is either a well-rehearsed tale of triumph, or a bit of local history that you never really understood — the type of dinner table remembrances that the elders brag about.
But this story isn’t just an over-hyped idealized recollection of a dead generation, it’s the story of how two Meridian brothers managed to save their jobs, break a world record, and irrevocably alter the future of aeronautic innovation.
“They (the Key brothers) were early aviators interested in aviation after WWI,” said Stephen Owens, local historian and author of “The Flying Key Brothers and Their Flight to Remember”. “They started doing some brainstorming in the 20s and continued their interest as the managers of the Meridian Municipal Airport.”
When the Great Depression came along, Meridian was hit like the rest of the nation, and the city began doing what ever other city was doing to offset underfunding — cutting budgets.
“The city fathers just didn’t see the value of an airport with the way the economy was at the time,” said Owens. “The Key Brothers wanted to generate interest in the airport so they began preparing for an endurance flight.”
Planes couldn’t stay in the air too long without refueling, so there was a problem. While people had invented different methods of refueling mid-air, none of them were that successful or efficient. When it comes to refueling a spark generating metal machine flying at 90 mph, you only get a few tries.
“The Key Brothers invented parts of the refueling nozzle and procedure,” said Owens. “The refueling nozzle concept is still used today.”
It almost seems crazy how simple the actual refueling process was — how simple and yet so dangerous.
James Keaton and William Ward would fly another plane above the “Ole Miss.” Ward would clip on a safety line and lower a hose down towards a waiting Fred Key. Key would take the hose, put the nozzle in the tanks receiving pipe, that action would trigger the valve to let the gas begin flowing. And then for six minutes Keeton has to fly the plane perfectly steadily, while the tank fills.
Ward then would retract the hose and lower a bag carrying everything from food to razor blades and the daily newspaper.
The genius in this system came in the Key brothers working with a local mechanic and inventor named A.D. Hunter who invented an automatic cutoff valve for the hose nozzle. A probe within the receiving tanks pipe triggered the valve, ensuring that no fuel could leave the hose unless the nozzle was safely in place. While this helped prevent many accidents, it was hardly perfect.
“The hose wrapped around Fred Key’s nose one time when he missed the grab,” said Owens. “They got a local plumber to put a tear drop piece of lead around the end of the hose so that it would be more accurate. This plane had flames coming out of the exhaust though, and so if the gas got out, there would be an explosion.”
It wasn’t just refueling that the Key brothers had to worry about, as the engine would have to be serviced regularly. A catwalk was built on the side of the plane so that Fred Key could walk out and work on the plane while in air. All that stood in the way of Fred Key and death was a lineman’s harness which he clipped to the catwalk railing.
When the Key brothers worked out their system and took to the air on June 4, 1935, it wasn’t the first time they had attempted an endurance flight. They were forced to the ground twice before due to mechanical and weather difficulties. Those two false tries unintentionally ensured that no one in the world would pay attention to the accident-prone Mississippi brothers and their crazy flying ideas.
“They really didn’t know how long the plane would stay in the air,” said Owens. “They were up there for 27 days and nights and when they landed they had basically the equivalent of CNN/Fox News, all the big news networks in Meridian. Everyone packed into Meridian and the Key brothers were reported about in newspapers from Moscow to London.”
When the brothers finally landed they had flown a distance equaling twice around the world, they refueled 438 times, and the Meridian Municipal Airport was in little danger of being shut down. Renamed Key Field, Meridian became a part of an expanding airline industry desperately in need of a confidence boost.
“People saw these brothers fly a cloth covered plane for 27 days without it breaking,” said Owens. “They figured if it’s safe to fly in that, then these big metal jet liners are definitely safe.”
The accomplishments of the Key brothers continued to echo throughout Meridian’s history, as the 186th Refueling Wing was later installed in Meridian.
“When the 186th was installed as an observational wing in the late 70s, early 80s,” said Owens, “the Secretary of the Air Force invited refueling pilot James Keeton to fly in with him. The 186th brought back to Meridian what the Key brothers were all about. It shows how this is the true home of mid-air refueling.”
The 186th has been flying refueling missions since 1991, but with a recent upper level re-organizational strategy, the squadron is scheduled to lose the refueling mission in 2011. But Meridian has not been left out of a flying future.
“We recently were assigned new missions that will come after we lose refueling,” said 186th Executive Director Brad Crawford. “We will be flying as war fighting escorts and joint cargo missions. We will be flying the last tactical mile to the battlefield with supplies and troops.”
Crawford said that much of the 186th’s presence is due to the influence of the Key Brothers.
“This unit started in 1930s and it was one of the first national guard units. We owe a lot of our history to the Key brothers because they were original members. When they saw the opportunity to be something bigger, they got interested. A lot of their techniques are still used today.”
The Key brothers success didn’t just stay in Meridian as the “Ole Miss” is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. with cloth replicas still on display. Al and Fred definitely got more than their 15 minutes of fame, and Meridian is still benefiting from their incredible achievements.
Oh, and their air endurance record? It was broken in 1973, by a ship called the Sky Lab II. It’s a lot easier to keep flying when you don’t have gravity to worry about.
Not bad for two boys from Mississippi.
Note: Stephen Owens has sold out of his book and does not plan to reprint “The Flying Key Brothers and their Flight to Remember”