In the mid-1930s Meridian, Mississippi, like many midsized southern cities, began seeking funds to build a modern airport. The bumpy grass runway had little appeal to the new commercial airlines of the day, and Meridian’s boosters wanted their city to appear on the world’s air map. The airport’s operators, Algene Earl Key and Frederick Maurice Key, thought that publicity stunt would generate interest in the project, and they decided to establish a new world record for sustained flight. To do so, they had to overcome numerous obstacles, including finding safe ways to refuel and service their plane while in flight.
Securing the help of A. D. Hunter and James Keeton, the Key Brothers located a Curtis-Robbins high-wing monoplane powered by a 165-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine. They named the little plane the Ole Miss. The aircraft was modified with a one hundred fifty-gallon fuel tank and a catwalk from the enclosed cockpit out toward the propeller. The Key Brothers would take turns making the hazardous journey along the catwalk to service the engine and refuel the plane. They also designed a spill-free air-to-air refueling nozzle to keep fuel from splattering over the aircraft and starting a fire. During the record-setting flight, Hunter and Keeton would fly a similar plane above Ole Miss, lowering engine oil and food as well as refueling via the nozzle-hose contraption. The brothers’ wives, Louise and Evelyn, would provide meals for Hunter and Keeton to deliver.
The Key Brothers promoted their proposed adventure in the local media, and after two unsuccessful attempts in 1934, on 4 June 1935 a modest crowd watched as they lifted off the grass strip at 12:32 p.m. Their flight plan took them on looping patterns above the greater Meridian area. As the Keys remained aloft for first one week and then two and three, intrigued local citizens watched from the ground, joking that Louise and Evelyn would divorce their husbands for desertion.
For nearly four weeks, the brothers took turns flying and servicing the plane, enduring a lack of restful sleep, thunderstorms, and filthy conditions that inflamed their eyes. In addition, an electrical fire broke out on board, and the Curtis nearly collided with the refueling plane on several occasions.
At 6:06 p.m. on 1 July 1935 the Key brothers landed the Ole Miss in the middle of the grassy strip in front of more than thirty thousand onlookers. A few months later, the City of Meridian began building a new airport, Key Field.
During their twenty-seven-days aloft, the Key Brothers flew for 653 hours, 34 minutes, and covered 52,320 miles—enough to circle the earth twice. The Wright engine made more than sixty-one million revolutions, consumed six thousand gallons of fuel, and used three hundred gallons of oil while maintaining an average airspeed of eighty miles per hour. It received fuel and supplies from the other aircraft 432 times. The Keys’ record for sustained flight would not be broken until the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s.
In 1955 Fred Key had the Ole Miss restored and flew the plane to Washington, D.C., where it remains on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The Army Air Corps adopted the Keys’ style of in-flight refueling during World War II, and a modified version of the valve that Hunter invented for their flight remains in use by US military aircraft.
Both Al and Fred Key served as bomber pilots during World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors. Al Key remained in the US Air Force until 1960, when he retired with the rank of colonel. He served as mayor of Meridian from 1965 until 1973. Fred Key ran Key Brothers Aviation Service at Key Field until his death.
- Stephen Owen, The Flying Key Brothers and Their Flight to Remember (1985)
- Edward Park, Smithsonian Magazine (1997)
- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website, www.airandspace.si.edu