After the Wright Brothers first soared above the Outer Banks of North Carolina in December 1903, most Mississippians were impressed but saw little immediate need for such a lofty invention as the airplane. However, World War I sparked the imagination of many young Mississippians, including William Faulkner, Samuel Kaye, Samuel Reeves Keesler, and Roscoe Turner. Captain Sam Kaye became a war ace, while Keesler lost his life after a crash landing behind German lines. Turner returned home and began a colorful career as a barnstormer, speed racer, airline executive, and Hollywood insider. Faulkner’s aviation adventures became a collection of tall tales.
The earliest recorded airport in Mississippi was Payne Field at West Point. During World War I, the US Army established an advanced aviation school there to train American pilots to fly over the battlefields of France. The school had a fleet of 125 Curtiss JN-4 airplanes and trained more than fifteen hundred pilots between May 1916 and March 1920.
During the 1920s aviators across Mississippi began to establish flying clubs. They usually found a suitable pasture, built some tin-shack hangars, and obtained a couple of World War I–surplus airplanes. Because of the poor conditions of the landing strips, airports had only daylight operations. The planes had water-cooled engines that produced ninety horsepower of thrust. On weekend afternoons curious folks could drive to their local airfields and watch small, colorful planes bump their way down the pastures before leaping into the air. To help raise money to improve airfields and maintain planes, enthusiasts promoted sightseeing flights and short trips. Such flights became the first opportunity for aerial adventures for the many Mississippians who mustered up the courage to climb into the noisy open-cockpit airplanes.
Mississippians turned to agricultural aviation during the 1920s to fight the infestation of the boll weevil. Farmers had previously tried to eradicate the pests by using mules to dust cotton fields with calcium arsenate, a highly toxic poison that literally took the hide off the sides of the valued farmed animals. As early as 1909 the Delta Laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana, was trying to develop practical dusting techniques to eradicate the boll weevil and other crop pests. C. E. Woolman, an entomologist, farm agent, and aviation enthusiast, became convinced that airplanes would be more efficient than mules to control both the Mexican boll weevil and the sphinx moth. In 1922 Delta Labs began employing World War I–surplus Curtiss Jenny (JN-6H) airplanes with specially designed spraying hoppers to begin an airborne assault on the boll weevil. On 31 August, Lt. L. C. Simon of the Army Air Service flew a demonstration crop-dusting flight over the Delta-Pineland Plantation near Scott.
The pioneering crop-dusting work in Louisiana and Mississippi drew the attention of George B. Post, vice president of New York’s Huff-Daland Airplane Company. After visiting Delta Labs, he went home and by early 1923 had developed the Huff-Daland Duster. In 1924 crop dusting along the Lower Mississippi River Valley became a booming enterprise. The first commercial aerial application of insecticide in the United States occurred at the Robertshaw Plantation near Heatherton in September 1924. Mississippi’s flourishing crop-dusting operations soon included J. O. Dockery, Clarksdale; E. O. Champion, Oxford; Self and Company, Quitman; Champion Air Service, Marks; and Dixie Dusting and the Finklea Brothers’ Dawn Patrol in Leland.
Mississippi’s first modern airport was Davis Field in Jackson, which opened in February 1928 and cost $53,300 to build. The first commercial flight by Woolman’s Delta Air Service departed from Davis Field on its western route to Texas. This airport was subsequently renamed Hawkins Field, and the Army Air Corps trained pilots there during World War II. During the Great Depression the Works Project Administration helped to build modern airport facilities in Biloxi, Columbus, Greenwood, Gulfport, Meridian, and Tupelo.
Aviation in Mississippi boomed as war clouds descended across Western Europe. On 27 September 1939 the Mississippi National Guard at Meridian’s Key Field organized the 153rd Observation Squadron. The unit’s main task was aerial photography and documenting government war projects across the state. Numerous pilots trained in Mississippi during World War II. Primary civilian pilot schools were established at the Columbus Army Air Field, and flight classes began during February 1942. By 1945 more than seventy-seven hundred pilots had trained at this facility. Mississippi also had pilot training facilities in Biloxi, Clarksdale, Greenville, Greenwood, Grenada, Gulfport, Indianola, Jackson, Laurel, Madison, Meridian, Natchez, and Pascagoula.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s Mississippi secured federal funding to modernize many of the former army airfields into commercial airports. By the early 1960s scheduled airline service existed in sixteen communities around the state. Other Mississippi towns built industrial parks near their airports to attract new manufacturing and service industries.
By the twenty-first century, Mississippi boasted eighty-eight airports plus four military airfields. New aviation facilities include Pine Belt Regional Airport near Hattiesburg, Trent Lott International Airport near Pascagoula, and a recent forty-million-dollar airport at Tunica.
- Mabry I. Anderson, Low and Slow: An Insider’s History of Agricultural Aviation, with Many Rare and Vintage Photographs (1986)
- David W. Lewis, Delta: A History of an Airline (1979)
- Mississippi Department of Transportation website, http://www.gomdot.com
- National Agricultural Aviation Museum website, http://www.msagmuseum.org