We will be exploring Mississippi’s rich aviation history in this series. From early flight photographs to the moon landing and beyond, MDAH collections document this exciting part of our past.

Today in 1935, two men from Meridian set a world record. The story of the Key Brothers is documented in a rare MDAH film collection, of which we show short clips below. Special thanks to Preston Everett, Image and Sound section, for writing this post and Cecilia Tisdale, audiovisual curator, and Derrick Cole, webmaster, for formatting the video.

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Description: Al and Fred Key with their wives and Al’s daughter. The Keys inspect cat walk on front of plane. Al and Fred shown with parents Dr. Elmore and Mary Key.  Key Field hangar in background.

In 1929 Meridian brothers Al and Fred Key were hired to manage the new Meridian Municipal Airport that opened in November of 1930. The Key brothers managed the daily operations, a flight school, and airmail schedule.  The onset of the Great Depression nearly shut down all aviation operations for the Keys and the Meridian Municipal Airport.  On the verge of shutting down, the brothers had a unique idea that would promote aviation as well as their struggling air field—they would attempt to break the flight endurance record of twenty-three days.

Before they could take off on their record breaking flight, they had several obstacles to overcome, the two biggest being air-to-air refueling and maintenance of the plane’s engine.  The solution for refueling presented itself in the form of an automatic shut off valve invented by Meridian resident A.D. Hunter.  The valve prevented fuel from spraying on the engine once the nozzle disengaged from the air craft’s fuel tank.  The second problem was solved by Dave Stephenson who welded a metal “catwalk” linking the plane’s cockpit to its engine.  This allowed the Key brothers to keep the engine properly oiled and lubed without having to land the plane.

Description: “Ole Miss” taking off from the Meridian Municipal Airport on June 4, 1935.  One of the Key brothers shown during air refueling.  James Keeton and Bill Ward (not shown) operated the refueling plane which made 484 mid-air contacts. Notice the black fuel line on the right side of the frame.

The Key Brothers took off in the “Ole Miss” on June 4, 1935 and stayed in the air for twenty-seven consecutive days, breaking the previous record by several days.  Their wives and families stayed at the air field during the flight and cooked their meals, which were taken up to the brothers in the refueling plane. When they landed on July 1, 1935, the national press and enormous crowds were there to greet them. They became local heroes. The Meridian Municipal Airport was later renamed Key Field in their honor.

Description: “Ole Miss” lands on Key Field July 1, 1935.  Estimates showed the plane flew 52,320 miles a distance that would have circled the earth twice—the record has never been broken by an airplane.

Description: After landing, Fred Key standing up in plane holding his son while his wife sits next to him.  Fred Key is carried away.  Fred and Al Key speak in hangar about the flight.

During World War II, Key Field was used as a training field for pursuit and bombardment groups.  Both Fred and Al volunteered and flew missions in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.  The Key brothers were recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in 1955 when their plane, “Ole Miss,” was placed in the National Air and Space Museum.

Today Key Field in Meridian is a base for the Mississippi Air National Guard.  The field from which the Key Brothers took off for their twenty-seven day flight is also the headquarters of the Mississippi Air National Guard 186th Air Refueling Wing.  This wing is dedicated to refueling aircraft during flight, a duty made possible by a group of aviators in Meridian over seventy-six years ago.

The entire Key Brothers Film Collection, 1933-1935 (MP/1978.02) may be viewed in the library at the William F. Winter Archives and History Building in Jackson.

Sources and Further Reading:

186th Air Refueling Wing website. http://www.186arw.ang.af.mil/ (accessed June 22, 2011).

Martin, Nathan. “37,843,200 minutes of fame … and counting.” Meridian Star. June 30, 2007. http://meridianstar.com/local/x681085427/37-843-200-minutes-of-fame-and-counting (accessed June 22, 2011).

Owen, Stephen. The Flying Key Brothers and Their Flight to Remember. Meridian, Miss.: Southeastern Print. Co., 1985. On file at MDAH.

Park, Edwards. “They Flew & Flew & Flew.” Smithsonian Magazine, (October 1997). Abstract at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/flew-abstract.html (accessed June 22, 2011). On file at MDAH.