The Key brothers, Al and Fred, of Meridian, Miss. are remembered by aging aviation buffs as barnstormers in the long ago when flying was a sideshow to circuses and county fairs. They were aerial performers ready for anything, but their place in air history is important beyond mere showmanship. They proved some things about aviation and human endurance that are still applied in this age of moon flights and rendezvous in space.
When the economic pressures of the Depression hit Mississippi in the early 1930s, residents started talking about turning the airport at Meridian—for almost a decade the Keys' chief source of income—into a cotton patch. The brothers seized upon the idea of an endurance flight as a means of saving the field from the weevils.
Endurance flights were far from unknown. In 1929 two pilots named Dale Jackson and Forest O'Brine flew over St. Louis for 420 hours. The following year the Hunter brothers of Chicago set an official record of 554 hours. Jackson and O'Brine came back with a 647-hour flight that, for technical reasons, was not officially recognized. The Key brothers felt they could beat all the marks, official and unofficial
They arranged to use a Curtiss Robin monoplane belonging to W. H. Ward, an aerial photographer from nearby Oxford. A welder, Dave Stevenson, designed and mounted a catwalk of aircraft tubing on both sides of the engine. A friend, Frank Covert, designed an oversized fuel tank that fit snugly in the cabin, its front fashioned to form a seat for the pilot. Behind the tank, in the baggage compartment, a small mattress was installed for a bed. The sleeper would have to lie with his legs atop the gasoline tank and crawl through a tight passageway to get back into the cabin.
A. D. Hunter, a self-taught machinist, designed and built a nozzle that would automatically stop the flow of fuel when it separated from the neck of the gas tank. Al Key now calls the device the grandparent of all midair refueling nozzles. Military jets today use essentially the same design, with an electronic solenoid replacing Hunter's gravity-operated valve.
The Keys scraped up money to pay for a few other modifications: a radio code transceiver, removal of the cowling and nacelle covers for in-flight servicing, an oversized battery and generator. The pitch of the propeller was increased for greater power. (The plane would be lugging twice its normal load of 925 pounds.)
On June 21, 1934 the plane was ready. Named Ole Miss, the aircraft was painted silver and decorated with a Mississippi state flag on each side of the fuselage. Genevieve Lynn, a pioneer aviatrix, did the honors at the christening. The ceremonies went pleasantly—but almost everything else went wrong. Indeed, it looked for a while as though the Keys would never have to endure anything more than a series of disappointments and breakdowns.
Their first flight ended after 123 hours when flames began erupting from two of the cylinder heads and their batteries refused to take a charge from the slow-turning generator. They began repairs the next morning. They replaced the engine and radio, the latter with a compact, two-way, five-meter transmitter, and a month later were ready for the second flight. More than a thousand people were on hand to see them off this time. Four days into the flight an enormous thunderhead piled up east of Meridian, and Al edged the Robin away in a search for clear air. Wind, thunder and lightning chased the plane into Louisiana but not out of the storm.
During one particularly severe squall an oil can tore loose from its moorings and hit Fred in the face. Al, struggling to keep the plane upright, shouted, "Get your chute on!"
"What the hell do you think I've had on for the last hour?" Fred yelled back.