The Liberty Gazette
August 3, 2010
Mike: “April 9th, 1946! That’s the day aerial seeding of rice fields in southeast Texas began,” as told to me by George Mitchell, second-generation manager and president of family-owned and operated M & M Air Service, “…and it has been here ever since!” Founded in Beaumont, Texas in 1946 by Poley and Fields Mitchell and Gilbert Mapes, the Mitchells purchased Mapes’ share of the business a year later, and now M & M Air Service has been serving the farming communities of southeast Texas continuously for 65 seasons. George, Fields’ son, took over as manager in 1966. George and Gail’s children, Paul, David, Mark, Lisa and Andy are the third generation of M & M. David and Mark both hold positions as vice-presidents with responsibilities for different divisions of the company. Lisa’s responsibilities include accounting and payroll. Andy is an agricultural and single-seat aerial tanker (SEAT1) pilot with experience in all areas of the company’s operation. Paul passed away in 1993.
Back in ’46 the company bid on 200 government surplus Stearmans and were awarded 42, for which they paid a mere $56.56 each. They re-configured most of those airplanes for aerial application of wet and dry materials.
When M & M began, rice production covered 150,000 acres in southeast Texas and the airplanes took to the air before sunrise, operating until well after dark. For 20 years, M & M operated up to 33 Stearmans and never left the Tri-County area of southeast Texas. Those 33 Stearmans flew only six months out of the year, yet flew an estimated 1.5 million hours.
“M & M expanded into Liberty County in the 1950’s,” George continued. “Earl Atkins managed M & M’s Liberty operation for a long time then went into business for himself forming Liberty Air Service. Then he sold it to Hughie Crouch who later sold it to Billy Richardson whom M & M bought out. M & M stayed solo throughout.”
A Stearman can haul about 1,400 lbs. and can fly pretty slowly. To reduce time between trips, each farm had its own air strip. George says there were 172 air strips on farms in the three counties. “We called them Stearman strips,” he says, “because the Stearmans didn’t require that much runway to get airborne.” One day, George Mitchell and Henry Morrison flying two Stearmans broke the record for the number of loads flown in one day: 197 loads.
Today the area’s rice production has dropped to 25,000 acres and like many businesses M & M has had to change with the times. “For 20 years rice was 100% of our revenue. Now it’s only seven to eight percent,” George told me. Diversification has been the key to survival. They began brush control flying in west Texas and far west Texas, then added a ground spraying business with a John Deere rig. Forestry fertilization for private forestry producers came next, followed by aerial firefighting. In addition, George says costs have skyrocketed. “Since 1946, the price of airplanes has multiplied by 10,000. The last airplane we purchased was $565,000.00.” Today the family business continues with nine Air Tractors. We’ll talk more about M & M’s current operations next week.