The Liberty Gazette
July 14, 2015Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: I called up Key Tower for landing clearance. After three hours of flying from Greenwood, South Carolina this airport in Meridian, Mississippi would be a good fuel stop. The FBO’s air conditioning is a welcoming relief from the sweltering heat. We guzzled some complimentary bottled water and re-energized with complimentary fresh fruit before continuing our journey home. Key Field lives up to its reputation.
In 1935, as the Great Depression continued, Meridian Municipal Airport faced possible extinction at the hands of city officials who did not recognize its value. But brothers Al and Fred Key relocated their flying business there and began a publicity campaign to bring wide-spread recognition to the community and its airport.
On June 4, 1935 the brothers took off in a Curtiss Robin monoplane named Ole Miss. The plane was modified for long duration flight; 27 days later Ole Miss’ wheels once again touched the pavement at Meridian Municipal. To break an endurance flight record they didn't have to fly very far, they just had to stay aloft, which they did, officially, for 653 hours and 34 minutes, consuming 6,000 gallons of fuel. How, in 1935, they succeeded without sophisticated technology is a testament to ingenuity and the daring aerial feats performed during their flight.
Al would climb the airplane really high, then shut down the engine completely, keeping the nose pitched up to slow the airplane enough to stop the propeller.
With the prop stopped he would gently point the nose back down - just a little bit - in order to let the airplane become a glider. As a glider, air was still moving over the wings, creating lift, so Al could still control it.
Via a catwalk on each side, Fred would then climb out of the cockpit, and up to the engine to change spark plugs and add oil and then refuel. Upon Fred's return to his seat Al would dive the airplane to get enough wind to flow through the propeller to cause it to turn again, reintroduce fuel, and start up the engine, resuming powered flight.
Back then a wing walker would hand five gallon gas cans from one plane to a wing walker on another, which was dangerous enough, but using funnels also made gasoline spill into the airstream. The invention of a flexible probe that automatically shut-off gas flow if it was pulled out of the gas tank made fuel transfers a little easier.
The Flying Keys’ stunt worked. It not only saved the airport but brought about increased public confidence in air travel. Shortly after their flight Meridian Municipal was renamed Key Field in their honor, and Ole Miss was put on permanent display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
In 1949 four intrepid souls flew an airplane they named "The City of Yuma" for 47 days without landing - and for the same reason: to save that city’s airport business. Later in 1959 a pilot remained aloft over Las Vegas for almost 65 days.
Key Field today is the major employer in Meridian. Piper Cubs, military training jets and Lockheed C-130 regularly use the 10,000 and 5,000 foot long runways. There is a wonderful FBO with really nice people who go out of their way to make pilots feel welcome. And they have pretty cheap fuel.