Key Brothers Set Flight Endurance Record

June 1935, Meridian, Mississippi-It was the heart of the Great Depression, and in Meridian, Mississippi, the future of the new airport seemed uncertain. The Key brothers, Al, 30, and Fred, 26, were co-managers of the field. They were also crazy about flying and had learned their business first as barnstormers, then instructors. So to earn the airport some valuable publicity, they decided to make aviation history by setting a record for endurance. They didn't own a plane, but they borrowed a Curtiss Robin, a high-winged monoplane, with a 165-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine.

Aided by friends, they fitted it with a 150-gallon gas tank and a catwalk that Fred climbed on to service the Whirlwind in midair. They also pioneered a spill-free air-to-air refueling nozzle that would be the forerunner of those used by U.S. bombers in World War II. Four times a day [435 times in all], fellow pilot James Keeton flew up in another Curtiss Robin to refuel the plane and transfer down meals, cooked at the airport by the Key brothers' wives, Louise and Evelyn. As the flight hours wore on into days, then weeks, people in Meridian joked that the wives were going to divorce Fred and Al for desertion.

Ole Miss Refueling Photo

National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, SI Negative #76-17447

The Key Brothers' "Ole Miss" refueling during their record-breaking endurance flight in 1935. The Key brothers record of 653 hours, 34 minutes still stands.

Ole Miss at Smithsonian

The "Ole Miss" on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.


Aviation Firsts Logo

On the day the brothers broke the previous international endurance record, the crowd stared skyward as the Meridian Boys' Band took its place just outside the hangar. The announcer over the public address system shouted "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,-they've broken the record!" The Boys' band struck up "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow" and Claire Chenault's convoy of stunt planes along with the "Ole Miss" dipped low over the airport. Al stood on the fuel tank, waving his arms through the opened canopy in the roof. Thunderous cheers shook the silence. Horns, cheers, rebel yells, factory whistles blew, and hats were tossed in the air.

When they came down, at last, on July 1, 1935, they were filthy and exhausted, their eyes covered with sties. During their 27 days (653 hours, 34 minutes) aloft they had repeated brushes with death and disaster, including a fire on board and a near midair collision. They had flown 52,320 miles, more than twice the distance around the earth.

The Key brothers' records still stands and the "Ole Miss" is on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum.

Sections abstracted from an article by Edwards Park, originally published in the October 1997 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.