MADISON COORDINATOR’S NOTE: The following article by Timothy Harper appeared in the March 2004 issue of Delta Airlines’ Sky magazine. The article should be of particular interest to Madison Parish since this area was the first major attempt to dust cotton with airplanes when it was pioneered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s experiment station in Tallulah. This research resulted in the formation of what later became Delta Airlines.
Many thanks to Tim for permission to use his article on this website. More of Tim’s writings may be found on his website at http://www.timharper.com/. RPS
ECESSITY IS THE mother of invention. And in the 1920s, farmers in the Mississippi Delta sorely needed someone—or something—very inventive to save their cotton crop from the boll weevil. In the process of helping to slow down the boll weevil’s advance, a young agricultural engineer, a government entomologist and a New York executive established what would become one of the world’s titans in air transportation.
Collett Everman—or “C.E.”—Woolman was an impressionable 14 years old when the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903. Although he was immediately captivated by the idea of flying, his interest in aviation turned into a passion only after he traveled to France to attend the first international air show in the summer of 1909. In fact, on his return voyage aboard an ocean liner, he spent most of his time in the ship’s hold helping one of the show’s aviators recondition an airplane engine.
At first, the idea of actually flying was a distant dream for the student from Illinois. After all, a job as an agent for the agricultural extension service in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hardly seemed like a path into the wild blue yonder. It seemed just as unlikely that Woolman’s collaboration with Dr. B.R. Coad of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lab in Tallulah, Louisiana, would translate into a career in aviation.
Coad, with Woolman observing, improved upon a calcium arsenate powder that seemed to be an effective pesticide for use against boll weevils, but having farm laborers or horse-drawn dusters walk through fields to apply it was slow and expensive. Having learned of aerial dusting experiments in Ohio, Coad acquired two U.S. Army-surplus “Jenny” biplanes and hired two Army pilots to take the process a step further. With hoppers carrying the calcium arsenate attached to the single-engine Jennys, crop-dusters first took to the skies over the acres and acres of cotton that blanketed the Louisiana landscape. Their new procedures made crop-dusting commercially viable, and the entrepreneurial-minded Woolman took note. Then one day, fate stepped in.
George B. Post—a vice president of the Huff Daland Manufacturing Company, an Ogdensburg, New York, business known for building military airplanes—made an unscheduled landing in Tallulah. Impressed with the crop-dusting operation and recognizing a new market for his company, Post went home and persuaded his company to start building crop-dusters. A subsidiary was set up, Huff Daland Dusters, and so the world’s first aerial crop-dusting company began operations in Macon, Georgia, in 1924.
The following year, Huff Daland Dusters moved to Monroe, Louisiana, near Tallulah, and Woolman left laboratories and science behind to join the company as operations manager and chief salesman. Bearing a logo that depicted Thor, the Norse god of thunder, blowing on the fields to smite the boll weevil, the planes became known as Huff Daland Puffers in states as distant as North Carolina, Florida and California. Woolman relied on freelance pilots, many of them barnstormers or military pilots on leave. The dashing airmen, grinning from open cockpits in their leather jackets and goggles, gained a justified reputation far and wide as America’s newest crop of dare-devils, skimming treetops, tickling the puffy white pods atop the cotton plants with their wheels, and filling the sky with loops, dives and barrel rolls. In a maneuver worthy of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, some sent locals scurrying by flying under railroad trestles.
In 1926, Huff Daland signed on Catherine FitzGerald, a young secretary who would soon play a crucial role in the fledgling airline. By then the company’s 18 dusters were the world’s largest private air fleet. Woolman first went to Mexico to extend the season for crop-dusting work, then to South America, where the seasons are the reverse of those north of the equator. Based in Peru, he combined crop-dusting, airmail and passenger services, paving the way for another airline that, decades later, would figure significantly in his own enterprise: Pan American Airways.
A local revolution forced Woolman to sell the Peruvian concern, and when he returned to Monroe in 1928, Huff Daland was ready to shed its crop-dusting division. Woolman seized the day: With the help of some local investors, he purchased the company’s dusters for $40,000 and stepped in as vice president and general manager of the new company. But it needed a name—preferably something short, something reflecting the region.
“Delta,” FitzGerald suggested.
And Delta Air Service was born.
But Woolman’s dream didn’t stop there. Besides crop-dusting, flying lessons, maintenance services, aerial photography and levee inspections for the government, Woolman was determined to expand into passenger service as in Peru, a side benefit that traditionally only larger airlines in the United States enjoyed from their lucrative federal contracts to carry airmail.
Woolman was undeterred by his company’s underdog status, and Delta ordered three Curtiss-Wright Travel Air S-6000B monoplanes. Touted as the “Limousine of the Air,” the Travel Air was powered by a 300-horsepower Wright J6 engine, could cruise at 90 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 500 miles. Delta’s new triangular logo replaced the old puffing Thor with a considerably more dignified profile of Mercury, Roman god of speed and travel. And Delta adopted the motto “Speed, Safety and Comfort.”
Two hours and 20 minutes after Howe’s takeoff, the second Delta flight departed in the opposite direction, from Jackson to Dallas. In the cockpit was Elmer Rose, an Army pilot on six weeks’ leave. It didn’t take long for Delta to lay the groundwork for one of the aviation industry’s great perquisites: The very next day, Rose asked if his bride, Billie, could have a free seat on his flight, and Woolman readily agreed.
Newspapers raved about the Travel Air’s wood-insulated “soundproof” cabin that made inflight conversation possible—barely—and noted that passengers could roll down the windows for ventilation. A Tuscaloosa, Alabama, reporter on an early Delta flight wrote, “Passengers up for the first time experience a feeling of absolute security, confidence and relaxation that is agreeably surprising.”
The Dallas-Jackson round-trip fare was $90—about $1,000 in 2004 dollars. At Delta’s one-story stucco headquarters in Monroe, planes would board passengers right by the door, next to a sign that read, “DANGER—Beware of Propeller,” as the pilot collected tickets. Despite the warning, passengers often helped spin the propeller to start the motor. There were no flight attendants, and no food or beverage service—though the stationmasters at the four stations always had free coffee on hand. Catherine FitzGerald, or “Miss Fitz,” as she was affectionately known, would occasionally meet passengers—and curious nonpassengers who wanted to watch the planes—accompanied by Delta’s “official greeter,” a collie named Brownie, who would “shake hands” with visitors. In between flights, when things were slow, FitzGerald would hit golf balls at the airfield with one of the locals.
The planes had no radios, but the four stations telegraphed weather reports to each other. In Monroe, FitzGerald would stick her head outside; if she could see the water tower in one direction and the trees at a railroad crossing in the other direction, she wired that it was clear.
Spartan conditions aside, Woolman emphasized customer service from the start. “Let’s put ourselves on the other side of the ticket counter,” he told employees. Years later, Woolman’s daughter Barbara recalled that when a flight was delayed for mechanical difficulties, her father would call her mother to announce that he was bringing passengers home for lunch. When a passenger was stranded overnight, Barbara slept on a cot in the hall, the passenger in her bedroom.
The stock market crashed in October 1929, and the country slid into the Great Depression. By the end of that year, Delta’s crop-dusting operation had made a profit of $20,000, but its passenger service had lost $32,000. Service had been extended to Meridian, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama, but the outlook was shaky. Woolman realized that if Delta Air Service were to weather the storm, it would have to reinvent itself. And the answer to the airline’s future lay with the U.S. Mail.
Timothy Harper (http://www.timharper.com/) is a journalist, author and publishing consultant who specializes in personal biographies and corporate histories. Tim and the editors and art directors of Sky would like to thank Marie Force, manager-archives at the Delta Air Transport Heritage Museum (http://www.deltamuseum.org/), for her valuable assistance in putting this article together.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DELTA