Letter to Rayner Gaillard from June 1955

James H. Keeton
4100 Franklin Ave.
Western Springs, Ill.
June 14, 1955

Mr. G. Rayner Gaillard
Lamar Building
Meridian, Miss.

Dear Rayner,
Just what you mean by background material isn't too clear to me but here goes.

When Al and Fred got talking about that endurance flight, in earnest, that is, I had absorbed as much learning from them as I could afford to pay for, and had gone to Mobile Alabama, where Jimmy Parker, a native Mobilian, and I started what was called the Keeton-Parker Flying Service on Old Bates Field, the municipal airport. To run this outfit, which did just about everything to get a dime, we taught flying, carried passengers over the city, flew charters, took aerial pictures, did mechanical work, and barnstormed on week-ends, complete with a stunting expedition.

One of our planes, we had four, was a Curtiss Robin, an almost exact duplicate of the Ole Miss, before she got altered, that is. It was a pretty popular plane back then, and there were several located near by. The thing that made mine unique was that its owner (me) needed flying time badly to qualify for a transport license. Keeton-Parker wasn't doing much business and gasoline couldn't be squandered on just putting in hours. The Key Brothers wanted and needed a mature and experienced pilot for the job of refueling this flight, but they also had to have a plane with very similar flight characteristics to theirs, and in order to get it (they couldn't without me) they sacrificed all of the requirements they were looking for in the refueling pilot and accepted my Robin, me included. They were desperate.

Now, for many years, I have smiled gracefully and declined modestly, the plaudits of those who marveled at the skill of the pilot required to fly the refueling plane. The bitter truth is that Al Key had all the skill, and all I had to do was fly straight and level and keep the sun out of his eyes. Why, I couldn't even see the Ole Miss while she was drinking. All I got was a play by play commentary by Bill Ward as he lowered and raised the hose.

Of course I do want some credit for this thing. It is true that I was available, and that I had learned to fly under the tutelage of Fred and Al, and it may be that they knew what they could expect of me. I made good use of their take-off and landing instruction. As I recall it there were nearly 200 and all successful. Our heroes made only one each during that same time. One thing they stressed during my training was never to take off in an overloaded plane but every one of the refueling take-offs was overloaded. I don't know just how much, but on two flights each day, I carried a five gallon can of oil in my lap. No other room. All the landings were under gross, for we always delivered the gas.

Most of us have forgotten the high pitch of interest the flight generated in the local citizenry, but I recall the responsibility I felt very clearly. It wasn't so pressing the first couple of weeks, but when the record was in sight, I think if any one individual had goofed and grounded that flight, he would have been lynched before dark. I felt it so keenly, that I didn't leave the airport for the entire 27 days except to refuel.

Another thing you don't hear much about anymore, is that this fight was the third try. One failed because of engine trouble, and one because of weather and lack of adequate instruments. All three were plagued by lack of funds. On one occasion the only way we could get fuel to keep them up when the money ran out, was to charge it on my credit card. Thank goodness things improved before the billing date.

Ben Woodruff built us a complete air to ground and ground to air radio outfit, and it worked - most of the time. I think that was the very first use of a very high frequency band for aviation. Now it is the generally accepted and most popular band for aviation communication and navigation. After building the radio, Ben then had to spend several nights a week for months teaching us enough fundamentals of radio and code to qualify us for a license to operate it. Ben has continued to pioneer things and has devoted the last decade entirely to inventing. You should see his home. He made it mostly himself because no one else could understand the gadgets he planned for it.

That radio came in handy more than once. During the flight Al developed and abscess around one of his molars, and it looked like that was going to terminate the flight. However, after several sleepless nights for both the boys, a kit was sterilized and sent up, and Dr. Leroy Rush got on the radio and gave Al detailed instructions as to how to lance the abscess. I'll always remember the sigh of relief that Al let out when the pressure was relieved. This play by play drama had been heard by several hundred friends and spectators assembled in front of the hangar where we had a loudspeaker installed, and they also let out a tremendous sigh of relief.

While still suffering from the effects of the loss of sleep, the boys got pretty gruffy, and one night Al nearly blew up when he couldn't get the ground station to answer his radio call on a regularly scheduled contact. After getting real abusive he finally came on in a very apologetic voice and begged our pardon. He had forgotten to put on his ear phones. Also during this time, we had to make a very sudden pull up after getting in position for an early morning contact one time, when Bill Ward suddenly noticed that both of them were asleep.

Not much has been said about it, but we all ate well during the flight. Henry Weidmann sent our meals out three times a day, for Al and Fred, and all the ground crew as well. Louise and Evelyn packed their husbands' in an ice cream freezer can, placed it in a weighted canvas bag, and we let it down to them on a rope. One night we had to complete the refueling in rough air around a thunderstorm. The hose got pulled loose and spilled gas on the supper. Ruined it all. I think it was that same night that it rained so hard, I couldn't get back to the field until sometime after dark. When we did get back everyone was real relieved especially me. Later Al and Fred flew over to ask if we had gotten back yet. Their plane had instruments, thanks to certain well known Army Air Corps personnel (General Claire Chennault), and mine didn't, so one morning after refueling on top of a low overcast, I had to follow Al in to position over the field and dive through the overcast on his signal. The runway was right there where it was supposed to be.

During the flight the endurance plane had to report over the field at periodic intervals to be identified, night as well as day. Some folks claimed that periodic returning to the field disturbed their sleep, so the boys tried to keep away from town after midnight. It wasn't long however, before we got one call from an earlier complainer, and this time he asked if the fellows would come over town regularly as before. Seems if he waked up during the night he couldn't get to sleep again until he heard that motor.

Few people realize that we went to lots of trouble to take care of emergencies if they developed. We had a substitute for just about everyone and everything except the two principals and the Ole Miss. Babe Pearce had a large Travelaire plane which might have been used to refuel if mine had failed, and Gene Vinson was standing by to fly it or to fly mine if need be. It would have been quite a feat for the Ole Miss to have kept up with the Travelaire or for the larger plane to slow down to the Ole Miss, but you can be sure it would have been tried. Some of the maintenance men for the Mississippi Power Co. strung some impromptu lights along the longer of the runways in case of a night landing or refueling becoming necessary. We had alights rigged under the belly of my plane, but I have serious doubts about how successful that operation would have been. Lucky we didn't have to resort to it. Little Mac McKeller was official recorder for the National Aeronautics Association, and of course we had to have a substitute too. During the experimental flights, when Bill Ward wasn't on hand, we had practiced with Germany, the airport porter and handy man handling the hose. Almost had to use him once too, when Bill was unavoidably delayed. I think Germany was sorry when he turned up.

The day of the fire will always stay in my memory. Those newsreel fellows were always vying with one another for novel shots. Above all they wanted scoops. Before we knew it, one of them had quietly gotten a government waiver allowing him to be tied to the landing gear of my plane to take pictures of an actual refueling from the refueling plane. By the way that is the only refueling I ever saw, and I didn't see that until weeks later in a movie. We got those pictures, and then got a shot of Fred on the catwalk greasing the engine. When he handed Al the oil can, Al placed it on the dash, and shorted out the electrical system starting a real brisk fire. They got it out after losing lots of altitude, but it almost killed the newsreel cameraman. He had been changing film at the time.

To put credit where it is due, there were no dispensable people, we needed them all. Dave Stephenson welded that catwalk together by ear as Fred described what was needed. A. D. Hunter didn't sleep any more than the Keys only he started several weeks earlier. We couldn't have done without Bill Welch's daily inspection. He was the morale builder and sustainer. I know it is dangerous putting down names because so many will be left out. I hope you will forgive me. Everyone who was called came forward, and lots came forward voluntarily. When one of the cylinder heads came loose on the first attempt, Hal Soule designed and built a clamp arrangement around one of the cylinders of my plane as a model. We took it up and Fred installed it and that wasn't any small feat. Even the Wright Aeronautical Co. came through in that pinch and provided a brand new engine for the successful flight the next year.

Rayner, I owe the flight a sizeable personal debt. It did provide me with those flying hours, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce reimbursed me for my time, and I did get the transport license. That was the trigger that set me in motion toward my goal in aviation. It wasn't long until I had enough additional time to qualify for a reserve commission in the U. S. Army air Corps. I say I qualified, but had it not been for the influence of general (then Major) Claire L. Chennault, the said Corps would never have realized the good fortune of having me in it.

Anyway with the prestige of my Air Corps Commission, I was able to persuade United Air Lines in November 1936 that I might - just might - be suitable as pilot material for them. They put me on flying as a co-pilot flying Boeing 247's between Chicago and New York. One event led to another, and that event led almost directly to a wedding. For some time, all that had stood between my ambitions toward Eda Claire Soule, had been my inability to support her. We were married almost as soon as my first pay check came in, and set up housekeeping in a summer cottage in Cleveland, Ohio. As soon as my probationary first year was up, I was transferred to Chicago, and we bought a small home in Western Springs, Illinois, and moved in. We had to. The apartment in which we had been living allowed no babies.

Connie was born in 1938, while I was still a Co-Pilot and Leila came along two years later and by then I was a Captain, in other words a First Pilot. We lived in Western Springs for fifteen years during which time I enlarged and rebuilt the house, and went from flying Douglas DC-3's Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to flying them from Chicago to Washington, New York, and Boston during the War. All the War period I was subject to call by the Air Corps, but though about a third of us Airline Reservists were called for active duty, and a number were killed, I was left on the line. During the priority days I think I hauled practically nothing but soldiers. Never knew whether I'd be in the army one week to the next, but didn't have to register for the draft, and that was a comfort.

During this time the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps assigned us co-pilots from their services for transport training, and we got a citation for a job well done. I had one of each.

After the war I advanced from DC-3's to DC-4's and then to DC-6's. Then in 1950, United Air Lines got a contract flying a part of the Korean Air Lift, and I got a run from San Francisco stopping at Honolulu and Wake Island to Tokyo. This was the finest flying I ever did or hope to do. Stopovers on those islands were just beyond belief, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sights in Japan. It was then we decided we just had to get our girls out of the North before they became Yankees for keeps, so we bought the Billington Home at 2315 27th Ave, Meridian, and moved back home where Eda and I were reared. We thought that would be permanent, but the Korean War ended, thank goodness, and United Air Lines got short of pilots and cancelled my leave of absence. By that time I had gotten so close to my vesting rights date in our pension plan that I couldn't quit United just yet. Now I am spending my working time divided between United Air Lines, flying Douglas DC-7's, the greatest commercial plane yet, between Chicago and the West Coast, and working at Soule Steam Feed Works, where my future lies, when I can get leave of absence.

All in all, we don't have much to complain of. We all have good health. Our girls, now a senior and a sophomore in Meridian's fine schools, are a pride and joy to us. We are able to see my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe Keeton frequently. Mrs. Constance Soule, Eda's mother, spends some time with us. We enjoy the fellowship of the First Presbyterian Church, though not as frequently as Dr. Kelly Unger would like us to. We have lots of friends still here from our school days, new ones have moved in, and I have a pleasant time with my brother Edwin at Columbus, and our fishing Uncle John Hamilton enjoying our favorite sport.

My sister Cornelia, now Mrs. C. W. Barnes of Houston, Texas is going to be there for the Anniversary too. She was the chief telephone answerer and it surely did ring during the flight. I shall arrive June 29th, and am anticipating seeing all those old friends again. Am a little reluctant to attend that Old Fliers Banquet. I think maybe I am a little too young to qualify.

This epistle has run away with me, but it all goes back to that time in 1930 when Al Key, after persuading me to take a pleasure ride in an old OXX's Eaglerock, slyly suggested that I "Take hold of the stick and see how easy it is to fly."

Best Regards,
James H. Keeton, Refueling Pilot
Key Brothers World Endurance Record Flight

Copyright © 2010 - Jared Yates - Web Design